Online Instructors and Design Thinking

Introduction:

For me, the excitement of building online courses comes from the power of design.  I love the idea of designing with intention.  Perhaps that is why I’m drawn to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Apple Computer, MIT Media Lab, modern architecture and, as you read in my last post, art galleries.   When faculty treat online courses less as the assembly of course documents and more as the product of thoughtful design, students benefit.

Stanford’s d.school (Design School) with its origins in mechanical engineering may seem like an odd source of inspiration for instructors who design online courses.  However, it turns out to be not only inspirational but quite practical.

d.school is the fountainhead of Design Thinking.  Design Thinking helps us to apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative way.  It is used to make art, design products, solve business problems – and even to create online courses.

 

design thinking

The Five Steps of Design Thinking: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test

 

What is Design Thinking?

Stripped down to its essentials, Design Thinking requires empathy – it requires us, for example, to ask who our current or prospective students really are, what do they need, what drives them, what do they know, and what are their constraints.

Secondly, it requires definition.  After information gathering on student needs, program needs and employer needs, what is the problem that the course is intended to solve?  What will the students be able to do that they haven’t been able to do before – cognitively, physically, emotionally?

Thirdly, it requires idea generation.  What are all the strategies available to help students master a type of knowledge or skill at a particular level to a defined degree of success?

Fourthly, it requires playing around with ideas – sketching on white boards or on paper.

Finally, we need to test the usability and effectiveness of our ideas on real people.

That is Design Thinking in a nutshell:  Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

 

Design Thinking and Instructional Design

For the last several years, instructional designers have written about Design Thinking and its interrelationship with various traditional and agile design approaches. Corporations have used it in building user-friendly products that meet needs.  But the benefits of Design Thinking and even of Instructional Design have bypassed online learning instructors.  Why?

For one, online instructors can be fiercely independent.  They are the subject matter experts – the content experts. Of more than two thousand faculty members who responded to the Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, only 25 percent said they have worked with an instructional designer to develop or revise an online course.  That is a very low number but not completely unexpected.  Jean Dimeo in her article Why Instructional Designers Are Underutilized, cites possible reasons why:

  • Faculty are busy
  • Institutions have few or no instructional designers and/or learning support personnel
  • Instructors may be unaware that instructional design services exist
  • Faculty don’t want to be told how to teach

 

Design Thinking Applied

In a Design Thinking approach, with the help of an instructional designer, faculty don’t need to develop a course alone.  At our university, we have a conference space surrounded by white boards.  Our training space is clad in white boards.  The instructor can invite colleagues and we can invite team members who understand design, the technology, the media and can help get things done.

Empathize

The instructor, with some help, can gather background information on the students, the curriculum, the program goals, the employer and community needs, and whatever information will drive the curriculum.  A large part of this is human factors.  The table of contents of a textbook may not be the best place to start.  Understanding the learner is a much better starting point.  Dee Fink describes this as shifting the center from content to the learner.  José Antonio Bowen describes this as finding the entry point.  That means the student entry point. Instructors already know and love their content; but how will student be first introduced….and hooked?

Define

The definition phase is like holding a magnifying glass to paper on a sunny day.  It is where something so broad and diffused as goals, aspirations, needs, and requirements sharpens to a focal point.  The course author focuses on the objectives of the course or the problem that must be solved or the task that students must master.  M. David Merrill in his first principles of learning places the problem at the center of everything.  The activation of prior knowledge, the presentation of new information, the practice and feedback, the application of knowledge outside of the course, etc.  are all centered on the definition of the objective, task or problem.  This is tricky work.  Most of our less stellar efforts can be traced to poor definition of what the course or module or learning object needed to do.

Ideate and Prototype

After this hard work, the fun begins.  The white boards come alive with ideas and quick prototype sketches.  Instructors can benefit from folks who really understand the breadth of strategies that can help students achieve an outcome.  In our conference space, we talk about everything from journals to electronic portfolios, VoiceThreads, interactive case studies, simulations, electronic books, OER, publisher resources, to whatever.  The challenge is to find strategies that help students with a certain level of learning (apply, analyze, synthesize, etc.) and a type of knowledge (procedural, problem-based, conceptual, etc.) and degree of mastery.  Is this something we are introducing, reinforcing or, indeed, mastering?  Do we involve students in discussion?  Does the instructor model a practice?  Does she observe student performance and provide feedback?  Do students interact with the content – check their mastery, build their skills?  Faculty may have one or two favorite strategies.  Centers for Online Learning or Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL) or Centers for Teaching Excellence or eTeaching Services or Innovation labs — or whatever they are called — have a much deeper tool chest to choose from than the individual instructor.  Seeking their help is a critical first step.

Test

These ideas then need to be tested.  We can design websites or interactive content and theorize how effectively students will use them.   The validation comes with the testing.  We can simply observe students interacting with course elements.  We can assess students for performance and survey them for attitudes.  We can do simple control and experiment group comparisons.  The scope and effort will vary but we need some form of validation and feedback before faculty commit to full development of the project.  A recent faculty project featured a very long survey.  It is one thing to anticipate and imagine the wear on students after many minutes of survey taking; it is quite another to observe students complete a long survey.

The First Step

The first step for some faculty can be to seek out their institution’s instructional designers.  Many professionals with different titles play the instructional designer role.  In some places, instructional technologists, learning management specialists or curriculum specialists may be instructional designers. As mentioned, they also live in places with different names.  Seek out the places with all of the whiteboards. Finding the instructional designers may lead to finding other professionals who can help with idea generation.  Oftentimes, the instructional designers can bring the right people together.

Faculty can begin with Define and Ideate.  An instructional designer and her colleagues can help them sharpen objectives and brainstorm strategies that help students achieve the outcome.  Think of it as just hanging out with people and brainstorming with two very very important requirements.  Faculty must do their homework and supply critical background information.

Next Steps

From there, faculty can engage the instructional design team to whatever level they feel comfortable.  Maybe they walk away after getting some ideas.  Perhaps they engage in the testing of ideas.  If the instructor’s locus of control is respected, more of the benefit of Design Thinking will be realized.

The beneficiary is always the student.

Advertisements

Visual Design for eLearning

Introduction

In eLearning, good visual design is yet another challenge.  As instructors, we want our interactive lessons to look good – but we aren’t trained in layout and graphic design.  In many of my own projects, I’ve relied on graphic designers – but often I’ve had to make do with my own limited skills.  I’ve learned a couple of things over the years and am happy to share what little I know – more as a starting than an ending point.

Let’s begin with the premise that we want our pages to be visually appealing to students.  Of course, more importantly, we want our pages and layouts to support our instructional objectives.  We want things to look good and function well.  At the very least, we don’t want our design to distract the students or confuse them.

Fortunately, visual design is a combination of art and science.   We can draw from a body of knowledge that is evidence-based and not as subjective as we might imagine.

To describe visual design, I can start with the basic concepts of  flow, color, style, reading order, consistency, contrast and structure.

When in doubt, simplify

Whenever I’m in any doubt about visual design, I think about the art gallery.  In most galleries, the walls don’t compete with the art work.  Plain walls.  Open spaces. Strategically lit rooms.  The labels and interpretive text are positioned so the information is easily associated with the art work. The label doesn’t compete and isn’t crammed.  The text is printed in high contrast to the background.  I can move easily from piece to piece all around the room and then onto the next.  The flow is well thought out.

art_gallergtufts

Tufts University Art Gallery

Our interactive lessons can be designed similarly.  Text can be cleanly separated  from imagery – with an adequate margin between text and image.  Margins can provide clean separation of the other page elements. The page background can be selected to not compete or distract from the lesson.  The developer can be intentional about guiding the eye from one thing to the next.

Or not

Or sometimes, for effect, we can do the exact opposite.  Agitate, provoke, move students out of their comfort zones.  But, in either case, visual design requires intentionality.

Visual flow

Screen elements have different visual weights or powers of attraction based on the size, color, and even shape.  Unusual things attract the student’s attention.

Instructors should decide where students should look first.  If one element is larger than the others, students’ eyes might be drawn there.  If all elements are in black and white but there is a splash of color somewhere on the page, the student’s eye will go there.  We’ve known these things for some time, but recently, usability labs have provided us with eye tracking sensors, which produce heat maps. Heat maps graphically display how people look at a software screen, for example, and which elements they look at. Areas that attract the most attention appear in hot red.

From usability studies and from age-old observation, we know that visual designs have an entry point. We need to plan or consider where that entry point might be.

We also know that visual designs can have unintended exit points. As an example, hyperlinks can be hugely counterproductive to visual flow control.  For good reason, we think of hyperlinked information as being highly useful to students (another resource) but they introduce the risk of students losing the flow, being distracted, perhaps never returning to the lesson.

If our visual design is a simple text page, our job is easier.  We can use headings, sub-headings, text wrapped around images as well as size, italics and color to signal very important information.  If a page is a free-form layout, we need to plan visual flow more carefully.  In that planning, we need to note that the eye is attracted to color, strong contrasts, and follows along thick lines or elements that are composed in a way that suggests directionality.

Color

Color can be used to direct the eye and to attract the student’s eye to key information.  Richard Mayer, in his book Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Press, 2001), describes the signaling principle.  The signaling principle states that people learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.  Instructors can use color to provide that cue, but color-blind students will not benefit.  Multiple cues are needed to highlight essential material.  Italics for example.

