Problem – Based Learning


About 36 miles from my boyhood home, while I was still in high school in the early 70s, Dr. Howard Barrows was retooling the traditional school of medicine curriculum at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He challenged medical students with complex problems that approximated the diagnosis and treatment of patients. He created scenarios that required students to ask questions, plot paths to new learning and discover answers. The success of the problem-based learning approach inspired similar curricula all around the world in any discipline that demanded students think critically.

The challenge facing the school of medicine in the 70s is the same facing universities today. Sociologist Richard Arum followed more than two thousand students from 2005 to 2009 and concluded that nearly one-half of students were no better critical thinkers after two years of university than when they first entered. One-third graduated with no significant gains in the ability to perform complex reasoning, discriminate between fact and opinion, make a reasoned argument, choose between opposing points of view, and engage other critical thinking skills.

When I first started teaching in the early 80s, our department gathered together to design the curriculum for a course on American Literature. I was fresh out of college where my instructors had an enlightened view about designing language arts curricula. I was eager to ply my new-found knowledge in the development of a high school literature course. What I witnessed has stuck with me ever since. The senior faculty member chose the textbook (an anthology and study of literature divided into periods) and the curriculum became the table of contents of that book.

The shift from course-centric to student-centric curriculum

I’m reminded of that time occasionally. I have heard instructors, both resident and adjunct, stress that they must cover the entire textbook in the semester and they were hard-pressed to do so. The textbook is the curriculum, and the instructor must ensure that students ‘understand’ the content and are able to ‘recall’ it. Departments demand it; preparation for professional licensure exams requires it.

In my view, online learning amplifies the shortcomings of a content-centric curriculum and certainly does not improve it. Many authors (Dee Fink, in his Designing Courses for Significant Learning, Pratt and Palloff in their Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom and Jose Antonio Bowen in Teaching Naked, to name a few) write about the shift from a teacher-centered course experience to a student-centered one; from content as king to the learning experience as king. Developers of online learning can try to replicate the worst of the lecture hall – or they can design courses to engage students with problems and work cooperatively with other students under the careful facilitation of the instructor (the sage on the side).

Problem-based learning as a student-centered constructivist intervention

Problem-based learning is an approach to course design that is antithetical to a content-centric, instructor-centered teaching and learning experience. In problem-based learning, students are presented with a problem so that they chart their own course for learning.

In their Manual of Teaching and Learning in Medicine, Dejan Bokonjic, Mladen Mimica, and others stress that to acquire new knowledge, learners must be stimulated to restructure information they already know, assimilate new knowledge and then do something meaningful with it. Some would recognize this as a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

Students come into a problem-based learning scenario with some prior knowledge. They must inventory that knowledge to determine what is missing and what they must learn in order to solve the problem at hand. This requires a great deal of sophistication, but one that is commensurate with advanced stages of learning. Rather than follow a set curriculum, students define the learning goals and are helped by the instructor to find resources that will help them achieve those learning goals.

Students are placed in settings where they must use self-directed learning skills, identify and absorb relevant information in order to solve the problem presented by the scenario. In face-to-face settings, problem-based learning involves group work. Online instructors who implement problem-based learning must identify the points in the process where students confer with their group. Two opportunities for this type of student-to-student interaction are when the students form their learning goals, and when they have formed their findings or conclusions. The group work in both cases allows students to gain knowledge from other perspectives and revise their own thinking.

Here are two examples, taken from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science :

Can Suminoe Oysters Save Chesapeake Bay?

This dilemma case explores the controversy over introducing non-native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay as a means of improving its ecological and economic health.

The Galapagos

Using problem-based learning and role-playing, students analyze the geological origins of the Galapagos Islands, their colonization, species formation, and threats to their biodiversity in this story of a graduate student caught between local fishermen and government officials fighting for control of the islands’ natural resources.

Why it works

PBL originated in medical education but is now used across many professional disciplines such as law, engineering and economics. The above examples were from science.

We easily forget rote knowledge – we forget almost everything we learn if we don’t do things that help students recall that knowledge.

Dr. Will Thalheimer states that “The amount a learner will forget varies depending on many things.  We as learning professionals will be more effective if we make decisions based on a deep understanding of how to minimize forgetting and enhance remembering.”

Periodic recall of learning will reduce lack of retention to be sure, but specific types of learning interventions will improve long-term remembering.

Research shows that periodic recall and activation of prior learning helps the recall of declarative knowledge (facts and figures). Case studies, problem solving scenarios, and decision-making scenarios are the sort of learning interventions that work on higher levels of knowledge.

Students are less likely to forget content that they must draw from in order to solve problems.

Set retention aside for a moment. Students can’t possibly know everything or remember everything. In today’s sophisticated world there is too much demand on knowledge. Students must be able to identify what they need to know and they must learn what they need to learn.

Problem based learning works because students must engage with the content. They must decide what information is relevant to the problem and what information is not. They must think about the information, and evaluate it. In short, they must think critically.

How do I create it

The problem lies at the center of the problem-based learning scenario. M. David Merrill includes the problem in his work on the first principles of instruction: “Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.” In his work, Merrill looked at several instructional theories in an attempt to identify principles that they had in common. Engagement with real-world problems was at the heart of multiple instructional design theories. In a video clip, Merrill laments the fact that the content-centric approach that dominates much of online learning results in ‘shovelware’. We are now well beyond the miracle of transporting the written word through the internet. That’s old hat. We are no longer in awe of text on a screen. Our challenge now is to engage students in actively thinking rather than passively reading…or skimming…or worse.

Again, at the center of problem-based learning lies the problem. It can be a well-defined problem or an ill-structured problem. Well-defined problems are problems that students can easily identify. The activity makes it clear what the problem is and may even provide links to all of the information students need to solve the problem. On the other end of the continuum, the scenario may present a situation that does not clearly define a problem to solve. Part of the challenge is for students to identify the problem or problems. The activity may not include links to information but leave the students on their own to work out what they need to know and where to find the information.

A problem-based learning scenario can be anywhere on the continuum. The course may begin with a well-defined problem and end with an ill-structured problem.In order to prepare a problem-based learning scenario, faculty should be clear that the scenario is in alignment with the learning objectives of the module and course. The instructor must decide whether or not the student has sufficient understanding of the subject and his own level of learning to be able to chart his/her own course through new material. The instructor must decide to what degree the problem scenario is well-defined and what types of scaffolding or level of support the scenario will provide. The problem should be interesting. It should be based on real issues or an authentic task that students would encounter outside of the classroom – especially in the profession. The activity should require students to work with other students, at least at critical points. The activity should in varying degrees guide students on where to find the information that they need.
Problem based learning differs from problem solving. Learning situations that present content to students then challenge students to solve problems with the help of that content knowledge are examples of problem solving learning. Learning situations that help student discover the content to help them solve problems are examples of problem based learning. In the former case, the curriculum is said to be bounded. Instructors carefully choose the content that will be presented to students. In the latter case, the curriculum is unbounded. Students go off into the wild in search of the content that will help them with the problem. (The skilled facilitator ensures that students don’t die in the wild.)

What matters, then, is the ability to ‘learn to learn’ .

