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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.

When I offered to redevelop two ICT-related modules for online facilitation and learning, I knew I had to boil the effort down to numbers. That is, how long would that take and how much would this cost.

I knew I had a few months to do this, so the runway was not the issue. The time it would take to revise and redesign the modules was. I also knew that administrators would not react positively to an accurate cost in terms of time, effort, and money, so I provided a low estimate.

How low? Forty development hours. This is equivalent to about 10 half-days of work if you imagine someone working in an office. Why is this low? I only considered the “visible” work, hence my reference to office work.

What does visible work look like? Imagine getting your home renovated. If you have a limited imagination, you only see what is obvious, e.g., people hacking walls or installing fixtures. The equivalent for online modules is the construction of resources.
 

 
I prepare primary, secondary, and tertiary resources.

My primary resource is a website that I create. It is typically a Google Site that houses all the rooms (pages), and furniture and fixings (the secondary and tertiary resources).

The secondary resources are items like videos, documents, PDFs, slides, spreadsheets, forms, and shared spaces for brainstorming, reflection, and other cooperative activities. I create these too.

Tertiary resources are items that others have created that I curate. These could be images, videos, slides, posters, or PDFs that I attribute and integrate with the primary resource.

I have already exceeded the 40 hours of creating these resources. I still have a few more to create and add, and I will need to revise them based on feedback and relevance over time.

What my estimate ignores is what administrators have trouble seeing and justifying as costs. This invisible workload includes, but is not limited to:

  • Researching: Reading, watching, and listening to current resources on the topic. These might include research articles, professional blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts.
  • Writing: As I consume, I reflect on the relevance of these resources and I write down ideas for their use. I add to my Notes app the URLs, selections or screenshots from the resources, and possible activities they might enable.
  • Organising: All the ideas are a jumble that might not link or flow. They need to be coordinated for learning and instruction. They need to be corralled into reasonable chunks of time. They need to be aligned to outcomes, activities, and assessment.
  • Evaluating: Some resources are more useful or relevant than others. Some that are not useful now might be powerful later. As a result, their inclusion into modules needs to be prioritised based on a combination of professional judgement and deep reflection.
  • Iterating and revising: Everything I described above might be considered part of planning. Any plan is only as good as its implementation. As I only have one chance to implement each new module, I have to trial them by running them through in my head and with empathy for my learners. As I discover weakness or obstacles, I redesign and reconstruct. This is the iterative process.

If a course happens just once a year (and many do in higher education), I might discover a wonderful resource a day after my course ends. I consume it, take note of it, write down ideas for it, and revisit it weeks or months before the course resumes. This is what any educator or facilitator who is passionate about teaching does. But this, too, is workload that is not visible to an administrator.

If I was a full-time salaried employee, I would not have to deconstruct the work as all the tasks would be givens. But part-timers or adjuncts bring skills and practices that organisations lack. We need to show our value or else be taken for granted.

I share this not to shame administrators. I do so to provide insights they might not have. There is only shame if they choose to minimise or ignore such work.

Something I heard on a podcast reminded me of a design principle I am using for online learning.

In the podcast, one person told a story of how her mother found a tool to create word searche puzzles for that person’s grandmother. This was an attempt to stem the mental deterioration of the grandmother.

To make activity more meaningful, the mother used the names of relatives so that the grandmother would not forget them. The grandmother appreciated the effort, but she also remarked, “Who the hell are all these people?”

I laughed. I also reflexively thought about how this was similar to pedagogical design — there is a gap between the intent and the outcome.
 

 
How so? The design of online resources is often about the content, activities, and time spent on both. They are about the what, how, and when of learning. Some learners will just do what they are told. Others will not.

My learners are teachers and educators. Sometimes these are the toughest learners because they are comparing their own teaching and learning experiences with an online one I design for them. I have decided to include short design rationales with each activity. I am telling them why I have designed something that way and why they need to perform that task.

I hope that making design rationales clear helps my learners connect better with the processes and products of learning. I am revealing my state of mind so that they are less likely to ask, “Why the heck am I doing this?”

 
This month I focus on redesigning face-to-face modules for online facilitation. I have many ideas, but they will be guided by a few principles:

  1. simplify
  2. provide choices
  3. leverage on prior experiences

The overall design will not be to simply recreate a classroom experience online. This is not logical or feasible given how much I rely on and manipulate the social dynamic in class.

Instead, I intend to redesign for independent and asynchronous work. That design has been the mainstay of distance and online learning for decades.

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.


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