Strategies and Tools to Promote ‘Reading to Learn’ in Higher Ed


In higher education, assigned readings challenge students in ways that we may not fully anticipate: culturally, linguistically and cognitively. Assigned readings challenge students if, on any given day, students complete the assigned reading at all!

The statistics on reading compliance are disheartening but not surprising, given students’ time constraints, divided attention and the inherent challenges of reading to learn.

Readings may require a cultural literacy to understand the references or analogies. They may require a highly developed vocabulary or a specialized vocabulary. They may also demand of students a prior knowledge, or a knowledge of specific principles, rules, and concepts. Instructors depend on students to complete the readings and understand them in order to participate in class or in online discussion groups and perform well on assigned papers and projects.

In their report on “Increasing Reading Compliance of Undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods” authors Sarah Hatteberg and Kody Steffy report that “studies have shown that no more than 30 percent of students complete a reading assignment on any given day.” In their study, they evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to get students to complete the assigned reading. Most effective were 1) announced reading quizzes, and 2) mandatory reading guides and questions. Least effective were pop quizzes and optional reading guides.

Getting students to read is a first step. Getting students to understand the reading and read deeply and critically is challenging.

In higher education, one can easily take the position that we simply assign readings to students and expect them to complete the readings and understand the readings sufficiently to participate in activities. A more enlightened approach might be to prepare students with motivators, advanced organizers, inquiry style questions, practice on critical concepts, self-checks and more. In other words, we can build activities that help student derive the most benefit from assigned readings.

Motivate Students

The most critical piece to getting students to read is motivation. Instructors need to address motivation head on by answering the following questions: After completing the reading, what will students know that they didn’t before? What will they be able to do that they could not do before? What relevance is the reading to the world beyond academia? If instructors can address these questions directly, students will prioritize the reading accordingly.

I recently heard an instructor say that students regard assigned activities (including readings) as a transaction. ‘I do this; you give me points.’ Students are given loads of stuff to read and to do. Selective reading – including skimming – is a survival skill.  Reading without a perceived direct reward gets lower priority.

So we can certainly quiz students ahead of or at the start of class. But that probably doesn’t encourage deep reading. We can be selective and give some of the readings the full ‘treatment’. By that, I mean, we can underscore the importance of the reading with a personal recording pleading the case. If a problem is central to the readings, we can look for a TED Talk or a short YouTube video that introduces the problem to students.

I’ll use a recent example that I experienced. In Minnesota, we generally enjoy a high standard of living and benefit from a good educational system – but that standard of living and access to good education is not equally open to all. Currently in Minnesota, families of color have median incomes half of those of their white neighbors. In a sociology class, students might be assigned an anthology of perspectives on what it is like to live in Minnesota for a person of color. Ahead of that reading, an instructor can use headlines, video clips, testimonials and other things to ratchet up interest in the issue of economic disparity in our state.

In my experience, inattention to motivation is prevalent in online education. Instructors put up course documents on grading policy and schedule of assignments – but neglect to get their students jazzed on the significance of the course to them. Michael Allen, in his Guide to e-Learning, laments that “Although outstanding teachers do their best to motivate learners on the first day of class and continually thereafter, many e-Learning designers don’t even consider the issue of learner motivation.” He is primarily writing about corporate eLearning designers, but I would venture that the same holds true in higher education. Examine the most popular rubrics for evaluating online education. Motivation is hidden in the rubrics and its importance is overshadowed by the rubrics’ attention to the issues of alignment, organization and communication. Michael Allen’s book goes on to reveal seven magic keys to enhancing learning motivation. His first magic key relates to helping learners see how their involvement in the course will produce outcomes that they care about.

Prepare and Engage Students

Prepare students for difficult readings with pre-training. Pre-training is one of the principles of multimedia learning featured in Richard Mayer’s research (co). Ruth Colvin Clark describes it as such: “The pre-training principle is relevant in situations when trying to process the essential material in the lesson would overwhelm the learner’s cognitive system. In these situations involving complex material, it is helpful if some of the processing can be done in advance”. Assigned readings can present essential material that may induce a cognitive overload. Pre-training may involve an advance organizer, graphical chart, an infographic, glossary or other aid to reduce the cognitive challenge of a reading.