The University of Maastricht has chosen problem-based learning for its students. It proposes a pattern for designing a problem-based learning scenario beginning with the presentation of a case, a brainstorming session about the problem, activation of prior knowledge (what do the students already know and what are they missing), identification of learning goals, and student group work to combine findings and achieve consensus.

Bokonjic, Mimica, and their co-authors tell us in their Manual of Teaching and Learning in Medicine that “The extent of prior knowledge, the quality of the problems and the tutor’s performance are the key elements determining group functioning and outcome of the tutorials.”

An example

The example I show is a problem-based learning scenario in a very simple form. It is based on a case study from the University of Ghana. The university’s College of Health Sciences aspired to use open education resources and eLearning to solve some critical instructional challenges in their curriculum. One example of a problem was that surgical procedures in an operating room were difficult for students to view. Educational resources that captured the procedure could be replayed by students. Similar procedures recorded in western universities involved expensive equipment that the students would never see in their professional settings.

Despite the value of these educational resources, the college was challenged with network issues, power issues, infrastructural issues, lack of faculty training in multimedia development and so forth.

The issues facing the College of Health Sciences would be of interest to students in Management of Information Systems or Information Technology, or Information Science. Students who are presented with the problem are challenged to examine their own knowledge and define what they need to learn. For example, the concept of ‘mesh networking’ often comes up in conversations about communities that lack broadband internet. Does a mesh network provide any benefit in this situation?

Once the student determines what s/he knows and needs to know, s/he follows links and consults resources provided by the module. This is a very simple scenario. The problem is fairly well-defined and information is provided. Some of the answers lie in the link to the College of Health Sciences case study. Other answers lie in the link to a website dedicated to open education resources. This site presents a sampling of some of the best thinking on open education resources from OpenStax founder, Richard Baraniuk, and David Wiley, an early evangelist for open content, as well as others.

After consulting the resources, the student submits his or her findings. These are recommendations to the College of Health Sciences. Once the findings are submitted, the student is asked to choose an option that best matches her recommendations. Once the student commits, the activity displays the ‘experts’ answer – which is just one perspective on the problem.

When used in the context of a course, students have the opportunity of sharing their learning goals with other students in a discussion forum and they have the opportunity of sharing their findings. If students have expended any effort on the recommendations, they will pay attention to their colleagues’ points of view. Those ideas will either be assimilated, questioned or rejected. In any case, students are engaged in thinking about the problem.

Screenshot of Problem-based learning scenario created with LodeStar


Problem-based learning is an effective strategy for engaging students in higher-order, critical thinking. Problem-based learning in an online learning environment presents faculty and students with something more than the ‘shovelware’ presentation of content. It begins to realize the tremendous potential of engaging students in a manner that has been successful in traditional face-to-face settings for decades.

Additional Resources

Thalheimer, W. (2010, April). How Much Do People Forget?
Retrieved March 29, 2016, from


Situational Challenges


Effort and time can transform the presentation of content into an active rather than passive experience. “Active” comes from the recognition that you are engaging a thinking human being in your eLearning unit. “Passive” comes from the belief that an instructor need only make content available to students.

Actively engaging students is a challenge. Content may be inherently motivating; oftentimes, it is not. This is especially true when we don’t include interaction, which may involve a reflection, a decision, a counterpoint, or some thinking activity. To engage students in the content, we may need to draw upon their natural curiosity, emotions, intrigue, thrill of surprise, etc. We can do that by wrapping the content in a situational challenge.

An example

A vivid example of a situational challenge is presented by a learning site called Who Killed William Robinson?

The objective of the resource is to promote historical understanding through the examination of prima facie documents from a particular period of time. In the case of Who Killed William Robinson, the documents are based on nineteenth century life on Salt Spring Island, an island off the coast of British Columbia. As the authors Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz tell us, the island was home to several African American families who fled slavery in the United States before the civil war.

From a teaching and learning perspective, the site could have been presented as a collection of documents that give students a first hand look at a settlement from this time period. The murder of William Robinson and the conviction of an aboriginal man for the crime could have been just one of the many stories told through the court documents, diaries, inquests, letters and drawings that were archived from this period. The authors however used a murder to drive students into a deeper interrogation of the archival documents and puzzle over a Canadian mystery.

Understandably, some instructors may take issue with a whodunit approach. The underlying point is that a situational challenge plays a role in moving the instruction from a passive, pedantic, instructor-centered experience to one that leads students through an active inquiry that elevates the process of historical understanding above the rote learning of historical facts.

Another example

A marketing instructor could help students understand the basics of the marketing mix: product, price, promotion, etc. by diligently describing each component of the marketing mix. In this type of presentation, students are asked to pay careful attention to the details and trust in the instructor that this information will be useful to them.

Alternatively, students could be placed in a situation where they must consult resources to decide how high to set the price of a product, how much return they should expect from investing in the product and improving its quality, and how much they should invest in promoting the product. The situation helps drive the student to consult resources and be better informed of the trade-offs.

A simpler example

Who Killed William Robinson? is clearly an investment of time and a labor of love. I’ll choose a simpler example to make the point that we can transform our content with a few basic techniques. Let’s build a simple working example. Let’s imagine that we are using an online unit to introduce instructors to the concept of Open Educational Resources. Open Educational Resources, or OER, are openly licensed resources that educators can freely use for the benefit of their students.

To understand OER and effectively use them, educators must understand intellectual property issues and be able to list the popular educational resource libraries and where to find them. We may include a discussion of eBooks, interactive eBooks, simulations, and other types of material that are available to us as open educational resources.

As an example of a situational challenge, let’s focus on intellectual property and open licenses. We could choose to define open licenses and the public domain. We could describe each of the Creative Commons’ licenses, for example, and then quiz participants on this information. Creative Commons, incidentally, is the non-profit organization that has produced six licenses that allow intellectual property holders to share their work without forfeiting their copyright.

We can approach this from at least two tacks. First we can provide information on the licenses and then have our learner immediately make use of that information in an authentic situation rather than a quiz. Alternatively, we can make the information available as a resource. When the learner needs the information, he or she can consult the resource. The situational challenge serves as a driver or a motivator for the learner to read and process the information.

I often use the word “driver” when I think and talk about motivation. For me, driver connotes a force that compels the learners to pay attention to the content and think about it. In situational challenges, that force comes from authentic situations and genuine – not-forced – use of the content.

Another key to the situational challenge is the use of the second person point of view. Make a direct challenge. Directly cast the learner in the role of a person who is tasked with using OER without violating copyright. Addressing the learner as “you”, makes the instruction more direct and active.

The temptation, due to time constraints and lack of creativity, is to design the unit in this manner:

Content + Content + Content + Assessment


In this pattern, we push out content that students much read. Students may be required to read an opinion or point of view or remember a set of facts or understand a concept. Oftentimes, the unit lacks an engagement with the content other than the act of reading and remembering. Although the written word can provoke an intellectual and emotional response, all too often it is just something to read and to passively accept. We won’t bother showing you an example of this.

One alternative is to design in this way.

Content + Application + Assessment

In this case, the learner almost immediately puts the content to work. The learner is asked to recall the content and make judgments about it in relationship to the situation and then apply this knowledge to the situation. Situations can be spare or they can be rich. They can start simple and become highly nuanced and complex.

