The Humble Variable

Introduction

Instructional Designers are skilled at using text, media and graphics to help meet learner objectives.  But design often extends beyond the visible into the functional.  Designs might require tracking user performance, branching to an appropriate level of instruction, saving state, and creating highly individualized, interactive, learning experiences.

At the root of this functionality is the humble variable.  Understanding the variable and all of its implications in a learning design may seem a little out of reach of instructional designers.  That seems like programming…and programming is the domain of specialists like programmers or instructional technologists who know and, perhaps, even enjoy things like mathematics and logic.

But most instructors and many designers don’t have such specialists as a resource.  With a little knowledge, designers can expand their designs on their own and create better experiences for learners.

The Variable

As a start, there are some basic things about the variable that all instructional designers should know – some basic things that will help designers think about their designs more clearly.

First, a bit of unlearning.

We learned about the variable in elementary school.  We were asked to solve for x, given this type of equation.

6 + x = 10;

‘x’ was a challenge.  You had to manipulate things in your head like  x = 10 – 6.  You needed to learn about the dark art of algebra.

And so, something as arcane as this

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produced the graph below if you repeatedly plugged in a number for t, solved for x and scaled up the result:

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Probably not the traditional domain of instructional designers.

But, in instructional design, the variable isn’t a problem to solve.  It’s a tool.  It’s a tool like text and graphics and media.  And you can start simple.

The use of variables gives us the ability to save state (remember things like user performance on a question item) and to branch (go down one learning pathway versus another) and to evaluate performance (were the right things chosen and in the right order, perhaps).

So powerful is the variable that all major eLearning authoring systems not only use variables internally but give the author access to them.

Down below is a screenshot from Storyline, a popular authoring tool.    The author of a game is tracking how many correct answers the learner achieved (correctcounter), whether or not the learner has achieved a fail condition (fail), and other things not pictured here like whether or not the learner has attempted the question once, twice or three times, the overall score and the number of seconds on the timer (timer).

The variable is a storage place.   Some people like to use the analogy of a bucket – a place to dump data into.  I like the analogy of a mailbox.  The mailbox has both an address and a place to store stuff. Like a mailbox, variables have an address in computer memory; they have an easy name that we can use to refer to that place in memory; and they store a value. That storage place can typically hold numerical values, characters (as in a name) or true/false states.  There are fancy names for all these things like integers, floats, strings and booleans – but we are only concerned about basic things such as the value being stored as a number, set of characters or true/false.

Numbers versus characters versus true or false matter because they take up different amounts of computer memory, they enforce the type of data that is stored in the variable so that coding mistakes aren’t inadvertently made, and they are stored differently in the bowels of the computer.

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The following screenshots also hint at another division between variables.  The first screenshot that follows shows user variables.  User variables, in this case, store information about the student name and id.

User Variables in Captivate

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In the next screenshot, system variables store program settings related to movie control.

System Variables in Captivate

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There is also another category often referred to as the user-defined or custom variable, not shown here.  In most programs, if you wanted to track something special, you would create your own variable.   For example, if I gave the learner a choice of tools to select in order to complete a task and wanted to track which tool was selected, I could create a variable called ‘toolSelected’ and assign the variable a value.

For example, toolSelected = ‘caliper’

Or, optionally, I could assign a number to the variable, as in  toolSelected = 1

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Alternatively, I could create a variable called ‘caliperSelected’ and set it to true or false. Or I could create a variable called ‘toolsSelected’ and in this case, set it to:

toolsSelected = “caliper; nippers”

In short, I have options.

So with that we are straying dangerously close to the wheelhouse of the computer programmer.  But for the instructional designer, what is important is an affordance — a capability.  We could give our learner a task and have the learner collect the appropriate tools.  Just knowing that variables can hold a bunch of values gives us a strategy to think about.  What if we placed learners in a situation where they could gather things to use in a problem-solving situation?  Thinking about variables and their capacity to store can inform our thinking – and give us a strategy or a way to accomplish our objective.

Let’s take this a bit further.

Conditional Statements

In my next example, I will use a custom variable and apply it to some branching logic.   In order to understand the example, we’ve already looked at the variable.  Now let’s look at some logic.  Branching logic can be achieved by either a conditional statement like one finds in Microsoft Excel or, in the example that follows, a ‘Gate’

Let’s think about logic.