One method of engaging students in assigned readings is to help focus students on the critical parts of the reading. Inquiry-based learning provides us with strategies that help focus students’ attention on the essential parts of the reading. Inquiry-based learning has many antecedents in educational practice, but the common theme is in helping students to think in advance of the reading by posing a burning question that needs to be answered; or asking students to consider what they know about this topic and what they not know; what do they anticipate that the reading will reveal to them (and then how does the actual reading differ). Inquiry-based learning can take on multiple forms. Instructors can generate questions for the students to answer. This is the most structured level of inquiry-based learning. Students can generate their own questions based on their interest. This is the most open and purest form of inquiry. There are several shades in between. Instructors can adapt the best approach and level of inquiry based on the students’ sophistication and need. The overall goal is the same. Deliberately select strategies to prepare and engage students in the readings.

Provide Direct Instruction on Concepts

We can choose to assume that students will complete the readings and understand concepts. That may, however, be a dangerous assumption. Sarah K. Clark in her post on “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful’ assumes differently. She asks her students to create a ‘top ten’ list of important concepts. This illuminates what students judge to be important and helps to uncover misconceptions about concepts. If we accept that student understanding of key concepts is essential, we can plan activities that directly address concept learning.

A learning object can be tremendously useful in promoting concept learning. A learning object, in this sense, is simply a learning activity that is authored with the help of any one of dozens of eLearning authoring tools and uploaded to the learning management system. The activity could help students categorize the examples and non-examples of a concept. For example, the concept of a ‘chemical reaction’. A chemical reaction occurs when the chemical composition of matter changes from one thing to another. An example is found when an acid is mixed with a base, resulting in the formation of something new: water and a type of salt. Many things, however, appear to change physically, but don’t change in chemical composition. These are non-examples.

A learning object can not only help students sort out examples from non-examples but identify attributes of a concept and engage in the elaboration of a concept. The elaboration model (in instructional design parlance) starts with simple examples that can be easily categorized and progresses to more challenging examples that are more difficult to categorize. We can help students to generalize (apply the attributes of a concept to unknown cases) and not to over-generalize. The key here is direct instruction. We are not assuming that students have understood the concepts presented in a chapter in either simple or complex form, but we are engaging them with the concept and helping them to think about it.

To further promote concept learning, we can ask students to create concept maps, Frayer models (which include concept definition, association, examples, and non-examples) and create analogies in their own words.


The LodeStar eLearning authoring tool was used to create learning activities that challenged workshop participants’ understanding of declarative knowledge and concept learning based on the reading of Patricia Smith and Tillman Ragan’s book titled Instructional Design.

Use the Reading

The literature consistently refers to the strategy of ‘using the reading’. Concepts learned in a chapter can be immediately put to use in an activity that involves analysis. Students in a political science course who read about federalism versus republicanism can apply their understanding to the analysis of a case study. They can be asked to judge whether or not the case is an example of the ideology of a Jefferson style republican or Hamilton style federalist. A timeline could show the change of meaning of the concept of republicanism over the decades.

Readings are important towards understanding the content, performing well on assessments and writing papers. In some courses, the assessments, papers and projects may be summative in that they are the culminating activity and not the building activity. As an alternative, we can design shorter activities that require students to use the reading. We can ask students to cite the readings in their discussion forum. We can ask students to create timelines or concept maps from the reading. We can ask students to produce charts related to what they already knew, what they now understand and what they don’t understand. We can ask students to produce an outline of the reading …. and the list goes on. Once we have students produce something, we can provide feedback. In that way, we have engaged students in a ‘building’ activity. We are helping students to build their skills.


The key to all of this is the attitude that we are going to do something deliberate and strategic. In higher education, we can no longer put the onus on students to complete the assigned readings, understand the readings and apply the concepts and principles appropriately. Students noncompliance with reading assignments is one reason; college dropout rate is another. A variety of strategies and tools helps us in this cause. Strategies and tools range from inquiry-based learning to motivating videos to learning objects that promote understanding of concepts. Online instructors can use strategies and tools to flesh out their courses and transform them from an assigned reading/high stakes assessment paradigm to one that directly addresses student 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


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.


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.


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 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:

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

Rustici SCORM Cloud

Saltbox Wax LRS

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 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.


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.


Augmented Reality For Educators


The New Media Consortium predicts the sharply rising use of Augmented Reality (AR) in higher education over the next five years. As with any new technology, I am always interested in how AR can be made viable for busy instructors – so that a reasonable effort yields a commensurate return. I’ll introduce a prototype project that can be replicated by instructors. But first, let’s take a broad look at AR.