Lastly, and perhaps most effectively, we can make the content accessible only when needed. In this case, the learner is challenged with a situation and has content available at his/her fingertips as resources. The emphasis here is on the interaction, with the content being used to support the interaction. This relates to the active versus the passive experience.

Application + Assessment
(supported by Content)


How do I create it?

In our first example, we used LodeStar and its ActivityMaker for Mobile template.

To introduce the Creative Commons licenses, I created a text page that matched each of the six licenses. These are normal LodeStar page types. I then linked to these pages from within a LodeStar page. LodeStar enables you to create internal links to content. The links can move the student to the content or display the content as an overlay so that the student doesn’t lose context. In this case, the student is learning about Creative Commons licenses just ahead of using that information in a situation.


LodeStar authoring tool, editing links to internal page

The example also checks for understanding by having the student order the licenses from least restrictive to most restrictive.

Only one of several questions is included in the challenge itself.


A screenshot of LodeStar activity on a Smartphone



A live link to first example

In our second example, we used the classic LodeStar ActivityMaker template. This example differs in one significant way. The information on Creative Commons licenses is displayed as resource tiles at the bottom of the page. They are always available to the student who can consult them at any time when needed, including during the challenge. In LodeStar, the author can display and hide the resources as needed – or conditionally display resources.



A screenshot of activity with resource tiles for each of the Creative Commons licenses

A live link to second example


eLearning experiences are best when they actively engage students. With a little creativity and restructuring, instructors can transform their units from passive reading experiences to active thinking experiences. The Who Killed William Robinson? learning site is an example of an elaborate, well-produced situational challenge.

A situational challenge, however, can be simpler. A topic that is text-laden can be transformed with a little ingenuity, a short narrative and interactions that require the learner to make effective use of the content.








Gamification and the Progressive Challenge Design Pattern


I am not a game designer, nor even a gamer. I have designed games and even played them – but I disavow any special expertise other than a few basic insights. I will acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from games and I openly submit myself to new personal discoveries. We’re on a journey together – but there are many who have come before us and offer their insight. For example, for both a scholarly and playful look at gameful design, start with Sebastian Deterding and his online portfolio at

Despite my disclaimer, I’ll venture a few practical suggestions. I do believe that online instructors can use gamification to boost student interest in their content. A few techniques borrowed from gaming can help instructors add interest without a huge time commitment.


Saint Paul College students, faculty and I designed Chem Alien. ChemAlien invites students to roam around a home (rendered in 3D) and explore everyday objects manufactured with the help of Chemical Technology.


The idea of gaming can be daunting. Whereas in the past my colleagues and I built fairly sophisticated learning environments that promoted some learning outcome, today I realize that a lot can be achieved with just a few techniques borrowed from gaming. Our gaming environments involved character development, story development, 3D graphics, audio production, and computer programming. These are skills that are highly specialized. They require a huge time commitment to learn and are not easily transferable to busy instructors. Even the application of simulated environments or virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and massively multi-player online role playing gaming environments present challenges to instructors. They take time to master. Second Life, for example, requires knowledge of a scripting language to create meaningful learning activities that work in the virtual world.

Students are beguiled by games. Instructors see or read about the effect of games on their players and seek to harness some of that power for their own eLearning designs. When instructors borrow design elements from gaming, they are gamifying their content. Gamification of online learning content can include a range of elements such as leader boards, challenge levels, a story line, an earned points display, levels of strength, immediate feedback, animation, discovery, player control, multiple paths to learning, teamwork, and mastery learning.

Studies, such as Traci Sitzmann’s A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-based Simulation games, have shown computer-based simulation games to be effective in increasing retention with some types of learning. But that’s not what we are about here. In this article, I focus on some very basic things that instructors can do to boost student interest and engagement with their content.

Why should it work?

Gamification plays on a variety of human needs: the need to win, feel self-worth, connect with others, discover new things, control one’s destiny.

Gamification has a lot to do with motivation. But motivation is a funny thing. Educators embrace some kinds of motivation – but not others. We want motivation to be closely aligned with the learning goals of our programs. We recognize that, in some games, motivation may be extrinsic, Students earn points, climb leader boards, and achieve levels of greater challenge . But educators strive for intrinsic motivation. We prefer that students experience satisfaction from solving problems and demonstrating mastery of content.

Fortunately it is not an either-or proposition. Educational games can ‘hook’ students through extrinsic motivators and gradually promote an appreciation of the content and a level of satisfaction from the pursuit of knowledge and the solution of problems.

The idea of imbuing an online activity with game-like qualities may seem challenging to instructors. Leader boards and progressive challenges present instructor-designers  with technical obstacles.

In our progressive challenge design pattern, we borrow a couple of tactics from gaming. The design, however, is simple to implement. We can discuss gamification without committing instructors to a design that is beyond the skill and time available to most instructors.

The progressive challenge follows a slope of difficulty that is popular in gaming. The challenge starts off simple so there is a low cognitive load on the student. Barbaros Boston, in his paper titled In Pursuit of Optimal Gaming Experience describes this as the initial experience. In the second level, the challenge quickly rises to moderate difficulty to keep the students challenged (i.e. engaged) without overwhelming them. In the third and most difficult level, the challenge extends the engagement of the learner because the challenges provide renewed satisfaction to the learner as he or she repeatedly overcomes them. From the designer’s perspective this is also the most difficult challenge to plan because it involves either introducing variables that vary the user experience and keep the challenge fresh or a large pool of question items or some other device that keeps learners coming back until they’ve mastered the challenge.

Another concept we can learn from gaming is the interpersonal interaction offered by many popular games such as World of WarCraft and League of Legends. As Ben Betts explains in his article The Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers when people interact with people in a gaming environment, that human interaction presents a natural complexity to a game. That interpersonal interaction will soon become easier to achieve in a manner that is consistent across browsers and machines. Our tools will leverage a new and standardized technology that will make it easy for instructors to create interactions that include interpersonal interactions in a manner that is tightly integrated with the content. More on that in a later article.

How do I create it?

Start off with a narrative.

You can create a simple story line that introduces the learning activity and describes a challenge. This doesn’t necessarily require a lot of production. Narratives can be created with creative writing, some imagery and the right choice of theme and layout. Images can be purchased from stock photo websites and character pack vendors or downloaded free of charge from such sites as Wikimedia Commons and other sites that support Creative Commons licenses.

Good storytelling can fire up the student’s imagination and help make their engagement with the content more enjoyable. Storytelling communicates an implicit message that the instructor-designer really cares about this content and wants the student to be engaged. The story can transcend the business trappings of the online course: the syllabus, the schedule, the guidelines, and the grade book. The story can make a dull, antiseptic learning management environment come alive.

Story telling can be external to the content or deeply integrated, thereby providing a context for learning. I give a simple example of both later in this post.

Present a challenge

As I had mentioned, the art and science of gaming is partly in the control of difficulty. Games that start off too difficult lose interest. Games that are too easy are boring. Whereas in education, we tend to go up a steady continuous slope of difficulty, games may rise in difficulty and then plateau, rise in difficulty and then plateau. Whatever the curve, games designers carefully manage the curve.

One approach for instructor-designers is to create levels of difficulty. Students must master a level before progressing to the next level.

In our progressive challenge design pattern, we put up barriers between levels. If students perform at a required level, they move on. If not, the items are reset, reshuffled or re-presented with new values.