In the spreadsheet below, we have scores in column B.  The logic is that if the score in column B is greater than 49, then the text in column C will show ‘Pass’.  Else, column C will show ‘Fail’

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The gobbly-gook language part of this, looks like:

=IF(B3 > 49, “Pass”, “Fail”)

B3 is the cell that lies at the intersection of column B and row 3.   So, if you can think of the first part inside of the parentheses as a condition, the second part is a value if the condition is true, and the third part is a value if the condition is false, then the gobbly gook reads like this:

If the condition is true, show “true”, else show “false”.

The condition:  is the value in B3 larger than 49?  If yes, show ‘Pass’; else if no, show ‘Fail’.

eLearning authoring systems present different ways of using the same type of logic.  You can imagine a branching scenario.  If the learner score is greater than 80, proceed down the ‘enrichment’ path.  If not, proceed down the ‘remedial’ path.   Branching is just a series of else if statements, like the one shown on the spreadsheet.

So now, let’s show an example that combines the use of the variable and some branching logic.

An Example

In the following example, we’ll introduce LodeStar 8 (which will be released soon).    In the activity, I will show 6 animals.  3 of the animals are critically endangered.

The object of the lesson is for students to understand what critically endangered means and, given some data,  to be able to identify some animals that are examples of critically endangered species.

Identifying the critically endangered is actually highly technical, involving numbers, habitat area, habitat fragmentation, number of generations and so forth.  Let’s say, for the sake of our example, that we presented students with all of that information and then asked them to select the animals that are critically endangered.

If students correctly select a critically endangered species, they will earn 2 points.  Selecting an endangered species subtracts 1 point.  Selecting a vulnerable species subtracts 2 points.

Out of the six animals, three are critically endangered.  The best score is therefore 6.

Here is a screenshot of LodeStar 8 and the ActivityMaker template, which we used in our example.

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A screenshot of LodeStar 8, due to be released March 2020

ActivityMaker supports different page types.  I’ll select the “Text” page type.  This page type supports text, imagery, SVG graphics, and widgets.  (We’ll talk about widgets soon.)

On the first page, I’ll add six images and a page heading.

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Produced with LodeStar 8 ActivityMaker Template

Adding Branch Options to Images

First, to assign a Branch Option to an image, I click on the image and select the branch icon.  The branch icon is used throughout LodeStar.  (Please note:  You can only add branching logic to an image once it is loaded and appears on the page.)

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The Branch Option dictates what happens when a question is answered correctly or incorrectly, when a page is displayed, when a gate is reached and so forth.  In this case, the branch icon controls what happens when an image is selected.  There is a selected branch option and a deselected branch option.  This is new to LodeStar 8.

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To start, I load the image, select a scalable size (in percentage) and then click on OK.  I then click on the image and re-open the dialog box.

I click on the ‘Selected’ Branch for the Sumatran Rhino and launch the branch dialog.

I then set the Branch Option to ‘Append Value’ and fill in the variable name, which is ‘score’ and a value that will be appended to the variable, which is the value of 2.

Appended, in this case, means that 2 will be added to whatever the value that the variable ‘score’ is currently storing.    Essentially this:

Score = Score + 2

Meaning

The new value of score is assigned the old value of score + 2.

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For deselected, the opposite is true.

score = score +  (-2);

Or

-2 will be appended to score, which is the same as

score = score – 2;

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I then want to present the option for students to evaluate their selections.  I type in text ‘Check Answer’, highlight it, and then select the ‘Insert Link’ tool in the HTML editor.

LodeStar’s HTML editor is unlike any other editor.   The ‘Insert Link’ dialog presents multiple options including the ability to link to one of the LodeStar pages.  The Pages (UID) dropdown displays all of the available pages.  If the author forgets to give a page a human-friendly name, then only the computer-friendly UID number is shown.  In the screenshot below, you can see both.

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When the student clicks on ‘Check Answer’ they will jump to the ‘Evaluate’ page and see an Embedded Variable widget displayed on the page.