Augmented Reality covers a wide spectrum of applications, which is reflected in the consortium’s description of AR as “the incorporation of digital information including images, video, and audio into real-world spaces. AR aims to blend reality with the virtual environment, allowing users to interact with both physical and digital objects.” (NMC, Horizon Report, 2016 Higher Education Edition)

In this article I walk through the making of a simple AR application with the LodeStar authoring tool, which now includes the ARMaker template. Any intrepid instructor can create something similar for his or her own course.

Our use of AR fits closely with a common use that is defined by a research article that appeared in Computers and Education in March 2013, titled “Current status, opportunities and challenges of augmented reality in education”

First, AR technologies help learners engage in authentic exploration in the real world, and virtual objects such as texts, videos, and pictures are supplementary elements for learners to conduct investigations of the real-world surroundings (Dede, 2009). One of the most prevalent uses of AR is to annotate existing spaces with an overlay of location-based information (Johnson et al., 2010a).

AR supporters make claims of deeper engagement of students, connection of academic content to ‘real world’ and deeper levels of cognition. TechTarget’s definition of Augmented Reality is that it is the “integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real-time. Unlike virtual reality, which creates a totally artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it. “

You have already seen AR applications outside of education:

In watching football, you’ll notice the yellow first down line painted across the television screen. That has stuck as a useful and accepted addition to the game. Other ideas were not so well received. Fox Sports glowing, streaking hockey puck was the culmination of a $2 million R&D project that got hockey fans…well, glowing mad.

More relevantly, in education, teachers use technology to create their own “auras” around, for example, works of art that suddenly come to life when scanned with the mobile phone camera. An aura can cause music to play, or a video to show, or an animation to display. Math students can point their smart phone at an equation and watch it jump to life on the screen (Aurasma).

The QR tag is a simple form of Augmented Reality. Special QR reader apps enable museum visitors, for example, to scan a QR tag and launch a web site devoted to the art exhibit and its interpretation. JISC, formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee and now a non-profit company, describes a project in England where students scan rare manuscripts with their smart phones and have digital facsimiles appear so that they can turn the pages and get supporting videos, text and images to help them interpret the old texts.

Finally, the University of Oklahoma library created a smart phone app that guides visitors by sensing their physical location, and revealing information about nearby content resources. They placed Bluetooth beacons in strategic places. The beacons are set to transmit data at regular intervals. The smart phone receives the beacons’ unique id and as a result knows precisely where it is and what content should be displayed. Out of doors, the application uses GPS and the smart phone’s location services.

Imagining the Possibilities at a Simpler Level

I recently chatted with an environmental science professor at our university. Near our main campus we have a wonderful natural treasure called Swede Hollow. Swede Hollow is a wooded ravine at the foot of Dayton’s Bluff in East Saint Paul. Poor immigrant families settled in the hollow starting in the late 1800s. Phalen Creek once ran through it in full force. At the top of the bluff stood the Hamm’s Mansion until it burned down in the 1950s. At one end of the hollow stood the Hamm Brewery.

Swede Hollow is rich with historical, geological and natural interest. Of course, the environmental science prof had the knowledge to uncover the layers of significance of this area. We discussed a mobile application that would do just that. Students could visit the area with their cell phones and be presented with location-specific information that may not be readily apparent to the casual observer. For example, Phalen Creek is now “entombed’ in an underground tunnel that has attracted a following of urban adventurers.

The instructor has led student tours through Swede Hollow. On her tour, she mentions the changing appearance of trees during the seasons or the tunnel underneath and promises to show the imagery of urban adventurers when students return to the classroom. It is difficult to replace her personal touch with a digital application, but in terms of information and the display of digital assets, in an augmented reality application, the instructor’s expertise could be captured and presented to the students at specific locations. Students would be able to take the tour at their leisure – in a sense, asynchronously — spending more or less time at each location according to their interest. The dependency on the instructors’ availability would be removed.

About twenty miles from Swede Hollow is my home town – Stillwater, Minnesota. That’s where the story of our first prototype begins.

A working prototype

Stillwater is also rich in history, geography, plant and animal life, and politics. The same is true of many areas, and yet we pass through them at fifty miles an hour oblivious to the layers of interest that surround us or… remotely contemplate them from our computer terminal – perhaps in the context of an online learning class.

