Short Sims

Introduction

Some of us aren’t content with simply presenting information in a linear fashion in an online course.  We have dozens of words to express what we wish to achieve: interactive, game-like, thought-provoking, challenging, problem-based….   We are also hard-pressed to find the time or the budget or the design that will fulfill our highest aspirations for eLearning. 

It’s easy to get discouraged – but occasionally we’re offered a strategy that works within our budget and time constraints.  One such strategy is the basis of  Clark Aldrich’s recent book, “Short Sims” (Aldrich, C. (2020). Short sims: A game changer. Boca Raton: CRC Press.)  

In his book, Clark Aldrich discusses the methodology of the short simulation.  He begins by lauding the virtues of interactivity.  Interactivity allows learners to experiment, customize their experience, role-play, make decisions and apply skills. He writes that game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  We all recognize that.  Short Sims, on the other hand, can be built in the “same time frame as linear content”.  Short Sims engage students in making decisions, doing things, meeting challenges, solving problems, learning from mistakes and so forth.  Essentially Short Sims offer us a strategy – a methodology – to do things differently and more effectively.

The hook comes from this excerpt: 

“From a pedagogical perspective, the more interactivity the better.  Connecting user action with feedback has long been proven to be critical for most neuron connections”. 

Aldrich, 2020

Aldrich credits the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology for that insight.  But again, in Aldrich’s words, “game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  It is time-consuming.”  Aldrich offers a new Short Sim methodology as an antidote to linear-style presentation the death-by-PowerPoint approach.

Short Sims

                Show, not tell

                Engage learners quickly and are re-playable

                Are quick to build and easy to update

Short Sims square with the Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback model that we’ve heard so much about from Dr. Michael Allen, Ethan Edwards and the designers at Allen Interactions.  They are a solution to M. David Merrill’s lament that so much learning material is shovelware.  ShortSims are not shovelware.  They are a cost-effective means of engaging students.

Quite frankly, the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool was made for the Short Sim.  Instructors have used LodeStar for years to produce Short Sims but never used that term.  We called them Simple Sims, which sometimes included decision-making scenarios, interactive case studies, problem-based learning and levelled challenges.  We solved the same problem.  We made it easy for instructors to create Short Sims quickly. 

Our design methodology has a lot in common with Aldrich’s methodology as described in his book.   The following ten points outline our approach to creating a simple decision-making scenario, which, in our view, is one form of Simple Sim.  To avoid mischaracterizing Aldrich’s methodology, I’ll use our own terms in this outline.

  1. Select Challenge
  2. Pick Context, Pick Problem
  3. Determine the Happy Path
  4. Determine Problems and Challenges
  5. Pick a setting – background graphic
  6. Choose a character set
  7. Produce the Happy Path
  8. Add the common problems and challenges
  9. Add Branches
  10. Add Randomness                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Select Challenge

Selecting the right problem and the right scope is, in itself, a challenge for the instructor or trainer.  Straightforward processes that present clear consequences for each decision are easy to simulate.   Processes like strategic planning that are influenced by dozens of variables are much more difficult.   The Short Sim methodology itself would be good candidate for a Short Sim.  Another example would be the backwards design method of instructional design.  In my early days at Metro State, a decade ago, we discussed the backwards design approach with instructors.   We then used a Short Sim to rehearse instructors on the key questions to ask during each phase of the backwards design process.  We based a lot of our thinking on Dee Fink’s “Creating Significant Learning Experiences” and  Grant Wiggins’ “Understanding By Design”.  Our objective was to help instructors design with the end in mind.  In Backwards Design, outcomes and assessments come before the development of activities.   The Short Sim did the trick.  Planning instruction is complicated business.  A simple and short simulation is not, in itself, transformative.  But we just wanted assurance that instructors understood the basic principles of backward design by the decisions they made.

Pick Context and Problem

In the Backwards Design example, a dean asks an instructor to design an online class to help K12 teachers use educational technology in their classrooms.  So, in this context, the learner is playing the role of online course designer.  The learner is challenged to make the right decisions at the right time.  If the learner holds off on designing activities until completing an analysis, defining outcomes and creating assessments, then the learner succeeds in the challenge.