The idea is a lot like mountain climbing. Once the student reaches a level, he or she only falls to the base of that level and not below.

Each level may not represent the same slope of difficulty. The challenge may taper off and help the students secure mastery of previously learned concepts and procedures.

Give immediate feedback

eLearning offers the benefit of immediate feedback. But immediate feedback alone is isn’t enough. Students need information they can apply to problems of a similar type. Simply resetting the question isn’t enough. Present similar problems almost immediately that require knowledge of the rule, concept or procedure.

I was recently disappointed by a math MOOC that I was taking. I missed items. I clicked ‘Retake’ and received the same items. The presentation of the concepts in the MOOC was brilliant. I was solid on the concepts but couldn’t quite do the procedures and missed the problems.

Show indicator of progress

In our example, students need to achieve a score of 80% to succeed to the next level. A performance indicator informs students of their progress toward the goal. Showing progress provides an opportunity of introducing a gaming element. In our example, we benefited from the plug-in architecture of LodeStar that allowed us to plug in a custom indicator.

We will soon publish a technical article on how developers with JavaScript skill can plug in their own performance indicator. To implement this feature, we will encourage instructors to team up with computer programming students who know JavaScript.  This will give students a great, practical experience.

One goal with multiple paths

Ben Betts in his article laments the existence of the ‘next’ button. He suggests that “rarely in games is there a single method for completing a given task.” Instructors can elect to drop the “next” button. But that requires a level of skill and design that is beyond the scope of this post. We’ll return to that thought at a later time. For now, let’s just acknowledge that multiple paths can lead to the same goal — whether there is a ‘next’ button or not.


So there you have it. I’ll focus on just four of the ingredients: narrative, challenge, immediate feedback and progress indicator.

Let’s see how we applied these things to a relatively simple learning activity. In the two examples that follow, I tried two different approaches to the narrative. In the first attempt, I chose a fantasy font and a matching color scheme. In the bottom center of the activity is a ring with a black center. The black center will change colors and display a power level. This indicator was added as a plug-in. (Again, a future article will describe how.) The first level is relatively easy. If students miss the 80% goal, the items are reset. If they meet the goal, they move on to level two. In level two, if they miss the 80% goal, the items are reset and they get to try again.

To improve this activity, I need to add a third level and to add in new questions for missed items. This is relatively simple to do – but for the purposes of this article, I will stick to the four main ingredients.

In the second example, I decided I needed a narrative that gave the activity some context. I went with a more academic theme and replaced the medieval character with an university provost. I swapped the progress indicator with a mastery meter. The meter shows red for lack of mastery, yellow for near mastery, and green for a running score that is equal to or greater than 80 percent.

Of course, I could more fully develop the narrative, the questions, the feedback, and so much more. My intent was to show that a few gaming elements can really change the complexion of an activity.

Version One:


Version Two:


The LodeStar template that I used was ActivityMaker.

To learn how to create basic levels with ActivityMaker, view the Using ActivityMaker videos beginning with Part 1:

To learn how to control the look and feel of a project, view:

Post Note

In the days prior to web-based learning, we spent a lot of time designing game-like interactions. In Minnesota there was a particularly awe-inspiring convergence of interest in creating game-like learning environments. Many high tech companies had their offices in Minnesota, including Honeywell, Control Data, Unisys and IBM. The University of Minnesota had a progressive College of Education. In alliance with business and education, the legislature granted Joint Powers authority to the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) who gave us Oregon Trail, Africa Trail, and Number Munchers. Control Data engaged Dr. Michael Allen in advanced research and development of educational computer systems and from that work sprung a new company and a ground-breaking software called Authorware – an authoring system that made it relatively easy to create highly interactive learning environments and games. Authorware Incorporated was headquartered in Minnesota, directly and indirectly inspiring dozens of multimedia development studios to produce highly interactive learning software.

For a while the innovative spirit that made those days so fun and heady was nearly lost in the modern day learning management system. But that is quickly changing. Faculty are interested in trying new ways to engage learners and even Learning Management System providers are introducing gaming elements to their systems. We all realize that the online learning experience can be a richer experience for our students.


Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers

SITZMANN, T. (2011), A META-ANALYTIC EXAMINATION OF THE INSTRUCTIONAL EFFECTIVENESS OF COMPUTER-BASED SIMULATION GAMES. Personnel Psychology, 64: 489–528. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01190.x

Video Scenario Instructional Design Pattern


I am about to embark on an interesting inquiry – and I hope you’ll join me occasionally.

I’ve recently been inspired by Andy Weir and his novel “The Martian”. According to an interview on National Public Radio, Weir crowdsourced the scientific facts of his novel. He posted his book one chapter at time on his website, got feedback and, for the most part, shaped the scientific narrative through feedback from his followers. (He deliberately used the fake science of the Martian sandstorm to maroon the main character but, after that, the book purportedly holds true to the laws of physics, chemistry, botany, and other sciences. It is an interesting book, if you can get past the expletives.)

In a somewhat similar way, I hope to crowdsource a compilation of instructional strategies and design patterns for online learning. (You may think not quite as exciting as being marooned on Mars — but I think otherwise.)  I want feedback on what works and what doesn’t work in online content-to-student interactions. I can make some educated guesses based on my own readings, research and experience – but I really want to hear from you and others in our field. I want to test drive some ideas. I want to stop marooning instructors in the 21st century without tools to survive.

This is certainly a contribution that doctoral students in instructional technology can make to the field of online learning.   I would love to see quantitative and qualitative analyses of the use of specific design patterns, much in the same way that Richard Mayer’s primary research led to his principles of multimedia learning.

This will be a playful experiment. I will dust off some time-honored designs and strategies and try them out. I will also get my inspiration from new sources and try out new patterns. For some of the patterns, I won’t know from experience whether or not they will work. Feedback from instructors, students and online learning practitioners will help refine the patterns, accept or discard them.

I make a distinction between instructional strategies and instructional design patterns – which may, in the end, not be a particularly helpful one. For now, strategies relate to simple things like techniques to help engage students. For example in our university’s Teaching Online Institute, I display a spiral and ask participants how the spiral relates to the Fibonacci sequence. Participants think about it for a minute and then I reveal the spiral with the numbers superimposed (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…). It is either an affirming moment or an ‘aha’ experience. Reveals are a simple strategy. Not too complicated. There are hundreds of strategies like this one. Pre-training on a topic or the simple underlining of key words — or as Richard Mayer calls it, signaling — are other examples of simple strategies.

An instructional design pattern is more involved. It is not one technique but a fairly defined sequence of activities designed to engage the student. Instructors can’t just use an instructional design pattern ad hoc; they have to plan carefully. My classic example is the WebQuest from Bernie Dodge. It has a well-defined pattern that I have written about in the past, which is made up of an introduction, a statement of task, a description of the process by which students will complete the task, a set of links that will serve as helpful resources, and a statement of how students will be evaluated. It is based on an inquiry learning approach that is so useful in online instruction.

Another example might be the simulated interview. I’ll write about this in the future, but in a nutshell it involves a simulated dialog between the student and an on-screen character in some sort of scenario. The character says something through audio or a speech bubble and the student responds by selecting one of several options of dialog. We used this pattern to rehearse faculty on an approach to integrated design. The faculty member is immersed in a scenario, is evaluated on her choices and then assigned points and given feedback. As you can see, this is not just a simple strategy or technique; it is a whole structure that involves choices, coaching, visual performance indicators and so forth.

