Recently, I stumbled upon a fantastic blog, NeelaBell.com. Neela shares thought-provoking ideas for gamification, eLearning, and how to design inspiring courses in Moodle. Through humour and solid examples, she gets educators thinking about what it means to design with intention.
If you are inspired by Neela’s work, I recommend checking out her Twitter account. It was here that I discovered this fantastic graphic:
Start with SAMR
This chart reminds me of a classic ed tech model called SAMR, which stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. Oftentimes, when educators incorporate ed tech into their classroom, they focus on substituting a traditional paper and pencil method of learning with a digital one. For example, instead of writing responses on paper, students type their answers into a Word document. Unfortunately, this doesn’t elevate students’ learning experience; rather, it is just another way to collect information.
When we have a good sense of the lesson’s objectives and then focus on how to augment, modify, and redefine the lesson by using technology, we can extend what learning is possible. We can excite students and engage them in their own learning.
Looking for some ways to move past substitution? Check out the EmergingEdTech website for inspiration!
Integrate Rather than Use
I love to reflect on the graphic above because it focuses on student-centred learning. It helps me picture the kinds of experiences I think are important for students to have. Best of all, it helps me focus less on myself and more on the students.
While the SAMR model gets us to think about how we want to incorporate ed tech, the graphic challenges us to answer the why. Using the SAMR model along with this chart is a deadly duo.
Try it Yourself
When designing an ed tech lesson, I recommend starting with the lesson objectives, then using the SAMR model (A is ok, but M and R are even better), and finally reflecting on this chart to ensure appropriate ed tech integration.
Want to know the biggest myth that even the most seasoned educators buy into? Anything on the Internet is fair game. Even if the intention to use an online source is for educational purposes, it doesn’t mean we can use it how we like. We have to make sure the dealing is fair.
Fair Dealing 101
In its simplest terms, fair dealing means that you don’t have to get permission from the copyright owner to distribute (i.e., deal) part of (or in some cases, all of) copyrighted work. This only works if the purpose of distribution is for education, research, private study, criticism, review, news reporting, parody, or satire.
How do you ensure that you are following the fair use rules? Best practice is to follow two simple guidelines:
Ensure the distribution is for one of these reasons: education, research, private study, criticism, review, news reporting, parody, or satire.
Establish that the dealing is fair. This can get a bit complex, but best practice is to reproduce only short excerpts. A short excerpt could include up to 10% of a copyright-protected work, an entire artistic work such as a painting or photograph, a chapter from a book, an article from a periodical, a newspaper article, etc.
Basically, you only want to use as much of a copyrighted work as is necessary to achieve your educational purposes.
But What If . . .
When I started digging into fair dealing a bit more, I came up with all kinds of questions. At which point I called the copyright office at the University of Alberta. Here is what I learned:
Avoid copying multiple passages or chapters from the same copyright-protected work, as this would not be considered fair dealing.
Make sure an LMS site is password protected and that non-students don’t have access to the course materials. Otherwise, this could be considered copyright infringement.
Link to YouTube videos when possible instead of embedding them in a course. Linking is not copying.
Be careful when putting a journal article PDF into an online course. Each journal has different sharing permissions. Best practice is to link to a journal (except for the Harvard Business Review, which oddly enough, does not permit linking!)
Try to find the eBook version of a book if you want to scan and post multiple chapters online. This way you can just link to the digital book. Otherwise, the university may have to pay for copyright permission to share the scanned copies online.
I think the ultimate best practice is to always give credit to the original work, and check in with a copyright specialist if you’re ever unsure!
Creative Commons is Always an Option
Creative Commons is a non-profit organization seeking to make it easier to share and reuse materials online. Creative Commons is best known for its copyright licenses, which helps make it easier for owners of copyright material to decide how they wish to share their work. These licenses also provide clear guidelines for users such as educators to use the original work.
I like to search for Creative Commons material first (especially when it comes to photos and videos), because I think their cause is extremely important in the digital age. (If it’s not possible to get in touch with the original copyright owner, who wants to wait x number of years for it to be in the public domain?! The information will probably be irrelevant by then. Rant over.)
When it isn’t possible to use Creative Commons material, I make sure to use materials that adhere to fair dealing and always cite the original work. This practice acknowledges the work of the original author and encourages students to do the same.
