Geolocation Storytelling Revisited

We’ve observed an uptick in interest in Geolocation Storytelling. We’ll revisit the subject for those who know little about this medium as well as those who either want to design a project on paper (i.e. Word) or who want to go all the way and use the LodeStar Authoring tool to complete a working project.

To reach all audiences at some level, this article starts from the general and ends with the specific. Hop on and off at any point.

Introduction

Every place hides its own unique, rich story. Have you visited an unfamiliar town or area and wondered about its history,  geography, and points of interest? Have you ever wanted to connect to a place on a level deeper than a quick drive-by?

A new form of storytelling—geolocation storytelling—combines technology and traditional storytelling to connect visitors at a deeper level.  With the help of an app, the place where you’ve entered or visited on a map suddenly comes alive with narrative and imagery.  You may hear about the past or be guided to an unusual rock formation or the vantage point of a famous painter.   Geolocation stories can work on-site, guiding you from point to point or they can help you discover a place from the comfort of your home.  Geolocation stories can be both informative and entertaining.  They can involve the visitor in discovering why a place got put on the map, or solving a challenge, or even solving a murder mystery.  In short, geolocation stories can be about anything that piques the visitor’s interest about a place.

The Inspiration

Places inspire people to learn more about them.

A group of history buffs, known as Lensflare Stillwater, were inspired by the many untold stories of Stillwater, a Minnesota river town.  Stillwater was a lumber town with connections to Minnesota and Wisconsin pine lands by river and connections to Saint Paul by stage road and later by rail. 

Stillwater inspired a number of geolocation stories. The first stories were guided  tours of Stillwater’s historical downtown.   A subsequent story helped cyclists learn about the rich history from the vantage point of a bicycle trail.  Even later, another story recovered the lost memory of Stillwater’s streetcars.   

Thousands of miles from Stillwater, a geolocation project told the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s year in Arles, France, and what went horribly wrong for him.   Its authors first visited Arles to learn more about Van Gogh but were disappointed in the local tour booklets, which didn’t sufficiently tell the story. 

If your town or place has points of interest, a rich history, or geographical features, you will want to consider creating a geolocation story to help others see the place from a new point of view.  Visitors can walk to the specific places of interest and hear audio, see imagery, read text, scroll through time lines and learn more about this special place.

How it works

Typically the visitor launches a geolocation story (a web-based application) from a web address on a smartphone. The first page of the story provides instructions and a starting point. When the visitor reaches that point, she crosses an invisible geofence. Geofence is a just a metaphor. Actually, the visitor’s location is calculated from the signals of three or more satellites . Most modern smartphones are equipped with the hardware to detect these signals. Global positioning satellites constantly emit signals. The GPS receiver in the visitor’s phone listens for these signals. Once the receiver calculates its location from these satellites, it provides that information to the application. The logic of the application is constantly checking to see if the location matches a place of interest. If yes, then content in the form of audio, text and imagery is called up and presented.

Getting more specific: Best practices

If you already understand the power of the geolocation story and wish to get started, you’ll want to consider a few things.  These are not hard and fast guidelines.  As we gain more and more experience, we’ll learn about what works and what doesn’t.

  1. First, geolocation storytelling works best when the audience is on foot and out of doors.  Smartphones can’t receive satellite GPS signals from inside of buildings.  The technology works best outside with clear line-of-sight to the sky.
  2. Geolocation projects must be housed on a website that supports HTTPS.   Smartphones don’t reveal their locations to applications that run from websites that begin with http:// The web address must be https:// The ‘s’ means secure.  Information that is transported by HTTPS is encrypted in order to increase security of data transfer.  
  3. There is a limit to the distance that people will walk on a tour or the length of a tour in time.  Limit yourself to two miles completed within one hour.  Of course, this is a very loose rule of thumb.  Consider your audience when setting the limits.  Young adults will have no difficulty with 3 – 5 mile hikes.  Time and attention span, however, will remain a factor.  Senior citizens with mobility issues will find two miles too long.  The steepness of the terrain will be a factor. Use your discretion but keep it as short as possible.
  4. Some people’s interest may wane quickly.  A two mile tour should have at least a dozen points of interest.  Limit the distance and length of time between geolocation points.
  5. Present narrations in audio and text formats.  People like to hear a recorded narration but, without headphones, the narration could easily be drowned out by traffic or a rushing river. On the flipside, audio narration often works in situations (e.g. bright sun) where the screen is difficult to see. You’ll need to use your judgement.
  6. Consider the format of the tour.  Will you guide your audience from point to point or will you cluster points so that the audience will simply wander about and come upon points of interest? 
  7. Audio should be cleanly recorded.  The audience should not hear background noise or a muffled narration.
  8. Text must be spelled correctly, grammatically correct and short. 
  9. Favor more points of interest and shorter narration/text rather than fewer points of interest and narration that drones on.
  10. Have fun creating this story. You’ll learn a lot!

Get your Geolocations

Even if you’re starting with Word to capture your text, find the locations. You can use Google Maps.  This is a very accurate way of finding locations.  For example, if I wanted the location of the intersection of Myrtle and Water Streets in Stillwater, I would do the following:

  1. Go https://www.google.com/maps
  2. Search for Myrtle Street, Stillwater.
  3. Move the map to the location of interest.
  4. Click on the intersection.
  5. Either write down the location coordinates or click on them.  The coordinates will now appear in the address field at the top and can be copied and pasted into your Word document or directly onto a LodeStar page (see below).
Google Maps reveals latitude and longitude

About the Location Coordinates

In the example above the coordinates were 45.056745,-92.805510.  The first coordinate (45.056745) is the latitude.  The second coordinate is (-92.805510) is longitude.  Always use a coordinate with six digits of precision (six digits to the right of the decimal point).  The six digits will ensure an accuracy within a few inches but never rely on that.  Never create a geolocation story that relies on an accuracy of a few inches.  In our geolocation stories we trigger something (e.g. show content) when the user is within 25 to 50 feet of a location.  We call that crossing the geofence.   The minus sign is important.  In latitude, the minus sign denotes the southern hemisphere (south of the equator).  In longitude, the minus sign denotes west of the prime meridian (Greenwich) and east of the antemeridian (roughly where the international date line resides).

If you want to grab your location while physically on the spot, use your smartphone’s Google Maps app. 

Current Location Arrow in Google Maps
  1. In Google Maps, click on the arrow to show your current location.
  2. Scroll down until you find the marker and the location.  See screenshot below.
  3. Copy and paste the coordinate into your notes so that you can transfer the coordinate to LodeStar.

Getting a location from Google Maps while on site

Preparing a Geolocation Story in Word

Your role might be to prepare the content. When you’ve completed the preparation, you can hand off the content in the form of a Word file. In Word, each location should be on a separate page. At the top of each page, key in the title and the latitude and longitude coordinates of the location. Add your text, graphics, image and narration. If your version of Word doesn’t support audio narration, use a free tool like Audacity to generate an MP3 audio file.

Even More Specific: Authoring a Geolocation Story with LodeStar

To create a geolocation tour in LodeStar, do the following:

Launch LodeStar and select the ARMaker template.  (AR stands for augmented reality.)

LodeStar’s ARMaker template
  1. Title your project.  The project will now reside on your hard drive in a folder with the same title.  It will be found in the LodeStar/Projects/[your title]  directory.
  2. Add your title to the first page.
  3. Add a page by clicking on the + button at the bottom of the app.
  • Ensure that the new page is a Text Page Type.  Examine the screenshot below.  The page should have a place to enter a latitude and longitude.
  • Add your content.  You can insert a widget (e.g. Image Layout Widget), text, audio, and more.
  • Add a page to add more content.
  • Then Preview in Browser (find button at the top).
  • When you are ready to publish,  Export as a SCORM 1.3 package and import to a Learning Management System or simply copy the LodeStar/Projects/[your title]  directory to a web server.
LodeStar authoring tool with ARMaker template. Click on image to view.

Below is what this page looks like in Preview.  Notice the audio control at top left and the Show Map at the top left.   Notice the navigation buttons top right (depending on layout).  Notice the how the image slider appears, created by the PWG Image Slider Widget.

Previewing a Geolocation story

If your audience clicks on the ‘Show Map’ button, a Google Map appears with all of the locations marked with red markers.  Again, each location represents a separate page in LodeStar. 

Each location (marked by red marker) matches a LodeStar page

Controlling the User Experience

If you allow users both to show map and navigate to content by clicking on a marker, then you need not adjust project settings.    If you want to restrict users’ access to the map and/or their ability to access pages of content from the map, select Tools > Project Settings.  Change the settings according to your needs.  (The important settings are marked with arrows. See screenshot below.)

Project settings in LodeStar allow control of application

Publishing your project

As a SCORM object

If you use a Learning Management System (LMS) and want to control access to your geolocation story, then, with your project opened in LodeStar, click on Export and export to SCORM 1.3.    Go to your LMS and import the story as a SCORM object.

As a website

If you have access to a web server, copy the project folder to the web server and use the index.htm file in your URL.  Once again, location services will only work on web servers that support https://

If you don’t have access to a web server, then read the following article that explains how you can use GitHub as a web server.

https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/seven-steps-that-will-change-how-you-share-elearning/embed/#?secret=5b4inntyGg

Alternatively, you can use Site44 to convert your Dropbox folder to a published website:

See https://www.site44.com/

(We are not endorsing Site44 but LodeStar Learning has successfully used it on a number of projects.)

As an Open Education Resource (OER)

Publish the geolocation story as a web site, then register the URL (address) of that site with OER Commons, Merlot, or whatever OER repository you prefer.

