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Posts Tagged ‘design

The most recent episode of the Build For Tomorrow podcast is for anyone who has bought into the narrative of being “addicted” to technology. 

Podcast host, Jason Feifer, started with the premise that people who have no qualifications, expertise, or study in addiction tend to be the ones who make claims that we are helplessly “addicted” to technology.

Ask the experts and they might point out that such “addiction” is the pathologicalisation of normal behaviour. For an addiction to actually be one, it must interfere with social, familial, occupational commitments.

Another problem with saying that we are “addicted” to technology is that addiction is normally defined chemically (e.g., to drugs, smoking, or alcohol) and not to behaviourally (e.g., gaming, checking social media). Just because something looks like addiction does not mean it is addiction.

An expert interviewed in the podcast described how behavioural addiction had misappropriated chemical addiction in self-reporting surveys (listen from around the 28min 45sec mark). To illustrate how wrong this misappropriation was, he designed an “addicted to friends” study (description starts at the 32min mark).

  • Take the questions from studies about addictive social media use
  • Swap content for friendship measures, e.g., From “How often do you think about social media a day?” to “How often do you think about spending time with friends during the day?”
  • Get a large and representative sample (807 respondents) and ask participants to self report (just like other “addiction” studies)

Long story made short: This study found that 69% of participants were “pathologically addicted to wanting to spend time with other people”. Is this also not a health crisis?

If that sounds ridiculous, know that this followed the design of the alarming social media addiction studies but was more thorough. If we cannot accept the finding that people are addicted to spending time with one another, we should not accept similarly designed studies that claim people are “addicted” to social media.

Other notable notes from the podcast episode:

  • Non-expert addiction “experts” or the press like to cite numbers, e.g., check social media X times a day. This alone does not indicate addiction. After all, we breathe, eat, and go to the loo a certain number of times a day, but that does not mean we are addicted to those things.
  • The heavy use of, say, social media is not necessarily a cause of addiction. It might be a correlation made bare, i.e., a person has an underlying condition and behaviour manifests that way. The behaviour (checking social media) did not cause the addiction; it is the result of something deeper.
  • The increased use of social media and other technological tools are often enablers of social, familial, occupational commitments, not indicators of addiction. Just think about how we have had to work and school from home over the current pandemic. Are we addicted to work or school?

One final and important takeaway. The podcast episode ended with how blindly blaming addiction on technology is a form of learnt helplessness. It is easier for us to say: Something or someone else is to blame, not me. We lose our agency that way. Instead, we should call our habit what it is — overuse, wilful choice — not a pathological condition. 

I enjoyed this podcast episode because it dealt with a common and ongoing message by self-proclaimed gurus and uninformed press. They focus on getting attention and leveraging on fear. Podcasts like Build For Tomorrow and the experts it taps focus on meaning and nuance.

I have been thinking about how instructional (and now learning) design (ID) has been led by models like ADDIE and others.

The problem with ADDIE is that it is not properly taught, understood, and implemented. For example, one quick-and-dirty method is to use it linearly. That is not how ID is supposed to work.

Another problem I have with such ID is how formulaic it can sometimes be. Yes, ID can go through these critical processes and phases,  but that does not mean that the method you use is adequate.

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

So I have been wondering if there could be ID that is led by questions — ID by Q. Questions like Is-it, Why, Who, What-How-Where-When, What-if, How-much, How-well, and So-what.

Those thoughts have been rattling in my head and they become loud in quiet moments. They are like the growing number of loose change in my pants pocket. Perhaps the best thing to do is to take them out, count them, and see what they are worth. Hmm?

Added after this reflection went online: Perhaps I will share these thoughts once a week, on Mondays, so that I have a series to ruminate on.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in a press release that it would build on the home-based learning experience — made mandatory due to our COVID-19 lockdown — by “making Blended Learning a key feature of the schooling experience”. 

The MOE defined blended learning (point 4 of the press release) as “a mix of home-based and in-school activities, and leverage both online and offline approaches to learning”. This definition is limited to modality: Outside and inside school, offline and online.