2_illustration of color

Color used sparingly to draw the eye.  Layout created by Clint Clarkson

I’ve always been cautious of the ‘circus’ effect of too many colors.  One color will clearly signal important information or draw the student’s attention if s/he is not color blind.  Two and three colors can be used effectively.  Introducing more colors leans toward a circus effect, where color ceases to attract attention.  Graphic design sites describe a 60-30-10 rule, which states that:

The dominant color should be used 60% of the time, your secondary color 30% of the time, and an accent color 10% of the time. Typically, the most dominant color should also remain the least saturated color, while your bold or highly saturated accent color should be saved for your most important content.

http://www.eyequant.com/blog/2013/06/27/capturing-user-attention-with-color

 Style

Style may be the most fickle thing to embrace in your visual design approach.

In the early 20th century, graphic designers were influenced by modern art, the Bauhaus school, posters, the De Stijl movement (think Piet Modrian), constructivism, architecture and more.  Today graphic designers are as likely to be influenced by styles on the web.

Just a couple of years ago, instructional screens featured gradients, beveled buttons, drop shadows, textured backgrounds and an attempt to imitate the material world in the digital medium.  Microsoft and Apple, in the redesign of their graphical user interfaces, reflected the sudden change away from material world imitation.  Buttons lost their three-dimensionality and became flat, single-color, texture less features.  The new look became, in a sense, minimalist and, perhaps, more functional.  The rise in mobile computing favored flat designs over both texture and minute detail as well as other features that didn’t translate well to the small screen smart phone.

4-apple

Apple Interface: Shift to a flat design

Flat design is a thing.

“Flat design is a minimalistic design approach that emphasizes usability. It features clean, open space, crisp edges, bright colours and two-dimensional illustrations.”  –Tom May, 2018

But styles change.  So, what is an instructor to do?  My hunch is that we should focus on evidence-based practices and embrace minimalism not for its trendy appeal but for its functionality.    We should probably pay attention to the world around us.  Pay attention to styles on the web.  Pick your favorite website and think about the underlying elements that make it visually appealing and functional.  Visit the website of a college of art and design.  Follow it over time.  But don’t get too hung up on style.  It is a black hole.  Once you pass the event horizon, you’ll never return to creating anything useful for your students.

Reading Order

Focus instead on some simple things – such as reading order.  Highlight important words to ‘signal’ their importance.  Use headings and sub-headings to expose the organizational structure of your page and to help students with visual disabilities who rely on a screen reader.  (Students with screen readers scan pages by moving from heading to heading.  A blind student who used JAWS (popular screen reader) can hit the 1 key to navigate to a level 1 heading  to get a sense of the structure and organization of the document.  He can hit the 2 key to move to a level 2 heading.

Use bulleted lists and numbered lists where appropriate and reduce the amount of writing.   The traditional wisdom was to ‘chunk’ writing by separating it into pages – but mobile devices may be affecting students’ habits.  They are accustomed to endless scrolls.  More research is needed on the effects of cognitive load of endlessly scrolling pages.

Again, when in doubt, simplicity is preferable.

Consistency

Consistency is key. As students navigate the lesson, they shouldn’t burn brain cells on figuring out each page.   Pages that function the same should be styled the same.   For example, imagine that your page summarizes key concepts with a bulleted list.  Summarizing key concepts is an important strategy.  Our  pages may dive deeply into the details – but we want students to emerge with a clear map of the key ideas.  A bulleted list can be set off to the side of the page (left or right) or placed underneath, separated by space, color, and possibly a border.   The placement should be consistent so that students know where to find the summary in each part of the lesson.  They’ll look for it.

Contrast

At all times we need a strong contrast between the text and the background.  Lack of contrast affects readability.   Strong contrast also directs the eye.   I break this rule too often when I style hyperlinks to be colored in something other than the standard, boring blue with no decorative underline.  And I always regret it.  I strive for elegance and create a problem instead.

Some of these key principles relate to work done on perception by the Gestalt psychologists of the early twentieth century.  One of their principles, ‘Figure-Ground’ relates to an object and its surroundings.  Photographers embrace this principle when they want the subject of a photograph to be clearly known – in other words separation of the subject from the background.  Photographers will use a large aperture setting to blur the background (reduced depth of field) and thus create a clear distinction between figure and ground.  All elements in the lesson need to be distinct from the background – and that especially applies to text and the background.

Structure

Structure relates to the organization of elements on the screen.  It is concerned with proportion, symmetry, asymmetry, and balance.  These concepts are expressed in so many ways.  In photography, artists may think in terms of the rule of thirds – whether they are following or breaking the rule.  Two-thirds land; one-third sky.  One-third rocky foreground; two-thirds blurred valley background.   Two-thirds of blank space on the left; one-third of birds on the right.  Halves, in symmetry has quite a different effect and can be a statement in and of itself.  The parliament buildings of London reflected in perfect symmetry in the Thames, for example.

We can make similar decisions with the placement of images on the page.  They can be set with a width of 66%, which means that they will always scale to two-thirds of the page, regardless of page size.  Or the image can be set to 33% with text wrapping the image and taking up the remaining space.  Or they can be wrapped in negative space (e.g. white background) with the ratio of image to negative space a very deliberate choice.  Again, photographers might subdivide the plane in a three by three grid, which gives them 9 spaces in which to organize the structural elements of the photograph.  Traditional layout artists, similarly, had grids that subdivided the page.  Instructors can get a sense of their layout by abstracting the visual elements on the page as shapes.  The paragraph becomes a dark block.  The negative space becomes a white block.  What proportion of the overall space do the blocks occupy?  What is their relationship to one another?  Are they pleasing and pure?  Are they distracting and confusing?

Ratios or proportions reduced to formulas probably doesn’t explain why some layouts are pleasing to the eye and others are not – but it is still interesting to consider the use of math in the pursuit of beauty. The divine proportion or the golden ratio was probably used to plan some of the great pyramids and it is being used evidently today to construct websites.  We know that from, again, abstracting web elements into dark and light shapes. The ratio is defined by a simple equation:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420

So, if our text block was denoted by ‘a’ and our image block was denoted by ‘b’, the ratio of text to image would be the same as the ratio of text plus image to text alone.  So, the secret to all good learning is in the golden ratio?  Not quite.  The only point I am making is that the proportion of things will have an effect.  We should at least be aware of how things are laid out on the screen. Proportion matters.

3-Proportion.png

Layout created by Lauren Franza

Conclusion

The instructor who consciously and conscientiously includes visual design in the planning of his or her eLearning lesson will reap the reward.  Students will benefit from being guided through the lesson, and not being distracted by colors, crammed elements, inconsistency, poor readability, and an off-putting layout.  Visual design is a large study – but the application of a few principles will greatly improve one’s eLearning design.

A Case Study Prerequisite: Interactive Storytelling

Introduction

Case Studies are an effective teaching and learning tool.  A literature review shows the efficacy of case studies in promoting active learning,  problem solving, and critical thinking. But case studies vary in style.  Research seldom examines the different formats of case studies and how they can impact learning.  At a detailed level, there is no one prescription to how to write a case study.  They should all involve analysis, thinking, decision-making, application of critical skills and discussion.  But in online interactive case studies, there are multiple ways that this can be accomplished.

In some examples, long narratives are provided to students for discussion; in others, the narrative is divided into short segments and interspersed with questions and decision points that engage the learner.

An example of the long narrative is The Elusive Tuberculosis Case: The CDC and Andrew Speaker

https://casestudies.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/case/elusive/

One of the challenges presented in this case is how to manage communicable disease patients when slow diagnostic procedures mean health officials must make decisions and communicate with patients before they have complete information.   An instructor would introduce the case to students and invite discussion on how to manage the problem.  The interactive nature of this type of case study is in the discussion (i.e. Student to student and student to instructor interaction)

The latter example (narrative divided into short segments) is often featured in interactive student-to-content interaction.  In this example, students interact with the content and then prepare for class discussion or online interaction with other students.

The latter example, however, presents a challenge to instructors.  Some case studies are intended to behave like interactive narratives, but result in an experience that feels more like an assessment rather than engaging interactive story-telling.   Much of the research underscores the importance of case studies as an effective teaching tool; but the style of case study has not been closely examined.  Instructors may wish to choose an interactive style because of a personal preference or because of their student audience.  Some instructors may wish students to think critically and therefore require students to apply their knowledge by making the right decisions.  The student-to-content interactive format supports that outcome – but, in my opinion, should never be chosen in lieu of online or class discussion.

Interactive Case Studies

As I alluded to, faculty who are unaccustomed to writing interactive case studies may unwittingly create a traditional assessment rather than an interactive case study.   In an assessment labelled as a case study, the instructor presents information and then checks for understanding.  The presentation of content occurs at the beginning with all of the information given to the learner at once. In at least one style of case study, the learner is presented with background and setting information, but the remainder of the information unfolds in short pieces with the learner engaged in a lot of decision-making along the way.  The structure of an assessment looks like this, where ‘I’ denotes information and ‘Q’ denotes a question:

I – I – I – I – Q – Q – Q

The structure of an interactive case study looks more like this:

I – I – Q – I – Q – I – Q

In other words, in the first example, the case study looks less like a story that is unfolding and involving the learner in critical decision-making and more like an online quiz.  Questions and answers.  The second example provides background information and setting and then engages students in decision making at many points of the narrative.  The story unfolds in short pieces followed by a student interaction, such as a decision point.

Writing a case study as an unfolding story takes some practice and skill.  Critical information about characters and setting may be revealed at the beginning – but more information is revealed as the learner reads passages and makes decisions.