In the next few months we’ll uncover and discover strategies and designs that promote student engagement with online learning. (‘Designs’ is my short form for instructional design pattern). As I’ve written I have some time-tested strategies and designs, but I am in search for more. I would love for you to provide feedback on those I propose and I want to hear your suggestions for new ones. My response to some of the suggestions will be to build activities from proposed patterns and test them on students. My antennae are up for patterns. I’m uncovering them everywhere.

A case in point: Recently, my wife and I traveled to Louisiana for a workshop sponsored by Southern University’s Science Math and Engineering Doctorate program. On the way, we stopped at Table Rock dam at the edge of the Ozarks. At the interpretive center there was a kiosk that challenged visitors to make a decision about water management. The kiosk presented a scenario that included the amount of rainfall and information on the capacity of the reservoirs in the flowage. I watched my wife deeply engaged by this kiosk. Eventually, we both reviewed the information, examined the map and discussed which options we would choose. She chose right; I chose wrong.

This reminded me of the interactive kiosks that I so much enjoyed as a young teen at the local science center. From Table Rock and my past experiences, I walked away with a proposed design pattern.

The following article explores this design pattern in detail and why it has the potential to engage students. In the future, I’ll skip the preamble. What follows is not only a description of a video scenario design pattern but a proposed structure on how to discuss it. Comment on both, please.

The Video Scenario Design Pattern

What’s the pattern?

Present students with information. Make it in the form of a problem solving scenario. Invoke an emotional response. Challenge students to review the information and a set of options and then select the option or options that are best. Play out the feedback in the form of video, assign points and provide textual feedback. Provide follow-up resources.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning's video scenario page type.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning’s video scenario page type found in the ActivityMaker template.

Why should it work?

Humans are fascinated by uncovering and discovering. They are engaged when they must think about and manipulate things and get immediate feedback.

Sivasailam Thiagarajan ,affectionately known as Thiagi, offers an explanation borrowed from Dr. Seymour Epstein, University of Massachusetts.

Seymour Epstein suggests that “we have an experiential mind and a rational mind. Our experiential mind learns directly, thinks quickly, pays attention to the outcome, and forgets slowly. Our rational mind learns indirectly, thinks deliberately, pays attention to the process, and forgets rapidly. Epstein’s contention is that you need both your minds. Games and interactive strategies appeal directly to the experiential mind. When combined with debriefing discussions, they provide a powerfully balanced approach to whole-brain learning.”

The Video Scenario Design appeals directly to the experiential mind. We also anticipate other laws in play. Thiagi, in his talks and in his writings, lists seven laws. Some of these have shaped our design pattern.

  • Law of Reinforcement: Participants learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.
  • Law of Emotional Learning: Events that are accompanied by intense emotions result in long-lasting learning.
  • Law of Active Learning: Active responding produces more effective learning than passive listening or reading.
  • Law of Practice and Feedback: Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and relevant feedback.
  • Law of Previous Experience: New learning should be linked to (and build upon) the experiences of the learner.
  • Law of Individual Differences: Different people learn in different ways.
  • Law of Relevance: Effective learning is relevant to the learner’s life and work.

These laws square with my own experience and so I cite them. You can judge for yourself which laws are in play in the video scenario examples.

Another important dynamic relates to Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. The artful use of this effect is an important strategy in the designer’s tool bag.

Briefly paraphrased, cognitive dissonance is the students’ attempt to achieve consistency between new information and what they know to be true. Students who experience inconsistency (dissonance) become uncomfortable and are motivated to try to reduce their discomfort.

Our first example of a video scenario leverages the effect of cognitive dissonance, as well.

How do I create it?

Start with a quick overview presented in text form or video. Make this brief. Launch as quickly as possibly into the video segment that will remind the student why she/he should care about the topic. In our demonstration, we played a segment from Tom Brokaw’s presentation on Global Warming. Pick a credible source and get the student emotionally involved in the subject.

Add a slide (or page) that makes it clear how the student will be evaluated. In our video scenario, each option is worth points. Good options are worth more than bad options. In our scenario, we followed an independent consulting firm’s ranking of alternative energy sources. Our top choice was assigned 12 points. The student would earn 12 points if s/he chose that option on the first try. 6 points on the second try, and so on. If a student simply chose each option from left to right, he would earn less than 50% of the available points. The total available points are 20. A student earns 20 if s/he makes good choices as early as possible.

Each option is followed by a video. The video sometimes either explicitly or implicitly reveals the merit of the choice. Each option is also coupled with explicit feedback that also states the number of points the student has accumulated.

By this time, we hope we have maintained the student’s interest and offer additional videos.


A screenshot of LodeStar Learning's Video Scenario page type.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning’s Video Scenario page type.

Energy Video Scenario Challenge

In our second example, we demonstrate how the video scenario can be applied in different way. We challenge students to pick combinations of substances that lead to chemical reactions. Bad choices severely reduce points. Give it a try.

Chemical Reactions


One important criteria for instructional design patterns is that they are easy for instructors to use. The designs that we choose to discuss are those that can be implemented with a variety of tools such as Adobe Captivate, Allen Learning’s ZebraZapps, Articulate StoryLine or whatever tool supports the creation and use of templates, including our tool, the LodeStar eLearning Authoring tool. Templates are important because without them the task of implementing an instructional design pattern for instructors is too daunting.

When I served as an instructional designer on projects paid for by Fortune 500 corporations, budgets and project schedules were fairly healthy. In contrast, instructors have neither money nor the time. Templates enable them to build sophisticated interactions without programming knowledge and enable faculty to focus on the content and needs of their students.

Toward that end, LodeStar Learning has added the Video Scenario page to the ActivityMaker template to make it easy for instructors to implement all or some aspects of the video scenario design. This page type is available in LodeStar 7.2 build 20 +.

We want to hear from you.

10 Techniques to Engage Students

The instructor as designer recognizes that the online platform can do more than simply compel students to read, watch, and listen. With carefully designed learning activities, instructors can engage students in explaining, categorizing, inferring, applying, solving problems and more. In short, rather than simply reading content, students can be working and interacting with content in meaningful ways.

Our audience is the instructor as designer. We hold on to the hope that online learning won’t be commercialized to the point of reducing instructors to proctors. We value the instructor as designer because no one understands his or her students’ needs better than the instructor. And, although developing online learning may be time consuming, it’s a lot of fun. Who wants to delegate that entirely to publishers?

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

In recent posts, we’ve been thinking and writing about larger design concepts that help instructors to engage students. This article, in contrast, surveys a range of techniques supported by the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool — sometimes in minute detail — that sharpen the edge of a well-designed activity and make it more effective.

Unless, you follow the development of the LodeStar authoring tool very closely, some of the items below will come as a surprise to you. Again, some of these items are simply techniques that will enhance your online learning projects; other items are larger in scope.

Let’s start with some simple techniques and then work our way up.