 

Additional Details

If you are new to Geolocation Story-telling to learn more detail, visit:

Geolocation Storytelling: Van Gogh In Arles | LodeStar Web Journal (wordpress.com)

To see an example of a finished product as OER, visit:

https://www.oercommons.org/courses/vincent-van-gogh-s-arles/view

Or view the app at:

‎Van Gogh In Arles on the App Store (apple.com)

Conclusion

Geolocation stories are a great way to help visitors uncover the hidden wonders of place. Google Maps and the LodeStar Authoring tool are indispensable ways of authoring stories and publishing them either to Learning Management Systems or to the web.

If you complete a project, share your project. Drop a comment or drop a line to supportteam@lodestarlearning.com.

Serious eLearning: Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement

Elements of Interactivity

The Serious eLearning Manifesto challenges us to move beyond typical eLearning to the values  and principles of Serious eLearning.   One of those principles is, to quote the manifesto, ‘Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement’.  The sky is the limit in terms of what that actually means.  We know that it means something beyond page turners and roll overs.  Authoring tools offer us templates that have interactivity logic baked into the template.  The tools’ form-based interfaces allow us to provide information that feeds the template.  To do something original – outside of the constraints of a page turner presentation, or even an interaction template — requires a bit of code.  Few authoring tools allow you to realize your design fully without the knowledge and application of some basic coding.

ZebraZapps is  one of the notable exceptions.  ZebraZapps enables you to build complex interactions by wiring objects together.  A click, hover, drag or collision, for example, on one object could change the properties of another.  Dragging the earth and moon along their orbital path can cause the rise and fall of a tide graphic.  Authors connect the drag of an object constrained to a path to the height property of another object.  Expressing this relationship comes from wiring the drag event of one object to the property height of another object.  This expressiveness through the action of wiring is rare.  Most systems enable this expressiveness through language.  In other words, code.

If you google “should instructional designers learn to code” you’ll get more than 37 million results and many opinions.  My own view relates to the situation that many instructional designers find themselves in.  Whether they support a university department or mid-sized firm, they lack access to a programmer.  They are limited to what they know and how well they can work an authoring tool like Storyline or Captivate.  For them, a little knowledge of code can go a long way.  With a little knowledge, they can realize some pretty sophisticated designs.  They can do more than ‘click and present’. 

In the late 80s I was driving down a dark, country road listening to MPR.  The story was on Interactive Video.  Laserdiscs.  I was enthralled by the possibilities.  I asked my dean who was completing an advanced degree at the time in computer-based learning, what I needed to learn to control an interactive video laserdisc.  He answered “C”.  C was a programming language and his answer, which was actually incorrect, sealed my fate.  I began studying my first programming language oblivious to tools like TenCore and Course of Action (progenitor of Authorware) that afforded a much simpler way to control the laserdisc.

To finish this anecdote, I also began to study instructional design at the University of Minnesota.  At my first Wisconsin Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, I attended a pre-conference cracker barrel session.  Sitting around drinking wine were a bunch of researchers from Alberta’s Athabasca University.  I posed the question to them: “should instructional designers learn to code”.  The answer from at least one was unequivocal.  Become an instructional designer or a programmer.  You can’t do both.  There is too much to learn in either discipline.

So, I don’t necessarily take issue with that.  There is so much to learn in either discipline.  But modern authoring systems give us a way forward where we don’t have to totally geek out.  With just a few coding skills we can go long long way to realizing the serious eLearning principle:  “Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement.”

So let’s explore the basic prerequisites to interactivity.   There are three parts to this post.  First, this post discusses the relationships between computer code and this thing called interactivity.   Secondly, this video (LodeStar 9 — Elements Of Interactivity – YouTube) demonstrates a simple interaction that is made possible with the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool and its script (code) editor. Lastly, this DIY tutorial (Making your projects interactive and interesting with a little bit of code | LodeStar Help (wordpress.com)) walks through the video example step by step.

But first we need to look at ‘interactivity’ and understand where we benefit from some knowledge of coding.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto states that “We will use elearning’s unique interactive capabilities to support reflection, application, rehearsal, elaboration, contextualization, debate, evaluation, synthesization, et cetera”.   When we examine this list of strategies/activities and consider the unique interactive capabilities that will support them, we start with the following:

  • Ability to store information about the learners and their behavior.
  • Ability to offer something different and individualized based on this information.
  • Ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment that suggests an authentic (if not totally realistic) context.

That’s not an exhaustive list.  It’s a start.  It promises more than page turners and roll-overs.  Now, we need to match these capabilities with the authoring tool and the required code.

 

Ability to store information about the learners and their behavior.

Variables are used in code to store information.  The information can range from a number to a sentence to a list to a full essay.  Variables provide a human-friendly way to store and retrieve information.  They represent addresses in the computer’s memory.  As instructional designers we don’t need to know anything about those gobbledygook addresses or how the information is stored physically in the computer.  We usually need to know whether the variable is intended to store a number or a string of characters. (See Appendix A) 

So what can we store in a variable?  The answer is many things. 

  • Points scored
  • Type of question answered incorrectly
  • Number of tries
  • Learner’s journal entry
  • Bookmarked page where the learner left off
  • Much much more

In a recent eLearning program, our objective was to help the learners use LinkedIn effectively to promote their professional brand.  Their eLearning task was to help a fictitious character build up his Social Selling Index.  The index is made up of four components: brand, people, insights and relationships.  Successful completion of the activities increased the character’s brand index, people index, insights index, and relationships index.  We created four variables and, you guessed it, they were:  brand, people, insights, and relationships.  Each activity was categorized and affected one of these indices.  In other words, we increased the numerical value in the corresponding variable.

Variables included in a LodeStar authored eLearning module

This contributed to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto calls authentic context.  The performance objective was to help employees increase their SSI.  The activities in the eLearning module increased the character’s SSI.  We could have designed a presentation and a quiz.  We didn’t.  But to achieve that authentic context, we needed to store values in variables. 

To learn more about variables, complete the hands-on exercise shown in the video (mentioned above) and the accompanying tutorial.  You can download LodeStar 9 and use it at no charge to complete the exercise.  LodeStar Learning Corporation

Ability to offer something different and individualized based on this information.

In another recent project, we created a simple simulation of a workplace engagement platform.  The simulation helped guide employees through the steps of requesting feedback from their supervisor, co-worker or reports. A future simulation will be focused less on the procedural and more on the best practices of soliciting and giving feedback.  The first simulation was a post-training exercise. Our HR Director conducted the training.  The post-training exercise helped refresh participants’ memory on the basic steps.   The strategy was to add points for correct choices and subtract points for incorrect choices.  In response to wrong choices, feedback steered participants in the right direction.    A counter in the bottom left corner showed the result of correct and incorrect choices.  It was a bit of gamification but always with the intent to guide participants to the right choice.  In other words, guided practice.

So what role does code play?

This simple simulation wasn’t built from a template with some sort of pre-defined logic.  It was custom built for our purposes.  But it was a very simple construction. We began with a blank screen, uploaded screenshots and defined click/touch areas.

As a result of click, we wanted to a) add or subtract points and b) branch to a new screen or display an overlay.  We never subtracted points multiple times in response to multiple clicks on the same thing – but we always showed feedback.

Code can help us to:

  • Check if the item has been clicked before.  If no and if correct choice, add points and then branch.  If no and if not correct, subtract points and provide corrective feedback.  If yes and incorrect, increment a counter to provide another level of feedback with more urgency.
  • Store a value that enables us to check if item has been clicked.

These rules are simple.  They can be complex.  In this simple example, we use variables and conditional logic (i.e. if statements).  We also use branching, which, in this case means, display an overlay or display a new screen with hotspots and more code that gets executed when the invisible hotspot is clicked on.

A Simple eLearning Simulation

To be true to this section heading (i.e. Offer something individualized) , we could have gone further.   If the participant breezed through a scenario, we could have used conditional logic to increase the difficulty of the scenario.   If the participant stumbled through, we could have kept the level of difficulty the same (i.e. plateau).  The same tools apply: variables and if-then statements.  I’m tempted to say that this approach is simpler than trying to shoehorn a pre-programmed template to your needs.  

Ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment that suggests an authentic (if not totally realistic) context.

The screenshot below shows the beginnings of a tutorial on automatic direction finding (ADF), an older navigational method for airplane pilots.  There is just enough detail to make this panel somewhat realistic but the panel is a simple composition of ellipses, paths, rectangles and text.  The Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) is composed of these elements.  Each element can generate a click event that can result in the execution of some code.  In the screenshot we are highlighting a switch that has the id of g2423.  When this switch is clicked, with a bit of code, we can cause something to happen.   The graphical element is tied to a LodeStar branch option.  The branch option executes commands that relate to a NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) that the pilot can tune in – in this case, the audio playback of Morse Code to identify the beacon.   As I’ve heard Ethan Edwards from Allen Interactions say many times, you just need enough realism to accomplish your learning objective.  Any more and you’re wasting your time or your client’s money or both.

Automatic Direction Finding — eLearning Module

To show another example, in the video and tutorial link referenced in the conclusion, I walk through a simple example of how to make Scalable Vector Graphics interactive.  I walk through an example of a traffic light switch.   I chose this example because it is a little easier to understand than the ADF on an airplane.

