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.



10 Techniques to Engage Students

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

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

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

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

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

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


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

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

#1: Link to other pages in a project

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

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

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

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

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

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

#2: Link to an overlay

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

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

#3: Make Use of the Page Options

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

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

Pages with audio look like this:

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

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

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

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4: Use Page Branching to Differentiate Instruction

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

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

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

#5: Use Video to Bring a Project to Life

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

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

LodeStar supports three important forms of video.

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

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

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

#6: Use Flashcards to Help Students Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#8: Use eBooks (epub 3)

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

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

#9: Jazz up your Activities with Themes and Layouts

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

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

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

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

#10: Infographics

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

Here is the typical infographic:

Here is one more to look at.

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


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