The question of what to reveal and when is a critical skill.   It is only one of several critical skills – but merits special attention.  It is closely related to the art of story-telling.  In short, if we can practice story-telling with instructional purpose, we will write more engaging, interactive case studies when the need arises.   But how can we make use of story-telling in our courses and where are the instructional examples?  In my quest, I discovered Interactive Fiction.

 

Interactive Fiction

I am familiar with the old “Choose your Own Adventure” originally published by Bantam, but the digital Interactive Fiction genre is new to me.  I button-hooked one of my colleagues at the university, and was given a starter list of titles to investigate.  The world of Interactive Fiction was uncovered for me with three distinct forms that caught my interest.  The first was very sophisticated story-telling.  An example was Arcadia by Iain Pears. The author required a new technology for readers to explore a story from the points of view of multiple characters.  In Arcadia, the novel follows ten separate stories that intersect at key points.  The author needed a new form of interactive technology so that readers would know where they were in the narrative, see a graphical depiction of the interweaving plot lines, and be able to switch easily between characters.

In Iain Pears’ own words,

 

As I wanted to write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure. Once you do that, it becomes possible to build a multi-stranded story (10 separate ones in this case) where each narrative is complete but is enhanced when mingled with all the others; to offer readers the chance to structure the book as best suits them. To put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.

Iain Pear

 

arcadia

Screenshot of Arcadia app on an iPad

The second form that caught my interest was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Readers are described a setting with objects (e.g. light, door, dressing gown).  In Hitchhiker, readers start off in a dark room. They must type in text commands to turn on light, get up, get gown, wear gown, open pocket, and eventually exit the house to start the adventure.

2018-09-24_2031

A Screenshot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

The third form sparked the greatest interest in me – because, with the right tools, instructors can use this form to great advantage in promoting a skill or supporting a critical learning outcome.  The third form will take less time to produce than the others and doesn’t require high-tech tools.

An example of this form relates to the Japanese Internment camps of World War Two America.  In this example, you are placed in the role of a young male of Japanese descent living in California during the war.  Rather than simply reading a long narrative about the challenges of people of Japanese origin, you are placed in the story and required to make critical life-changing decisions.  Reading any text can be an active experience when students are engaged and not skimming. Reading Interactive Fiction and making decisions is yet another strategy for engaging students and activating their thinking.

The lights came on for me with this example.  This is a very simple example of Interactive Fiction, which can alternatively be described as a text adventure or even a game.

http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/0zb070zmjuqe7_7-mg3aaw/inside-the-japanese-american-internment

The potential of Interactive Fiction to immerse students in the content and cause them to think critically about a subject is apparent.  This is a simpler version of the Decision-Making design pattern that I’ve discussed in this web journal and a simpler version of an interactive case study.  It has merit on its own and it builds skills for these other types of interactions.

So let’s explore the elements of this type of Interactive Fiction or text adventure.  If you were to create one for your own course, what should you do?  Here are some steps to follow.

Seven Steps

  • Provide background.

For example, the author of the Japanese-American Internment text adventure, introduced the story with the following narrative:

“While many people think about the internment as a situation that, by denying internees their most basic civil rights, effectively stripped them of their ability to control any aspect of their lives, this game allows you to realize that in fact the internment was all *about* decision-making. At every turn, internees were bombarded with dilemmas: whether to answer “yes” or “no” to a loyalty questionnaire; whether to join the growing resistance movement or stay quiet; whether to throw one’s lot in with one’s country or one’s race. There were rarely any satisfying answers to these questions; indeed, the very fact that internees had to answer them at all speaks to how profoundly unjust was the government’s decision to imprison them.”

TFickle — author of Japanese-American Internment Text Adventure

  • Design the Interactive Fiction to be played many times, which offer the reader the value of different experiences or perspectives.
  • Base the story on fact or the concepts and principles that lie at the core of this educational experience:

The author of Japanese-American internment wrote this:

For the content and characters of the game, I’ve drawn on a broad range of historical and literary sources, especially the Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, and John Okada’s novel “No-No Boy.” In fact, nearly all of the situations which you will face are ones which have actually happened.

  • Choose characters, and thus, different points of view and different experiences. Interactive Fiction allows students to view the experience from the points of view of different characters.  Interactive Fiction thrives on this concept.  Regional conflict can be viewed from the points of view of characters belonging to each of the warring factions, for example.
  • Provide a short description of setting and character. Keep it to the point without requiring too much reading.
  • Organize the Interactive Fiction so that students don’t have to read a long passage before being engaged in making a decision. Keep the students actively engaged.
  • Use convergence or a short leash strategy (explained later).

In my first try at Japanese Internment, I answered a loyalty questionnaire almost immediately into the story; in another try, I tried to avoid internment by submitting to facial surgery.  The facial surgery didn’t help.  I eventually ended up in jail and needing to answer the loyalty questionnaire.  In other words, my surgery path and choices eventually converged into the original path that I took on my first try.   Managing the ‘combinatorial explosion’ (as William Horton describes it in ‘E-Learning by Design’) is an important strategy for avoiding branches leading to more branches leading to more branches… The increase in branches becomes exponential.  A short leash strategy means that readers can stray from the main path, but are eventually led back.

In interacting with the Japanese Internment situation, I realized that even after the horror of denouncing your heritage and being imprisoned anyway, you live through the aftermath of the war and the scorn visited upon you for your decisions.  By this point I was in the skin of the Japanese boy.  As a result of short narratives and decision-making, I became part of the story.

Conclusion

Interactive Fiction or interactive story telling is great preparation for interactive case study writing.   An Interactive Case Study is a combination of interactive fiction and decision-making scenario.  My interest in Interactive Fiction started with the problem of how can we develop the art and skills of interactive story telling in faculty who want to create interactive, engaging case studies.  But on my journey, I saw examples that highly recommend Interactive Fiction as a strategy in and of itself.  A history faculty member could take one event from the American Civil War and write the experience from the points of view of both a confederate and union soldier.  An Information Systems instructor can investigate requirements gathering from the point of view of the customer and the analyst.   These are short pieces that may perhaps replace a straight-forward narrative and increase the engagement of students.

Enhancing Content with Interactive eBooks

In late August, LodeStar Learning is publishing an early release of our new EpubMaker3 template.  It is radically different from our previous version of epub3Maker.  It is based on a new approach to authoring eBooks and ultimately it will supersede the capability of the old approach.  If you are the intrepid instructor, try the version of ePub3Maker that is featured in LodeStar 7.3 build 9 or later (release late August, 2018).  If not, expect improvements and fixes to come rapidly in the future.

In the meantime, the work on this new template has made us envision the possibilities. And that’s what this blog entry is all about: the possibilities.

Introduction

The making of yet another eBook authoring tool was inspired by our focus on interactivity.  We realized that learning from eBooks is not just about content. It’s about student engagement and student action.  The content comes relatively inexpensively when derived from open educational resources.  Making students act and think requires effort.

Another source of inspiration for an eBook authoring tool was the open educational resource work done at OpenStax (Rice University).  In short, it is brilliant. OpenStax came out of the Connexions program that was started by Dr. Richard Baraniuk.  In response to high textbook costs and the limitations of the traditional textbook, Dr. Baraniuk created a system in which textbook content could be broken into editable and reorganizable chunks. Collections of these chunks could be organized into books, deliverable as PDFs, ePubs, or as zipped up websites.

Most instructors are familiar with a PDF or a website. ePubs are electronic publications or eBooks that follow a standard that is published by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF).  The latest version of the standard, version 3,  supports interactivity.  At least one free eBook reader is available on every major platform that can read an ePub and preserve its interactive format (see technical note at conclusion).  Most readers simply show text and images.  Our goal is to enable instructors to import content from open educational resource (OER) repositories and add interactive content that will help students master the content.  We’re not quite there yet – but close.  In the meantime, we propose another useful strategy: the strategy of enhancing existing content with interactivity.

Again, we were inspired by being able to combine OpenStax content with ePub3 interactivity and provide a tremendous experience for students.  I’ll explore a very simple use or application for instructors.  Although possible, I find it highly unlikely — given the constraints on instructors — that an instructor will move a whole book or even a chapter into the interactive ePub format.  That effort demands some level of automation.  It just takes a lot of work to tidy up the document, recreate the organization of the OER, manage the transfer of media such as images and make sure that everything is in the right spot.

Let’s propose, for a moment, that we leave the open textbook where it is – in the OpenStax or Open Textbook library – and simply link to it.  Or, at the most, borrow snippets from the OER text.  The purpose of the instructor-generated eBook would be to create interactive exercises that challenge the student, check for understanding and provide direct references to the original content source in the feedback.   In this simple use case, we are not reinventing the wheel or asking instructors to move large amounts of content into the interactive eBook format.  We are asking instructors to create what is not readily available – exercises that provide immediate feedback and a learning path for students to master the content.  I anticipate a variety of companies with adaptive learning systems or fee-based websites to provide this service – but the proposed approach places control squarely in the hands of the instructor.

I’m proposing a new instructional design pattern – called Enhanced Content.  In this pattern, the new content is built on existing content that is made available as an open education resource that is freely accessible on the internet.  The new content’s intellectual property ownership can remain with the instructor and remain ‘private’ or the new content could itself become an open educational resource.  In either case, the new content provides added value.

Value of an eBook

The value of an ebook is well summarized in a paper titled, Interactive Ebooks as a Tool of Mobile Learning for Digital-Natives in Higher Education: Interactivity, Preferences, and Ownership by Aadil Askar.

In this research, Askar lists the most popular benefits of the eBook, based on a survey that collected hundreds of responses from students who may or may not have been regular consumers of eBooks.  Nevertheless, their responses coincide with what one might expect:

Top Seven Features

Bookmark: Bookmarks stores page or section information of the eBook for future retrieval.