A LodeStar Learning tutorial on variables, conditional statements, functions, and SVG graphics

 

Conclusion

In the pursuit of serious eLearning and meaningful interactivity, I’ve noted LodeStar’s ability to support variables, conditional statements, branch options and the ability to change the properties of objects.  Other authoring systems also support these concepts and require the author to understand the basics behind variables, conditional statements and logic in general.  Allen Learning Technologies’ ZebraZapps requires no coding – but it does require the instructional designer to think logically.  Wiring replaces code, but logical reasoning is still required.  Articulate Storyline has the concept of triggers and supports events such as clicks, hovers and drags.  Those events can be tied to property changes of Storyline’s native vector format.  Storyline also supports variables and has an easy-to-use interface for building sophisticated conditional statements.  Adobe Captivate supports the association of actions with graphics.  For example, the learner can click on a rectangle associated with an action such as show/hide and increment/decrement.   Captivate also supports an interface that can apply conditional logic to an action.  For example, a variable might keep track of slide states.  Each state can house different text.  As the learner clicks a rectangle, an ‘if’ condition displays the matching text based on the current value of the variable.   In short, Storyline and Captivate support the idea of variables, events, conditional statements and the ability to dynamically change the properties of graphics.  ZebraZapps has the same ability but without requiring a line of code. 

Whatever the authoring tools’ approach, the ability to store information about the learners, to offer something different and tailored for the learner, and the ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment relies on the instructional designer’s logical thinking and the authoring tools’ ability to store values, change course based on conditions, and modify the visual environment in some way.

These resources can help you get started.  The first two, I’ve already mentioned.  The third is a terrific resource to learn the basics of coding.

LodeStar 9 — Elements Of Interactivity – YouTube

Making your projects interactive and interesting with a little bit of code | LodeStar Help (wordpress.com)

Learn to Code – for Free | Codecademy

Appendix A

To illustrate the concept of data type in variables, examine the following table:

Name                    Rank

Joe                         11

Anna                      2

Kim                        1

In the preceding table, Kim came in first place, Anna in second, and Joe in eleventh place.    A variable stores a person’s rank.  If we interpreted the information in the variable as a number, then this would be the sorted order:

Kim     1

Anna   2

Joe       11

If we treated the variable as a string of characters, this would be the sorted order:

Kim     1

Joe       11

Anna  2

In the second case, the value stored in the variable is treated as a character.  In the computer’s character table, ‘1’ is assigned the numerical value of 49.  ‘2’ is assigned the numerical value of 50.  The computer compares the first character 1 to the first character of 2.  It looks up the character value and processes the comparison as 49 to 50.  49 is lower, therefore, the computer places 11 before 2.    But that’s practically all there is to the complexity.  Variables store information.  It matters whether we interpret the information as numbers or as characters. This is known as the data type of the variable.

Using Photospheres in Online Courses

Introduction

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I love technology but am wary of it.  As an instructional designer and toolmaker, I’m selective about the educational technologies I choose to learn and integrate into our authoring tool, LodeStar.  My basic rule is that a little investment must pay large dividends.  My second rule is that instructors and trainers should be able easily to envision how the technology will apply to student learning.

One technology in particular has tempted me down the rabbit hole in the past:  virtual reality.  Until recently, I kept away from integrating VR into LodeStar.  Now, I concede that there are solid stepping stones to instructors using VR in eLearning applications.  The investment can be small; the dividends, with the right design, could be huge. One example of a stepping stone is the ‘photosphere.’

Photospheres

The photosphere is more commonly known as the 360-degree panoramic image, VR photo, and interactive panorama. A photosphere  is essentially a 360-degree scene that is viewed through a special viewer that transforms a two-dimensional, distorted image into something magical. 

Once upon a time, photospheres were difficult, time-consuming or expensive to produce.  Instructors needed special equipment and/or software to ‘stitch’ together many photographs into one viewable image.

Today, smartphone apps step instructors through the process of taking multiple images that are automatically mapped onto a sphere.  The sphere when projected onto a two-dimensional plane looks distorted.  When shown through a viewer it offers an undistorted 360-degree view of a scene. 

The Hermitage museum is a wonderful example of the use of photospheres (panoramas) to give visitors a virtual tour of the museum. 

https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/virtual_visit/panoramas-m-1/?lng=

Now a photosphere can be created by any eLearning instructor with a dozen or so clicks.

I’ll suggest three simple ways that online instructors can get started using photospheres in their courses and conclude with a fourth, more sophisticated, example.  Each of these is illustrated in a LodeStar Learning activity found at:

https://lodestarlearning.github.io/VR-Demo/index.html

Suggestion One: Link to VR sites

An instructor can simply link to VR (360-degree panorama) sites.  Here are some examples:

Louvre
https://www.youvisit.com/tour/louvremuseum

Iceland
https://www.iceland360vr.com/map/

Rome
https://www.youvisit.com/tour/rome

Suggestion Two: Find and download images

Finding and downloading images for education is a bit of a challenge presently.  You’ll find photospheres on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, virtual tour companies, museums, and  tourist bureaus.  But, you will be hard-pressed at the moment to find photospheres in Open Education Resource (OER) repositories.  We might be a little ahead of the curve.  I suspect that, for a variety of reasons, we’ll see an uptick in educationally useful photospheres in the most popular repositories like Merlot, OER Commons, and Curriki.

In the meantime, view and download examples from the following sites.

https://www.flickr.com/vr

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Photo_Sphere

https://pixexid.com/search/360 panoramic

Suggestion Three: Use tablet or smartphone to generate an image

Photospheres are now easy to create.  As I mentioned, once upon a time, photospheres were difficult to produce.  Today, free software on a smartphone guides users by displaying dots on a screen.  The user moves the camera until a dot falls within a circle target.  The user follows the dots until a 360-degree ring of photos is created and then upwards and downwards in igloo-building fashion until all space is covered with images.  The software stitches all of the images together and produces what appears to be a distorted image when viewed without a photo sphere viewer.

Using Google Street View to Produce a Photosphere
Under the Golden Gate Bridge — a photosphere

Suggestion Four: Use Blender or other 3D software to generate a scene and render it as a photosphere

One of the more sophisticated uses of Photospheres is in creating them with 3D software.  In the early 90s when I worked with 3D software, the price tag was in the thousands of dollars.  Some complicated scenes required a room of twenty computers all working on some aspect of the image delegated to them by a rendering manager – a kind of orchestral conductor.

Today, students can download powerful software, like Blender (https://www.blender.org/),  for free.  Typically, instructors wouldn’t have the time to learn the software and build 3d models.  Some students, on the other hand, might be eager to support their teachers by learning the software and generating useful models.  Building 3D Models is a lot of fun and tremendously educational. 

In this example, I used a model produced by Marcin Lubecki.  Here is what the Blender environment looks like:

Blender 3D Software

Next I positioned a camera in the center of the kitchen.

Positioning a camera in a 3D Model created by Marcin Lubecki in Blender

Then I set the Blender tool’s rendering engine to ‘Cycles.’ I set the camera type to ‘panoramic’ and set the panorama type to ‘equirectangular’.   I then set the latitude from -90 to 90 and the longitude from -180 to 180.  I made a few more adjustments and then rendered the image.

The process renders one tile at time to produce this equirectangular projection and essentially stitches the whole thing together before your eyes. 

Rendering a model created by Marcin Lubecki

The result is in the linked LodeStar example found above.

Conclusion

This post focused mostly on finding, creating, and viewing photospheres. The first releases of LodeStar 9 will support the viewing of photospheres.  A near-future of version of LodeStar will enable instructors to add markers to a photosphere and connect the image to all of LodeStar’s branching options. 

Photospheres are easy to create.  Hopefully, in the future they will be easy to find by instructors in order to suit an instructional purpose.  One can easily imagine the applications:  virtual tours of places and items of interest in every discipline.  In a future post, I’ll tease out some of the possibilities and opportunities for the adventuresome online instructor.

Technology and Great Learning Experiences

Introduction:

As instructional designers, we understand that technology (even cool technology) can never substitute for the elemental motivations and emotions of a student engaged in a meaningful eLearning interaction.  Curiosity, exploration, challenge, suspense, resolution and revelation are all examples of experiences one strives to conjure when designing interactions.  Technology alone, once the novelty has worn off, doesn’t cut it.  Technology is just a means to an end – what researchers like to call an affordance.  Technology affords us the opportunity to create experiences that stimulate curiosity, present challenges and encourage learning.  Technology might take the form of videos, animations, audio, elaborate layouts, interactive maps, virtual worlds, and on and on.  But if it doesn’t motivate or result in an emotional experience or elicit the triumph of winning a challenge, or an ‘aha’ moment, the technology will soon leave learners cold. 

I learned that lesson from a computer game I played in the 80s.  It was called Space Quest and it was tremendously fun.  The first versions of the game were in black and white with simple graphics.  You had to solve a series of challenges to stay alive.  Those were addictive.  A group of our friends tried to solve the challenges together.  When it became too late to play any longer, our friends went home–only to return the next day.

Later versions of Space Quest began using a 256-color palette.  The graphics and animation became more colorful but often left you in this passive mode, more like watching a movie than playing an interactive game.  The first exposure to new technology was kind of exciting – but then the ‘movies’ lost their appeal. 

I think about a very exciting technology, geolocation storytelling, in the same way.  The technology is becoming more and more seductive.  Interactive maps can now feature 3D buildings, customized maps, and most recently, game objects.  You can create 3D models of dinosaurs, for example, and have them suddenly appear when you reach a location – like Central Park.  Imagine it: dinosaurs in Central Park or on the Mississippi river, for that matter.  As interesting, you can move around in real space, and see your location updated on a fictional map.  But what does this all mean to the busy instructor?