The LodeStar eLearning authoring tool offers a range of templates that help instructors build online activities. The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of templates is the ActivityMaker template. If you wish to get a good sense of what ActivityMaker can do, visit our post at

This article (not the link) dips into some of the settings of the authoring system that can affect student engagement in a significant and meaningful way. Each of the techniques is numbered and listed below.

#1: Link to other pages in a project

Knowledge is an interconnected web of informational, procedural and conceptual relationships. Sometimes, we want our designs to pick a ‘happy path’ through a topic’s complexity. We want students to start with a limited number of simple propositions or declarations and build up to a more complex understanding of the subject matter. Sometimes we want students to infer generalizations from the information that is presented to them in a relational manner.

A LodeStar activity can be a linear progression through content and application or it can be an interconnected website or both. A LodeStar activity can have navigational buttons that step a student through the content or it can turn off navigational buttons. Students can navigate through links, table of contents, or branching (discussed later).

For example, instructors may want to create a menu to give students choice of content. The menu page in the ActivityMaker template is restricted to four menu options and may, therefore, not be satisfactory. What if an instructor wanted five or … ten menu items?

What if an instructor simply wanted to link together pages in a LodeStar activity? Fortunately, the technique is simple in LodeStar 7.2 build 12 or later.

To make this work, be sure to give each of your pages a unique page ID. Once you have given your pages a page id, then select text that you wish to convert to a link. Click on the link button in the editor. The pull- down menu will reveal page id’s to you both in name and numerical format. Select the page that you want linked.

Of course, you are not restricted to pages within LodeStar. You can link to anywhere on the internet.

#2: Link to an overlay

So now that we know how create links to pages within LodeStar, let’s see what more we can do. Typically, links cause the program to jump to the linked page. If designers check ‘Show as Overlay’, the linked page displays as an overlay. In other words, students won’t jump to the page. The linked content gets overlaid on the current page. Students don’t lose their place or the context of the learning.

Note that text pages, with or without graphics, make the best overlays. Other page types are restricted from acting as overlays for technical reasons.

#3: Make Use of the Page Options

Each page type in ActivityMaker comes with various options that will help instructors to enhance the students’ experience.

The speaker icon enables instructors to import an MP3 file. In the audio dialog they can choose to display a player control to pause and play audio.They can also cause the audio to play automatically when the page starts.

Pages with audio look like this:

A small audio icon appears at the top left when audio is available

A small audio icon appears at the top left when audio is available

I’ll review some of the other controls that instructors may see either on a text page or question page or both.

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

The Correct Answer and Incorrect Answer branch icons allow instructors to branch or provide feedback based on overall (page level) correct or incorrect responses instead of answer level option branches.

The Table of Contents check box adds the current page to the table of contents. Different options for table of contents are found under Tools > Project Settings.

The Resources check box turns the current page into a resource that can be accessed at any time. Checking the check box causes a button to display at the bottom of the screen (depending on the layout), which will bring up the page as resource at any time.

Again, text pages, with or without graphics, make the best resources.

The ‘Do Not Display Correct Answer’ suspends feedback that informs the student of the correct answer.

The ‘Use Multiple Choice Radio Buttons’ converts the multiple select question type to a multiple choice question type. In playback mode, students will see radio buttons rather than checkboxes next to each answer option.

‘Point Value’, of course, assigns points to the current Question page.

‘Remove from Flow’ prevents the page from being displayed, unless branched to.

#4: Use Page Branching to Differentiate Instruction

The following is self-evident and almost foolish to write, if not for common practice: Student’s don’t all learn in the same manner. They don’t share the same level of prior knowledge, aptitude, experience, motivation, etc. A benefit of online learning, which is largely unrealized today, is that we can differentiate instruction based on student choice and performance.

Here is a recital of the various ways that projects created from the ActivityMaker template can differentiate instruction.

  • Links to different pages (content areas) offer students choice and a sense of control over their own learning. This is particularly important for adult learners.
  • Displaying pages as resources allows a student to summon up page content at any time. The student may be working on a case study and may wish to have quick access to critical information.
  • Branches based on performance either at the answer option level, page level or section level. The branch icon appears in LodeStar in various places. We see it next to answer options on the multiple choice question page. That means that a branch option and/or feedback will display if that answer is picked. There are many branch actions. ‘Jump to Page’ is one example.
  • Page Level branches follow a branch and/or provide feedback based on overall correct or incorrect responses. For example, in multiple select questions it might be difficult to branch based on any one selection. A page level branch can be based on whether or not the student answered correctly overall.
  • Section level branches are accomplished with gates. A ‘Gate’ is an ActivityMaker page type. Gates support all of the branch actions supported by answer level options and more. In other words, gates control program flow. For example, the program can jump to remedial activities or a higher level of challenge.

#5: Use Video to Bring a Project to Life

Even though the well-known educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer observes that we don’t fully understand the role of video in online learning, he acknowledges that it plays an important role.

In our view, short videos can bring an online learning project to life. It can bring experts to the course site; provide students with an audio-visual look at phenomena in, perhaps, a more efficient way than text and graphics; and it may be the preferred mode of learning for many students.

LodeStar supports three important forms of video.

One, the ActivityMaker template video page supports YouTube Video. Rather than fussing with embed codes, instructors can simply paste a YouTube URL into the main field. Although the LodeStar previewer doesn’t display YouTube videos, instructors can preview videos by launching the project in Firefox. The Firefox browser supports the preview of local resources. Other browsers do not.

Two, ActivityMaker enables an instructor to link an MP4 video file that is available by URL over the internet. LodeStar supports merging an MP4 video from an internet source with a WebVtt (.vtt) caption file imported into the project.

Three, ActivityMaker enables an instructor to import an MP4 file into the project.

#6: Use Flashcards to Help Students Remember

When students struggle to remember a term or definition it increases their cognitive load and makes the assimilation of new information more taxing than need be.  Many strategies help students remember information.  The use of Flashcards is but one example.

ActivityMaker supports Flashcards. In other words, Flashcards are part of the Swiss Army knife that ActivityMaker represents. The positive side is that a Flashcard activity can be blended with other pages that engage students in such things as video, text and graphics and checks for understanding. The negative side is that instructors have found it challenging to set up the gates that are needed for incorrectly answered flashcards to be returned to the queue.

LodeStar now offers the Flashcards template. Instructors will find the gates preset correctly. Instructors need only add the instructions, fill in the first card and add more. This template is still based on the ActivityMaker template. That means that instructors can add other page types and benefit from the full functionality of ActivityMaker.

#7: Use Instructional Design Patterns (compound strategies) like WebQuests

In previous articles, we introduced the concept of instructional design patterns. If you missed the articles, start with

WebQuests are one example of an instructional design pattern. WebQuests are an inquiry-based format, first introduced by Dr, Bernie Dodge at San Diego State.

LodeStar now offers the Webquest template to make it easier for faculty to build them and export them to learning management systems. Webquests are extremely popular in K12, but they show great promise in higher education. In brief, a Webquest sends students out into the internet with a purpose. A Webquest defines a task for students to complete, often in groups, and then spells out a process for completing the task. A Webquest offers a finite set of links as resources that have been vetted by the instructor or ‘an expert’.

For a closer look at Webquests in area of nursing education, view the following quantitative and qualitative study submitted to the International Journal of Nursing:

The LodeStar Webquest template is also based on ActivityMaker. That means that Webquest authors have the full range of ActivityMaker capabilities open to them. At the same time, instructors do not need to complete all of the set up required for a Webquest.  That is all done for them in the Webquest template.

