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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geolocation Storytelling

Introduction

A new form of storytelling and interactive engagement is unfolding. Location-aware storytelling enables educators to untether students from the computer and let them roam about the world freely….to hear stories and learn in new ways.

Today’s smart phone can connect to the internet and get its location from a GPS satellite. Educational apps (both native and browser-based) can read the location and display interactive content matched to the location.

The obvious applications are history and the natural sciences – but with a little ingenuity, geolocation storytelling can serve students from a broad range of disciplines.

Inspiration for a new kind of storytelling comes from a group of history enthusiasts, led by Robert Molenda. The group has taken on the name of Lens Flare Stillwater with the tagline ‘The future of Stillwater viewed through the lens of the past.’ Stillwater is a river town located on the Saint Croix River, which borders the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. To view this town through the lens of the past, the group has combined the arts of storytelling and photography with the new technology of mobile phones and geo-location-aware applications.

Robert Molenda is a retired chemist and business executive from 3M. He and a motivated group that includes John Paul Moore, John Buettner, Dick Marlow and many others, set out to tell Stillwater’s story through photography and narrative. They use the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool, which includes a geolocation-aware template called ARMaker — an abbreviation of Augmented Reality Maker.

To tell Stillwater’s story, they select historical sites of interest and related photographs from the John Runk collection of historical photographs and combine then with their own photography and narrative. They use Google maps to identify the latitude and longitude of a location, and then input that location into LodeStar. They match the location with both audio and text narrative, select the photographs and work out the details – details such as: how many sites should be included in a tour; where should the invisible geo-fence be located that triggers the display of text and graphics; and how much information is sufficient.

This is their story as told by Robert Molenda, which we hope to inspire both formal and informal educators around the world across the disciplines:

The story of Lens Flare Stillwater

LensFlare

Screenshot of Lens Flare Stillwater, a site dedicated to revealing the history of Stillwater through location-aware applications.

The idea of this project started in May of 2015 when I sent a number of ideas for Stillwater to the Mayor of Stillwater. Among the ideas was the idea for Lens Flare Stillwater.

Imagine that you are a visitor for the first time to Stillwater, standing in front of Terra Springs Apartments. The Terra Springs location is active with a geolocation marker and your smart phone knows when it is inside the “geo-fence” of that location range. When this happens, a photo of this same location at an earlier historical time, appears on your smart phone along with pertinent historical information, an audio narrative and other digital photos that are part of that location story. In this manner, you as a visitor can experience “Augmented Reality” in an active location tour of Stillwater. You can touch, feel, read, listen to information pertinent to the actual location that you are near. As you move along in Stillwater and enter other active “geo-fences” your smart phone will trigger other information pertinent to these different locations.

The theme was to use the Historical Photos of the John Runk Photo Collection with today’s digital technology to put the history of Stillwater in everyone’s pocket or purse.

That was the basis for the idea. Since that time, we applied for a grant from the Stillwater Foundation, made contact with software developers, started a web site that provides a “Virtual Reality” tour of Stillwater and were fortunate to make contact with Lodestar Learning Systems, another software developer involved with educators.

The really difficult work of software development has already been accomplished by people like Sami Jitan of Pivot the World and Robert Bilyk of LodeStar Learning Systems. The job of our team of volunteers is concentrated on providing content consistent with software design legal requirements and visitor needs.

In summary, we are taking advantage of some truly great, high quality historical images, narratives/audio and combining them with geolocation information and software to provide an “Augmented Reality” tour of Stillwater, Minnesota.

Robert Molenda

An Example

Here is an example that can be experienced from the comfort of your office or home, but is best experienced on foot and in Stillwater.

https://lodestarlearning.site44.com/Stillwater/index.htm

Note several features:

  • Responsiveness
  • Location-aware
  • Media Support

 If you can’t visit our LodeStar Learning’s hometown of Stillwater with your smart phone, do the next best thing: Shrink the browser window down to the size of a smart phone. Notice the responsiveness. Students who access your learning management system from their smart phones will appreciate LodeStar’s ability to adapt to any screen size. Click on ‘Show Map’. If you are in Stillwater looking at this map, an info window pops up when you cross a geo-fence. Play the audio on a page. View some of the John Runk Collection from one of the image sliders.

All of this functionality combines with LodeStar’s other features: branching, quizzing, interactions, SCORM conformance, and accessibility.

For related articles from past web journal articles, visit:

Augmented Reality for Educators
https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/augmented-reality-for-educators/

Mobile Learning
https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/mobile-learning/

Mobile Learning

Mobile Learning means much more than easy access to responsive educational applications from a smartphone or tablet.   It is an amazing confluence of technologies that represents a new era in technology-assisted instruction.  Researchers have a name for technologies that bring us new capabilities.  They call it affordances.  I once hated the word.  But now I embrace it. Recent advances in technology afford designers new opportunities to engage students.