The answer is, typically, very little. Certainly, instructors and students can purchase or subscribe to off-the-shelf, ready-made products that use these technologies.  The benefits, however, will only outweigh the costs if the technology satisfies a significant instructional goal.  Often, there isn’t a good fit and that’s why I  am more interested in homespun.  I am interested in the instructor as creator and what the instructor can create.  I am more interested in how instructors can use sophisticated technology simply and get students to explore, complete a challenge or experience that ‘aha’ moment in a manner that precisely matches a course objective. 

A simple but effective example

The following example illustrates how instructors can use basic geolocation technology but avoid the pitfalls of spending time without the commensurate return on investment or not getting students to think, solve problems, explore or experience a new insight or gain a new perspective. You will need to use your imagination on how the underlying principle applies to your situation.

The example will show how you can draw on a map and relate that to content that will help students solve a problem. 

The example is inspired by Blue Zones, places where people live longer.  Blue Zones was developed by Dan Buettner whose work (e.g. AfricaQuest, MayaQuest, Blue Zones, etc.)  typically fosters the experiences that I’m discussing:  curiosity, exploration, decision-making, and problem-solving.  Visit https://www.bluezones.com/ for more information on his latest project.

To make our example come alive, I’ll choose two of the original five blue zones: Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.  In a real application, I would choose five or more locations.  Our objective is to get students to visit the sites, look around with the help of Google Street View, collect statistics, compare and contrast the information and then propose a theory of why people live longer in these zones.  Dan Buettner, of course, summarizes this information in his books, but in our hypothetical application, we want students to think for themselves

Herein lies the crux of our strategy.  We could simply present the information.  The geolocation technology would then serve as another form of page turner.  If, instead, we get students to explore, collect data and attempt to solve a problem, we have caused students to think and experience firsthand the thrill of discovery.

Please note that we’ve covered geolocation storytelling in the past.  If you’re not familiar with this technology, I encourage you to visit the links below:

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (an application)
https://www.oercommons.org/courses/vincent-van-gogh-s-arles/view

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (a mobile app)
https://apps.apple.com/us/app/van-gogh-in-arles/id1489831732?ls=1

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (an article) https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/geolocation-storytelling-van-gogh-in-arles/

Geolocation Storytelling (an article)
https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2017/05/14/geo-location-storytelling/

The Van Gogh in Arles applications supports students’ visiting Arles and discovering the places where Vincent Van Gogh lived and worked.  It also supports students’ visiting Arles from the comfort of their desks.  The example below is more like the latter.  Students do not need to visit the location.  From their desks, they explore a map, collect information and visit the locations virtually.

How it’s done

So, let’s use the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool to set this up step by step.  (Full disclosure: I have been the chief architect of LodeStar and president of LodeStar Learning for the past two decades. LodeStar Learning offers a free trial of this tool at https://www.lodestarlearning.com so that you can immediately start a geolocation project. )

For this application I chose the ARMaker template.  The ARMaker template is geolocation aware.  The technology is baked right into the template.

LodeStar eLearning Authoring Tool (Version 8.0) Template Viewer

Typically in geolocation applications, one would type in a latitude and longitude of a location and then organize the page with text, graphics, imagery, audio and/or video.  When the student visits the location or, optionally, clicks on its marker on the map, the student is presented with the content.

Content on Text Pages can be tied to geographic locations by latitude and longitude

In our application, we don’t want students jumping from the map into the content.  Rather, we want the content to display on the map. 

In other words, our first page features instructions, but the instructions are not associated with a latitude or longitude.  Because these instructions are on the first page, they display when the application launches.

A page as it appears to the instructor

So, after I chose a layout, a theme, and a background image, our application looks like this when I preview it in a browser.

A page as it appears to the student

The astute LodeStar user will immediately notice some things are different.  I used Tools > Layouts to change the layout and background image.  I used Tools > Project settings to make other changes.

In Tools > Project Settings, I hid the navigation buttons; I allowed students to see the map; and I disabled students’ clicking on a marker to jump from map to content.

Here is where a different approach comes in.  The ‘Branches’ view and screenshot below begin to reveal the strategy.  I add a page with more background detail and link to it.  In LodeStar, any text on a Text page can link to any other page.  When students click on the words ‘click here’, they are taken to an information page.

I also linked to a Long Answer page.  That is where students will input their findings and their theory and submit their work to the instructor.

Also pictured, is a Wall page and two more Text pages on Sardinia and Okinawa.  The purpose of the wall is literally to wall off content.  Walled off content can only be accessed with a link or a branch or a third method that I’ll soon reveal.

Links can take students to other pages or external URLs.

Now here comes the fun part.

The Okinawa and Sardinia pages feature pie charts created by Blue Zones that show the percentages in an Okinawan or Sardinian diet that are made up of meat, fish, and poultry; legumes; added sugar; added fats; fruits; whole grains; and dairy.   In this application, I don’t make any statements.  I simply show the percentages.  I can also supply other information such as population density, family size, pollution index, climate data, and anything else that will enable students to make educated guesses about what contributes to longevity.

In our application, I’ll mark the Blue Zones.  When students click on a blue circle, the data will pop up.

Here is how I set it up:

  1. First, I added a Geolocation widget to a text page.  (LodeStar supports a variety of widgets that can be added to Text pages.)
  2. Second, I added a circle map object and set its properties (stroke color, fill color, radius, etc.) I could also add polygons, polylines, and rectangles.
  3. Third, I assigned a latitude and longitude to the circle to locate it on the map.

The Geolocation widget allows instructors to create circles, polygons, polylines, and rectangles, and display them on a map with precise coordinates

  • Finally, I associated a click on the circle to content.  The content could be housed on any page and not only the page that houses the Geolocation widget.

Map objects can be connected to page content

As pictured below, I also added latitude and longitude coordinates to the page.  This was not absolutely necessary.  Adding the coordinates at the page level (rather than the widget level) causes the red markers to display.  In Tools > Project Settings, I disabled the markers.  Their only function is to set the bounds of the map.  In our example, the markers conveniently set the boundaries around Okinawa and Sardinia.

(In normal geolocation applications, you would create content on a page and then set the latitude and longitude to mark the location on the map.  As I’ve mentioned, when students click on the marker or walk near the location, they are transported to the page.)

Pages can be tied to red markers by latitude and longitude

Here is what it looks like when the student clicks on ‘Show Map’.

Here is what it looks like, when the student clicks on a blue circle (i.e. a Blue Zone).

Now to explore further, the student drags the icon over Sardinia, and gets this:

The student has landed into a ‘street’ view of Sardinia and can look around.  Observant students will notice the water, the fishing boat, and the uneven terrain – all of which relate to factors that contribute to long life.

Once the student has made her observations and drawn some conclusions, she can submit her information to the instructor with the help of the long answer page.

Conclusion

One could easily imagine an application that simply displays the Blue Zones on a map with information on each site.  Our hypothetical application gives students something to do.  We challenge students to solve the mystery of long life that challenged Dan Buettner and the demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain before him.   To present students with this challenge, we don’t need a degree in computer science or in art or in 3D modeling.  We need to boil things down to the essential elements of curiosity, exploration, challenge, suspense, resolution and revelation.  An instructor’s efforts should be focused on organizing the background information, the data, the locations and the assignment to make the most out of what this technology affords us as educators.  As importantly, we want the technology to bend to our educational objective–and not the other way around.

You can picture using maps, graphical objects and information in your own disciplines. When applications are set up in meaningful, problem-solving contexts in biology, geology, social sciences, history, or whatever, the possibilities are, dare I say,  boundless.

Seven Steps That Will Change How You Share eLearning

Introduction:

These steps might not rise to the level of the seven articles of the US Constitution but, hype aside, these seven steps will change how you store, version control, publish, and share your work with the eLearning community.  If you attempt these seven steps, you might get frustrated and even fail at first.   But, if you persist,  in time, you will become comfortable with the process and never do things the ‘old’ way again.

The Problem

Traditionally, instructors have worked on interactive learning activities and then published them to learning management systems like Moodle, BrightSpace and Blackboard.  The project sitting on the instructor’s hard drive lacks an easy-to-retrieve back up and the project uploaded to the  learning management system remains siloed.

By siloed, I mean that when the instructor wishes to share the project with a broader audience or register the project in learning object repositories like Merlot, OER Commons and Curriki , the problem becomes even greater.  Normally, you can’t share your project that is sitting in an LMS with an Open Educational Resources (OER) repository.  If you wish to publish to an OER repository, you must solve a number of problems:

Where does the project get stored? 

Most OER repositories are referential.  They don’t store; they reference material that is stored on the web somewhere outside the repository.  As an instructor who wishes to share with a larger community, you need a website.

How does the project get backed up? 

You need some sort of backup solution.

How does the project get versioned?

You need a version control system.  With a version control system you can revert changes,  create different versions of the same project, and much more.

How does the project get shared with other instructors? 

You must use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.  But none of these systems allows you to publish directly from their shared drives.  Creating websites from DropBox, Google Drive and OneDrive is disallowed.

One solution doesn’t address all of these problems.  You need a combination of things — or, you need GitHub.

Introducing GitHub

GitHub offers you a place to store, secure, version-control, publish and share your project with others.

GitHub allows you to publish your projects through the web and, optionally, share your project for collaboration with other instructors.

In GitHub,  you can store anything that you can create with tools like LodeStar, including learning activities, geolocation stories, interactive fiction, interactive case studies, WebQuests and eBooks – all for a nominal subscription fee payable to GitHub.