Determine the Happy Path

The happy path is all the right decisions in the right order.  Situational Analysis -> Learner Outcomes -> Assessments -> Activities -> Transfer.  It is all of the right answers with no distractors.  It’s like creating a multiple choice test with only one option: the correct answer.

Determine Problems and Challenges

Now come the distractors.  What are the common pitfalls to Backward Design?  What might tempt the learner to go astray.  If we were designing a Short Sim on the Short Sim methodology, the pits and snares might be what Aldrich calls the Time Sucks:  choosing the wrong authoring tool, too many decision-makers on the project, custom art, and so on.  The learner might be tempted with “the medium is the message.  Invest in the medium.  Commission a graphic artist to create a compelling interface.”  The point of Short Sims is to not invest heavily in artwork or graphic design.  The focus is more on describing the context, presenting choices to the learner, and showing the consequence of learner choices.

Pick a Setting

A background photo helps to set the context.  Images that display settings without people can be found on sites like Pexels, Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain section of stock image services and, of course, on stock image sites. Because one image often suffices in a short sim, authors can snap their own photos and not waste too much time.

Alternatively, vector artwork can serve as an effective background.  Vector art can be found and  downloaded from such sites as https://publicdomainvectors.org/.    (LodeStar Learning doesn’t endorse any of these sites – but we have used them all.)

In either case, if the scene is relevant to the learning context and not just a vain attempt to gamify, it might actually contribute to content retention and recall. 

Choose a character set

A popular approach to Short Sims is the use of cutout characters with different poses and expressions.  Cutout characters can be photo-realistic images with transparent backgrounds or illustrations.  To see examples, please google ‘elearning interactive case studies’, select ‘images’ and you’ll see thousands of examples.  Despite their popularity, finding cutout characters cheaply can be frustrating.  Several authoring tools offer a built-in catalog of characters.  These tools tend to be expensive.  Many stock photo sites offer character packs but usually one must subscribe to these sites for a monthly charge.  Some sites offer pay-as-you-go services, meaning that you pay for the character pack once, without signing on to a monthly subscription.  The character pack can be as cheap as $4.  One such site is eLearning Templates for Course Developers – eLearningchips.  A complete character pack purchased from eLearningChips with more than 137 poses costs as little as $54. No subscription.  No additional fee.  (Again, we’re not endorsing eLearningChips, but we have used their service.)

Produce the Happy Path

With the LodeStar authoring tool, we had several options for producing the Happy Path.  We used the ActivityMaker template and, after the title page, added a sequence of Interview Pages.  The ActivityMaker template offers a range of page types. The Interview Page is one of them.  In an Interview Page, we dropped in a character and filled in the best choice.  We didn’t concern ourselves with the distractors (the wrong options) quite yet.  Again, we were focused on the Happy Path.

Here is the author view:

Authoring a short sim happy path

Here is what the student sees:

A short sim happy path

Add the common problems and challenges

Once we sorted out the happy path – a sequence of perfect, well-informed choices, we thought about the pits and snares—the problems and challenges.

In our course design example, a common problem is that we think too early about the content–that is, what topics should the course cover.  We anticipated those problems when designing our Short Sim.  If a learner unwittingly falls into our trap, we have the opportunity of providing feedback. It’s a teachable moment.

A short sim

An alternative to the Interview Page type is the Text Page.  In a text page, we can add images and widgets.  These give us a bit more flexibility than the Interview Page Type.  On a Text page, we can add an image (left or right aligned), then a Text Layout Widget.  Here you can see the page with image and the Text Layout widget.  The image was composed in our SVG editor. 

Authoring View

Here is what the student sees.

Student View of a LodeStar Activity

Add Branches

In one sense, a branch is a place where we get sent based on our decisions.  If this were a customer service sim and we made poor choices, the customer would appear more and more irritated and ultimately we lose his or her business.  Programmatically, the place where we get sent is a page that shows an irate customer and choices that represent a difficult situation.  The branches could lead us down a path of destruction but we may also have the opportunity of winning back the customer’s trust with a string of good decisions. 