Local and web search: Users can search for information within the eBook, or search over internet

Table of Contents: It is an Index of the eBook that allows the user to open a specific chapter or topic.

Portable: The user can download it and easily carry it anywhere anytime within their smart devices.

Interactive Images: It is a graphical image that provides additional information of its parts (areas) upon user interaction.

Multimedia: Allows user to watch videos or animation to learn topics effectively.

Highlighting and Note taking: The user can highlight the content or take notes which will be available as study cards for easy one point access for future reviews.

(credit: Interactive Ebooks as a Tool of Mobile Learning for Digital-Natives in Higher Education: Interactivity, Preferences, and Ownership, Aadil Askar)

eBook Formats

My excitement over eBooks is mostly centered on the ePub3 format. ePub3 is an open eBook standard published by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and is based on HTML (XHTML), XML, JavaScript and CSS.  EPUB eBook files have the extension .EPUB.

Other popular formats include the Mobi format and the PDF.   Mobi is used in Kindle books.  Amazon applies digital rights management (DRM) to MOBI files.  MOBI, however, can be used free of DRM.  The PDF is the Portable Document Format, which was first released in the early 90s, is now an open standard.

ePub3 files, when displayed in an eBook reader that fully supports the standard, have tremendous potential to engage students.  Our focus has been on an authoring tool that makes it easy for an instructor to build and add that interactivity to an eBook and publish it to a learning management system for easy download by students.

The downside is that ePub books are free of digital rights management.  Faculty must be willing to have their content downloadable by students.  (In reality, most web-based content is easily downloadable by students.)

Building Enhanced Content

The following example was inspired by Walter Lambert, a professor at Metropolitan State University.  Walter Lambert is developing a course on Personal Finance based on Rachel Siegel’s open textbook Personal Finance v1.11.

One of the challenges of personal finance for students is understanding the relationship between time and money.  A section of the book is focused on calculating the relationship of time and value. The author does a wonderful job of explaining the concepts, providing the algebraic formulas and showing examples.  Students, however, need practice.  Books typically provide exercises, but they are hard-coded, meaning they never change.  They also don’t provide corrective feedback but only an answer key.

We added interactive word problems.

So, for example, students are asked to calculate the future value of a sum of money if put into a bank account with a fixed rate of interest.

The formula for future value is:

PV× (1+r) t = FV,  where PV is present value of a sum of money;  ‘r’ is a rate of interest; and t is the number of years, assuming that the interest is compounded once per year.

In an interactive word problem, the variables PV, r and t can be embedded in a narrative.  For example:

It is your twentieth birthday.  If you invest ${PV} in a savings account for {t} years, what will be the future value?  PV is assigned a random number from one to ten thousand. R is assigned a random value of .01 to .05 and t is assigned a value of 1 to 10.  So the student might see:

It is your twentieth birthday.  If you invest $2000 in a savings account for 3 years, what will be the future value?

The variables are replaced by values in the specified range.  Each time students view this problem, they get a new version.   After they venture an answer, they get immediate feedback.   They can practice to their heart or brain’s content.

The next step in understanding time and money is calculating present value, which is a little trickier.  Once again, the formula PV=FV/[ (1+r) t ], can be embedded in a word problem with ranges for each of the variables.

Rather than trying to recreate Rachel Siegel’s book, instructors can focus on the stumbling blocks and include these ‘interactive’ activities in order to practice students on the concepts.

The following screen demonstrates an excerpt from Rachel Siegel’s text.  This represents content that is directly applicable to the word problem that follows.

 

ePub3Maker_1

Screenshot of textbook content being displayed to the reader.

 

The following screenshot shows the word problem in an embedded widget.  The word problem holds the variables that will be populated with values when the project is displayed in a browser.

ePub3Maker_2

Screenshot of a word problem as seen by the author.

 

The following screenshot shows the Word Problem Widget dialog.  Each variable is defined and given a minimum and maximum value and whether or not it represents an integer (a whole number).

In this example, there can be many variables but only one expression.

The expression, in this example, reads

 

gift / (    1 + rate) * 1

ePub3Maker_3

Screenshot of a widget that enables instructors to configure a word problem and its embedded variables.

 

Here is the output as viewed in the learning management system.

ePub3Maker_4

Word problem as viewed by the student.

 

After download, the student can add the eBook to their eBook reader library.  The one that works best is iBooks, as pictured below.

 

ePub3Maker_5

screenshot of the iBooks library as seen on an iPad

 

Conclusion

Embedding word problems in an interactive eBook following the ePub3 standard is only one example of interactivity.  The eBook can host a wide range of activities that include sorting, categorization, ordering, multiple choice, multiple select, and more.   The intent is to practice students on the concept and involve students in solving problems, making decisions, and checking for basic understanding.

The eBook places tremendous capability in the hands of students.  They can download it, get away from the internet, add notes, add a drawings, and, with ePub3, interact.

 

Technical Note

As of this writing, there are only a few eBook readers that fully support the interactive ePub3 standard.   In cases where interactivity is not fully supported, text and imagery are shown, and the questions are displayed without interactivity.  For example, the question options won’t respond to mouse clicks or touch. 

With our template, students can view and interact with the content in the learning management system without requiring a download. 

In my view, the best eBook reader for the Mac and for IOS devices is iBooks.  The iBooks reader fully supports ePub3 interactivity.  In my limited experience with Android devices, I discovered that there are a number of very good eReaders such as Bluefire eReader but Bluefire doesn’t seem to support our flavor of interactivity.  Adobe Digital Editions on an Android device works but with intermittent problems.  The problems are probably attributable to us.  (We’re looking into it.)

On a PC the Readium Chrome Applications works very well.  It is based on the open source ReadiumJS, which has found its way into a number of products.

We’ll update this PostScript and our Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/LodeStarLearn) in the future with news of new eReader discoveries. 


  1. Siegel, Rachel, Personal Finance v1.1, Flatworld Knowledge Publishing (2014), ISBN: 978-1-4533-6735-3.
  2. Askar, Aadil, Interactive Ebooks as a Tool of Mobile Learning for Digital-Natives in Higher Education: Interactivity, Preferences, and Ownership

A Practical Guide to Case Studies

Introduction

We know that case studies are effective.  Research tells us that.  The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science describes their value in an introduction to the Center:

CASE STUDIES have a long history in business, law, and medical education.  Their use in science education, however, is relatively recent.  In our 25+ years of working with the method, we have found it to be a powerful pedagogical technique for teaching science.  Cases can be used not only to teach scientific concepts and content, but also process skills and critical thinking.  And since many of the best cases are based on contemporary, and often contentious, science problems that students encounter in the news, the use of cases in the classroom makes science relevant.

Case studies have proven to be effective in a broad range of disciplines.  The key to their success in either a face-to-face classroom or online is the interaction of students with the content and the discussion between students — in short, the Community of Inquiry Model. Case studies – especially case studies that don’t have one clear answer or resolution – require discussion.

In a previous article, we looked at the value of interactive case studies.  https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/the-research-behind-learning-interactions/

The article elicited numerous responses from online instructors who now aspire to develop case studies for their own disciplines.  The article you are now reading provides a practical guide to getting started.  In this article, we particularly emphasize the story-telling aspect of case studies.  Developing a good case study is indeed much like story-telling.

Case studies are an important strategy you can use to help students apply what they are learning and make them think.   Using the case study strategy may be daunting for some instructors.  Effectively using this strategy is a challenge.    What should you think about when creating a case study?  What are the options?

Generally, effective case studies are:

  • Realistic
  • Focused on student outcomes
  • Involve the student in a story
  • Involve the student in selecting and recalling information, analyzing and making decisions

Case Studies are not PowerPoints in a modified format. They are not just another means of presenting content.  Students summon information when they need it.  In a case study, content is only useful insofar as it can be applied to the situation at hand.  Truly engaging students in the story is a challenge.  Engagement means that the student summons resources, recalls information, and makes decisions.  You need just enough detail to make the case study realistic but not sacrifice the learning outcomes for realism.  You are a busy instructor.  You don’t need a lot of production to pull this off.  With that in mind, let’s get started.

Getting Started

Establish goals

This may seem like the most laborious part of the case study design, but it is necessary.

Imagine for a moment that you developed a case study for nursing students studying infectious disease control.  In a case involving infectious disease control, with an outcome related to sanitation policy, you wouldn’t present symptoms to the nursing student and ask for identification of the disease.  Depending on the level of the nurse, however, you might involve the nurse in decision-making related to creating and implementing a sanitation policy or reducing the risk of other patients being infected.  Be clear on the outcomes.  The outcome should be stated with audience,  behavior,  context and degree (ABCD).  An example outcome:  Given a Nepah virus outbreak in a small hospital, the infection nursing student will select the appropriate sanitation procedure with 100% accuracy. Think of the outcomes, objectives or competencies as the driver of the case study.  They drive the presentation of content and the interactions of the learner.  If it isn’t relevant to the outcome, it doesn’t belong.  Parsimony is essential – meaning that a case study is economical about what is left in the case narrative and deliberate about what is left out.

For a simple case study, a paragraph or two should suffice.  In more detailed cases, a page or two will be adequate.  In the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, the 700 plus cases represent the range:  from very short descriptions to a couple of pages presented in either narrative or dialog style.  The interactive (fully online) case study can be crafted to introduce information either at the beginning of the case or as the learner engages with the case.  Information can be revealed just-in-time or revealed through resources that appear as the case develops.  There is no one right way or one authority.  Do what comes naturally to you and won’t overwhelm the student.  Experiment.  Ask for student feedback.