New technologies bring new capabilities and help us redefine what is possible. When we had our shoulder to the wheel, working with computer-based training, floppy disks and stick figures, we looked up and saw the approach of interactive video disc players, and imagined the possibilities.  We worked with videodiscs for a time and then saw the virtue of CDROMs.  We gave up full-screen full-motion video for the ease of use of the CDROM and bought our first single speed burners for $5,000.   The CDROM gave way to the internet and the web application.  Flash based applications on the web gave way to HTML 5.  And now, the desktop is making room for the mobile app and the mobile browser experience.

We always lose something – but gain something more important in return.  New technology affords us new capabilities, new opportunities

Organization

To make best use of these capabilities, mobile learning demands that we think about old ideas in new ways.  To use a simple example to start, our current projects may have forward and back buttons that chunk the content in nice bite-sized pieces.  We recognize that chunking can be useful to learners.  But mobile users are in the habit of swiping up and down and sideways.  Content is laid out for them in one long flow or in slides.  Chunks on the screen are the result of how aggressively users swipe their fingers. It challenges us to think about organizing content in a new way.

Responsiveness

Mobile apps, whether run in a browser or natively on the mobile device’s operating system, must conform to all sorts of device shapes and sizes.  They call that form factor.  The iPhone alone comes in multiple sizes ranging from 4 to 5 ½ inches.  There are smartphones, phablets, mini-tablets and large tablets.  There are wearables and optical displays. An application may be run on anything from a multiscreen desktop configuration to the smallest smartphone.  An application may be viewed in portrait mode (vertical) or landscape (horizontal). The ability of a single application to conform to all of these display configurations is called responsiveness.  Responsively designed applications automatically size and scale the views, pick readable font sizes, layout components appropriately and provide for easy navigation.

mobile_learning

Responsive Application Created with LodeStar Learning FlowPageMaker

 

Designing Mobile Learning Experiences

But the challenge of mobile is not just in screen sizes and navigation.  It is in the appropriate design of applications pedagogically.  When we moved from computer-based training to videodisc we considered the power of full motion video and the ability of the learner to make decisions and indicate those decisions by touching the screen and causing the program to branch.  When we moved to CDROM we made use of 640 megabytes of data – which seemed massive but afforded us embedded encyclopedias and glossaries and other information and media at our fingertips.  When we moved to the web, suddenly WebQuests harnessed the full power of the internet and sent learners on inquiry-based expeditions for answers.

But what now?  What are the opportunities that mobile devices give us – in exchange for extremely small screen sizes, slower processors and slower connectivity?

Part of the answer lies in student access to resources when they are on a bus or on lunch break – spaces in their busy lives.   The more interesting answer is access to resources and guidance from environments where learning can happen: city streets, nature trails, museums, historical and geographical points of interest – in short, from outside of the classroom and the home office.

This is what mobile learning – M-Learning – is all about.  M-Learning requires much more from applications than being responsive.  They should support students being disconnected from the internet. They should support a link back to the mother ship – the institutional learning management system – once students are reconnected.  They should report on all forms of student activity.  They should report on not just quiz scores – but what students have read or accomplished or what a trained person has observed in the performance of the student.

Responsiveness is an important start – but this added ability to report remotely to a learning management system is facilitated by one of several technologies that are somewhat closely related.  You may have heard these terms or acronyms:  Tin Can, xAPI, IMS Caliper and CMI5.

To really appreciate the contributions of these standards to the full meaning of mobility, we need to do a deeper dive into the standards.  Bear with me. If you haven’t heard of these terms, please don’t be disconcerted.  They represent a tremendous new capability that goes hand-in-hand with mobile devices that is best explained by the Tin Can telephone metaphor.  If you haven’t heard of these terms, you are in good company.  We’re only on the leading edge of the M-Learning Tsunami.

Tin Can

Tin Can was the working title for a new set of specifications that will eventually change the kinds of information that instructors can collect on student performance.   To explain, let’s start with the basic learning management system.  In the system, a student takes a quiz.  The score gets reported to the grade book.  The quiz may have been generated inside the learning management system.  The student most likely logged into the system to complete the quiz.   But quizzes are just one form of assessment and no learning management system has the tools to generate the full range of assessments and activities that are possible.  Not Blackboard.  Not Moodle.  Not D2L.   Hence, these systems support the import or the integration of activities generated by third party authoring tools like Captivate, Raptivity, StoryLine, LodeStar and dozens and dozens of others.  With third-party tools, instructors can broaden the range of student engagement.  Learning management systems support tool integration through standards like Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI), IMS content packages and a set of specifications called SCORM. SCORM has been the reigning standard since the dawn of the new millennium. SCORM represents a standardized way of packaging learning content, reporting performance, and sequencing instruction.  SCORM is therefore a grouping of specifications.  Imagine packages of content that instructors can share (Shareable Content Object) and that follow standards that make them playable in all of the major learning management systems (Reference Model).

But SCORM has its limitations.  The Tin Can API is a newer specification that remedies these limitations.  A SCORM based application finds its connection (an API object) in a parent window of the application.  That’s limiting.  That means that the application has to be launched from within the learning management system. Tin Can enabled applications can be launched from any environment and can communicate remotely to a learner record store.  Imagine two tin cans linked by a string.  One tin can may be housed in a mobile application, and the other tin can in a learner record store or integrated with a learning management system.  The string is the internet.