The purpose of the Embedded Variable widget is to display the values of variables.    The widget dialog is launched by clicking on the sprocket icon as pictured.  (Remember, the LodeStar HTML editor is not your everyday brand of HTML editor.)

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Insert a widget on a page

The widget dialog presents a menu of different widgets.

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Widgets enable authors to embed timelines, word problems, questions, drag and drop, and other items on a Text Page

The author inserts the ‘Embedded Variable’ widget wherever s/he wishes to display variables and then types in the following:

Your ability to identify critically endangered species ranks {score} out of 6.

‘score’ is a variable name.  It holds a value (the student performance).  When the student sees this sentence, they will see the value and not the variable name.  If the variable has not been initialized (given a starting value), they will see ‘undefined’.

I also added two links:  ‘Start Your Journey’ and ‘Go back’.

Students can go back and attempt to improve their scores or they can move on.    The ‘Start Your Journey’ links to the ‘Gate 1’ page.  The ‘Go back’ links to the page with the animals.   The following diagram, found under ‘Branches’ on the left side, shows the branching connections from the Evaluate page to the preceding page and from the Evaluate page to the Gate. (I’ll explain gates in a second.)

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The Branches view

The following screenshot shows the ‘Embedded Variable’ widget editor.   Variables that have been used elsewhere in the program need only curly braces {} to be used.  Variables that don’t exist can be declared here.  (They can hold the result of expressions written in JavaScript, which is a more advanced concept.)   ‘score’ was used on an earlier page and, so, it can simply be referenced with the curly braces.

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Again, the two links on the page cause the learner either to move forward to the gate or backward to the animals.

Finally, we have the ‘Gate’, which is a LodeStar page type.  We use the gate in this case to branch the student.  If the student scored 5 or above, then we follow the ‘Pass Branch Options’.  If the student scored lower than 5 then we follow the ‘Fail Branch Options’.  ‘Pass’ and ‘Fail’ might not be appropriate terms, but students never see these terms.  They just imply one branch if the condition evaluates to true and another branch if the condition evaluates to false.

The condition is:

Pass only if Score Is >=  5

The variable that holds the score is the variable named ‘score’.  The variable name can be anything.  The author simply checks ‘Use Custom Score’ and identifies which variable will be used in the condition, as pictured below.

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The following two screens show the two branch options.  The ‘Pass’ option is set to ‘Jump to Page’ to a page that is titled ‘Enrichment’.  The ‘Fail’ option is set to ‘Jump to Page’ to a page that is titled ‘Remedial’.

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The following screenshot shows a page labeled ‘Enrichment’.  Notice the ‘Page ID’?  The Page Id was used in the gate.  This represents the start of a whole series of pages that represent the enrichment sequence. Similarly, there is a remedial page, the start to a series of pages that represent the remedial sequence.

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Here is what the ‘fail’ branch dialog looks like.

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When I click on the ‘Gate’ in the Branches view (as opposed to Pages view on the left side) and filter out the other pages, I can see the following.  Gate 1 branches to either ‘Enrichment’ or ‘Remedial’.  If I check off the filter I will see all of the branches for all of the pages, which gets to be a bit overwhelming.

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More Complex Scenario-based Learning

So far, we are making the learner do something.  We then store their performance in a variable called ‘score’.  We use the value of the variable to branch in one direction if the score is low and in another direction if the score meets or exceeds a number.

That is a very basic building block.  It’s like Legos.  A Lego® brick is a simple thing, but Lego® bricks can be combined to form ever more complex shapes.  So too in eLearning.

As a culminating example, let me describe a project we recently completed.  The basic strategy of storing values in variables was used in a highly interactive learning module that we created to teach the topic of using LinkedIn in for business development.

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With the use of variables, we were able to track learner performance through four Social Sales Index (SSI) measures: brand, people, insights, and relationships.  If learners acquire the skills to improve their SSI index through the learning module, then they can apply that directly to LinkedIn and see tangible results.

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In the learning module, behind the scenes, there are four variables, each matched to an SSI metric.  As learners expand their LinkedIn network, respond appropriately to notifications, build their profile, etc. etc. they increase their SSI.  Each activity is tied to one of the variables.

The Function

We started with the humble variable, and then saw it used in branching logic.  Variables are also frequently used with functions.