In Stillwater, we have the history of the saw mills, the bursting of a dam that sent tons of mud and debris down a ravine to reshape the downtown, the sandstone and limestone bluffs, the restoration of prairie grasses and oak savannas along the river, the wildlife, the reign of the lumber barons and the Victorian architecture. As in any area, all of this can be lost on the casual observer.

A walking tour can get us out of the car or away from the computer and into the world – aided by a smart phone and the captured knowledge of an educator like our environmental scientist.

Educators know the points of interest. Depending on their discipline, they know the civil rights history of an intercity area; they know the trees, and plants and shrubs featured in a tucked away ravine; they know the source and destination of streams. With the help of technology, they can now tell their story to all who are interested in a manner unprecedented.

Of course, education aside, Pokemon, portals and anomalies have gotten people out of their chairs and into the world. The company Niantic created Ingress and Pokemon Go to get people away from the game consoles and wandering about their neighborhood and cities in search of game features that are tied to locations through latitude and longitudinal coordinates. In the case of Pokemon Go, gamers are in search of uncaptured Pokemon that are found at specific locations. Gamers must physically go to those locations. In the case of Ingress, gamers find portals that they try to either destroy or restore. In both games, people move about with their smart phones, going to locations, causing the app to display something of interest.

In contrast, the type of interaction that we propose is simpler but rooted in the richness of a particular discipline. We propose something that instructors can create with the help of a template and a little creativity. Students are led on a guided tour of an area where they are introduced to the history or geography of that area or whatever matches the discipline. They are guided from point to point. Their instruction comes from observing the physical thing and hearing or reading about its significance or challenged to take notes and draw conclusions from their observations or any variation thereof.

In the project that we are building as a proof of concept, we explore the history of Stillwater. The City of Stillwater has already produced a walking tour. It is well done with vetted historical content and professionally produced media. Currently, visitors can access the Historic Downtown Walking Tour website and view each location from the convenience of their computers.

We propose that students travel to the location and experience all of the sights, sounds and smells of the location in addition to learning about its significance.

The current tour is concentrated in downtown Stillwater both east and west of Main street.

In our prototype, students are guided to a location and then given information on how to find the next location. In the following screen shots from the prototype, students start at the pergola by the river. Once there, they can access an audio presentation on the preservation efforts at the turn of the last century and the resulting Lowell Park. They are then guided to a mill, old freight house, caves that stored beer kegs, and more.

We created the prototype by launching LodeStar and selecting the ARMaker template.  For each page we put in the precise location with the help of Google Maps and a Google Earth overlay.  For each page, we inserted images, typed text and imported audio that was matched to the location.  In the future, you will see the results of this project.  We are awaiting  permission from the city council for this ‘proof of concept’. In the meantime, we can tell you some of the benefits and challenges of designing this prototype.


Matching content with Latitude and Longitude Coordinates with LodeStar

Lessons Learned

The theme of the Stillwater walking tour is the ingenuity of humans to eke out their livelihoods from the natural resources of the area: lumber, wheat, and beer, to name a few. The walking tour covers the triumphs and the trials of the various local businesses and enterprises. It’s a sneak peek into the past.

To date, we learned several things from creating this walking tour. We’ll list some of the more important lessons:

  • Stay out-of-doors. Accurate locations come from GPS satellites. The results indoors will vary greatly depending on the location. When GPS is unavailable, locations are achieved through other, less reliable means. Whereas the GPS signals can give us coordinates that are two or three meters off target – in other words, fairly precise – alternative means may give us imprecise coordinates, which may be dozens of meters off target.
  • Add a fudge factor. Set the location with a proximity of 40 feet. That means, when the students are within forty feet of the target, the content will display/play. 40 feet may seem like a wide radius, but once students are on a field trip and approaching landmarks, 40 feet is not a large distance at all.
  • Make it easy for students to know where the next location is. Have students follow a street or a path or a riverbank. Alternatively, give precise directions to the next stop.
  • Use text, images and audio. Video can pose a problem. Students will be connected through 3G or 4G. The data rate for 3G is 2 Megabits per second. The data rate for 4G is 20 megabits per second or higher. 10 times faster. The experience will be quite different for the two users.
  • Use simple questions to check students’ understanding at a site, with feedback.
  • Be careful of making students walk great distances without frequent points of interest.
  • Consider visual and hearing impairments when designing the application
  • Be mindful of students who can’t walk great distances. Distances are short on a map, but not in the field. Consider, an alternative, shorter tour.
  • Instruct students to first load the project website into their browser when they have a good connection to the internet so that images and audio can get cached, resulting in a better playback experience for students.
  • When producing a self-guided tour, use Google maps on the desktop to set locations with at least six digit precision. For example, 45.094156. Google maps will allow you to zoom into a location and click to set a marker. Overlay Google maps with Google Earth to know where you are and get very accurate locations. Copy the coordinates of the marker into your application. If you must walk the tour to set locations, download an app that gives you good coordinates. An example app would be LocMarker Lite, which allows you to add and record locations with six digit precision. The compass on the iPhone, conversely, gives you coordinates in degrees, minutes and seconds, which is not enough resolution. A second of latitude is 80 feet.