An Amazing Fair Use Tool
Navigating copyright can become extremely complicated. I recently learned about a Canadian platform called the Fair Dealing Decision Tool, and I’m so glad I did. If you’re not sure if you need copyright permission, using this online tool can walk you through the steps.
The first time I heard about transactional distance was from ed tech guru, Kim Peacock at MacEwan University. Kim taught me the value of recognizing that the distance between teacher and student is much more than geographical when learning goes online.
What is Transactional Distance?
As Moore (1997) suggests, “with separation there is psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (p. 22). In the classroom, it is (somewhat) simple for instructors to monitor student withdrawal, confusion, and engagement. An expression is sometimes all it takes for an instructor to know when someone is on the right track or veering off of it. We don’t have this same luxury when we teach online.
If instructors aren’t aware of this transactional distance or take steps to close it, trouble can occur. When I took an online design course, the instructor was not actively present in the discussions. In fact, it was almost complete radio silence from her during the entire semester. Students didn’t feel like they could even send her questions. We felt largely unsupported during the course. In fact, I’ve never felt so lonely in my learning journey.
Taking small steps to bridge the psychological distance is a step in the right direction. But we can do better than that with intentional design and teaching strategies. To take this a step further, Moore (1997) argues there are actually three variables important for minimizing transactional distance: instructional dialogue, programme structure, and learner autonomy.
According to Moore (1997), “the term ‘dialogue’ is used to describe an interaction or series of interactions having positive qualities that other interactions might not have. A dialogue is purposeful, constructive, and valued by each party” (p. 23). Dialogue is beyond simple interaction, because dialogue advances student understanding and carries learning forward.
The first time we had to make a discussion post online, a course instructor responded to every person’s post by adding to the conversation or asking thoughtful questions. In this way, she added value and effectively modelled a strong reply. She then told us that she wouldn’t be responding like this every week, unless she needed to clarify something or add to the conversation in some way. This was excellent because then we had clear expectations of her involvement in the discussion posts.
Other instructors have turned to using communication media outside the LMS, such as Slack channels, which come with its own set of challenges. What’s most important when considering instructional dialogue is selecting the most appropriate way to interact with students with a purpose of dialogue that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. For example, another instructor of mine created a video to provide feedback on an assignment. In this way, she created a dialogue by providing legitimate feedback that advanced our understanding of some course concepts, and we got a better idea of what she was looking for. We also got the opportunity to respond and ask questions. Not many students taking in-person courses get this kind of opportunity!
Even media that provide only 1-way dialogue (worksheets, lectures, screen recordings) has some level of interaction. However, the relationship between instructor and teacher will be much stronger when appropriate media is chosen that encourages 2-way dialogue. If constraints such as class size and instructor time is a barrier, consider hosting web chats or cohort discussions to minimize transactional distance.
The second variable, course design/programme structure, is the way in which a course is designed to be supportive of individual students’ learning needs. Unfortunately, we tend to design courses similar to television programs. They are highly structured and polished, with no opportunity for students to disrupt regularly scheduled programming.
We want to avoid designing a course that doesn’t allow for legitimate student dialogue and input. While it can be difficult to design a course with a somewhat flexible structure, it’s possible to leave enough room for students to explore and discover, too. On the other hand, if there is too much distance between instructor and student, students will make their own learning decisions and use a level of autonomy that may not serve them. Of course, this level of autonomy is dependent on the course itself, the group of learners, and the instructor’s style. Finding the right “mix” will be important to consider during the course design process.
Some ideas to incorporate student input into the course, thereby limiting transactional distance:
Schedule an online chat to discuss assignment expectations and specific questions with students.
Ask students what they’d like you to “Start, Stop, and Keep” doing in the course. Make sure to respond to these submissions!
Support learner motivation by asking challenging questions (or getting them to ask questions), asking them what they want to get out of the course, and giving them options (choose-your-own-adventure style).
Have students challenge particular experts in the field after watching a video clip or listening to a podcast.
Give students plenty of opportunity to practice what they are learning (low-stakes or ungraded quizzes, peer feedback).
“Learner autonomy is the extent to which in the teaching/learning relationship it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning programme” (Moore, 1997, pp. 26-27). To me, online learning can present the opportunity for a more democratic, collaborative learning experience between instructor and student.