Photo by cottonbro on

I have critiqued this approach before because it limits the scope of blending to just one aspect. As my thoughts were scattered over several reflections, I summarise some key ideas in point form. Blended learning: 

  1. requires a clear and shared meaning, otherwise some people will just do the same old thing differently
  2. focuses on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching, i.e., do not confuse blended teaching with blended learning
  3. can be about skilfully mixing different strategies, content, contexts, timeframes, tools, evaluations, etc.
  4. is about providing learners with seamless experiences, i.e., the differences above are not obvious to the learner (like a smoothie)
  5. is about the long tail, not the short game

The rollout of the exact nature of blended learning is left to schools and this is an excellent strategy. The annex to the press release states that the frequency of such blended learning is once a fortnight.

The MOE has mandated that secondary-and-above students experience this by Term 3 of 2021. This means that school personnel have started their planning. So I offer some unsolicited advice on how to approach the design of blended learning.

Address the low bar of continuity 
The blended learning initiatives might absorb the schools’ e-learning days or stand alone from them. Either way, it cannot run away from the fact that we need to keep preparing for the next lockdown, be that due to another pandemic or something short of an apocalypse. 

The key question to answer is: How do we continue with near business-as-usual in terms of curricula and schemes of work without resorting to make up sessions when everyone returns to school?

Address the meaningful bar of context 
The unstated beauty of the mandate is that each school needs to devise its own plan. This means that each school can take into account its overall profile of its students. 

This means that a school with students from lower-income groups who have just received devices and dongles can have a programme that is different from one that competes with the best on the world stage. This should be the case.

The key design question is: What is best for my learners over this period of time?

Design beyond modality and synchronicity 
The idea that blended learning is limited only to mixing the “traditional” with the “technological” is not only passé, it is harmful. It limits what teachers can design for their students.

In my third summary point on blended learning, I mentioned several things that can be seamlessly blended. For example, teachers from different academic departments could co-design a common project for students that addresses different content areas and standards.

Such cross or inter-disciplinary content design not only helps students see how different subjects work together, it also prevents teachers from designing in isolation. The latter design results in multiple tasks that all seem urgent to students. This results in stress and resentment of “blended learning” days.

The guiding design question might be: What else can be blended to create a learning smoothie?

Start simple
One principle I share with teachers and graduate students alike is this: Start simple because things will get complicated.

Do not be over-ambitious with the design of learning tasks. What seems easy and obvious to you as a teacher is not so to a student. Practice empathetic design.

One question to keep asking during planning: How can this be further simplified without compromising on quality or challenge? 

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

Again, this is unsolicited advice and limited only to overall approaches, not specific strategies. I have called on my previous experience of providing consultations with teacher educators and university faculty on all manner of blended designs. You can take it or leave it.

I have had the privilege and misfortune of experiencing how student feedback on teaching (SFT) is done in different universities.

When I was a full-time professor, the institute I worked at specialised in teacher education and had experts in survey metrics. So no surprises — the SFTs were better designed and constantly improved upon.

One of the best improvements was the recognition that different instructors had different approaches. Each instructor had a set of fixed questions, but could also choose and suggest another set of questions.

As an adjunct instructor now and roving workshop facilitator, I have been subject to feedback processes that would not have passed the face validity test at my previous workplace.

One practice is administration using only positive feedback to market their courses. Feedback, if validly measured, should be used to improve the next semester’s offering, not be a shiny star in a pamphlet.

Another bad practice is sampling a fraction of a class. If there is a sampling strategy, it must be clear and representative. Feedback is not valid if only some participants provide it.

Yet another SFT foible is not sharing the feedback with the facilitator or instructor. One institute that operated this way had multiple sections of a course taught by different instructors. However, the feedback did not collect the name of their primary instructor because classes were shared.

All the examples I described attempted to conduct SFT. None do it perfectly. But some are better informed than others. Might they not share their practices with one another? If they do, will institutional pride or the status quo stand in the way?

Today I try to link habits of an app use to a change in teaching.

Like many Singaporeans, I have had months of practice using the location aware app, SafeEntry, to check in and out of venues. We do this in a collective contract tracing effort during the current pandemic.

You cannot forget to check in because you need to show the confirmation screen to someone at the entrance. However, you can easily forget to check out* because, well, you might mentally checked out or have other things on your mind.

Therein lies a flaw with the design and implementation of the app. Instead of making both processes manual, the app could be semi-automatic. It could have a required manual check in at entrances, but offer automated exits.

How so? The mobile app is location-aware. It has a rough idea where you are and can suggest where to check in. This is why the manual check in is better — the human choice is more granular.

