Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Focusing on activities

Why do so many online courses focus on content? If your learners have a text book, why do so many instructional designers feel they have to replicate the text in the online course? What does this accomplish?

Well, I’ve been pondering those questions for years – and asking my colleagues to focus on creating activities to support the learning objectives rather than paraphrase the text. It’s more difficult, it takes longer…and it can lead to an excellent learning experience…

So how do we create activities not content? Some instructional designers argue that because they are not content experts, they can’t be expected to be able to determine what the learners need to know at the end of a lesson. Well, I do a lot of developing sans content expert, and here’s what I’ve discovered: if I have a good learning objective, I can design activities to support that objective. If the objective is a simple “Describe…. “ (I hate those) I can have the learners search out descriptions on the web,  in their text, or through conversations with others. Better yet, I can give them the descriptions and ask them to match them to terms using a simple interactive application. Ever play My Word Coach for the DS or Wii? One of the quizzes in that program does just that – except you’re racing against the clock. As you proceed through the levels, the terms and definitions keep coming back to you in various games, and at the end of each level you’re almost certain to have a far better understanding of the term than you did at the start of the instruction.

Instead of providing content, I provided an interactive activity that my learners would enjoy – and that would help them learn and understand the terms they need to be able to go on to the next activity. Next post, I’m going to tell you how and why I designed that activity. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

HOTS (Or Bloom, Part II)

In my previous post, I told you about designing  learning activities for a group of students learning group counselling skills. The plan was to have them collect (and remember) information, understand it, and apply it (by leading the group). Sometimes, we need to move the learners past apply and on to analyzing, evaluating, and creating new meanings. In the case of our soon-to-be counsellors, we've already begun to push them toward the acquisition of higher order thinking skills.

After our learners took turns leading the group, we had them discuss their experiences. This gave them a chance to analyze their behavior as group leader - and to receive advice and opinions from their peers. We asked them to evaluate both their own performance and the performance of the others in the team.

Create is the highest level in the modified taxonomy. What we're eventually going to do with our counselling students is have them put together everything they've learned in this module to create their own facilitation plan for a group meeting with their clients.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Let Bloom guide your learning design

When I design a course, I start by trying to get a feel for the prospective learners. Who are they? What do they expect from this course? What do they already know? Then I start thinking about how to design learning suited to their needs - learning that's interesting, effective, and on point.

If the learners are new to the subject matter, I'll start by getting them to discover pertinent information about the topic. This is the lowest level of   Bloom's Taxonomy; before you can understand or apply a concept or theory, you first have to possess the information, and work at finding ways to understand it. Bloom called this lowest level Knowledge, but most of us now use the updated term 'Remember'. The images below document the changes, the biggest of which is a change from using nouns to verbs to describe the levels:

Traditionally, educators - from K12 to post-secondary - presented information to learners through lectures or reading assignments. I find those methods a bit too static, and truth be told, boring! I flash back to my undergraduate days, when my economics prof used to read to us - from the book - in the dullest of monotones. I swore I'd never do that to my learners.

So how can we design learning that will get the required information to the learners without boring them silly? Well, one thing we can get them to do is to search out the information themselves, using the net, the school library, family, friends, magazines, videos, books...whichever way works best for them. When they've gathered the information, get them to discuss it. If this is a F2F class, use a discussion circle, a buddy system, or small groups. If you're in an online class, use the discussion board - or - better, use your web conferencing system to hold a group discussion. In either case, you can have your learners create videos, slide shows, or audio to help them present their findings. As they gather and subequently discuss and present their findings, they will have a much better understanding of it, which is the second level of Bloom's Taxonomy.

The third level of Bloom is Apply. We can't apply information until we've gathered it, remember it, and understand it. Take the case of a group of students learning group counsellimg skills (this is from a course I'm working on). First, I have the students find information related to group management, facilitation strategies, team dynamics, personalities, etc. Then they discuss what they've found and come to an understanding of what they need to know to become effective counsellors. The information is no good to them in a vacuum. They need to apply it. What better way than to lead a group? After they've each led the group, they'll get feedback from the course facilitator and the other group members.

FYI, years ago, when I took a 'train the trainer' type course, the facilitator took a video of each of us as we presented so we would be able to see how we looked and sounded. It was a great learning tool.

The next three stages of the taxonomy focus on analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Next post we'll concentrate on these HOTS - higher order thinking skills.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pushing a scenario to help college students with interview skills

Recently, I was working on a course to prepare college students for life after graduation. You know the drill: resume preparation, job search skills, interview etiquette - the whole nine yards. As online courses go, it's pretty good. We provided lots of opportunities for the students to interact with the materials, the facilitator, and each other. We had them post to the discussion board, prepare an electronic portfolio, and present the portfolio to the group through a web conferencing session.

I sit here today trying to figure out how we could have done it better. For all our efforts, we were still pushing the bulk of the learning materials to the students. How could we get them to pull the information instead? And then it clicked. A scenario could pull all of this together!