Branching adds variety to the sim.  It gives us a customized experience or allows us safely to ‘test’ bad choices.

Branching can also be viewed as the consequence of a decision or choice.  In LodeStar, branch options include going to the next page, last page or jumping to a page.  They also include bringing up a web resource, adding an instructive overlay, setting a variable value, etc.  It could also mean the execution of a script or series of commands to make a lot of things happen simultaneously, such as setting a variable (that tracks our failings), sending us down a path, changing the image of a happy customer to an unhappy one, showing feedback, marking the choice with red, and more.

It’s probably most effective to show the learners the natural consequence of their decisions–an unhappy customer for example.  As designers, we might also need to be explicit and display feedback, or introduce a coach who provides feedback.  As Clark Aldrich writes, the sign of a good Short Sim is one that is played over and over again.  Branching helps us make the sim a different experience each time.

LodeStar Branching options

Add Randomness (optional)

Randomness might be difficult to achieve and should, therefore, be considered optional.

Randomness is more than randomizing distractors.  (Randomizing distractors happens automatically on an Interview Page.  It’s done through a simple checkbox in a Text Layout widget.)  More sophisticated randomness might include a randomly generated sum of money, or a randomly selected path or scene, or randomly generated assets that are assigned to the learner.  It might be a randomly generated length of fuse that represents the customer’s patience.   In our course design example, it might be randomly generated student characteristics that include age, gender, and subject interest.  That level of randomness is best achieved with the help of LodeStar’s scripting language and is best left to its own article.

Conclusion

Short Sims represent a level of interactivity that goes beyond the linear presentation of information.  They have the potential of promoting learner retention and application.  With the right tool (and there are plenty),  everyone can build short simulations.  One tool, LodeStar, was designed from the very start with the short simulation and the intrepid instructor in mind.  Short Sims may vary in sophistication and design but, in any form, they cause learners to think and to see the consequence of their actions.  The short sim is a strategy that is doable and repeatable within our budgets and time constraints.  Make it happen in your world!

Serious eLearning: Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement

Elements of Interactivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ability to store information about the learners and their behavior.

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

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

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

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

Variables included in a LodeStar authored eLearning module

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

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

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

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

So what role does code play?

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

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

Code can help us to:

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

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

A Simple eLearning Simulation

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

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

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

Automatic Direction Finding — eLearning Module

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

LodeStar 9 — Elements Of Interactivity – YouTube

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

Learn to Code – for Free | Codecademy

Appendix A

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

Name                    Rank

Joe                         11

Anna                      2

Kim                        1

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

Kim     1

Anna   2

Joe       11

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

Kim     1

Joe       11

Anna  2

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

10 Techniques to Engage Students

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

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

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

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

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

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

Introduction

The LodeStar eLearning authoring tool offers a range of templates that help instructors build online activities. The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of templates is the ActivityMaker template. If you wish to get a good sense of what ActivityMaker can do, visit our post at https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/12-ways-to-engage-students-with-elearning-authoring-tools/

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

#1: Link to other pages in a project

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

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

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

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

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

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

#2: Link to an overlay

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

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

#3: Make Use of the Page Options

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

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

Pages with audio look like this:

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

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

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

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4: Use Page Branching to Differentiate Instruction

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

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

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

#5: Use Video to Bring a Project to Life

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

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

LodeStar supports three important forms of video.

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

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

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

#6: Use Flashcards to Help Students Remember

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

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

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

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

In previous articles, we introduced the concept of instructional design patterns. If you missed the articles, start with https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/instructional-design-patterns/

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

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

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

http://aripd.org/journals/ijn/Vol_1_No_1_June_2014/4.pdf

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

#8: Use eBooks (epub 3)

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

https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/open-textbooks-and-epub/

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

#9: Jazz up your Activities with Themes and Layouts

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

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

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

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

#10: Infographics

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

Here is the typical infographic:

http://elearninginfographics.com/elearning-statistics-2014-infographic/b

Here is one more to look at.

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

www.lodestarlearning.com/samples/Ten_Trends_Infographic/index.htm

Conclusion

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