Why it works

When we hear, see, read, discuss and reflect upon things we are encoding information and experiences in semantically rich ways that help in the retrieval of this experience and relating it to other knowledge. We experience the moment, the sights and smells. We note the texture of the object, its placement, its size and we ponder the relationship of some newly presented content to this tree or building or river way.

Augmented Reality can also challenge us to think critically about what we are seeing. I remember when I was a boy going on a technology-assisted field trip that I will never ever forget. The technology was the orienteering compass. We moved from location to location by being given a directional bearing and a number of paces. One of the locations was a tree that was obviously diseased. We were challenged to identify the disease and then introduced to Dutch Elm disease. I had never known the devastating effects of disease on trees ….and recalled the experience later in life when our own woods were ravaged by oak wilt.


This is a first attempt at AR. We have already published the ARMaker template with the latest release of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool. You can download the trial version and immediately access the ARMaker template. Try it for your own class and give us feedback on how you designed your walking tour. Eventually, we will propose an AR assisted walking tour design pattern that reflects best practice.

Download LodeStar at   Look for the Try link at the top for the trial version.  Select the ARMaker template.

Happy exploration.

The Explore – Validate Design Pattern


As online instructors, we recognize that students benefit from interacting with content in a manner that truly makes them think.  And yet we find the task of creating interactive, meaningful content to be extremely challenging and time-consuming.

For some subject matter, interactive content that lets students manipulate the data and see different outcomes can be highly effective.  Marketing students can test the principles of the marketing mix by adjusting the amount invested in the quality of the product versus its advertising.  Civil engineering students might control the amount of ammonia in a wastewater treatment pond or the food to microorganism ratio.  Sociology students might explore the consequences of unequal distribution of wealth.  Health care students might explore the implementation variables of chronic care management.

To tease out the benefit of interactive content, let’s find a good example.  Suppose we pick the principles of composting.  That seems like an odd place to start, but we all understand composting at some level. How would an online instructor design an interactive lesson on composting that is effective and teaches the underlying principles?

Composting is bug farming.  Effective composting results from the right combination of carbon and nitrogen-rich material, water, and heat.  Students can learn composting by doing, but that might take weeks and without careful measurements and some guidance, they may not come to understand the underlying relationships and their effect.  They can learn from a handbook that teaches procedures,  or from a science text that teaches principles.  In either case their readings  may or may not lead to real understanding.

In contrast, in an online environment, the principles of composting can be taught through interactive models.  Students could be presented with an interactive model and challenged to generate the most compost in the shortest period of time.  In response, student might add more carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves to the compost.  Or change the moisture content.  Or change the ambient temperature.  Once students tweaked and played with the parameters, their instructor could assess their understanding – do they truly understand the relationships, the principles, the cause and effect — and then invite students to apply their knowledge to building a compost of their own.

As mentioned, students could follow the procedures of composting without understanding the underlying principles.  Students could recite textbook statements without really thinking about them. Online instructors must constantly ask the question:  how much thinking are my students actually doing in my course.  Not reading.  Not quizzing.  Not reciting.   But thinking.

When we write about time-worn concepts such as interactivity and engagement, that is what we are driving at.  Interactive engagement affords us the opportunity to get students to think.   Discussions, projects, group projects, online examinations can certainly challenge students to think, but how can we, without computer programming knowledge, facilitate interactive engagement between students and the content in a manner alluded to above and in a manner that fosters curiosity, promotes genuine interest in the content and puzzles students?