Collaboration

For more advanced users, you can invite collaborators to your project.  With the GitHub Pro plan, you can keep your authoring files private but still publish the project as a website for your students, colleagues, and OER repositories to see.   That means that your project files stay private and the public only sees the end result (the HTML).  You can keep your authoring files private and invite collaborators to help you work on the project.

What is GitHub?

GitHub has traditionally been a place for computer programmers to store, secure, manage and share versions of their code.  It has been the place for openly sharing code.

The very mechanisms that enable programmers to share their code will enable  instructors to publish their projects to the internet, and secure, store, backup and, optionally, share their work with other collaborators.   By default, under the GitHub Pro plan, projects are secure and private.  The instructor then has control over whether or not the project is published to the internet as a website.

Technically, GitHub is an open-source repository hosting service, which means cloud storage for code. That code can include projects created in LodeStar.  GitHub hosts your project and  keeps track of the various changes made to every submission or, in technical speak, commit. The service is able to do this by using git, a popular revision control system.

So GitHub is both powerful and sort of geeky sounding.  But, if instructors follow some very basic steps, they will harness the power of GitHub to store, publish, and optionally share their projects just like any computer programmer.

So how do I get started?

LodeStar 8.0 build 4 and later support GitHub.  This build is now available.

In  broad terms, you create projects such as Interactive Case Studies in LodeStar.  Each project is matched with a GitHub local repository (folder).   As the project is being developed, you export the project to the local GitHub repository.   You use GitHub Desktop to commit the project to a master and then push the project to the repository in the cloud.    When you’re ready, you publish your project to the web.

It looks like this:

2020-05-12_2149

Getting Started in Seven Steps

Step 1. Install and sign into GitHub Desktop

Download GitHub Desktop from https://desktop.github.com/

GitHub Desktop supports both Windows and Mac.

Launch GitHub Desktop and follow the initial welcome screen to sign into your GitHub account. You’ll see a “Configure Git” step, where you can set your name and email address.   Be very careful with selecting a name.  The name will appear in the web address for your projects.

Step 2. Create a new local repository

You’ll see a “Let’s get started!” view, where you will see some options, including create a new repository, or add an existing repository.

Select ‘Create a New Repository on your Hard Drive’

Remember our diagram?  You first create a local repository on your hard drive and then push the contents of that repository to the cloud.

Fill out the fields:

  • “Name” defines the name of your repository both locally and on GitHub in the cloud.
  • “Description” is an optional field that you can use to provide more information about the purpose of your project.
  • “Local path” sets the location of your repository on your computer. By default, GitHub Desktop creates a GitHub folder inside your Documents folder to store your repositories, but you can choose any location on your computer. Do not choose a LodeStar directory.   You will want to keep LodeStar projects and your repositories separate until you are ready to export.  Write down the location of the local repository.  You will need to point LodeStar to that repository in a latter step.
  • Your new local repository will be a folder inside the chosen location. For example, if you name your repository myEBook, a folder named myEBook is created inside the folder you selected for your local path.
  • Don’t worry about more advanced topics like Readme files, licensing and the ‘Ignoring files’ selection. Let’s stick to the basics.

Click Create repository.

When you have been working with GitHub for a while, you can add a new repository by selecting the ‘Add drop down menu’ to the right of the current repository.

image2

So that you can follow along, I will create a repository for the web version of the Arles Geolocation Story that I’ve written about in past blogs.

Here is what the dialog box looks like.  I’ll click on ‘Create Repository’ to create the folder.

image3

Side note. Understand GitHub Desktop

Below the menu is a bar that shows the current state of your repository in GitHub Desktop:

Current repository shows the name of the repository you’re working on. You can click Current repository to switch to a different repository in GitHub Desktop.   Pictured below is the repository I was working on before transferring my Arles project to a repository.

image4

In the screen shot above, I am working on a project named ‘CRM’.  That is the current repository that is selected.

If I clicked on the words ‘Current repository’, this is what I would see:

image5

The Arles in the listing is my Arles mobile app.  What I am about to demonstrate is the creation of a repository for my Arles Web app.   In the list are all my projects that are matched to their own local repositories.   If I wanted to work with a different local repository like Composter, I would click on its title  to make it the current local repository.

Side note.  Ignore the concept of Branch right now.

Branches is a term used in versioning systems like Git. This has nothing do with LodeStar branches.  Essentially you can clone your project and make independent changes to the clone (the branch) and the original.   For now, our current branch will always be master.  If you choose to become more skillful at using GitHub, you can learn all about branches and forks and pull requests.  But you don’t need to go there.  Making changes to the current branch labeled ‘master’ is sufficient.

image6

Step 3.  Publish Repository – but not quite yet

You will see Publish repository button on the right, but let’s leave that alone for a while.

image7

You are done with the initial set up.  Now, we’ll get into the regular flow of exporting a project and then pushing the local repository to the cloud.

 

Step 4. Set up a LodeStar project to export to the local repository

You will need LodeStar 8.0 Build 4 or later for this step.

Open an existing LodeStar project or start a new one.  Once you are in the project, select Tools > Repository Option.

In the screenshot below, I chose the directory that I created in Step Two: Create a new local repository.  In my case it is c:\git\Arles-Web but more typically it will be [username]/Documents/Git/repository name.

By selecting the repository directory, you are associating the LodeStar project with this repository.  Click on the ‘Save Repository Directory’ button.

image8

Please note: Each project is associated with its own repository directory.

Step 5: Work on your LodeStar Project then Export it to the Repository

You do not need to complete your project before exporting it to the repository.  Exporting to the repository, then pushing the changes to the cloud will serve as a backup of your project.  At this point, no one will see it but you.

Once you have done some work on your project, then select Export > Repository.

Fill in the fields and click on ‘Create Export’.

You are essentially copying your project to the local repository associated with this project.

image20

Disregard the exports directory that you see in the dialog above.  That is a more advanced topic.  The destination is the Repository Directory. You will see a confirmation that you are exporting to the repository directory in the following dialog.

image10

After the export, go to GitHub desktop.

Step 6:  View the Changes in GitHub Desktop

The Changes view in GitHub Desktop will now show all of the files in your LodeStar project.

image11

I’m not displaying all of the files in the screenshot above.  There are 189 of them.

In future exports, only the files that have changed will be listed.  The Changes view shows changes you’ve made to files in your current branch but haven’t committed to your local repository. At the bottom, you’ll also notice a box with “Summary” and “Description” text boxes and a ‘Commit to master’ button.

Type in a sentence for ‘Summary’, and a detailed explanation in ‘Description’.  Your first commit might be labelled as ‘Initial Commit’.  You can repeat that in the description or be more descriptive about the project.

Initially there are 189 files in this project, which includes all of the data files, html, css, scripts, audio files, and imagery that LodeStar manages in a project.

Again, fill in the summary and description.

image12

Click on the ‘Commit to master’ button.   This commits the files to the master branch in the local repository.  I know that I haven’t explained the concept of ‘master’,  but just know that, for our purposes, committing to the master is a good and necessary thing.

After all of the changes are processed, click on the Publish Repository button to send a copy of your local repository to the cloud.

image13

You will see this dialog:

image14

Review the name and description.  Keep the code private.  That means we are keeping the cloud version of this project private.   If you subscribe to GitHub at the Pro level, you can keep your repository private, but still publish to the web.  You cannot do this with the free version.   You must make your repository public in order to publish your web page.

Please note:  If you make your repository public, anyone can copy your project to their own.

 The Pro plan allows you to have your cake and eat it too.  You can keep your repository private, but still publish your project to the web.  In other words you can create a website from your private repository.  Specifically, you can create a public website from the master branch of your private repository.

You can create a private repository with the free plan, and then, when you are ready, upgrade the free plan to the pro plan.  (I’ll show you how at the end of this article.)   At the time of this writing, the Pro Plan is $4 per month.

Step 7:  Publish the index.html page

The index.html page is the launch page for your project.  It is currently private.

To see your project in the cloud.  Click on the ‘View on GitHub’ button as seen below.

image15

This is what you will see when you get to the cloud:

image16

Pictured above is the typical appearance of a GitHub project in the cloud repository.  It is starting to look really geeky and spooky, but don’t worry.  It’s just heads on stakes.  Ignore everything for now.  Click on Settings. Just focus on ‘Settings’.

In Settings, scroll down until you see GitHub Pages.   If you are on the Pro plan, you can now select ‘master-branch’ as the source for your GitHub Pages.  This means that Github will publish the index.html file that LodeStar automatically committed to master.  Remember, ‘master’ is good. If you’re not on the Pro plan, we’ll show you how to upgrade at the end of this article.

The publication takes a while for the first time.  The message reads:

Your site is ready to be published at https://bbilyk1234.github.io/Arles-Web/

Update:  the location is now

https://lodestarlearning.github.io/Arles-Web/index.html

 

Once the site is ready, the message will change.   The site will be slo-o-o-w the first time you access it, but that will change once Github caches your files for quicker access.

image17

How to upgrade from GitHub Free to GitHub Pro

At the time of this writing, GitHub Pro users are billed $4 per month.   With GitHub Free you can create private repositories but not publish them to the web.  You can publish public repositories, but your project can then be copied by any subscriber to GitHub.

To upgrade, log in to GitHub in the cloud at:

https://github.com

Click on the rightmost menu.  See the arrow on the far right in the picture below.  Then select ‘Settings’.

image18

Select Billing from the menu on the left, then click on the green Upgrade button.   GitHub Pro is likely all that you need.  It enables you to keep your project repositories private, but still publish them to the web.

image19

Uploading Changes

Once you’ve committed a project and uploaded it to the cloud repository, you are bound to make changes.