A function is a group of instructions used by programming languages to return a single result or a set of results or simply to do something.

Because LodeStar automatically tallies student-earned points and reports performance to the learning management system, in our example, we use functions to override that behavior by setting the user score and total score to our SSI metrics or to anything we want.

Let’s look at functions in general, and then at how our example uses them.

As mentioned, the function either does something or gives you are result based on some input.  In LodeStar, functions are just something you use rather than define.  But if you looked at a function from a programmer’s point of view, it would look like the following function named addValues.  (functions are often named in this way, with the first letter lower cased.)

function addValues(value1, value2){

            sum = value1 + value2;

            return sum;

}

‘value1’ and ‘value2’ are inputs (or arguments, in technical speak)

The body of the function falls inside the curly braces {}.  The body of the function adds the two inputs and spits out a result — a return value.  Notice how we assign the sum of ‘value1’ and ‘value2’ to a variable?

Our use of a function is simpler.  We don’t need to define functions.  That work has been done for us.  We just need to use them.  We need two functions to override the default behavior of LodeStar.  As mentioned, the default behavior is that LodeStar automatically tallies up the student performance points in all of the different question types and reports that to the learning management system.  But we don’t want that.  We want to report the SSI score.

A perfect SSI score is 100, so that becomes the total score.  The sum of brand, people, insights, and relationships becomes the user score.

We use the function named setCustomUserScore(value) to set the user score.  We use setCustomTotalScore(value) to set the total score.

Once we do that, all of the module’s learning activities are tied to this real-world performance measure.  Finally, and most, importantly, all of the activities simulate real-world LinkedIn actions.

Conclusion

So, for our project, it all started with the humble variable.  We asked how does LinkedIn measure proficiency.  The answer is the SSI index.  We then asked how would we capture the learner’s performance in an SSI metric.  The answer is four variables named brand, people, insights and relationships.  We then asked how could we bring up different types of content in the form of notifications, messages and so forth.  The answer was in the use of variables and some conditional logic.  Finally, how would we report the SSI index to the learning management system.  The answer was….the function.

Instructional Designers traditionally think about text, graphics, audio and other types of media.  These elements alone lead to very linear designs.  The addition of variables, logic, and functions frees up our designs from the constraints of these linear models and allows us to add variability, surprise, realism and other things that enrich the learning experience.

So, start simple.

Visual Design for eLearning

Introduction

In eLearning, good visual design is yet another challenge.  As instructors, we want our interactive lessons to look good – but we aren’t trained in layout and graphic design.  In many of my own projects, I’ve relied on graphic designers – but often I’ve had to make do with my own limited skills.  I’ve learned a couple of things over the years and am happy to share what little I know – more as a starting than an ending point.

Let’s begin with the premise that we want our pages to be visually appealing to students.  Of course, more importantly, we want our pages and layouts to support our instructional objectives.  We want things to look good and function well.  At the very least, we don’t want our design to distract the students or confuse them.

Fortunately, visual design is a combination of art and science.   We can draw from a body of knowledge that is evidence-based and not as subjective as we might imagine.

To describe visual design, I can start with the basic concepts of  flow, color, style, reading order, consistency, contrast and structure.

When in doubt, simplify

Whenever I’m in any doubt about visual design, I think about the art gallery.  In most galleries, the walls don’t compete with the art work.  Plain walls.  Open spaces. Strategically lit rooms.  The labels and interpretive text are positioned so the information is easily associated with the art work. The label doesn’t compete and isn’t crammed.  The text is printed in high contrast to the background.  I can move easily from piece to piece all around the room and then onto the next.  The flow is well thought out.

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Tufts University Art Gallery

Our interactive lessons can be designed similarly.  Text can be cleanly separated  from imagery – with an adequate margin between text and image.  Margins can provide clean separation of the other page elements. The page background can be selected to not compete or distract from the lesson.  The developer can be intentional about guiding the eye from one thing to the next.

Or not

Or sometimes, for effect, we can do the exact opposite.  Agitate, provoke, move students out of their comfort zones.  But, in either case, visual design requires intentionality.

Visual flow

Screen elements have different visual weights or powers of attraction based on the size, color, and even shape.  Unusual things attract the student’s attention.