The Explore – Validate Design Pattern

The Explore – Validate Design Pattern gets students to think.  It is a form of interactive engagement that has, as one element, intense student-to-content interaction.

Interaction is a key word in online learning. Successful, effective online learning happens through students interacting with each other, their instructor and the course content.  Each type of interaction demands of the instructor special skills and intention.  With respect to student to student and student to instructor interaction, instructors can draw from their ability to foster interpersonal communications.  Good teachers know how to facilitate group discussions and engage students in Socratic dialog.  Although instructors must learn how to adapt their strategies to an online environment,  many of them have a good starting place. The third type of interaction, however, student-to-content, may arguably be the most challenging for instructors new to online learning.

Not all student-to-content interactions are equal. At the lowest level, passive eLearning involves very little interaction. Clicking buttons to page through content does not constitute interaction.  Clicking through a presentation on composting, for example, constitutes a very low level of interaction.  A higher level of student-to-content interaction might involve multimedia in the form of animations and video, drag and drop exercises and other basic forms of interaction.  A moderate level of interaction might involve scenarios, branched instruction,  personalized learning, case studies, decision making and the instructional design patterns that have been the basis of our past web journal articles.   The highest and most technical level of interaction might involve virtual reality, immersive games, simulations, augmented reality and more.

That said, the highest level of interactivity is not necessarily the best level for students. Interaction is essential insofar as it helps students achieve a cognitive goal, whether that relates to remembering, understanding, or applying. Interactions are useful only if they help students remember better, or understand a concept or a principle or apply their learning. One can’t categorically say that fully immerse interactive games are better than animated videos or drag and drop interactions. If the objective is that students will remember essential medical terms, then a fully immersive environment may hinder that accomplishment. Richard Mayer refers to extraneous processing. Extraneous processing is the attention that the learner must give to features of the learning environment that do not contribute to learning goal achievement.  If extraneous processing is too high then it impedes the student’s ability to focus on relevant information.

How it works

Considering the type of learning that students must activate is critical in determining whether or not instructors should plan on higher levels of interaction. In my second example, students are introduced to Isle Royale. Students examine data related to the wolf and moose population. They must draw inferences on how the rise and decline of one population affects the other. If this were a declarative knowledge lesson, students would simply need to recite the critical facts. How many moose were introduced to Isle Royale? How many wolves? What are the population numbers today? What were they at any given point? Students can simply recite those numbers without understanding the true nature of the interaction between the wolf and moose population on the island. The real objective of the lesson is to understand feedback loops in ecological systems. Students arrive at this understanding not by reading facts and figures, but by asking what-if questions and manipulating the inputs on a simple simulation.

Asking what-if questions is an inductive approach.  Rather than being given a description of a law, for example, or a principle or concept, students infer the needed information from a simulation or a set of examples.

The deductive approach is the opposite.  Perhaps an overly negative view is that instructors who use a deductive approach simply state a principle or concept.  All of the students’ cognitive work is in listening and, perhaps, taking good notes.

Faculty may be skeptical or wary of inductive learning. It takes considerable time to set up; it seems less efficient. Conversely, in my experience, faculty commonly engage students in deductive learning. The instructor presents on and explains a concept. Students take notes. Lectures are often characterized by the deductive learning approach.

The inductive method makes use of student inferences. Instead of explaining concepts, the instructor presents students with a model or examples that embody the concept. The student manipulates inputs and ‘infers’ what the underlying rules are.

Instructors who are critical of inductive approaches fear that students will make incorrect inferences. In my experience, inductive learning is more challenging to facilitate.  It is easier to state facts than to set up examples for students to infer facts.  Especially, given the hazard that students could infer the wrong facts.

In recognition of this, the instructional design pattern called Explore and Validate features a check-for-understanding activity. Explore and Validate is one form of interactive engagement.

An example

Explore and Validate offers an environment in which students manipulate models or examine examples, draw inferences and check their understanding in some manner in order to validate their conclusions.

For example, students may read cases in which victims express feelings toward their oppressors.   In a deductive approach, the instructor can simply define the Stockholm syndrome.   The instructor may explain that hostages afflicted with this syndrome express feelings of empathy toward their captors.  An assessment might ask students to define Stockholm syndrome.  An inductive approach might involve students with reading brief summaries of cases in which they “notice” that the victims become empathetic or sympathetic toward their oppressors.  Students can describe the syndrome, offer explanations and even label the syndrome.  The instructor would then contrast the students’ descriptions with a more formalized, clinical description.  The first part of the activity is the explore phase.  The second part is the validate phase.