In a case on organizational leadership, the narrative described a new CEO whose company had a top performing salesman who constantly cut corners on company procedures and angered service personnel, engineers and other sales staff.  The narrative provided just enough information for the reader to fully appreciate the dilemma.  Should the CEO fire or retain the salesman? Students participating in the case study were placed in the shoes of the CEO and had to draw from the content of the course to support their decision.  In this case, the narrative was approximately 500 words.

Set student expectations

Make known to the student that this is a black and white case versus a nuanced case with no one right answer or visa versa. If cases are a simplified version of reality, students should know that the case study is a stepping stone to more complex cases. Avoid disillusioning students by under-preparing them for reality. If it is a stepping stone case, present it as such.

Cases can be simple with straight-forward answers or they can be complex with no clear right answer.  The latter almost always requires discussion whether in class or online.  As important as the solution may be the exposed thinking that leads to a solution.  As important as the solution may be the sharing of student perspectives related to the solution.   In either case, simple or complex, students should know what to expect.  If they are asked to make a decision, for example, they need to know whether their answer will be judged right or wrong or be evaluated in a different way.  Perhaps any answer is the right answer, provided that it is supported by the details of the case and the body of knowledge that pertains to the case.

In the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science site, faculty at Purdue University describe their case studies related to using statistics in science in the following way:

This set of mini cases on the ecology of eastern cottontail rabbits is designed to give students practical experience using statistics in a scientific context. Given a dataset and experimental design, groups of students are asked to play the part of a wildlife management researcher to determine the results for each study. Students practice the scientific process and gain experience making hypotheses and predictions, choosing an appropriate statistical test, interpreting and displaying results, and presenting data to others. Students choose between four basic, commonly used, statistical tests (t-test, one-way ANOVA, linear regression, and Chi-square test), and justify their choices.

 

To summarize, I would emphasize that students play the role of wildlife researchers, make hypotheses and predictions, choose the appropriate statistical test and justify their choices.   There might only be one appropriate answer or several correct answers.  The emphasis might be on ‘getting the right answer’ or ‘justifying the answer’.  Either scenario is acceptable.  The case study approach allows for either possibility.  Again, the desired student outcomes drive the design.

In a case that involved the student in identifying risk factors related to recidivism and offenders, there was only one right answer.  Either the student picked up on the risk factors, correctly categorized them, or not.  In a case that involved assessing an adult student for prior learning matched to university programs, there were many possible answers.  The emphasis on the latter was on following a checklist, consulting the appropriate resources and identifying the opportunities for the adult student.

 Create active participants

In case studies, students should make decisions and/or perform an analysis, and contrast their work with that of others. In short, make the participants think. So much online learning contributes to a passive learning experience. Case studies should require students to recall the appropriate content and use it to make a selection or support a choice. Lengthy presentations, in which students are passive participants, are less likely to contribute to successful outcomes.

Identify what role the student is playing

Case studies may place the student in a role play. You should identify the student’s role. In one of our recent case study projects (Credit for Prior Learning), the designers placed the participants in the role of an advisor in a college setting.  The advisor was tasked with recognizing prior learning worthy of college credit.

 

2018-06-04_1524

Patricia is the guide for this case study (shown in screenshot).  She provides general directions on how to engage with the case before introducing the case itself.

 

Make it clear to the student what role s/he will play. State relevant information: job title, level of experience, etc.

I’ll refer to the Credit for Prior Learning case studies several times in this article.  They were designed by the College of Individualized Studies at Metropolitan State University by Drs. Carol Lacey, Marcia Anderson, and Susan Misterek with support from Dr. Bilal Dameh and Dominic Jennen.

Identify the setting

Again, designing case studies is like telling stories. Stories are best told with settings. Be mindful that students will judge the relevance of learning based on setting and situation. Placing elementary student teachers in a college classroom setting may cause participants to dismiss the learning.  They may think that ‘this doesn’t apply to me.’  On the other hand, if students recognize the setting and accept that it relates to their reality, they will judge the case study to be relevant and be open to engaging with it.

Establish the plot

Plot is a sequence of events that happen in the story that may have an impact on future events. In a case study the plot can be linear (one set of events for all students) or branched (a unique set of events for each student).

Once you have introduced the characters of the case study, the setting, and the student’s mission or objective, you need to work out the plot. As mentioned, the plot can be simple or it can be complex.  In one case study that we worked on, the nursing student learned about latent tuberculosis bacterial infection.  The student then observed (as a third party) the dialog between a public health nurse and a client.  The student was asked to take notes during the dialog and then accurately fill out charts related to the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.  At the heart of the plot was the interview.   The student couldn’t control the interview.  The student simply needed to pay attention, take notes and accurately chart.

In another case study, the student played the part of an instructor asked to design an online course.  The dean in the story asks the instructor about what s/he would do first, then second, then third and so forth.  The story was linear (not multi-branched), but it was revealed in stages.

In the Credit for Prior Learning case study, the student played the part of a college faculty member who was tasked with assessing whether or not a character could earn credit for his prior learning and experience.  This was a very simple plot.  Information was presented on the screen and then ‘resources’ displayed.  The participant could consult the resources to help evaluate whether or not the character was a candidate for prior learning. One of the resources was a checklist with key considerations:  for example, was the experience related to the character’s goals?  If the goal was to achieve credit for upper division courses, did the participant find any evidence of learning that was equivalent to an upper division course that contributed to the character’s goals.  Simple setting and situation.  Not much plot.  The participant picked the right resources, consulted them and then wrote up a summary of why the character was good candidate.

 

2018-06-04_1522

Screenshot of a case study about a student who has had prior learning experience as a corporate trainer.  The case study places learners in the role of an advisor who collects information and decides if the corporate trainer has had enough public speaking to meet a general education/liberal studies goal.

 

All three of the examples above were simple plots.  But plots can be complex.  Remember the ‘Choose your own adventure’ books?  Rather than reading a book from cover to cover, the reader of a ‘Choose your own adventure’ makes decisions.  The decision then refers the reader to another part of the book.  The reader might jump from page 10 to page 20 or from page 10 to page 16. Each reader picked their own path through the narrative.  The sequence of events was unique to each reader.  The interactive case study can optionally branch students to different parts of the case study.

In a law enforcement case study, a parole officer interviews a client (the offender).  For each page of the story, the person playing the role of a parole officer decides on one of three questions to ask the offender.  The choice of question may start to move the client toward a negative emotional response.  The parole officer, however, can recover from an escalating situation through a series of correct choices.  On the other hand, too many incorrect choices terminates the session.

The situation and the immediate feedback immerse the student in the content.  Successful case studies require students to recall lecture and reading material, select the appropriate information and use it correctly.

Avoid Combinatorial Explosions

In his book titled “E-Learning by Design” William Horton cautions against combinatorial explosions when designing games.  The same wisdom holds true with complex case studies with multiple branches.  Two paths can lead to four paths can lead to sixteen…  Horton outlines a couple of solutions to the problem of combinatorial explosion.  In one solution,  which Horton calls the short-leash strategy, learners are not allowed to stray too far from the ideal path.  In the above example related to the parole officer, too many bad choices terminates the session.  The case study doesn’t keep on branching.

Provide Resources

Case studies are a simplification of reality.   In some of our designs, we exposed resources at the appropriate time in the sequence of events.   Case studies that send students off into the web or into the depths of a textbook run the risk of losing the students’ attention.   Developers of case studies can make resources appear at certain times in the form of buttons or pop-ups.  In the Credit for Prior Learning case study, participants clicked on a button and viewed a transcript that they had to analyze for critical information.  Hyperlinks in the case study can cause pop-ups to appear with useful information.

 

2018-06-04_1523

Case Study reveals resources (buttons on right) when the student needs them.  In this case, students can consult the instructions, an explanation of icons used, background of the character, a checklist, a description of a general education goal and a proficiency test.

 

 

Use Some Form of Storyboarding

Storyboard your ideas – although, the thought of storyboarding may seem daunting.  It implies the use of specialized software or a specialized skill.  Neither is needed.

Use pencil and paper, if nothing else.  Place each scene in a box with stick figures.  Outline the information that will be presented and the choices offered to the student.   If your case study uses branching, draw lines between the boxes to show the branches.

In our last interactive case study, our instructional designer created a table in Microsoft Word.  The table included information presented to the student, choices, feedback, and a listing of the resources that would be displayed to the student at that scene.    Microsoft Word includes SmartArt.  The Horizontal Hierarchy Smart Art, for example, might be useful for mapping out a case study.

Whether using pencil and paper or Word, you will find that it is easier to make changes and avoid confusion than to draft your ideas within an authoring tool.  Overly complicated case studies become apparent when mapped out in advance.  Most authoring tools don’t offer a birds-eye view.

Support Discussion

In simple case studies, students can make a decision by clicking on options or they can perform an analysis with text entry or drop box submission.  Once students commit their answers, the case can reveal the expert answer.  In more sophisticated cases, multiple answers or solutions or analyses might be appropriate.  The case can step the learner through making a decision or preparing an analysis that can be submitted to a drop box or entered into a discussion post.  In both simple and complex cases, the case can prepare students for an in-depth discussion about the critical aspects of their case and the rationale behind their decisions or analyses.  In a flipped classroom approach, the case can engage the students online and leave precious classroom time for moderated discussion.