However, when people leave a venue, the app could be programmed to automatically check them out if the app detects that they are no longer there over a period of, say, 10 minutes. I say give the option to user for a manual check out or an automated one.

*The video below reported that checking out is not compulsory. But not checking out creates errors in contact tracing, i.e., we do not know exactly where a person has been and for how long. This not only affects the usability of the data but also inculcates blind user habits.

Video source

For me, this is a lesson on rethinking teaching during the pandemic by using awareness as key design feature. It is easy to just try to recreate the classroom room and maintain normal habits when going online or adopting some form of hybrid lessons.

But this does not take advantage of what being away from the classroom or being online offers. The key principle is being aware of what the new issues, opportunities, and affordances are, e.g., isolation, independence, customisation.

Making everyone to check in and out with SafeEntry is an attempt to create a new habit with an old principle (the onus is all on you). This does not take advantage of what the mobile app is designed to do (be location aware).

Likewise subjecting learners to old expectations and habits (e.g., the need to be physically present and taking attendance) does not take advantage of the fact that learning does not need to be strictly bound by curricula and time tables.

The key to breaking out of both bad habits is learning to be aware of what the app user and learner thinks and how they experience the reshaped world. This design comes from a place of empathy, not a position of authority.

I recently concluded online-only lessons for teachers who had to learn how to infuse ICT.

Today I share design elements to make an online lesson a blended one. Note: Blending is NOT just about combining online and face-to-face activities. It is also about seamlessly mixing different teaching strategies, tools, content, evaluations, etc.

Each of my three-hour sessions was a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences. Instead of requiring a three-hour Zoom session, I designed for 1.5 hours of asynchronous work followed by 1.5 hours of synchronous work.

Asynchronous and synchronous elements of my lesson.

The asynchronous tasks were scaffolded with questions, tasks, and resources in Google Site pages, and recorded with individual and group Google Docs for each student. One example of an asynchronous task was to first choose a scenario they could most relate to and then share their thoughts in a group Doc (scenario-based focus area).

The synchronous Zoom-based lesson followed up on their focus area. This was a topic that they identified with and provided answers based on what they already knew. Design rationale: This was a way of providing ownership to learners and to determine their prior knowledge (PK). Gauging PK could highlight gaps in knowledge to learners.

My students’ answers were varied but superficial. This provided an opportunity to introduce theoretical frameworks that could be used for planning and/or evaluating ICT-based lessons. DR: Linking PK or gaps to new information was a way to motivate learning. This design helped student answer the question: Why do I need to learn this?

Throughout the online lesson, I leveraged on a new Zoom tool, student-selected Breakout Rooms, which simulated station-based learning (my critique of the tool). DR: While not ideal, the tool allowed students choice of topics and provided opportunities for cooperative learning.

I also relied on the random breakout rooms so that students did not get too comfortable with their group mates. DR: There is a tendency to get complacent if you get too familiar.

I limited latter groups to three students each so that there was enough time for students to peer teach and listen to one another. DR: Some students choose not to speak in groups larger than this while others do not get enough air time because someone else dominates.

I provided opportunities for groups to read and evaluate one another’s work, to reflect on their group’s work, and to reflect on their own learning. DR: We do not learn much from experiences because they are new and messy; we learn from slowing down and reflecting on those experiences.

Addendum: The scenario-based focus area depended on homogenous grouping, i.e., students in each group had a common interest. The second strategy relied on heterogenous grouping, i.e., students had different topics to peer teach and different perspectives to share.

For individual learning, I refrained from asking students the generic “What did you learn?” question. Instead, I asked them to complete an exit ticket by completing two statements: 1) I used to think that… and 2) Now I think that… DR: Learning is about change. It is important to try to capture that change.

Reflecting on course design is my way of planning for the next semester. Looking back informs my look forward because remembering potholes in the past reminds me to be careful of them in the future.

This simultaneously truthful and exasperated tweet exposed a serious gap in the expectations of progressive educators and students schooled in teacher talk:

It is the ability of an educator to design for asynchronous work and the student’s desire to work independently.

There is another gap: What exactly constitutes the design of asynchronous work? Doing this requires knowledge and skills on scaffolding, personalising, cooperating, critiquing, and evaluating.

Each of those topics could be two or three weeks worth of content in a semester-long crash course on redesigning for blended learning. Better still, each of those topics could be semester-long courses for a higher diploma on the designs of blended and online learning.