In our example below, students are told about Isle Royale.  In the early 1900s moose swam to Isle Royale from Minnesota.  50 years later a pair of wolves crossed an ice bridge to the island from Canada.  In a lesson designed with the Explore-Validate instructional design pattern, an optional strategy is to ask students to think about and predict the outcome of a given scenario.  In this example, what happens when a pair of wolves are introduced to an island with a finite number of moose.  Students might conclude that the moose population would eventually be annihilated – but that is not what happened historically.  As the students contrast their original predictions with the simulation results, they may be struck by the difference between their prediction and the simulation results. As I’ve written many times before, this is cognitive dissonance – and when applied correctly may stimulate learning. When applied correctly, students will say ‘I didn’t know that“ and want to probe more.  When applied incorrectly, students will simply be overwhelmed and shut down.

The key exploration in the moose-wolf example is with a model.  The model was generated by Scott Fortmann-Roe with a tool called InsightMaker.  InsightMaker is a free simulation and modeling tool.  It is easy to use and yet powerful.  It is cloud-based and works with the LodeStar authoring tool as either embedded content or linked content.   Models created with InsightMaker can be used to promote critical thinking in students.  The model can expose input parameters as sliders.  Students can change the value of an input and see the change in the output after they click on the ‘Simulate’ button.  InsightMaker is made up stocks, variables, flows, converters and more.  Stocks are simply containers for values such as population.  Variables can hold values such as birth rate, death rate and interest rate.  Flows are rules that can perform arithmetic operations on variables and affect the value in stocks. Students can click on the flow affecting the value of a stock and see the rules.  They can explore all of the relationships.  In the case of a feedback loop where the output is combined with the input to affect a new output, students can study the relationships and gain insight into dynamic systems.   Instructors can also simulate the spread of diseases through populations.  They can control the probability of infection and the degree to which the population can migrate away from the infected.  They can control the length of infection and the transition to a recovered state.  The instructor can model one person and then generate a population of such persons.

Models are an excellent way to engage students – to get them to explore, to ask what-if questions and notice patterns.   In public health, students can change the parameters of specific disease like the Zika virus.  In economics, students can increase supply or demand.  In engineering, students can work on wind resistance models.

With the LodeStar authoring tool, instructors can link to or embed an InsightMaker model.  They can then insert a series of questions to check students’ understanding and provide feedback.  The link below shows a simple example of the Isle Royale model and the Explore-Validate pattern.



Screenshot of an activity built with the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool and the ActivityMaker (Mobile) template



We have been listening to students. The way they describe their online learning experience seems pretty humdrum.  Instructors don’t need to rely on publishers to create stimulating interactive lessons.  They can take matter into their own hands with tools like InsightMaker.  InsightMaker fulfills the Explore part of the activity.  LodeStar fulfills the Validate phase.



Problem – Based Learning


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

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

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

The shift from course-centric to student-centric curriculum

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

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

Problem-based learning as a student-centered constructivist intervention

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

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

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

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

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

Can Suminoe Oysters Save Chesapeake Bay?

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

The Galapagos

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

Why it works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I create it

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of Problem-based learning scenario created with LodeStar


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

Additional Resources

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

Situational Challenges


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

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

An example

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

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

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

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

Another example

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

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

A simpler example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content + Content + Content + Assessment


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

One alternative is to design in this way.

Content + Application + Assessment

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

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

Application + Assessment
(supported by Content)


How do I create it?

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

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


LodeStar authoring tool, editing links to internal page

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

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


A screenshot of LodeStar activity on a Smartphone



A live link to first example

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



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

A live link to second example


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

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








Gamification and the Progressive Challenge Design Pattern


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

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


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


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

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

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

Why should it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I create it?

Start off with a narrative.

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

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

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

Present a challenge

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

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

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

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

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

Give immediate feedback

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

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

Show indicator of progress

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

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

One goal with multiple paths

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


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

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

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

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

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

Version One:


Version Two:


The LodeStar template that I used was ActivityMaker.

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

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

Post Note

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

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


Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers

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