I quickly mapped out the beginnings of a scenario in  PowerPoint 2010, as seen below:

 This is a simple hyper-linking procedure in PowerPoint 2010. In the first slide, choosing Google brings the user to slide two, and explains why the choice is incorrect. If the user answers FaceBook,  they are brought to Slide four, which is also incorrect.. If the user picks either of these incorrect answer choices  they will not be able to proceed. The company's website answer is the correct option, so that option brings the user to the next challenge slide.

The next challenge presents the student with two choices to prepare for the interview:

The third challenge is the interview itself. I'm not going to show you all the slides, but the scenario is this: you reach the interview room, meet the interviewer, and exchange greetings. After that, the interviewer asks your avatar (Lara, in this case) to tell her about herself.

The next few challenges ask you to answer some standard interview questions. After those are completed, you'll be taken to another slide that provides even more resources for you to examine. How is this better than pushing content? I believe that giving the student the flexibility to choose different responses - and providing feedback - will help them to see how the interview process might function in real life.

After the presentation is complete, I'll convert it to flash and post it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Sage on the Stage vs the Guide on the Side!

The ‘Sage on the Stage’ method of teaching uses direct instruction to transmit knowledge. In other words, a teacher shares his or her knowledge with the class by delivering lectures, or, in the online world, by delivering content. The learners are expected to passively absorb the information and regurgitate it at another time, usually by answering multiple choice questions.
In contrast, the ‘Guide on the Side’ facilitates discussion, collaboration, and interaction. Learners are expected to interact with the materials and each other, adding new information to prior learning to build new knowledge. A couple of years ago I was at an instructional design conference where the facilitator gave a 2 hour lecture on learning theories. At the end of the lecture, many of the participants were still in the dark about the relevance of learning theories to their work developing and designing course ware.
How would I explain the importance of learning theories to course development? Well, I’d get the audience to participate by asking questions, as in this example:
You’re going to teach someone to type. What would you do: (A) have the learners discuss the best way to tackle the problem (B) Show them a similar activity and then ask them to apply it to typing (C) Put them in front of a keyboard and give them practice activities.
A is constructivist, B is cognitivist, and C is behaviorist.
In this case, “C” seems like the right approach, doesn’t it? We learn to type through practice and repetition. Behaviorist approaches to learning look for a change in behaviour; in this case, from unskilled to expert. Think of other areas where a behaviorist approach to learning makes sense. Here’s one of mine: Skilled trades, i.e. welder. All welders must learn similar skills, methods, and procedures. Learning strategies based on behaviorism focus on promoting retention of basic facts, skills or procedures. Most IDs wouldn’t use a behaviorist strategy if they were trying to promote higher order thinking.
How about if you were teaching an advanced programming class? It’s not so much about repetition as it is about processing new information - in the light of prior learning - to create new learning. So if I know how to write a program in Java, I can build on that knowledge to create a program in a new language. My program may have different routines than yours, but we each achieve similar results. Cognitivist learning strategies are best used where you want your learners to reason, problem-solve, or process information.
In graduate school, we talked…a lot. We debated, discussed, and argued all the time. We learned from those discussions. Constructivist theories promote just this sort of collaboration and debate, because of the belief that all knowledge is constructed, collaborative, and social. It’s not independent; it’s created through our own interpretations and experiences. Constructivist theories also promote higher level thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration, but the focus is on group work and the construction of shared meanings.
This all sounds pretty straight-forward, doesn’t it? But here’s the catch: You first have to have the foundation before you can build on it. After you’ve learned the basics of your trade or profession, you can use that knowledge to build new knowledge. For adults, we do seem to learn best in a collaborative environment. We certainly like to be involved in our learning, and most of us see little value in passively waiting for the ‘Sage’ to share their knowledge with us.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Push vs Pull

Get your learners to pull the course content rather than you pushing it out to them

In typical online courses, instructional designers and subject matter experts ‘push’ information to their learners through readings and quizzes. In some cases, that may be the right way to get the information out there - but it won’t necessarily help your learners tackle real world problems, develop their thinking skills, or hone their analytical abilities.
Using a scenario can be a great way to get your learners to ‘pull’ the information they need to solve a problem. Here’s how to start:
Before you write a word, stop and think about the result you’re looking for: what exactly do you want your learners to know how to do when they complete this training? And, just as importantly, how are you going to know if they’ve met your expectations? Next, you need to connect the information to your learners. Who are they? Why are they taking your course? Are they just beginning to learn about this subject, or do they already have a good foundation? And finally, ask if they’re media savvy – I once built a course heavily dependent on technology use, then found out the participants were barely computer literate. Know your audience!
When you start writing your content, remember to have the learners DO something with the information you’re feeding them. Scenarios allow them to make decisions and use their understanding to transfer the information to other settings. It also makes the learning more meaningful to them and makes it more likely to ‘stick’. For a twist, give them no information up front. Let them uncover the information as they tackle the scenario. This is a great way to test their assumptions (and yours) and see where they’re really at. Remember to give them lots of opportunities to research and uncover the information they’ll need to successfully complete the scenario. Remember too, that feedback – formative feedback – is crucial. Above all, ensure that your scenarios are accurate, realistic, and factual.