However, online learning assumes a level of self-directed learning that students may or may not be prepared for. This is why it’s so important to incorporate dialogue and solid design principles into the course. Small design “nudges” can orient students in the right direction. A nudge can be as simple as breaking down a large assignment into smaller tasks. These tasks can appear on a “to-do list” that students see on the course homepage. This small design nudge helps learners understand the assignment requirements in a way that’s not overwhelming. Of course, some learners will require more direction and instruction than others, but this can be discovered as the course unfolds.
Thus, while it’s important to offer choice and autonomy, it’s just as important to teach students the skills to succeed in an online environment. For example, most students would appreciate learning about successful time management and study strategies to succeed in the course. By supporting students as they learn to self-regulate their own learning, we are equipping them with the skills they need to learn in environments that will continue to evolve.
What can you learn about what students need simply by asking or polling them?
What excites me about online learning is the opportunity for students to be involved in the process of constructing and sharing their knowledge. Students will have varying levels of comfort in sharing what they are learning, especially as they are learning it. I’ve found that encouraging students and being personally vulnerable in how I put myself out there to learn, can make all the difference.
Now that I’ve designed online courses and participated in them, I don’t feel as nervous as I did taking my first online course. But remember, while it may seem like a small leap for students to learn online, it’s not. They will experiences new challenges and be pushed in ways they haven’t before. For them, this change in learning is more than spatial or geographical. It’s a change in how they connect, learn, and share. Applying the three variables of transactional distance can help us prepare students for this new way of learning, growing, and ultimately experiencing the world.
Moore, M. (1997). “Theory of transactional distance.” Keegan, D., ed. Theoretical Principles of Distance Education, Routledge, pp. 22-38.
Every now and then, you stumble across a tool that makes you stop and think, “how am I just learning about this now?!” This is one of those tools.
Rice University developed a free tool to help instructors estimate course workload. Since such a common question from students is, “How long will this take?!” I can see this tool coming in handy. Students really appreciate when they have a good grasp of the course requirements and expectations. This tool helps students plan out their schedules, and this level of transparency can add credibility to the course. It can show students that the instructor wants them to succeed. Instructors may even share with students how to plan in advance to manage their course workload and keep up with the flow of the course.
Unfortunately, not a ton of valid or reliable research has been done on the topic of estimating course workload. What I like about this tool is that it’s obvious the creators have done their research and then created something that’s as accurate as possible, given the available information out there. Read about the research behind the tool here.
The tool offers a fairly good estimate of how much reading, studying and prep work will be required (outside of class time) each week. In addition to this estimate, the creators allow users to manually adjust the time something can take to complete. If an instructor thinks an assignment or reading material may take a bit more time, it’s easy to make the adjustment.
I think the most valuable aspect of this tool is that it gives instructors a better understanding of their own expectations. Are they asking too little, too much, or just enough? In grad school, I worked on a group assignment in which we had to develop a whole course program. A fellow group member developed a lesson plan in which he assigned eight articles for students to read before class. I didn’t think this was necessary and voiced my concerns, but my argument fell short. Perhaps if I had this tool at the time, I could have better demonstrated my concerns…
Over the past few months, I have experienced my fair share of finger cramps from typing on the keyboard. I have written short stories, storyboards, manual instructions, a workbook, and a professional development course. Writing is one of my great passions, and like anything worth doing, it takes dedication and a trust in the “process.” Even if part of the process means staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes!
The writing I do now is very different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s different from the essays and personal reflections I had grown comfortable with. Nowadays, my writing is for an audience of diverse learners. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing instructional content.
Use Plain Language
You know what I really learned? I love–LOVE–using adjectives and adverbs! I didn’t realize it until I used Hemingway Editor, which is a tool I’ll describe later on. Now that I’m aware of this *ahem* issue, I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the excess and writing as simply as possible. Using adjectives and big words adds unnecessary baggage to people’s cognitive loads.
In The Measure of My Powers (highly recommend), Jackie Kai Ellis describes how she learned to write well. First, she learned that the beauty of reading is the experience of piecing together the meaning for oneself. So she applied that lesson to her writing. Instead of telling readers that a flower is beautiful, she would describe the delicate petals and its soft purple hues. I’ve taken this message to heart and when possible, try to show readers rather than tell them (in as plain language as possible).