Vary Complexity

Cover a topic with a simple case, followed by a more complex case.  In our Credit for Prior Learning course, we started with black and white cases.  There was one right answer.  Either the character in the case was a candidate for credit for prior learning or not.  In the succeeding cases, the decisions were not so clear cut.

A strategy in game design is to start simple, ratchet up the challenge, plateau for a while, then ratchet up again.  This careful control of complexity applies to case study design.  Get students acquainted with the interactive case, instill some confidence and then work in the nuances and complexities of reality.  Not every case study needs to be same level of complexity.  Especially when designing a sequence of cases, control complexity carefully and strategically.

Conclusion

Creating case studies is story telling.  They include character development, setting, plot, role play, dialog, and even suspense.  They place learners at the center of the story.  Unlike stories, they provide feedback – both immediate and in discussions.  They are a teaching tool and they help students apply what they have learned.  They are an important strategy in helping instructors making learning active.  The best way to get started with case studies is to get started.  There is no one model that dictates case study design.  If you are making students think about your content material, you are doing the right thing.

Open Educational Resources: An Alternative to Publisher Platforms

Introduction

One could easily vilify the textbook publishers and their online learning platforms.  In higher ed, we hear the student complaints.  They pay tuition with the expectation that faculty will help them build competence and credentials.  They trust the instructor to select or write  appropriate content, design support activities that help students understand and apply the skills, elicit performance, provide feedback and so on.  They are placing their trust in the instructor and their trust in the institution.  When students perceive that instructors have transferred that responsibility to textbook publishers, they make comments like “Why am I not paying the publisher directly?”

But my intent is not to vilify publishers.  They have obviously responded to a strong demand and need for their platforms and resources. In many cases, instructors don’t have the time, dedication or wherewithal to develop courses.  They don’t have time to create the content, develop the activities and assessments and still be engaged in the course discussions and in providing constructive feedback to their students. In some cases, they concede that they couldn’t match the publishers’ course material and the quality of their offerings even if they wanted to.  After all, how many faculty write their own textbook?

Rather, this post recognizes the challenges that constrain faculty and offers an alternative to publisher platforms.  Chances are good that you follow this blog because you are concerned about making your online courses better.  You choose to be in ‘control’ of your course.  The publishers may be broadening their reach to include your discipline – but you wish to select content carefully, add activities and assessments and continually improve your course based on student feedback.  Your student feedback. And yet you are faced with constraints on your time and, perhaps, lack of support.

Textbook Publisher Platforms

You stand in stark contrast to the current trend in education. For better or for worse, higher education is ceding control to the textbook publishers.  The publishers are developing new business models that include online learning platforms, online courseware, adaptive learning, and digital books, all of which, they claim, improve quality, reduce costs and provide a more stable revenue stream to them in the form of subscriptions.

All of these platforms are not alike.  The offerings are on a continuum from supplemental resources to pre-made courseware to integrations with university learning management systems to full-blown adaptive learning platforms with supplemental instructor resources and more.

Textbook publishers carefully vet their content and do the best job possible without knowing the specifics of your students and the context of their learning.  At the very least, the courses are well-organized. When publishers are in complete control, the outcomes match the readings and activities. Errors, inconsistencies and incongruities are exposed and eventually removed.  (When publishers are in partial control, misalignment occurs between the publisher materials and, for example, dated faculty-generated quizzes.)

In 2014, Slate published an article titled “College in a Box” that explored an emerging state of affairs related to textbook giants and online college courses. The article described two college students who were separated by 600 miles attending different colleges but taking the same course, produced by a major publisher. The students read the same online textbook, watched the same media, and completed the same assessments with little interaction with their professors. The students were generally happy with the courses, received good grades, got assistance in the form of well-produced videos and, presumably, progressed toward graduation.

Publishers have long had tremendous influence over a course. This isn’t new.  In my first year of teaching, our department assembled and planned curriculum. The curriculum plan was based almost entirely on the table of contents of the adopted text.  (As a young teacher, I heard how the textbook purchasing power of California and Texas dictated the content of the textbooks for everyone. Today control has shifted from the state to the districts and textbooks are not required to meet 100% of the state standards.) In recent history, publishers have become more sophisticated at producing online courseware. Today, students pay fees to access publisher course material, which include activities and assessments. Undoubtedly, in many cases, the publisher content and collateral is much better produced than the homespun online course.

I can’t even begin to address the societal implications of this development. Slate asks “Why are universities buying ready-made frozen meals instead of cooking up their own educational fare?” The suggestion, obviously, is that textbook online course sites are the ready-made frozen meals. The benefit to universities is that the cost of course development is passed directly to the student. Rather than a university compensating faculty with stipends or release time to develop online courses, students pay a fee to publishers. Research will eventually disclose to us the full cost of abrogating the instructor’s role in course development. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for the unique situational factors of the class.  And other concerns surface. Will publishers’ courses eventually end-run colleges and universities? After all, don’t employers in some sectors care about competence over degrees? Finally, what role does the instructor play? Is the instructor replaceable by a person of lesser rank and cost?

In the end, I believe that economics will win out. Publishers are putting to use all of the great developments in the last few years at a speed and economy of scale that most mid-sized universities cannot match. I am thinking about adaptive learning, rich interactions and even Open Educational Resources (OER). Their systems are improving; their design is improving. They lessen the load on instructors and shift the cost to the student.

But even in the industrial revolution, certain guilds of manual artisans survived.  That’s how I picture the online instructor who designs his or her own course:  An artisan.  I think of the positive aspects of a course crafted with care, compassion and skill.

Today, conferences such as OLC Innovate convene educators who share their views on online learning, emerging technologies, and best practices. OLC Innovate celebrates instructors who post their intellectual property to repositories like Merlot.org and participate in editorial groups.  It is a homespun, cottage industry – but it is vibrant.

I anticipate that dedicated artisan instructors will prevail. They will continue to participate in membership groups and conferences of like-minded people. They will embrace a raft of tools to help them communicate with students, motivate, collaborate, challenge, and assess.

They’ll embrace digital stories, eBooks, simulations, videos, and whatever they need to engage students.

Fortunately, exceptional support for the artisan comes in the form of the open education movement. For some, Open Educational Resources (OER) may represent a significant alternative to publisher platforms.

OER_Logo_Open_Educational_Resources

image credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources are typically open textbooks, software, web pages, learning activities, simulations, case studies, quiz banks and media that are available to faculty and to students for free. Typically, they are licensed under Creative Commons, which means, in all cases, that you must provide the author attribution.  The debate about what constitutes “open” gets more complex when you ask the question “Can I change the resource and adapt it to my own needs.  Can I offer the new ‘derivative’ product to another professor?”  Some would argue that ‘open’ requires the ability to revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute.

Others are content with a narrower definition.  The Hewlett Foundation, an ardent supporter, defines OER as

“teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”

Today, university systems are bootstrapping OER in a number of ways. They are utilizing open source repositories like Islandora and Equella. They are paying faculty to review open resources and participate in editorial teams for such altruistic efforts as Merlot.org, a curated repository used all over the world. Universities house and support a network of OER repositories, the breadth of which is evident in this Google Map: http://maps.repository66.org/

In my experience, the bane of OER was in the search and discovery of resources that closely matched our course learning outcomes. It required patience – and busy faculty quickly became disillusioned.

Today, search and discovery are easier.  A number of federated search tools have been developed and made available through such organizations as Merlot.org, Creative Commons and even the federal Department of Education.

Recently, I learned of something that suggested better times to come.  A colleague at the Minnesota State System Office introduced me to Intellus Learning.

Intellus Learning is a subscription-based platform that makes it easy to find high quality OER content.  Instructors find content aligned to their objectives, embed that content into their learning management system and monitor student usage.  Intellus searches across many OER repositories, saving instructors considerable time.  I’ve only trialed this tool, but I can imagine a new breed of software that makes it easy to discover, explore and mash-up open resources. My searches returned materials from OpenStax (open textbooks), EBSCO, YouTube, OER Commons and dozens of other places. I conducted the same search using no-cost publicly available search tools and came up short in comparison. The exception was Merlot, which provided me with a useful listing of resources.

Again, in my experience, the single-most deterrent to the use of OER is the time wasted in search of materials that truly align to the course outcomes. OER has the potential of leveling the playing field.  If instructors can find quality content, free-of-charge and aligned to outcomes, then the majority of their time can be dedicated to designing interactions between students, between students and their instructor, and between students and the content.  In short, instructors would have more time to address the cognitive and social needs of their students.

In contrast, I’ve observed too many instructors burning up their time in producing text content.  The acts of writing, finding and organizing content challenge instructors.  It is a lot of work – and yet, only the beginning of the effort.  Instructors complete the marathon, only to find themselves at the starting line of another.  Organizing content isn’t the end of it. What about motivating students, establishing relevance, developing clearly understood expectations and syllabi and other course documents? What about the stumbling points in the curriculum and the prerequisite skills and the recall of prior knowledge and the assessments and discussions and capstone projects?  How about usability and analyzing whether or not the activities promoted or impeded the outcomes?

OER can help lessen the load on instructors  – but, as a community, we need to uncover a process that makes it easy to find OER and, in the future, align activities to OER content.

One example of alignment is that of LearningPod with OpenStax. For example, OpenStax offers an introductory text on biology. LearningPod offers a test bank that is matched to that open text book.

Many for-profit entities are leveraging OER faster than universities.  Adaptive Learning Vendors (Knewton, CogBooks and Acrobatiq) are using OER in their content delivery systems.  Their value-added is in the learning paths they have generated, the mapping of prerequisite skills to targeted learning outcomes, decision-making algorithms, and the analytics that are generated on time-on-task, confidence and performance.