#8: Use eBooks (epub 3)

If you missed our article on Open Textbooks and ePub, you’ll want to visit the following link:

In short, LodeStar enables instructors to author their own eBooks. Actually, authoring an eBook may seem daunting. The epub3Maker template supports not only eBooks but something much much smaller in scale such as white papers,  pamphlets, lab manuals, course introductions….whatever.

#9: Jazz up your Activities with Themes and Layouts

LodeStar now supports both themes and layouts. Themes enable instructors to choose from a number of color coordinated presets. Theme is mostly about color. Theme controls the colors of the header, footer, content area and HTML background. Instructors can even click on the advanced button in the ThemesManager dialog and create their own header and footer gradients.

Themes have been around in LodeStar for a long long time. Layouts are relatively new.

Layouts enable instructors to choose from a range of presets that affect the position of the header, footer, content body, table of contents and any gadgets that are used in the project.

With the combination of Themes and Layouts, instructors can create a unique look for their projects.

#10: Infographics

Infographics can play a number of roles in eLearning. They can provide data in a pleasing pictorial format through the use of headlines, graphs, symbols and images. They can outline a topic of interest to help students organize material and understand up front what some of the key points will be. They can be used to assess students when instructors invite students to generate their own infographics to communicate their understanding of a key issue or concept.

Here is the typical infographic:

Here is one more to look at.

The following infographic was created in LodeStar and combines a Prezi style presentation with an infographic style of presentation. It introduces seven phenomena that we are paying close attention to:


Instructors and students benefit from LodeStar’s rich array of options. Instructors can choose from a variety of templates. The ActivityMaker template offers an array of page types. Page types can offer an array of options. All of this helps the instructor create a rich and engaging experience for students.

Open Textbooks and ePub

A new convergence of technology has survived the early stages of Gartner’s hype cycle1. It has survived the peak of inflated expectations and the trough of disillusionment. It is slowly ascending the slope of enlightenment and will soon achieve the plateau of productivity, bringing benefit to schools and their students.

I am writing about the convergence of the open textbook and the interactive eBook (i.e. ePub specification 3.0).

Open textbooks have been around for a while. The original inspiration, according to Richard Baraniuk, a computer science professor at Rice University, came from the open source software movement. But in the early days, the scale of the open textbook movement was understandably small. Professors in any discipline had to look long and hard for a quality textbook that could be re-purposed for their students. Today, however, the promise of open textbooks shines brighter than ever. Open textbooks are ascending the slope of enlightenment. OpenStax ( alone has more than fifteen hundred books representing six broad curricular areas. Closer to home, the University of Minnesota Open Textbook Library ( carries more than 200 open books.

In a speech to the Minnesota eLearning Summit in 2013, Creative Commons’ Cable Green reported that in the last thirty years, textbooks have increased in cost by 800%. Today, to offset the high cost of college textbooks, students have multiple options: They can rent or purchase used books. They can purchase digital versions directly from companies such as Boundless Textbooks, which provides alternatives to expensive textbooks. They may be given yet another option — the open textbook. The largest disruptor in my view is the open textbook.

One visit to will tell you why. Richard Baraniuk founded Connexions at Rice University in 1999 to provide students with free educational materials. Connexions is now rebranded as OpenStax. At the conclusion of this article, you will find several resources. One of them is a TED talk delivered by Dr. Baraniuk on the subject of open source material.

In a nut shell, Dr. Baraniuk likens textbook pages to learning objects or Lego™ blocks. Textbook pages can be reassembled and organized and blended with new material to serve the different needs of students. Several years ago, I scanned the list of available books. Perhaps I fell into the trough of disillusionment. Today, I am utterly astounded by the breadth and quality of materials. And all for free. At least (in the digital form)  to students.

This is all happening at a time when a new eBook specification has emerged. The specification is called ePub. ePub has been around since 2007 in its initial form. Until now, eBooks were available but not widely adopted.   Only 28% of people, polled by Pew Research, claimed that they have read at least one eBook.   That statistic is about to change.

Today, the latest specification is ePub 3 and it is a game changer. ePub 3 is the convergence of text, audio, accessibility, imagery, video, MathML and interactivity in a digital book.

OpenStax resources are available as ePubs, as well as PDF and HTML. ePubs play beautifully across a wide variety of eBook readers. ePub 3 books play well on iPads using either the iBooks reader or the Gitden reader.

In support of this technology, LodeStar Learning has just released a beta version of ePub3Maker. The LodeStar 7 workflow that instructors use to create learning objects for learning management systems like Moodle, D2L and Blackboard can now be used to create interactive eBooks that follow the ePub 3 specification.

Its an exciting time — because it is a time when so many great technologies are converging.  (I hope to cover the specifics of that convergence in a future article.)

Screenshot of iBooks library

Screenshot of iBooks library

For now, here are two simple examples of eBooks created with LodeStar. Both examples are for demonstration purposes only. Download iBooks (or Gitden) into your iPad from the Apple Store.  iBooks supports ePub 3.  Then click on the links below from your iPad.

The first eBook combines text, imagery, questions and video.

The second is a demonstration of OpenStax content blended with interactive questions. Precalculus.epub



 Ted Talk



If you are pressed for time and want to walk away from this article with something immediately useful, skip to the subtopic ‘A Remembering Design Pattern’. If you are an instructor or instructional designer who is interested in the ‘bigger picture’ related to design, then please read the entire article. I would love your input.

A Basic Instructional Design Pattern

By ‘Patterns’ (the title of this journal entry), I mean instructional design patterns. I want to make the case for instructional design patterns and solicit your input.

In my last post, I began with the statement that

“Design patterns is a concept borrowed from software design. A design pattern is essentially a general solution or an approach to a common task. A design pattern serves as a template for how a problem can be solved or a task can be completed. Sophisticated programmers use design patterns.”

My pitch is that sophisticated online learning developers might want to consider adding instructional design patterns to the way we think and talk about online learning design.

The introduction of instructional design patterns into our conversation has the potential of broadening our thinking about online learning and the strategies that we use to engage students.

This article explains the reasoning behind introducing yet another jargony word into our vocabulary, explores its benefits and provides a simple example in the form of a learning object.

Why Talk about Instructional Design Patterns

One would not expect that our thinking about online learning is limited in any way. The blogosphere is filled with buzz about gamification, adaptive learning systems, big data, augmented reality, mobile learning, and more. And yet, in our experience, many online instructors are grounded by the basic challenges of the learning management system tool set and their own knowledge of productivity tools like word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software.

In our experience, instructors are concerned about getting their ‘content’ into the learning management system and aligning it with outcomes, assessments and discussions. The most popular authoring tool is PowerPoint. Productivity tools like Captivate, Articulate and iSpring that support the conversion of PowerPoint content into a format that is supported by the LMS are also extremely popular.

Periodically, we hear from instructors whose imaginations have been lit by one tool or another – which embody some strategy. VoiceThread allows students to comment and converse asynchronously about a presentation posted by the instructor or another student. Adobe Connect enables instructors to keep online office hours and extend their classroom virtually. Adobe Captivate allows instructors to record voice-over presentations. The advent of Web 2.0, which enables us to be active creators of the web, has spawned hundreds of tools, which instructors can use.