Never heard of such a diploma? Well, that’s another gap that needs filling. I would bet that most teachers and educators are not pushed to pursue such a qualification even though it exists.

At best, they are left to their own designs and pick these up these skills by trial and error. Maybe they attend rushed and mandatory “professional development” that does little to level them up.

At worst, they do not care to learn something new because they want things to return to normal. But things will not return to normal. And we will still be left with these gaps.

Lisa Lane shared her practices on designing online discussions.

TLDR? Here were her three rules for discussion:

  1. Ensure that conversation is inherently necessary to the task or subject
  2. Design so that each student would naturally post something different
  3. Create something that applies or uses the results of the discussion

A graduate of any edtech programme with a specialisation in online teaching should be able to suggest the same. So would anyone who cares about how people learn meaningfully.

I would add two more general notes.

First, the rules work whether discussion is synchronous or asynchronous, and in-person or remote.

Second, the facilitator should explain the rationale (the why) of the design. The learners may not be future educators, but there is greater buy-in when participants see the logic of a task they need to engage in.

I am going to unload on an example of poor instructional design.

One of the first things I learnt while getting qualifications on instructional design was information design. In the design of job aids, for example, the sequence of instructions was critical in getting people to perform tasks correctly and optimally.

Consider this job aid that is emerging in HDB void decks all over the island. It is for the new dual bike rack system. The job aid has a section, Loading Your Bicycle.

Poorly designed job aid on the loading of a bike on the new racks at HDB void decks.

If you compare the images and the instructions under each image, you might notice that they are not congruent. The text tells you how to load a bike. The images show you how to unload one.

I might sound like I am splitting hairs because the sequence of unloading and unloading are essentially the same. However, in the former the bike is already in the upper rack, while in the latter it is not. The illustrations do not make sense and the job aid would have failed at face value.

There are other aspects of the job aid that one could critique, e.g., the poor positioning and inconsistent use of the arrows. For me, this is a clear indication that agencies need properly credentialed and rigorously prepared instructional designers. It does not just matter that something as simple as a job aid looks good. It has to make sense, too.

I thought I might have hit something new, but I learnt that there is no original idea. My search for “incubate” on my favourite image search and embed tool, ImageCodr, revealed this business card.

What I wanted to share was how I incorporate one or more periods of incubation into my course designs. So I settled on this image to represent this phase of instructional design (ID).

The initial phase of ID is like birds making and laying eggs. These are the initial ideas that materialise as usable prototypes that, in the case of my course design, are web-based resources.

Incubation is a crucial next step. Take my most recent development of course modules, for example. The course starts in October, but I was done with the making and laying by the end of August. I am incubating this month.

Incubation probably looks like doing nothing to an outsider, just like a mother or father bird looks like it is just sitting around.

No, the parent birds are providing warmth, regulating the temperature by moving eggs about, protecting the eggs from predators, etc. Likewise, my ID incubation is an active process in that I am still reading, watching, and listening to relevant resources. I am still reflecting on my designs.

Unlike a bird, I leave the nest. I do not obsess over the prototype “eggs”. I walk away from what I have prepared and let my subconscious take over. This is like sleeping after studying in order to let the brain create new neural connections and pathways.

The incubation process helps me troubleshoot and get new perspectives. How so? Consider what happens in academia: One sure way to find errors in your paper is to hit the submit button. I relax when I have reached an objective, and as I do, I widen my gaze instead of being so narrowly focused.

This wider gaze also contributes to a fresh perspective. Given enough time, I forget what I did (the design task) and why I did it that way (the design rationale). When I revisit my work, I become my own worst critic.

I think that many ignore incubation in ID because they do not plan a long enough runway. They might have multiple projects and tight deadlines. They might not have been taught about ID incubation or how to incubate.

It has been 20 years since I was first introduced to instructional design principles and I do not recall being taught to incubate. I learnt to do this anyway and it is one of the most important processes I have developed. It might look like idling or procrastination to an outsider, but it is a disciplined and effortful process to me.

Postscript: I wrote the above before I saw the tweet below.

With enough time and eyes on the “final” design, someone should have noticed that the intended “Anak Malaysia” looks more like “Anal Malaysia” thanks to the stylised K. Some incubation practiced by at least one anal-retentive designer could have prevented this accident.

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