In my example, after I uploaded the Arles-Web project, I decided to add a link to the mobile app version.

After making changes to your project, do the following:

  1. Export to the Repository again.

image20

  • Open GitHub Desktop and make your project the current Repository.  I’ll make Arles-Web the current repository.  View the changes but be patient.  It might take a couple of minutes to place the changes in the repository.  The list of changed files will update.

image21

  • Fill in the summary and description for this commit. You do this to describe every commit.

image22

  • Click on Commit to master.
  • Now here is a new step! Click on Push origin either at the top or by clicking on the blue button.  Both are pictured below.  Technically, this is called pushing the commit to the origin.  But, basically you are copying the changed files in the local repository to the cloud repository.  If you published your project to the web in a previous step, your changes will be almost instantly published to the web.

image23

Conclusion

Seven steps will change your life.  At least it will change your approach to sharing eLearning.  You will be in control of your work like you never have before.  You will be able to safely back up your files, version control them, keep them private, publish them, share them with other instructors – all in one amazing platform, GitHub.

Once you are confident that you have mastered the basic steps, you can read dozens of articles and see dozens of YouTube tutorials on how to do the fancy stuff in GitHub.  Remember, however, that if you accomplish the seven steps, you’ve accomplished a lot.  Those seven steps alone will change how you work and interact with the eLearning community.

 

Geolocation Storytelling: Van Gogh In Arles

Introduction:

Because this is so personal, I’ll introduce myself.  I am Robert “Bob” Bilyk,  founder of LodeStar Learning.  I am passionate about the project I am about to describe and a proponent of instructional technology in general.

I recently heard an interview with Christopher Kimball, formerly of America’s Test Kitchen.  Two things he said that stuck with me: First, he described himself as being a home cook rather than a chef.  Secondly, he talked about introducing recipes to other home cooks that were slightly out of reach of their comfort zone and knowledge but not way out of reach.

My efforts are a modest version of that.  I’m interested in helping online instructors reach out and embrace new ways of interacting with their students.  I’m trying to connect to that inner instructional designer in all online teachers. And I’m trying to introduce strategies that are within reach but may require a stretch.

Geolocation storytelling is one such strategy.  It’s an incredible strategy that, I believe, is within reach of all online instructors.  Geolocation storytelling works for a broad range of disciplines: literature, history, biology, environmental studies, communications, urban planning, and on and on – wherever location is relevant. I use the term storytelling very loosely.  It can be fiction or non-fiction.

Geolocation storytelling reveals something about a location when the student visits the site either physically or virtually.   The student can see or hear the narrative on her smartphone when she physically visits a site or clicks on a map marker.

In this article I intend to share a project that I’m currently working on.  I intend to disclose the inspiration of the project, the brainstorming, and the nuts and bolts of how I am putting it all together.  It’s not completed. It truly is a work in progress.

 

Screenshot of a Geolocation project.

Screenshot of one page of a LodeStar Geolocation storytelling project situated in Arles, France, and focused on Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch painter.

 

The idea

Recently my wife and I traveled to Iceland and France.  We had several ideas in mind for geolocation stories — ideas that would match up to educational needs.  Some of our ideas turned out to be impractical because of cell phone coverage issues. But one of our ideas hit the jackpot.

The keys to a good geolocation story are a)  locations where there is a strong cellular signal b) exterior locations with line of sight to the sky for the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) signal c) a strong educational objective that is tied to location and d) somewhere to house the project like a learning management system.

For us, all of the elements came together in Arles, France.  Before arriving in Provence, in southern France where Arles is located, I imagined a GPS-guided walking tour of all the places that Vincent Van Gogh painted and sketched in Arles.  But I didn’t know whether or not it would be practical.

As it turned out, it was not only a practical idea (cell phone coverage was great and the buildings didn’t obstruct the satellite signal) but one that needed to be done.

The need

I’m sure there are dozens of guidebooks, brochures and pamphlets on Van Gogh’s Arles.  We didn’t immediately find any. The tourist office had a nicely illustrated guide in French, which we didn’t buy.  Instead,  we thought we’d start off with the obvious starting point — Fondation Vincent Van Gogh.

The mission of Fondation Vincent Van Gogh is wonderful — but it houses only a few of Van Gogh’s paintings.   If you are fresh off the train, boat or motorway, full of anticipation of all things Van Gogh, the Fondation is a bit of a disappointment.  (They do sell rubber ear erasers, however.)

We then thought of the next thing we knew.  The Yellow House!  That’s where Van Gogh stayed and painted and decorated in anticipation of the arrival of a fellow artist: Paul Gauguin.

As we soon learned, the Yellow House doesn’t exist.  We asked around. No Yellow House.

Arles is a wonderful place.  But it is difficult, at first, to make that Van Gogh connection.   If you know where to go, you’ll find panels of Van Gogh’s work at the locations where he painted some of his most famous works.  However, you need a guide to find them. Arles is a big place. The panels are helpful but you need to know something about Van Gogh to really appreciate them.

The opportunity

So here is the crux of the thing.  Van Gogh painted in locations. Location — with its people, rooted in the farms and neighborhoods, its colors, patterns, streets, trees, and flora — is an important part of the story.  As important is the perspective and knowledge of the educator. What the educator can bring to the story, superimposed on location, is the opportunity.   In our project, visitors to Arles would be guided by the story to important places and then presented with information related to the places.

The intrepid educator

I’m not a Vincent Van Gogh scholar.  In contrast, I think of the scholarship of educators with whom I have worked.  I think of educators like Dr. Carolyn Whitson, at Metropolitan State University, who recently published an eBook titled  ‘Understanding Medieval Last Judgment Art’* and I imagine what they could do with geolocation story telling. This strategy is within reach of educators like Dr. Whitson because she teaches online, she uses technology, and she has already embraced eBook technology (and other technologies) to make her text and photography accessible to a wide range of students.  (The link to her book can be found at the end of this post.)

I’m not a Van Gogh scholar, but I am an enthusiast.  Since I was a teen, I’ve been drawn to his sketches, paintings and personal life.  His ministry in the Borinage coal mining district, ‘The Potato Eaters’ and the sketch ‘Sorrow’ with its accompanying tortured love story hooked me from an early age.   His hope of renewal in Arles and the vibrancy of his paintings and the eventual devastation of his dreams and aspirations, in various ways, inspired me. I carved wood, painted, and wrote stories under the same melancholic humor as the artist.

And so it was with much enthusiasm that I approached this geolocation story-telling project.  But recognizing that I am not a Van Gogh scholar I limited myself to these few simple elements:  location, Van Gogh’s own words and paintings, photography, and (sparingly) some shared insights from an art historian, the late Jean Leymarie.   I added a few details to help bring significance to the location but kept those to a minimum.

Less is More

From an instructional perspective, less is more.  Writers like Leymarie can bring boatloads of insight to the subject, but what do the paintings and locations evoke in students?  Too much information in geolocation story telling cuts off the blood supply. The student needs to be aware of  her surroundings – with a modicum of interpretive assistance.  At several of the Arles locations, what is interesting is the contrast between the scene and the paintings.  How might students account for the contrast? In places, like the Rhone River, the scene is not nearly as interesting as the painting.  In other places, life imitated art. The hospital garden (now the library garden) and the Cafe Van Gogh had to be decorated to match the painting. In short, geolocation can be the convergence of location, media, the educator’s perspective and the students’ own thinking and imagination.

The Nuts and Bolts

The coordinates

To produce the geolocation tour of Arles, I used the ARMaker template in LodeStar 7.3.  Other tools are available that will create similar projects, but I’ll describe the tool that I designed and know.

Each page produced with the ARMaker template includes a rich text editor and geolocation fields that I’ll explain in a minute.  In the authoring tool, a page looks like this:

 

YellowHousePage

 

Note where the content sits, and where the coordinates are held.

To the student, the page will look like this:

 

yellowhousepageforstudents

 

The images that appear as thumbnails in the authoring tool are now rendered in full size in a slide viewer.  The coordinates now appear as markers on a map.

map

The student can either walk to the site and have the page content called up or, if the instructor allows, the student can simply click on a marker to bring up the content associated with the marker.

In other words, geolocation story telling can require students to visit sites or it can help organize content in a virtual tour that students can take from the comfort of the library or their homes.

In our project, we actually traveled to Arles to see the sights first hand and designed the application for a guided walking tour.  We meandered the streets, took photographs, took GPS readings, and absorbed the sights and sounds.  But a lot of this can be assembled by the instructor without leaving her office.

The GPS readings can just as accurately be obtained from Google Maps.  In the screenshot below I invoked the popup by keeping my mouse depressed on a location.

If you are interested in this approach, bring up a Google Map, click and keep your mouse button down.  If nothing pops up, click on a street away from any existing Google markers or building outlines.

The number that appears at the bottom of the popup is a coordinate.  For example 43.678610, 4.630738 means roughly 43.6 degrees latitude and 4.6 degrees longitude.   These coordinates have six numbers to the right of the decimal.  You need this level of precision so that your coordinates fall within a few feet of your target location.  Click on the coordinate and it appears at the top left of the screen, in a format that is easy to copy to your clipboard.

GoogleMap

Google map with the coordinates popup. Incidentally, La Maison Jaune is not the Yellow House and we only encountered Gilets Jaunes once and not in Arles.