Our conversations about online and teaching have become tool-centric. Outside of the LMS tools, when an instructor finds an exciting new thing – it is usually presented as a tool rather than a strategy.

Our introduction of instructional design patterns is an effort to shift the conversation from tools to strategy. The PowerPoint to HTML conversion, for example, may involve PowerPoint, some conversion tool, Audacity (for audio editing) and video captioning but the end experience is the same for students: a presentation that students passively watch. We can add in Photoshop images, a character pack, animated characters, lip synching, and other things, but we are still left with a presentation that students passively watch. Oftentimes, we do want students to watch a presentation, but we need to expand our options on how we engage students during and after a presentation.

Instructional Design Patterns may help us do that. Instructional Design Patterns will help us to define student experiences first in a tool agnostic way. How would an instructor define the VoiceThread experience without using a ‘product’ name. What is that thing that is characterized by an instructor posting a presentation and then prompting students to respond with text, voice or video? FlipGrid is another tool that embodies a similar strategy. Is there a label that would help us categorize the two tools under the same general strategy?

If so, then we can talk about these things not in terms of products but in terms of pedagogy. Not as consumers but as instructors. Not in terms of whiz bang technology, but in terms of outcomes and relevance to students.

“A design pattern is an effective means to convey/communicate what has been learned about high-quality designs”. – Kuchana, 2004

This, of course, is ironic coming from a tool maker. Our tool, however, has always been centered on instructional strategies. The conversation about patterns is an attempt to raise the bar in what’s possible in online learning from simple strategies to complex strategies. We’re full of ideas on new templates but frankly, instructors and designers need to recognize the pattern that each template is supporting before the templates will be extensively used. A webquest template is an example But our thinking is not limited to webquests.

Strategies matched to Learning Outcomes

For each level of learning (e.g. remembering, understanding, applying, etc.) and for each type of knowledge (e.g. declarative, procedural, conceptual, problem-based) we need a list of strategies that help students with knowledge acquisition, matched to a level and type of knowledge.

Instructional Design Patterns, in our application of the concept, may include one or more strategies. In our previous post, we began to define the term.

A WebQuest, to use that example again, is an organized activity that follows a precise pattern. In making a WebQuest , we assign a task, describe a process to complete the task, a method to evaluate the task and a list of web-based resources that students can explore. Students collaborate with one another and conduct focused research. The task may involve writing, public speaking, and problem-solving. Clearly, a WebQuest is an activity that coordinates multiple strategies. Clearly, a WebQuest follows a pattern.

Webquests have entered into the vocabulary of many K12 instructors – but, in our experience, not many post-secondary instructors. There are many good examples of Webquests in post-secondary, but when I poll post-secondary faculty, not many have heard of them.

Imagine if WebQuests were part of our everyday vocabulary. A colleague or an instructor designer could suggest a WebQuest and a faculty member would instantly recognize what that meant. The activity would take time to create and time to complete. Its greatest benefit is in support of higher order thinking like analysis and synthesis. It is indeed worth the effort. But higher ed instructors need to know what it is, as well as its benefit and how to create one efficiently before they will invest the effort.

Webquests support higher order thinking.

We shouldn’t refer to the WebQuest design pattern by tool name. We should all recognize the term WebQuest, understand its teaching and learning implications, and, perhaps, enlist the help of an instructional technologist to list the top three tools that help instructors create WebQuests.

A Remembering Design Pattern

So let’s start far down the cognitive ladder. The first rung of Bloom’s taxonomy, to use one example, is ‘remembering’ or the knowledge of facts. What instructional design pattern supports “remembering”? One candidate would be the variable interval performance queue.

Variable Interval Performance Queuing has been around for a long time. I first learned about it in a hand-out on good study habits in grade school. Then I read about it in the early 90s in a book titled Computer-based Instruction, by Stephen Alessi and Stanley Trollip. (The book is now retitled as ‘Multimedia for Learning’ and is in its third edition.)

The variable interval queue design pattern presents students with questions that challenge students to recall facts. Medical terms, for example. Correctly answered questions get removed from the queue; missed questions get returned to the queue in variable intervals (i.e. spaced further and further apart).

As we play around with the concept of “Instructional Design Pattern”, one might argue that variable interval queuing represents a strategy or a methodology rather than a pattern. That is probably true — but as we discuss engaging students in increasingly sophisticated ways we definitely move out of the realm of single strategy or methodology to a complex pattern. We need to define the attributes of a design pattern carefully.

I recently viewed a graphic that showed Bloom’s taxonomy and tools matched to each level of the taxonomy. CoboCards (a Flashcard generator) was matched to ‘Remembering’, for example. Wikispaces was matched to ‘Creating’. We need a similar graphic that matches Instructional Design Patterns to the levels of learning.

But what are some activities that might be candidates for Instructional Design Patterns? We need patterns that are effective in helping students achieve outcomes, support the efficient development of activities, and are memorable in that they hold a place in our vocabulary.

I’ve already mentioned WebQuests and Variable Interval Performance Queue. The first has a catchy name and can easily enter our vocabulary; the second is effective, but sounds rather technical.

In an earlier post, I described the Decision-Making Scenario. That certainly qualifies as an instructional design pattern. The scenario follows a pattern of providing background information, presenting a problem, making available resources to help solve the problem, and comparing/contrasting the student solution to that of the expert. Read more about Decision Making Scenarios in our post found at:

There may be some approaches to online case studies that would merit inclusion into the design pattern classification.

Let’s Start Simple

A far simpler instructional design pattern than the Decision Making Scenario is what I call a Present and Check. Perhaps it is too simple — but it is worth discussing.

Recently, I spoke to an instructor who was excited about getting his presentations uploaded to YouTube and captioned. He had no plan for checking the students’ understanding. Present and Check improves on that.

In the following example, the activity follows a simple but effective pattern. The example introduces Bloom’s Taxonomy through an embedded video from the Center for Academic Success at LSU.

The activity does not end with the presentation. Students are presented with a set of instructional activities created by the University of Texas at Austen and asked to identify the correct levels of learning represented by each activity.

The activity employs an interesting strategy in that correctly answered items are removed from the queue and incorrectly answered items provide corrective feedback and are returned to the queue. Students continue through the queue until all items are answered correctly.  (Not quite variable interval performance queuing, but close.)

This latter strategy is not a necessary component of Present and Check. Also optional is the look and feel, the reporting at the end, and the reference item that appears at the bottom of the screen, titled “Bloom Info Graphic”.

Lastly, it is important to note that although this is a simple multiple choice self-assessment, the student is asked to do some analysis of the instructional activities and draw upon his/her knowledge from the presentation to make the right choice. This is better than simply embedding a video.


The Variable Interval Performance Queue, WebQuest, Decision Making Scenario, and Present and Check are all possible examples of the Instructional Design Pattern. They share the following attributes:

  • embody one or more instructional strategies

  • present a distinctive pattern of activity

  • support student learning at one or more levels

  • help us communicate evidence-based practice

We would love to hear your ideas or follow your links to other Instructional Design Patterns. It would be great to engage in discourse that is not tool-centric but centered on enhancing the ability of students to learn.