SCORM has a defined and limited data set.  An application can report on user performance per assessment item or overall performance.  It can report on number of tries, time spent, responses to questions and dozens of other things but it is ultimately limited to a finite list of data fields.  (Only one data field allowed arbitrary data, but it was really limited in size.)

Tin Can isn’t limited in the same way. Tin Can communicates a statement composed of a noun, verb and object.  The noun is the learner.  The verb is an action.  And the object provides more information about the action.  Jill Smith read ‘Ulysses’ is a simple example.  Imagine the learner using an eBook Reader that communicates a student’s reading activity back to the school’s learner record store (housed in an LMS).  Tin Can is M-Learning’s bedfellow.  The mobile device gives students freedom of movement.  Tin Can frees students from the Learning Management System. Any environment can become a learning environment. Learning and a record of that learning can happen anywhere.          

lodestar_lrs

LodeStar Learning (LodeStar 7.2) Ability to configure an Learner Record Store Service (LRS) and Export to a Tin Can API enabled Learning Object

The next acronym, xAPI, is just the formal name for Tin Can.  Tin Can was a working title.  When I was at Allen Interactions working on ZebraZapps our team provided early comment related to this evolving specification – which became xAPI.  The eXperience API is a cool term for a cool concept, but Tin Can has stuck as a helpful metaphor.

The openness of Tin Can, however, presents its own challenge.   If one application reports on student reading performance in one way, and another application reports on a similar activity but in a different way, it is hard to aggregate the data and analyze it effectively.  It’s hard to compare apples and oranges.

IMS Caliper attempts to solve this problem.  IMS Global is the collaborative body that brought us standards for a variety of things, including learning content packages and quiz items.  IMS Caliper is a set of standards that support the analysis of data.  They define a common language for labeling learning data and measuring performance.

Which leads us to the last standard: CMI5.   CMI5 bridges Tin Can with SCORM.  Applications still benefit from the grade book and reporting infrastructure built around SCORM – but are free to connect remotely outside of the confines of the LMS — once again supporting M-Learning.

Had I written this entry a year ago, I would have found it difficult to try out various learner record stores.  Today, they abound.  The following link lists tools and providers:  http://tincanapi.com/adopters/

The following two LRS providers give you an inexpensive service in order to test out this technology for yourself.

Rustici SCORM Cloud

https://cloud.scorm.com

Saltbox Wax LRS

http://www.saltbox.com/

So what?

Now that we’re free to roam around the world, what do we do with that?  Mobile applications, even browser based mobile applications, use GPS, cell towers and WIFI to locate our phone geographically.   We can construct location-aware learning. We can guide students on independent field trips. They can collect information and complete assessments of their learning.  All of that can be shipped back to the institution through the learner record store.  Mobile devices have accelerometers and gyroscopes that help the phone detect orientation (e.g. horizontal and vertical) and the rate of rotation around the x, y and z axes.  With that we can create applications that assess the coordination of a learner in completing a task that requires manual dexterity.  Devices have cameras and microphones, both of which can be used to support rich field experiences.

The smart pedagogy for M-Learning is one that recognizes these affordances and uses them – rather than shrinking a desktop experience into a smaller form factor.

An Example

Aside from our work at LodeStar Learning and at the university, my most recent encounter with this technology came from a serendipitous meeting with a local community leader who introduced me to Pivot The World.

Pivot The World  http://www.pivottheworld.com represents an example of a good starting point.  It is a start-up company interested in working with universities, museums, cities, towns and anyone interested in revealing the full richness of a location in terms of history and cultural significance. It combines the freedom of movement of a mobile device with its ability to detect location, overlay imagery and geographical information, and match what its camera sees to a visual database to retrieve related information.   The combination of camera, maps, imagery, audio, location, and other services engage learners in a new kind of experience.

The Pivot The World founders and developers started in Palestine, have since applied their technology to a tour of Harvard University and are currently working with a volunteer group of history buffs to create a Pivot Stillwater experience in our own hometown.  At the north end of town, where there are condominiums, a simple swipe of the finger can reveal the old Stillwater Territorial Prison with elements of the prison preserved in the design of the new site.

If a university or museum wished to keep a record of student or visitor experiences with the application, then an integration with the Tin Can (xAPI) would add that dimension.  As users engaged with the content, statements of their experience could be sent to a Learner Record Store.

Conclusion

LodeStar Learning’s mission is to make these technologies and capabilities accessible to instructors. We have done that with the addition and improvement of our templates.  We have incorporated the ability to export any learner object with Tin Can capability.  Now instructors can choose between SCORM 1.2, SCORM 1.3, SCORM CLOUD, SimpleZip (for Schoology and other sites) and, most recently, TinCan 1.0.

We have improved Activity Mobile Maker and added ARMaker (for geographically located content) and FlowPageMaker for a new style of mobile design.

We’ve already gone global.  Now we’re going mobile.  We’re embracing M-Learning and all of its amazing affordances.