Conclusion

OER matched with activities, discussions, and assessments are an effective strategy for busy instructors who wish to maintain control over their courses.

Large higher ed systems like SUNY and Minnesota State have the opportunity to incentivize faculty to develop, share and evaluate resources.   In the past, such efforts were too small in scope and scale to succeed.  Times are changing.   Today, we are achieving a critical mass in many content areas.  We need mechanisms (application programming interfaces, import tools, discovery standards, metadata standards, package exchange notification services, etc.) to align and integrate the types of activities that this web journal is dedicated to:  case studies, decision making scenarios, leveled challenges, geolocation-aware activities, simulations, games, and stuff that will help students understand, apply and synthesize the content.

In short, we need the option to take charge of our courses and help students succeed.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Open Educational Resources.  Successes?  Great resources?  Concerns? Please register and share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Research Behind Learning Interactions

Introduction

A nursing instructor is challenged to design an online course on standard classification systems. One could easily picture the course defining a classification system and describing its benefits. Students may be asked to compare and contrast how each system classifies problems, treatments and outcomes. The course may feature presentations, discussions, papers, a final exam – content items that are common in today’s online course.

Its easy to be complacent about this sort of design. After all, the information is clearly presented, and students respond well in the discussions, in their papers and on the final.

What more is needed?

The argument in favor of additional instructional components is difficult to make. Motivating videos may be hard to find or expensive to produce. Occasional checks for understanding in the form of multiple choice, multiple select and short answer questions require additional time and skill in using the learning management system or third-party tools. Interactive cases that feature stories and make the content come alive are even more time consuming and dependent on instructional and/or technical skills. In the case of standardized classification systems, cases may be a great way to ensure consistent use of the systems (i.e. Inter-rater reliability).

learning

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

Designing and developing activities for your online course that effectively engage students with the content takes time and know-how. It is easy to be skeptical about their value. You have precious little time. And you may not be certain that it is worth the time and effort. As a higher ed instructor, it is likely that no one pays you for the extra time and effort. The motivation comes intrinsically from successful students and a job well done. Or should we just concede this area of development to the publishers? They obviously have the skill and resources and economies of scale.

I am hoping you will reject that thought.  You already apply time and know-how when putting together an online course.  You  make dozens of decisions. You make decisions related to selecting and sequencing content, organizing content, deciding on wording and style, and choosing media.

But is this where we should draw the line and not attempt designing activities that sponge up time – without much evidence of return on investment. Or is the evidence there and we just don’t know it. What does the research tell us? Does it make a compelling case in favor of the extra effort?

Do we even know what is effective?

Instructional Designers were asked what learning activities they would build for each level of Bloom’s taxonomy. (Benjamin Bloom, as you’ll recall, categorized goals of the learning process in six levels, which included knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.) Getting back to the instructional designers, there was remarkable consistency between them regardless of age and gender and other factors. For lower levels of the taxonomy like knowledge and comprehension, designers chose drill and practice, programmed tutorials, demonstrations, and simulations. For higher levels, they chose such interactions as problem solving labs and case studies. The research tells us that, at least, there is a common practice – but is there evidence for it?

Let’s survey the research to decide if instructional designers were even on the right track. Do interactions make a difference? We’ll examine learning interactions at the most elementary level and then climb higher and see what the research has to say about higher order activities.

What is a learning interaction?

An interaction in this context is characterized by the contact between students and the materials of study. The contact involves student responses to stimuli (multiple choice, multiple select questions), practice and feedback (puzzles and flashcards), branched instruction (decision making scenarios, interactive case studies), categorization (matching, sorting, and ordering activities) analysis (review of text with open feedback, underlining, circling), manipulation of inputs and outputs (simulations, controllable animations, digital lab experiments), finding information (WebQuests), solving problems (problem based learning scenarios), evaluating (decision-making) and creating (proposals, diagrams, digital drawings, code-writing).  For the purposes of this post, we’re less interested in the passive reading of text, or the watching of and listening to media — although I’ll concede that a broader technical definition would include any activity that results in cognitive change such as the recall of prior knowledge and the acquisition of new knowledge.

Research — Buyer beware

To return to our research quest, I’ll admit that I often look to others for the interpretation of what is significant and meaningful. Reviewing research takes time and skill. Nevertheless, I am drawn to the analyses, the statistical methods, the inferences and the statement of results. Using educational research can be tricky. There are caveats. Single papers can offer us the wrong conclusions or may not be applicable to our situation. Compared to a drug study or a health-related study, sample sizes in educational research seem small and not generalizable.

Finding educational research that uses a control group is a helpful first step. A control group of students is separated from an experimental group in such a way that the thing being tested cannot influence the control group’s results. Finding such research can be a challenge. Here is the kind of statement we see in educational research.

On analysis, the comparison of the overall knowledge scores pre- and post-treatment showed a statistically significant increase from 8.8 to 11.6 (P< 0.001).

Educators claim victory because post test scores were better after a treatment than before. That begs the question, compared to what? Perhaps the treatment was the most inefficient and uneconomical means on the planet to raise those test scores.

A simple paired T-Test may be preferable, in comparison, when we look at the difference between a pre- and post-test for a experiment group compared to the difference between a pre- and post-test for the control group.  For an explanation of T-Tests, please visit:  http://blog.minitab.com/blog/adventures-in-statistics-2/understanding-t-tests:-1-sample,-2-sample,-and-paired-t-tests

If I am looking at the effectiveness of a particular treatment, I will look for research related to higher education and my discipline of interest where the treatment is represented by the independent variable. The dependent variable might be, for example, student performance on a test score, student satisfaction measured with a survey, or student time on task. Experiments with pre- and post-tests without control groups can be problematic. A classic example is that of Hermit the Bug.

In our shop, we often ask this question: Should we include an animated character to serve as a guide or aid. In a project that I worked on years ago, we developed an amusing little character who would zip around the screen and guide the student along the learning path. The character was fun. It livened up the presentations. But the decision was based on no research at all.

Research literature calls this the persona effect.  A paper titled  The Persona Effect: Affective Impact of Animated Pedagogical Agents concluded that their potential to increase learning effectiveness is significant. 

The researchers surveyed students who rated Hermit The Bug’s entertainment value, helpfulness compared to a science teacher and so forth. Since this paper was published, 15 studies have been done. 9 showed no effect, 5 showed mixed results and only 1 showed an effect.  (Do pedagogical agents make a difference to student motivation and learning? Steffi Heidiga,∗, Geraldine Clareboutb,1 a née Domagk, University of Erfurt)

To be fair, the research on Hermit the Bug cited the following benefit:

Because these agents can provide students with customized advice in response to their problem-solving activities, their potential to increase learning effectiveness is significant.

One wonders, ‘Is it the persona effect that is contributing to greater motivation and improved learning or is it the feedback that the bug provides?’ Feedback is feedback, even when it’s delivered by a bug.

I point this out to underscore the difficulty of research and the folly of relying on one study. There are, of course, other problems that people cite about educational research in particular. Examples include research that is not objective and has a hidden agenda;  over-generalization from a research focused on a very specific context; and frequent lack of peer review.

Common sense often exposes the weakest research – which seeks to promote a philosophy or product or particular point of view.

This blog is an example.  I have a vested interest in instructors choosing to design their own interactions – because I am the creator of an eLearning authoring tool.  But in my defense, there are two critical points. First, I developed the authoring tool because of a belief that learning interactions make a positive difference. And,  more importantly related to this post, I was quite prepared and open to research that reported on the insignificance and possible detriment of learning interactions. The truth is that learning how to create compelling and effective learning interactions  — let alone creating them — takes time.  It takes more time than we typically dedicate to this kind of training.  If I were to convince instructors to make the investment, I had to be certain of its benefit.

In the 80s, Michael Moore described student to content interaction as “a defining characteristic of education” and “without it there cannot be education”. That’s not to say that student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions aren’t important.  Much has been written about them and there are many best practice examples.  I value the blending of all three types of interactions in an online course – but my line of inquiry had me questioning the importance of student-to-content interactions, specifically, and investigating their importance.

The Research

I asked what interactions are important in an online environment and what level of development effort begins to produce diminishing results.   I’ll cover the first part in this blog post and the second part in a future post.

One piece of research (mentioned in the previous journal entry) is described in a paper called Effects of Instructional Events in Computer-Based Instruction, conducted by a group from Arizona State University.  In traditional curriculum and design programs taught in the 80s and 90s, Robert Gagne’s Conditions of Learning was gospel. He proposed nine essential element of instruction. Well what would happen if we removed any essential element from the nine?  Would it make a difference?  The researchers created six versions of a program:  a full version without anything removed; one without statement of objectives; one without examples; one without practice and feedback; one without review; and a lean version that presented information only.

Think about this for a moment before looking on. Removing one of these things really made a difference. Which one? What was the result?

As it turns out, removing practice and feedback makes a difference.  And that is reassuring.  Many of our activities are designed to provide students with instant feedback.  We provide information; elicit a response; and then provide feedback.  That is worth the effort – provided that we can construct such an activity efficiently and economically.

In another research study (published in Journal of Educational Computing Research),  Hector Garcia Rodicio investigated whether or not requiring students to answer a question made a difference. I’m referring to just the physical act of selecting a check box or radio button.  In the treatment group, students were required to answer a question before getting feedback.  In the control group, students received all of the same information, but they were not required to perform the physical act of selecting an answer.

Does having to answer make a difference?