Instructors should decide where students should look first.  If one element is larger than the others, students’ eyes might be drawn there.  If all elements are in black and white but there is a splash of color somewhere on the page, the student’s eye will go there.  We’ve known these things for some time, but recently, usability labs have provided us with eye tracking sensors, which produce heat maps. Heat maps graphically display how people look at a software screen, for example, and which elements they look at. Areas that attract the most attention appear in hot red.

From usability studies and from age-old observation, we know that visual designs have an entry point. We need to plan or consider where that entry point might be.

We also know that visual designs can have unintended exit points. As an example, hyperlinks can be hugely counterproductive to visual flow control.  For good reason, we think of hyperlinked information as being highly useful to students (another resource) but they introduce the risk of students losing the flow, being distracted, perhaps never returning to the lesson.

If our visual design is a simple text page, our job is easier.  We can use headings, sub-headings, text wrapped around images as well as size, italics and color to signal very important information.  If a page is a free-form layout, we need to plan visual flow more carefully.  In that planning, we need to note that the eye is attracted to color, strong contrasts, and follows along thick lines or elements that are composed in a way that suggests directionality.

Color

Color can be used to direct the eye and to attract the student’s eye to key information.  Richard Mayer, in his book Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Press, 2001), describes the signaling principle.  The signaling principle states that people learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.  Instructors can use color to provide that cue, but color-blind students will not benefit.  Multiple cues are needed to highlight essential material.  Italics for example.

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Color used sparingly to draw the eye.  Layout created by Clint Clarkson

I’ve always been cautious of the ‘circus’ effect of too many colors.  One color will clearly signal important information or draw the student’s attention if s/he is not color blind.  Two and three colors can be used effectively.  Introducing more colors leans toward a circus effect, where color ceases to attract attention.  Graphic design sites describe a 60-30-10 rule, which states that:

The dominant color should be used 60% of the time, your secondary color 30% of the time, and an accent color 10% of the time. Typically, the most dominant color should also remain the least saturated color, while your bold or highly saturated accent color should be saved for your most important content.

http://www.eyequant.com/blog/2013/06/27/capturing-user-attention-with-color

 Style

Style may be the most fickle thing to embrace in your visual design approach.

In the early 20th century, graphic designers were influenced by modern art, the Bauhaus school, posters, the De Stijl movement (think Piet Modrian), constructivism, architecture and more.  Today graphic designers are as likely to be influenced by styles on the web.

Just a couple of years ago, instructional screens featured gradients, beveled buttons, drop shadows, textured backgrounds and an attempt to imitate the material world in the digital medium.  Microsoft and Apple, in the redesign of their graphical user interfaces, reflected the sudden change away from material world imitation.  Buttons lost their three-dimensionality and became flat, single-color, texture less features.  The new look became, in a sense, minimalist and, perhaps, more functional.  The rise in mobile computing favored flat designs over both texture and minute detail as well as other features that didn’t translate well to the small screen smart phone.

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Apple Interface: Shift to a flat design

Flat design is a thing.

“Flat design is a minimalistic design approach that emphasizes usability. It features clean, open space, crisp edges, bright colours and two-dimensional illustrations.”  –Tom May, 2018

But styles change.  So, what is an instructor to do?  My hunch is that we should focus on evidence-based practices and embrace minimalism not for its trendy appeal but for its functionality.    We should probably pay attention to the world around us.  Pay attention to styles on the web.  Pick your favorite website and think about the underlying elements that make it visually appealing and functional.  Visit the website of a college of art and design.  Follow it over time.  But don’t get too hung up on style.  It is a black hole.  Once you pass the event horizon, you’ll never return to creating anything useful for your students.

Reading Order

Focus instead on some simple things – such as reading order.  Highlight important words to ‘signal’ their importance.  Use headings and sub-headings to expose the organizational structure of your page and to help students with visual disabilities who rely on a screen reader.  (Students with screen readers scan pages by moving from heading to heading.  A blind student who used JAWS (popular screen reader) can hit the 1 key to navigate to a level 1 heading  to get a sense of the structure and organization of the document.  He can hit the 2 key to move to a level 2 heading.