 

The following is a screenshot of the LodeStar page with the coordinates pasted in. The next thing to add is proximity, which means how close do the students need to be to the location before they pass an invisible geofence that triggers the display of content.

coordinates

The content

The content can be in the form of audio, imagery, text, timelines, questions, and other assessment exercises.

In the following screenshot, the page features text and an inserted widget.  In the screenshot below, I clicked on the black sprocket. widget_sprocket , which brought up all of the widgets that can be inserted into the text.  I chose the image slider widget.

LodeStarWidgetDropDown

 

From there I could insert my images, caption them and dictate how they would be displayed – with a display list or without.

LodeStarImageWidget

 

The result could be something like this:

 

LodeStarScreenShot.png

 

Audio can be added with the help of the audio icon at the top right of a text page and the audio dialog, which supports the import of mp3 files. (Note that auto play policies in browsers prevent the auto play of sound files unless the user has interacted with the application first. Browser policies differ.)

 

audiodialog

 

Finally,  ARMaker (our template) is built on Google technology and so it supports what Google has afforded us, including the ability to map our location and mark it.  In this case, I scaled way up to a global view.  My current position is the black dot.  Arles is the red marker.  Normally, the student uses ‘My Location’ to mark how close they are to one of the locations.  The screenshot below shows that I’m 28,073,020 feet away from the nearest location, which is the Langlois Bridge, on the outskirts of Arles.  I have a bit of a walk ahead of me.

 

MyLocation

 

Google technology also allows us, in many locations, to switch to the satellite view or to drop down to the street view.

 

Satellite View

satelliteView

Satellite view of Arles

 

Street View

streetview

Street view of Place du Forum, in Arles

 

The red marker was placed on the street view by our coordinates in the LodeStar tool.  (LodeStar interacts with the Google Map.)  The white arrows and our mouse clicks enable us to navigate the streets.  In this view, we are in the Place du Forum, which was a plaza that dates back to the Roman times. We are facing the Café Van Gogh (yellow building), which was the location of a very famous and wonderful Van Gogh painting, ‘Café Terrace at Night’, that the artist described in his letter to his brother.  The second story of the Café recreates the scene of another famous painting named the Night Café.  The original site, Café de la Gare, was near the Yellow House and is now gone.

Conclusion

All of this can be housed in the instructor’s learning management system: D2L Brightspace, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Schoology, wherever.  In fact, in order for the application to be able to receive location data, it must be launched from an address that begins with HTTPS//   The ‘s’ means secure. All learning management systems use this protocol to secure student data.

So technical stuff aside, imagine the possibilities.  With the combination of location and the instructor’s perspective or prima facie information shared through text, imagery, and audio, educators can use geolocation storytelling to transport their students to another place or they can get online students out of the house and into a neighborhood location that is of scientific, social, historical or artistic interest.

Again, the possibilities are endless.

As for ‘Van Gogh in Arles’, this project will be completed and published shortly after Thanksgiving, 2019.  You won’t need to go to Arles to view it  — but I highly recommend the trip.

 

References

 

 

Online Learning Trends: Risks and Opportunities

Introduction:

Our web journal focuses on specific instructional design strategies for online learning.  But in this post, I step back and address something much more fundamental – and at risk.

Online learning has tremendous potential.  I am encouraged by faculty who really want to do a great job in their online courses and continuously strive to do better.  Chances are very good that you are in that group.  You are taking the time to read this blog and explore new ways of engaging students.

Next month I’m retiring from my position as Director of the Center for Online Learning from a state university. This gives me occasion to reflect on the eight years I’ve served in this role and on current trends.  As trends would indicate, the immediate future presents faculty with both risks and opportunities.  Faculty who are invested in quality online learning should think about the immediate future very carefully and help direct policy and best practices at their institutions that advance the state of teaching and learning in this relatively new medium.

Online learning can be an instrument of good.  But because of its technological nature, it is susceptible to scale, mechanization and bad practice. At risk, at the very least,  is the autonomy and self-determination of faculty.

In our university, faculty make the critical decisions related to their courses.  They are free to make choices related to activities, assessments, instructional materials, teaching methods and course support.  When faculty are free to decide and exercise that freedom, individually and collectively, they exercise self-determination.  With self-determination comes leveraging of faculty strengths and recognizing their own limitations;  responsibility for decisions; and substantial personal reward for success.  Self determination means faculty can apply their competency, and effect positive change in their students.

Risks to self-determination may appear in many forms.  Today, a few of the potential sources of risk include:

  • Highly competitive and large-scale online programs that discourage or eliminate fledgling entrants
  • A billion dollar Online Program Management industry that can dictate the design of courses from entrance requirements to curriculum and course design.
  • Turn-key publisher platforms that demote the decision-making of instructors

Competition, Online Program Management (OPM), and publisher resources are not inherently bad things.  I view them as risks only when they subvert faculty control. OPMs, for example,  have successfully ramped up online programs and built university enrollment.  Publisher platforms have provided course content and resources where, perhaps,  none existed.  Each of these trends, however, does impact faculty self-determination and needs to be carefully considered.

 

1024px-Adult-coding-collaborate-1181472

Photo Credit: Christina Morillo,  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain

 

The Nature of Change

The nature of change in online learning can be misleading.

Many changes in this space get hyped and then disregarded when they don’t achieve immediate, high impact.  But, then, over time they have profound, long-lasting impact.  The MOOC is a good example.  2012 was the hype year.  2013 was the year of disillusionment.   Today, MOOCS are a vital enrollment strategy for many universities.

(See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle for a definition of this phenomenon.)

In a somewhat related manner, many of the changes in the last decade happened incrementally without cataclysmic impact and disruption.  And yet eLearning is in a very different place today because of them.

The Recent Past

It is eye opening to consider just a few things that the past decade has brought to us.  I’ve intentionally omitted a deeper discussion on many things such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, eBooks, artificial intelligence, and so much more.  I’m sticking to a few basic things that have had profound impact on just about everyone.

Online enrollments have steadily increased

The Babson Survey Research Group showed us year after year that distance education enrollments continued to grow, even as overall higher education enrollments declined. Today, nationally, nearly a third of all higher education enrollments are online. (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018).

(For more on the Babson reports see: https://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html)

At our state university, nearly a third of our credits are earned by students in fully online classes.  More than forty percent of the credits are earned in either online or hybrid classes.  Most of our students take at least one online class each year.

Over the past eight years, online enrollments kept climbing as did the perception of faculty that online courses were qualitatively on par with face-to-face courses.  As more faculty became engaged in online learning, perceptions changed in favor of online learning.

Today, imagine the negative impact on your university if online enrollments were removed overnight.

Tools have become cloud-based

In addition to online enrollment increases, most of our tools today have become cloud-based.  Our IT department, in a metaphoric sense, is spread across many for-profit companies who host our learning management system, media system, collaboration tools, office applications, remote proctoring, and more.  Where you won’t easily find a cloud-based service is in how to improve teaching and learning experiences for your own students.  Universities will need to keep online pedagogy/andragogy  in their wheelhouse of expertise.

(See article that recognizes shift away from technology-focused professional development to pedagogical-focused:  https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/02/28/centers-teaching-and-learning-serve-hub-improving-teaching)

Accessibility, Mobility and Interoperability have become critical

In the past decade, legislation and compassion have demanded that we pay greater attention to accessibility for all students, including those who are visually and hearing impaired.  Our courses play on mobile devices and are adaptable to smart phones, tablets, and desktop computers.  Cloud-based services talk to one another.  The learning management system survived obsolescence by partnering with other service providers.   Our university learning management system, because of integrations with other providers, can display media from a library, check originality of student papers, remotely proctor, engage students in a discussion over a PowerPoint, and perform other services that are not innate to the platform.

It is a different world – and yet it didn’t seem to change overnight or particularly startle anyone with its abruptness.  It didn’t feel like an eruption or disruption.

The Near Future

Current trends suggest that the future won’t be any different.  It will change incrementally, but one day instructors will wonder what happened!  Related to faculty autonomy and self-determination, specifically, here are some of the critical market forces faculty should observe:

Market dominance

The annual Babson report tells us that nearly half of online students are served by five percent of higher education institutions.   Only 47 universities enroll almost one-quarter of fully online students.  Those universities will presumably have the resources to reinvest in curriculum development, instructional design, enrollment management and aggressive digital marketing.  Smaller institutions and new entrants to the marketplace may be forced out or forced to partner with each other and with external organizations in order to compete.  The challenge to faculty comes with a perceived gap between well-resourced and under-resourced programs, unnatural alliances and forced partnerships.

On a side note, the encouraging news for smaller public universities is that the majority of online students take at least one course on campus.  Most online students come from within 50 miles of campus.  Distant education is local, which means that the university can cultivate relationships with partnering two-year colleges, local employers, and community groups and market through both traditional and digital methods.

In short there is hope for smaller institutions – but only if the following are diligently and vigorously supported:

  • Strong faculty support for online development, both pedagogically and technically (instructional designers, instructional technologists, learning management specialists)
  • Strong student support (orientations, mentoring, advising, tutoring, high impact practices like first year seminar and electronic portfolio)
  • Integrated, team-based approaches to enrollment management, marketing, advising, online program development and professional development.
  • Communities of practice that encourage faculty to share best practices with one another and especially with other members of their discipline

In my opinion, the days of working in silos are numbered.  If programs are developed without market analysis and attention to enrollment/communication strategies from the start, they will not compete and will not be available to faculty and students in the future.

Instructional Design Support

In the past, the tide of instructional design has ebbed and flowed.  Today and toward the future, it is cresting.  A quick scan of Indeed.com will convince you of that. The best programs now have a phalanx of instructional designers.  My chats with educational leaders has underscored the fact that instructional designers provide university programs with a competitive advantage.