Use Parallel Structure
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped students edit their papers. When I used to help particularly strong writers who already had solid ideas, I would focus on writing conventions like parallel structure. I can spot it a paragraph away in other people’s writing, but in my own writing, these errors seem to become invisible!
Here is an example of parallel structure:
Run to the post office.
Deliver the letter.
Treat yourself to pizza afterwards.
Each bullet begins with a verb, making these sentences parallel in structure. If one of the words began with a noun, it would look awkward. In Grammar Girl’s post, she describes that our brains are wired for patterns. Using patterns such as parallel structure is better for learning!
Remember the Active Voice
Oh man, this one is tough for me! For some reason, it feels so natural to write in the passive voice. Here is an example:
The form was completed by an office worker.
In this case, the thing being acted on (the object) comes first, followed by the actor at the end (the subject). When the sentence is active, the subject precedes the object, like this:
The office worker completed the form.
It takes less brain power to read an active sentence. Plus, a sentence written in the active voice is much clearer!
Consider the Reading Level
When I write instructional content, I aim for a Grade 8-10 reading level. Of course, this totally depends on the context for which I am writing. I have found that writing at this level for my current learners works well for them.
Microsoft Word has a build in readability test called Flesch-Kincaid. I have found many issues using this test. For one thing, it has problems identifying passive sentences. As well, it’s not always correct and can sometimes make your writing more confusing. A good tool I use is Hemingway Editor. You simply paste the text into the editor box, and the app provides helpful information about passive sentences and overall readability.
I have noticed that I sometimes obsess over my writing when I use the Hemingway Editor app. I wish I could find the study, but I remember reading that teaching grammar can actually have an adverse effect on students’ grammar. When we teach the rules in isolation, we lose sight of the big picture. This is what sometimes happens when I use the app. I focus on the sentences in the little box and sometimes the outcome becomes disjointed from the rest of my writing. This is one thing to consider when using these tools!
Although learners aren’t our “bros,” I find that writing as if in conversation with the reader or writing dialogue can help them connect to the material. Of course, it totally depends on the audience and purpose of writing. But 9 times out of 10, I would much rather read something written in a pleasant, conversational tone than something that sounds like it was written for an encyclopedia.
A good way to check the writing’s tone is to read it out loud. And when you’re writing, don’t try and make it sound perfect and squeaky clean. I think many learners appreciate the “realness” of a piece, so long as it stays on topic.
Because I love writing, I often focus on the visuals last. I am trying to get out of this bad habit, but it takes a great deal of effort. Whenever I sit down to write something, I try to ask, “Is this the best way to introduce this material? Perhaps a visual or simple diagram would do the trick instead!” I’m not knocking the power of the written word, but people really do digest material more readily through simple graphics.
Designing a lesson plan for other people to use can be challenging. It’s especially difficult if you’re not sure of other people’s comfort levels with using lesson plans. Before I began in my role, a team member who no longer works with us formatted all lessons using a template. It had seemed like a good way to formalize the lessons and eventually share them with new instructors.
But what happens when no one on the team uses them?
The Original Plans
It’s not that the lesson plans don’t provide useful information. It’s just that the facilitators find the layout distracting. It’s hard to find what they need when they’re in the middle of facilitating a lesson. This is the lesson plan template. You can imagine what it must look like when it’s filled with text:
As you can see, it contains lots of useful information and prompts. However, our facilitators have a combined teaching experience of half a century. Any new hires will likely have facilitation experience as well. They all want the lessons to be clear and to the point.
I’ve been in situations before where well-meaning people take content and try to put it into a context that makes sense to them. The result is usually something that makes sense, but not to anyone else on the team. These kinds of designs need to be a collaborative effort; otherwise, they won’t get used. This has been one of my biggest takeaways from working in this industry. I have been in the position where I’ve produced something without consulting enough people, and then created a product that didn’t get used because people weren’t involved in the process or have any buy-in, even though they’d be the ones using it.
My Lesson Plan Template
As I’ve been creating new lesson plans with the team, I’ve also been trying to standardize them. I consulted with the team by taking suggestions and looking at past lesson designs that seemed to have worked. I wound up designing something that is simple, but doesn’t simplify the learning taking place. Here is the template:
With this template, facilitators can easily see the main objectives, takeaways, and activities. If they wanted to create sections in their own lesson plans for reflection, I think that would be great. But the general template should be as clean and clear as possible.