Apparently it did.  Richard Mayer (University of Santa Barbara) explains why.   When students have to answer questions they actively select relevant segments of the material, mentally organize them, and integrated them with prior  knowledge (Campbell & Mayer, 2009).

The action is not insignificant.  Look at the results. 

2017-11-13_1133

A table showing mean scores and standard deviations on questions that recalled prior knowledge, supported retention and aided transfer

Note the difference an interactive question makes on retention and transfer. M is the mean score.  SD is the standard deviation – a measurement of variation in the scores. Given the standard deviation, we can conclude the difference of four points is significant.

2017-11-13_1113

A LodeStar interaction that follows a presentation on Creative Commons licensing. Six questions check the learner’s understanding and ability to match the license to the requirement.

About the Meta-analysis

As mentioned there are significant pitfalls to education research.  However, a particular type of analysis might provide us with more direction – the meta-analysis.  The meta-analysis combines studies and typically includes many more students – many more samples – than the single study.  But meta-analyses are not without their own issues.  Because the meta-analysis is so common in educational research let’s explore them for a moment.

To start, the Merriam Webster definition of a meta-analysis is this:

A quantitative statistical analysis that is applied to separate but similar experiments of different and usually independent researchers and that involves pooling the data and using the pooled data to test the effectiveness of the results

A health study meta-analysis might involve dozens of studies involving thousands of individuals.  The significance of a treatment is reported as an effect size.  An effect size is the magnitude of an effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable in an experiment.  Twenty studies, for example, might measure the effect of room noise on reading and test scores.  Let’s hypothesize that lower room noise might lead to improved reading comprehension, which leads to better student performance on a quiz.   If you pooled all of the studies together, can you conclude that lower room noise really makes a difference.  What is the magnitude of this difference?  In other words, does the meta-analysis show an overall significant effect size? 

Wil Thalheimer and Samantha Cook have done a great job on simplifying the concept of an effect size.  Because it is so prevalent in research and this blog entry is about research that can inform an instructor’s decision making, I will summarize it in simple terms.

The recipe for effect size goes something like this.  You calculate the mean of the treatment condition and subtract from it the mean of the control group.  In our example, we are looking at the performance scores of students who read in a quiet room versus a noisy room.  We calculate the mean test score of students who read in a quiet room.  We then calculate the mean test score of the students who read in a noisy room.  We subtract one from the other.  That gives us the numerator of a fraction.  We then divide that number by a pooled standard deviation.  We won‘t know if a difference in means is significant, unless we know something about variation.  That’s what standard deviation tells us.  Is a 10 point difference significant or not significant?  Thalheimer and Cook show us how a pooled standard deviation is calculated.  In the end, if we have a standard way of calculating significance – effect size – then we can analyze a group of studies even though individually they have different scores, ranges, means, and average departure from the mean.

As mentioned, meta-analyses draw their own criticisms. Two of the issues cited in meta-analysis.com, a proponent of meta-analyses, is that experiments that don’t show significant results are tucked away in file drawers collecting dust.  That introduces a bias in the published research.  It is called, logically, publication bias.  Secondly, meta-analyses may combine apples and oranges.  The following link explains the shortcomings in more detail.

https://www.meta-analysis.com/downloads/criticismsofmeta-analysis.pdf

Despite the criticisms, meta-analyses can provide convincing support for a treatment and results that are generalizable beyond the context of any particular study.

Meta-analysis can also give us insight into instructional strategies that make a difference. In a paper titled Comparative  effectiveness  of  instructional  design  features  in  simulation-based  education:  Systematic  review  and  meta-analysis, published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the authors analyzed 289 studies that involved more than 18,000 trainees.  The following instructional strategies were found to be relevant in simulation based education: range of difficulty, repetitive practice, distributed practice, cognitive interactivity, multiple learning strategies, individualized learning, mastery learning, feedback, longer time, and clinical variation.  Note the inclusion of practice, feedback and cognitive interactivity.  Engaging students with content in a way that makes them think is effective!

These themes come up again and again in the research.  Create activities that require students to apply what they have learned, make decisions or choices or perform some sort of action, get feedback and apply that feedback in future activities until mastery has been achieved.  Vary the difficulty; make them think; make them practice; provide feedback and support mastery.  It is still difficult to determine whether its worth the effort to construct such activities – but at least we are on the right track.

Activities that require students to perform and receive feedback can be fairly efficiently created.  Higher order activities take more time.  What does the research suggest in terms of the effectiveness of higher order activities.  One such activity is the interactive case study.  Let’s look at the case study in some depth.

In a paper titled Effectiveness of case-based teaching of physiology for nursing students published in the Journal of Taibah University Medical Sciences, the authors reported that

The performance in tests was statistically significantly better after didactic lectures (mean, 17.53) than after case-based teaching (mean, 16.47) (two-tailed p = 0.003). However, 65–72% of students found that case-based teaching improved their knowledge about the topic better than lectures.

 

Teaching method

Mean

SD

SEM

p

Didactic

17.53

3.58

0.38

0.003

Case-based

16.47

3.69

0.39

The first part doesn’t sound very supportive.  Students performed poorer in the treatment that included case based teaching method. This underscores one of the challenges of measuring the effectiveness of a treatment like case studies, or problem-based learning or decision-making scenarios and other higher order activities. If I simply taught to the test, students might perform better on the test than engaged in a case or some other ‘indirect’ activity.  But what is the effect on satisfaction or long-term retention or transfer of knowledge to the work setting?  The research may exist and may answer that question, but the quest for that insight is long and arduous.

The author of the above study conceded that several studies contradicted his findings.  In fact, there are several research studies that support the use of case studies in both online and face-to-face settings.  The following study concluded that case studies were effective whether created by the instructor or a third-party:  Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains (Kevin M. Bonney, 2015).

The impact of the case study method was significant. It produced a two grade increase.

The author wrote:

Although many instructors have produced case studies for use in their own classrooms, the production of novel case studies is time-consuming and requires skills that not all instructors have perfected. It is therefore important to determine whether case studies published by instructors who are unaffiliated with a particular course can be used effectively and obviate the need for each instructor to develop new case studies for their own courses.

This is significant. Case studies were found to be effective, whether created by the instructor of the course or by an instructor unaffiliated with the course. This supports the use of activities gleaned from content repositories. Case studies, however, are not equally available in all disciplines. In the sciences, instructors can find cases at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. The most difficult and time-consuming challenge related to case studies is in their creation – just getting it down on paper.

At the National Center for Case Study some of the work has been done for you. A case on climate change, for example, provides background information on the meaning of climate change and how we know that it is occurring. The case study places the student in the role of an intern to a US senator. The job of the intern is to help the senator understand the science behind client change and the impact of climate change on the planet. The student is engaged in a number of questions that require some analysis and charting.

The results of Professor Bonney’s research are taken verbatim from the author.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the case study teaching method at promoting learning, student performance on examination questions related to material covered by case studies was compared with performance on questions that covered material addressed through classroom discussions and textbook reading. The latter questions served as control items; assessment items for each case study were compared with control items that were of similar format, difficulty, and point value . Each of the four case studies resulted in an increase in examination performance compared with control questions that was statistically significant, with an average difference of 18%

In the following study  Effectiveness of integrating case studies in online and face-to-face instruction of pathophysiology: a comparative study (http://advan.physiology.org/content/ajpadvan/37/2/201.full.pdf) we learn the following:

  • Students who enjoyed the case studies performed better.
  • Students like case studies because they could apply what they learned
  • The reasons why students liked case studies had nothing to with whether they were in a face-to-face or online class
  • Students who expected to earn better grades as a result of the case, did actually earn better grades.

Efficiency

Concerning to me is the amount of time that it takes to generate the interactive case study.  Because of this concern, we are investigating and piloting the use of templates – but not at the expense of student performance and satisfaction.

At our university, we recently developed two versions of an interactive case study to promote the use of a standardized classification system to document, classify, and communicate health-related issues such as Latent Tuberculosis Bacterial Infection. In a future post, I’ll write about the two versions and their effect on student performance and student satisfaction.  One version came from a template and involved more student reading.  The other version sequenced audio with the presentation of content and made more use of graphics.  The premise is that the templated version can be created quicker and could be generated by an instructor rather than an instructional technologist. We’re looking at whether that ease and speed came at the price of student performance and satisfaction.

If we are made confident by research that interactive case studies improved both student performance and satisfaction, and if case studies can be generated effectively and efficiently through a templated approach, then we can improve on our return on investment.

We could also further efficiency by adopting cases from case libraries. In our standardized classification system example, 18 cases are available at the Omaha System – a vendor site:

http://www.omahasystem.org/casestudies.html

Related to science case studies, I have already mentioned the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science – but there are other resources that might uncover case studies in other disciplines. Examples include the learning object repositories like Merlot (www.Merlot.org) and OER Commons (www.oercommons.org).

Again, the repositories supply the content. Couple the content with an eLearning authoring tool like Captivate, StoryLine, LodeStar or whatever to make it interactive and you might be able to produce an effective instructional component efficiently.

 Conclusion

I set out to find research that contradicted my belief that learning interactions are useful and represent a good return on investment. I found that research. One can find examples that show discouraging results – but these are the exceptions. I found much more research that underscores the effectiveness of learning interactions, whether they be simple question items or sophisticated case studies. Now the focus should shift to producing these learning interactions efficiently.

My personal belief is that in higher ed we are at an important junction. We can concede this sort of development to the book publishers – or we can figure out ways to encourage instructors to build learning interactions and add value to their courses – for the benefit of online students.