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) reports that as online learning has grown there has been an equivalent increase in demand for instructional designers in higher education institutions (Barrett, 2016).

(To learn more about OLC and the evolving field of instructional design, visit https://olc-wordpress-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2018/07/Instructional-Design-in-Higher-Education-Defining-an-Evolving-Field.pdf)

Fulfilling that demand has not been consistent across universities.   In a recent survey, fewer than half of those who taught online said they had worked with an instructional designer.  The following article provides one interesting approach to sizing the number of designers to the institution.

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/many-instructional-designers-librarians

In my opinion, we typically don’t have enough instructional designers. Designers play a critical role in helping faculty match instructional strategies to the level and type of learning and can draw from a tool chest of techniques, applications, methods and evidence-based practices.  A recent survey of instructional designers, cited by OLC, showed that 87% of respondents have masters’ degrees, and 32% have doctoral degrees.  Most higher education instructional designers provide faculty with direct support in design and professional development (Intentional Futures, 2016).  The result is increased student performance and satisfaction as evidenced by research studies on specific practices.

At our university, through extensive professional development we saw a growing body of faculty adopt the skill set of instructional designers.  We saw faculty who could critically evaluate online courses and discuss issues of course alignment, integrated course design, accessibility, student engagement and many of the issues that concern instructional designers and make a difference to students.

In the past, in instructional design and other areas of online learning, higher ed institutions failed to build their core competence.  Several sources identify the number of instructional designers employed by colleges and universities as 13,000. But, as the report from the Online Learning Consortium states, “There is still a certain mystery surrounding who instructional designers are.”

In short, instructional designers in a good relationship with faculty will strengthen the faculty’s ability to make good decisions and produce a good, impactful course.  Over time, faculty who design and develop online courses should acquire many of the skills of an instructional designer.  That can happen through seminars and workshops and communities of practice, learning circles, brown bag lunch sessions – all of it sponsored by faculty groups and the centers focused on faculty development and online learning.

Online Program Management

Wherever we have failed to build our core competence, external providers are ready to flood in and assist us at great cost to the university.

One category of external provider is the online program management company.  Online Program Management companies (OPMs) provide expertise and services in instructional design, enrollment management, digital marketing and other areas in support of online learning.  They provide the support through a number of revenue-sharing mechanisms.  An online program manager, for example, might help plan a program, design courses, produce courses and manage enrollment and marketing.  In exchange for these services, the Online Program Management company might receive revenue equivalent to 40 to 60 percent of the tuition dollars earned from the program for a contracted number of years.  A typical number is 10 years.

The following Eliterate article estimates that 27 companies currently provide Online Program Management.

https://eliterate.us/online-program-management-market-landscape-s2018/

The alternative is that there are external providers who will provide a needed service for a fee.  For example, if the university is weak in digital marketing, an external fee-for-service organization can help. In this arrangement, the university pays the fee up front but keeps the tuition revenue.  A growing number of companies provide services and then recover the fees through tuition revenue sharing – but only until the initial costs are covered.

Faculty need to be aware of all of these flavors of services because faculty are invested in the future of the university and its their autonomy that is at stake.

One of the founders of the original Online Program Management companies (but who now has a vested interest in a different business model) describes a growing dissatisfaction with the OPM revenue-sharing model:

“He compared revenue-share OPMs to the businesses in the early 2000s that built websites for millions of dollars. At the time, they were the only people who knew how to do it, but as more workers learned HTML, these companies went from ‘very valuable to pretty much out of business’ in a very short span, he said.”

Inside Higher Education, 2018

 

According to Inside Higher Ed, the bottom line is one that all faculty should recognize:

“To launch a successful online degree, institutions need expertise in instructional design, must be skilled in identifying areas where there is student demand, and must have enough funds to develop and market the program, which several sources said could cost upward of $1 million each.”

 

https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/06/04/shakeout-coming-online-program-management-companies

 Publisher Platforms

Business analysts predict that the US digital education publishing market will register a compound annual growth rate of close to 12% by 2023. (Research And Markets, 2019) The digital education business is a huge and growing market.

Online faculty can choose to use digital publisher resources for part or all of their courses.  Textbooks often come with a publisher-based online learning platform where students can engage with course material.  In many cases the publisher platform is integrated with the university learning management system.  Students log in to their university online course and seamlessly connect to the publisher resources without a second log in and in many cases with no awareness that they are accessing the publisher platform. In some cases, the reverse is true.

Key players in the U.S. digital education publishing market are Cengage Learning, Inc., Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill Education, and Pearson.

The upside to publisher platforms is that they save instructors time and that publishers are continuously improving their offerings, which, in some cases, include adaptive learning.  (McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart, for example.)  The downside is that, for some platforms, answers to quizzes and solutions to problems are discoverable on sites that students use in order to cheat on their assignments and exams.

The more insidious downside to publisher platforms is that they can lead to an instructor acquiescence to all of the critical design decisions of a course.  In some, hopefully rare, cases instructors substitute publisher PowerPoints for their own advance organizers, explanations, guiding questions, graphical illustrations, and materials that are contextualized for the specific circumstances of the students, program and environment.

As one online program manager cautions:  “Never allow publisher-made materials to be the meat of your course!“

Learning House

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive Learning has huge potential and should be continuously monitored and repeatedly evaluated – but again, the role of the faculty member should be carefully considered.

Contrasted with traditional Learning Management System content, adaptive is not a ‘one size fits all’ learning product.  Typically,  we structure topics within a learning management system in a sequence.  All students, regardless of knowledge, experience or ability move through the same sequence.  Adaptive Learning, in contrast, assesses students on what they know and what they need to learn.  Students then view or engage in the content that they need.  If students miss items or lack confidence, then the adaptive system connects them to the appropriate prerequisite skills.

Adaptive Learning solutions are available in a variety of forms.  For one, they are available as turnkey systems.  McGraw Hill’s ALEKS is a popular product that assesses and teaches math subjects that range from pre-algebra to calculus.  They are also available as open platforms in which an instructor or department can build content and sequence learning pathways that capture the prerequisite relationships between topics.  Examples of open adaptive learning systems include Acrobatiq, CogBooks, and BrightSpace LeaP™  .  Many of these platforms can be integrated with learning management systems through an interoperability standard called LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability).

(For a glimpse into adaptive learning, visit: https://campustechnology.com/articles/2019/04/24/new-frontiers-of-adaptive-learning.aspx)

Once the adaptive system has been designed/adopted and deployed, faculty need training on how to facilitate a group of students who are progressing at their own pace but still need the academic and social support of their peers and instructor.  There are many design decisions related to how an adaptive system dovetails into a course – and faculty need to be at the center of that decision-making.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources are already impacting us in so many ways.  You might be surprised to hear faculty denounce open textbooks, for example, and yet find them in your book store.  Faculty can engage with OER on so many levels.  They can find open resources cataloged in dozens of repositories such as OER Commons (https://www.oercommons.org/ ) and Merlot (https://www.merlot.org/merlot/).  They can purchase completely assembled OER-based courses from, ironically, publishers who earn more from their digital platforms than from underwriting and maintaining original content.  They can use repositories like OpenStax (https://openstax.org/ ) to find complete textbooks or sign up for a free account in OpenStax CNX (https://cnx.org/), which gives granular access to open material at the page and module level.  Finally, faculty can participate in the creation of OER by creating content, assessments, learning objects and supplementary material and posting them to a repository.  In our state, we’ve just launched Opendora (http://www.opendora.com/ ) that houses materials created by MinnState faculty.  Faculty can also participate in textbook reviews.   In other words, faculty can engage in the use of OER in many ways before even considering authoring a book and making their intellectual property freely available.

Conclusion

Current trends and practices offer support to faculty, but also have the potential of rendering instructors passive bystanders in their own courses.  The online learning space is becoming more competitive and expensive.  To many, this seems counter-intuitive. After all, online learning should be opening up new markets and it should be cheaper.  Universities can decrease their physical footprint!

The reality is that universities will either invest internally in multifaceted teams in support of strategic program development or pay outsiders to design, build and market online programs.  Potentially, instructors could be supported or sidelined.   We will either invest in instructors populating adaptive systems or purchase off-the-shelf solutions that may not, in the end, be well adapted to our learners.  We will either support rich curriculum development or populate online courses with publisher materials and, in the end, pass on the cost to students.   We will either use OER in new ways of engaging students or purchase turn-key solutions built entirely on OER.

Faculty have the greatest stake in the future direction of the university and the impact of these key trends.  Their own autonomy and academic freedom is at stake.  Faculty need to be aware of the issues and be present wherever decisions that impact curriculum development are made.

References:

Michael Feldstein’s Blog (industry observer) eLiterate
https://eliterate.us/

Phil Hill’s Blog (industry observer)
https://philonedtech.com

Wil Thalheimer’s Debunker Club (research to practice)
https://debunker.club/debunking-resources/

Online Learning Consortium
https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/

Inside Higher Ed
https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2018/04/04/are-we-giving-online-students-education-all-nuance-and-complexity

Publishing Market Research
https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/4764929/digital-education-publishing-market-in-the-us?utm_source=CI&utm_medium=PressRelease&utm_code=4lszwc&utm_campaign=1237781+-+US+Digital+Education+Publishing+Market+Report+2019+-+Increasing+Number+of+E-Learning+Enrolments+in+the+Higher+Education+Sector&utm_exec=joca220prd

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

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!