As with anything, there are limitations. The bullet point design doesn’t always lend itself well to explaining or giving directions. It also doesn’t provide as many cues as the original plans, but the titles still provide context. We’ll pilot these lesson plans and tweak them as we go along!
During my recent trip to Fort McMurray, we stayed at the Radisson. This is such a dorky thing to write about, but I’m going to blog about the mattresses at the hotel. That’s right, the mattresses. Evidently, the Radisson is known for their adjustable mattresses. A coworker’s first question about my trip was about the Radisson mattresses. Well, here’s my review…
The first thing anyone does when they get to a hotel is sit on the bed (before gingerly removing the runner at the foot of the bed). It is so satisfying. When I went to sit, I noticed a remote control on both beds. They looked kind of strange, out of place. I tried to turn one on, but it seemed broken. After playing with the other one for a couple minutes, I honestly couldn’t figure it out. I just left it. The mattress felt left like a deflated air mattress, but that’s the way I found it. It wasn’t until my last day that I realized there were instructions for the mattress control on the bedside table. It’s so weird because the front of the card implies it’s for pillow firmness:
But if you flip it over (like I did because I’m super nosy), you realize it’s instructions for the mattress remote control.
I thought this was such an odd way to represent instructions for the mattress firmness! And then I started to think about the need for the instructions at all. It’s pretty obvious the control is for the mattress. But, it’s not obvious how to adjust the firmness, and honestly I don’t know why it was so hard to adjust, but it was. I kept thinking “they don’t feel any different–how do I know if it’s actually worked? 35 seems like a high number for the ‘ideal’ firmness number, so how many numbers are there?!” I suppose they could have both been broken, which is an issue in itself.
This experience reminds me of Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things. In it, he talks about the difference between “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Whenever we design something, we have to consider people’s cognitive loads. That is, what will we expect them to keep in their heads as they use the product, and what can we put into the world (or the product/environment) to make their experience an enjoyable and efficient one?
An example of “knowledge in the world” is the buttons on the remote controls. The remote should be intuitive for anyone to pick up and use. Whenever we design a product, we hope to design something that doesn’t require most people to use the instruction manual. If most people have to use a manual, we have probably designed something too difficult and put too much pressure on “knowledge in the head.” (There are exceptions of course, like IKEA manuals, but c’mon, that’s really not the norm!) If there is too much cognitive strain on customers, they get super frustrated with a product and don’t want to use it, like I did with the remote control. Even IKEA found the value of simplifying their instructions into more manageable chunks!
Relevance to Learning
This mattress experience made me think about “knowledge in the head” that I put on learners. Whenever possible, we should consider what is already out in the world, or what we can put out into the world, to make learning more accessible. This doesn’t mean that we are making learning too “fun” or “easy,” just that we are minimizing any needless barriers. Plus, we live in the age of The Google, as I like to call it. Most everyone has access to the Internet. If we have a question, we can usually find an answer. (Finding credible, reliable information…now, that’s a different story!) What I’m saying is we’d better make the “knowledge in the head” parts of learning interesting, challenging, and “unGoogleable.”
Another aspect to consider is course design. I’ve designed a few manuals and online courses, and with each iteration, I find strategies that put less effort on learners to figure out how to navigate through the course, and more focus on the learning itself. Here are some strategies:
Show students the big picture–how does starting at point A help them get to B? I like to share a short introduction, learning objectives, and modules right from the start.
Cut down on content, and focus on how students can process and apply key concepts.
Provide a job aid or reference material that is separate from the application. Teach people to fish!
Use a Table of Contents, headings, and icons when possible and makes sense to do so.
Don’t make an appendix too long. If the content is critical to learning, it should not be in an appendix.
Turn off features not being used. For example, if a course doesn’t have quizzes or use announcements, turn them off for now.
If an activity takes longer to explain that it does to roll out, consider cutting it.
Seriously, who knew a mattress remote control could evoke so much reflection!? It’s funny how some things go out of style, but the important ones, like The Design of Everyday Things, still stick. Maybe even especially so with the rise of our knowledge economy. I wonder what future learners will think when they reflect on the design of their learning experiences?
Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things (Revised). Basic Books.