Use bulleted lists and numbered lists where appropriate and reduce the amount of writing.   The traditional wisdom was to ‘chunk’ writing by separating it into pages – but mobile devices may be affecting students’ habits.  They are accustomed to endless scrolls.  More research is needed on the effects of cognitive load of endlessly scrolling pages.

Again, when in doubt, simplicity is preferable.

Consistency

Consistency is key. As students navigate the lesson, they shouldn’t burn brain cells on figuring out each page.   Pages that function the same should be styled the same.   For example, imagine that your page summarizes key concepts with a bulleted list.  Summarizing key concepts is an important strategy.  Our  pages may dive deeply into the details – but we want students to emerge with a clear map of the key ideas.  A bulleted list can be set off to the side of the page (left or right) or placed underneath, separated by space, color, and possibly a border.   The placement should be consistent so that students know where to find the summary in each part of the lesson.  They’ll look for it.

Contrast

At all times we need a strong contrast between the text and the background.  Lack of contrast affects readability.   Strong contrast also directs the eye.   I break this rule too often when I style hyperlinks to be colored in something other than the standard, boring blue with no decorative underline.  And I always regret it.  I strive for elegance and create a problem instead.

Some of these key principles relate to work done on perception by the Gestalt psychologists of the early twentieth century.  One of their principles, ‘Figure-Ground’ relates to an object and its surroundings.  Photographers embrace this principle when they want the subject of a photograph to be clearly known – in other words separation of the subject from the background.  Photographers will use a large aperture setting to blur the background (reduced depth of field) and thus create a clear distinction between figure and ground.  All elements in the lesson need to be distinct from the background – and that especially applies to text and the background.

Structure

Structure relates to the organization of elements on the screen.  It is concerned with proportion, symmetry, asymmetry, and balance.  These concepts are expressed in so many ways.  In photography, artists may think in terms of the rule of thirds – whether they are following or breaking the rule.  Two-thirds land; one-third sky.  One-third rocky foreground; two-thirds blurred valley background.   Two-thirds of blank space on the left; one-third of birds on the right.  Halves, in symmetry has quite a different effect and can be a statement in and of itself.  The parliament buildings of London reflected in perfect symmetry in the Thames, for example.

We can make similar decisions with the placement of images on the page.  They can be set with a width of 66%, which means that they will always scale to two-thirds of the page, regardless of page size.  Or the image can be set to 33% with text wrapping the image and taking up the remaining space.  Or they can be wrapped in negative space (e.g. white background) with the ratio of image to negative space a very deliberate choice.  Again, photographers might subdivide the plane in a three by three grid, which gives them 9 spaces in which to organize the structural elements of the photograph.  Traditional layout artists, similarly, had grids that subdivided the page.  Instructors can get a sense of their layout by abstracting the visual elements on the page as shapes.  The paragraph becomes a dark block.  The negative space becomes a white block.  What proportion of the overall space do the blocks occupy?  What is their relationship to one another?  Are they pleasing and pure?  Are they distracting and confusing?

Ratios or proportions reduced to formulas probably doesn’t explain why some layouts are pleasing to the eye and others are not – but it is still interesting to consider the use of math in the pursuit of beauty. The divine proportion or the golden ratio was probably used to plan some of the great pyramids and it is being used evidently today to construct websites.  We know that from, again, abstracting web elements into dark and light shapes. The ratio is defined by a simple equation:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420

So, if our text block was denoted by ‘a’ and our image block was denoted by ‘b’, the ratio of text to image would be the same as the ratio of text plus image to text alone.  So, the secret to all good learning is in the golden ratio?  Not quite.  The only point I am making is that the proportion of things will have an effect.  We should at least be aware of how things are laid out on the screen. Proportion matters.

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Layout created by Lauren Franza

Conclusion

The instructor who consciously and conscientiously includes visual design in the planning of his or her eLearning lesson will reap the reward.  Students will benefit from being guided through the lesson, and not being distracted by colors, crammed elements, inconsistency, poor readability, and an off-putting layout.  Visual design is a large study – but the application of a few principles will greatly improve one’s eLearning design.

The Explore – Validate Design Pattern

Introduction

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.

 

LodeStar_Screenshot

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

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

 

Conclusion

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.

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.