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This is a reflection on instructional design and teaching.

I have been working on a project for the last week or so in which I critique lesson packages. One of my comments was about not blindly following the textbook model.
 

 
I noticed that several learning packages had their content and experiences sequenced like textbooks. They were providing answers before asking questions.

Why do textbooks do this?

They are written from an expert’s point of view and try to present information efficiently. This approach seems legitimate because readers do not necessarily want to know what mistakes or life experiences that expert had. The readers demand is: Tell me what you know. Hence the providing of answers even if there are no questions.

This results in a textbook being as concise as it can be. It is also non-interactive — turning pages and wiping drool from boredom-induced sleep do not count. However, the design of textbooks should not be the model to follow when teaching.

The logical-social model of teaching is to put questions before answers. Answers devoid of questions make no sense and serve no purpose. The questions might serve as a hook for learning, activate prior knowledge, identify gaps in knowledge, or otherwise drive learning.

This is my way of saying that every lesson needs to be led by pedagogical design, not textbook design. If a lesson simply lifts from a textbook, the students might as well just read a textbook without the teacher.

This tweet is a reminder in case you missed the memo on the challenges of designing for (and actually facilitating) online learning.

Teaching in person is already a complex skill set that can take years to be competent at. You never master teaching because the sand shifts under your feet — content evolves, learner expectations shift, technology brings change.

But teaching does not always ensure learning. Teaching should be a means to the learning end, but it can sometimes be a barrier.

You can bypass traditional teaching by focusing on how people learn. People might learn in the presence of more informed others, but they can also learn by observing, problem-solving, tinkering, etc. These other ways are more challenging to design and prepare for.

Non-educators whose only reference of teaching is their early schooling or higher education cannot see what it is like on the other side of the table. At best, they can only imagine the work and passion it takes.

Parents who had to monitor or supervise their children during COVID-19’s home-based schooling might have gained a small insight on what a teacher does. But they still do not have the full picture.

Likewise, teachers and administrators who only know the world of conventional teaching do not relate to what online facilitators experience. In case you missed it (ICYMI) read the tweet again.

I am glad that I am not the only one to notice this about alarm buttons in iOS.

A rise-and-shine alarm lets you stop or snooze it. The snooze button is large and orange (see example above on the right).

There is a similar interface for the countdown timer, but the prominent button is stops the alarm (see example above on the left).

What is the big deal, just tap the buttons, you say?

The affordance of a large, coloured button positioned in the middle over a small, dark button at the bottom is to draw attention to the first one. However, its function is inconsistent. In the alarm the main button extends the alarm, but in the timer you stop it.

I get that some people would rather snooze an alarm and a large button is helpful. But how about those who would rather stop the button? Alarms are by their nature jarring, and the instinct is to stop them from ringing continuously.

The superficial issue is visual design and the placement of the buttons. The deeper issue is providing users with the flexibility and choice. I would rather that both buttons be “stop”, but do not have that choice.


So why bring up this first world problem? There is a lesson for those of us in instructional design. Even the best designers, developers, and educators cannot think of every learning possibility. What we think is best might not be so for our learners. The trick is to provide choice which then powers agency. Our designs should not just set paths, they should also allow path making.

One component of instructional design is information design. There are many aspects of information design and I use a short video to illustrate why information design is important.


Video source

After watching the news report about malware masquerading as a contact tracing app, you 1) know such malware exists, and 2) do not know exactly which two malware apps mimic the contact tracing app in Singapore.

Knowing something is good, but acting on what you know is crucial. Effective instructional design does not just focus only on content delivery, it is also about getting the learner to meaningfully apply knowledge.

Information design includes the sequencing and chunking of information so that each learner can negotiate that into knowledge. The video above lacks information on 1) what the names of the two malware apps are, 2) how to distinguish the authentic app from the fake ones, and 3) what to do if you have installed the fake app.

A precursor of any design effort is having empathy for the learner. It is about anticipating questions and answers from them. It is not about answering all possible questions. It is about addressing the most critical issues.

Last month I discovered that I had been playing a mobile game, Clash of Clans (CoC), for ten years. I realised this only when a game update flashed this in its opening sequence.

Clash of Clans is 10-years-old!

While I played the game as designed initially (raiding and pillaging other clans), I have spent more time farming (tending to my resource generators and making repairs after being raided).

This led to my reflection on game-based learning (GBL). Teachers who try to leverage on educational or off-the-shelf games often take advantage only of gamification — the points, achievement levels, journey progress, etc. — because they align to circular and assessment standards.

GBL is more than that. It is also about creating a love for playing games and tapping on intrinsic motivations. The design of a game is critical. If CoC was designed only for raiding, I would not be able to farm. But I have been able to do this because it is a large part of the game (if no one farms, there is nothing to raid). I find farming to be soothing and I play the game to relax, not to get a hit of dopamine. That is my motivation and it comes from within.

But persisting with any game (even when the rewards are not obvious) should be important an outcome of game play and of GBL. This is a routinely ignored aspect of GBL design that puts learners off. They “play” not to play, explore, or satisfy curiosity, they do so because points are at stake. Such an extrinsic focus (get the marks!) is detrimental on the long run. It takes the fun out of play. It removes the intrinsic motivation.

I used to be able to run a few game-based learning workshops every year. Now I do about one a year as part of a course I designed. Sadly, changes to the structure of the programme that the course is part of might mean I might facilitate GBL just once every two years. Despite that change, I continue to play video games and use GBL principles in other courses. Why? I am intrinsically motivated to do so.

If you are a teacher who had to conduct remote teaching during lockdown, you might relate to the song featured in the video below.


Video source

I have the same reaction to those who confuse and conflate distance education and online learning with remote teaching. There are overlaps, but they are not the same things.

Recreating the face-to-face classroom in an online environment is not logical nor sustainable. It does not take into account the lack of immediacy and physicality. A teacher cannot use physical distancing to manage a class for instance. Constantly being on-call for synchronous video conferencing — student consultations, staff meetings — is draining.

Two recent articles have addressed both issues. The first was on emergency remote teaching and the second was about why Zoom meetings are tiring. The articles and my reflections offer design considerations for stepping around the pitfalls.

This is a reflection on yesterday’s reflection about doing less but better.

I took this photo in the restroom of a London eatery in 2015. It includes an oft cited quote that “less is more”.

Quote on the mirror at Zizzi, Little Venice (London, 2015).

I studied under two notable distance and online educators. One of them liked to say this: Less is less, more is more. It was his way of saying that preparing and conducting online courses was a lot more work than people bargained for.

I agree. I experienced that myself as a designer and creator of online content and as a facilitator of online professional development and courses. The more is more principle was true whether I was operating in the USA or in Singapore.

A low estimate for how long it takes to simply convert an hour-long face-to-face session is about 20 hours. So converting one university in-person class that is three hours long might take about 60 hours of preparatory, facilitative, and follow up work.

Is this 1:20 ratio realistic? Just consider the preparatory work: Planning, re-reading existing material and/or reading new material for relevance, learning new technical skills, creating new artefacts like audio, animations, or video, etc. If you do not do this by yourself, you need to include the time invested by those you work with. The 1:20 ratio might start to look unrealistic only because you need more than 20 hours!

The ratio is just for converting a course so that it is suitable for basic online consumption. Imagine if you want to design and implement something transformative. For example, you might decide that information delivery is not sufficient for adult learners and that leveraging on their experiences matters. Simply finding out what matters to such learners is an investment of time and effort. Now factor in the design and implementation of learning experiences that require sharing, peer teaching, critiquing, etc.

So trying to redesign for simplified remote teaching — doing less but better — takes more work. But the opposite can also happen. Someone who puts in little design effort might create busy work for learners. Busy work is the equivalent of checking off tasks in chores or shopping list instead of participating in meaningful learning and reflective thinking.

The sad fact is that it is easier to do less but worse. And even if you put in a lot of effort, your rewards are not guaranteed. The tweet below illustrates that pictorially.

If there is anything we might learn from emergency remote teaching it is this: We will realise who we are, what we value, and how we respond in a crisis. Some will choose to do as little as possible to the detriment of their stakeholders. Others will put in earnest effort in redesigning and implementing emergency remote lessons, while little actually pans out as expected. Even fewer will learn from those failures or succeed at first try.

That last group will do more in their bid to do less but better or to learn from their mistakes. They are the ones we should appreciate and learn from. Will we?

On Saturday my class and I conducted a dry run of using Zoom for synchronous video conferencing. The experiment went well and I got answers to some of my questions.

We used the Zoom client instead of a web interface, so I found out that all our video cameras projected our faces despite the administrative lock. Another feature that worked was gestures (e.g., thumbs up) despite the missing setting on my dashboard.

However, I am still sore about the fact that only two online calendars are enabled administratively — Outlook and Yahoo. Who really uses the latter anymore? Why is GCal not enabled even though this is a setting?

No Google Calendar in Zoom?

I am taking a calculated risk. My contingency should Zoom not work is to fall back on Google Hangouts. We did not practice this because I think that Hangouts is a much simpler tool to use. I have my participants’ Gmail addresses, so I create an invite quickly should I need to.

In the meantime, I am sticking to my plan of dividing our four-hour session into two. The first half is asynchronous via a Google Site, and the second is synchronous via Zoom.

I am still redesigning some of the content and experiences to make them suitable for asynchronous learning. But my overall strategy remains the same — simplify and do not blindly replicate what might be done face-to-face.

How-to resources are a dime a dozen. You can find answers in YouTube, Wikipedia, and more.

But it is just as important, if not more so, to learn from mistakes. These lessons are not shared as openly, honestly, or reflectively because we dislike the taste of humble pie.

Here is an example of something I experienced recently. While signing in for a lunch, a host told me that I could scan a QR code to take a ten-question quiz on going green.

Good idea, right?
 

 
Not really. The invitation was followed immediately with a hurried “You do not have to if you do not want to.” Why invite someone to participate and then hold it back?

Ten questions was also too many given how the queue was just two persons long. I would have spent more time taking the quiz and blocking the way than just signing in.

But what really made me put my phone back into my pocket was the prizes. They were small plastic containers. They were reusable, but not fully aligned to the green message.

So here are three quizzing principles:

  1. If you leverage on a learner’s motivation to self-assess, do not stand in their way.
  2. The number of questions in the quiz should take into account the context in which the assessment takes place.
  3. The quiz should be constructively aligned to the original learning outcomes.
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We are all special, but some of us are more special than others. This might be an educator’s take on the famous line from Animal Farm.

To that end, educators should design resources for all our learners, not just those who seem “normal”.

I was glad to chance upon this tweet and wish it was available several weeks ago when I was facilitating modules on ICT for inclusion. But next year’s batch will benefit from this find.

The Twitter discussion was just as fruitful because it revealed the original source of the posters. There are three more posters — for screen readers, users with motor conditions, and learners with hearing impairments — in the complete set.

Best of all, the posters are covered by a Creative Commons license, CC-BY-NC-SA. Good on them!


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http://edublogawards.com/2010awards/best-elearning-corporate-education-edublog-2010/

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