Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More Teachers Trading in Textbooks and Lectures For Interactive E-Learning Software to Engage Students

Today Business Week's website carries an article on how more teachers are trading in textbooks and lectures for interactive learning software to engage students. The article cites Kaplan University, San Francisco State University and Philips Children's Medical Ventures - all reporting tremendous student satisfaction resulting from interactive eLearning. To read the news, click here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Common Platform for Several Interactions: Good Idea?

For several years, I have been speaking at the eLearning Guild conferences and online forums on the topic of interactive learning. It is fascinating to see how training professionals' understanding of interactivity has evolved over the years. From the old days of minimal interactivity-literacy, we have come a long way, and now the question on everyone's mind is "interactive courses - of course yes, but how?"

In answering the "how" question, one interesting trend that has gained momentum is a common platform approach for interactivity development, which cuts costs, saves time and enhances effectiveness of online courses. Click here to see a synopsis of my upcoming talk on the common platform approach to interactivity development at DevLearn 2009 conference at The Fairmont in San Jose.

And of course, I welcome your ideas, suggestions, comments and questions ahead of the talk, so we can have a good interactive discussion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Computer-based Games in Classrooms: Leveraging the Instructor

Game-based learning is gaining wide acceptance in corporate and academic e-learning. The use of games in classrooms, however, is still limited and follows traditional game formats.

One reason for the lack of momentum in classroom game usage could be the dependence of traditional classroom games on the instructor for successful facilitation.

Computer-based games, on the other hand, are designed primarily for self-paced e-learning, and largely leave out the instructor when used in a classroom. This means the instructor can neither control the flow of the game nor monitor the learning outcomes directly. Nor can the instructor leverage group dynamics, because mostly the games are played singly.

Is it possible to combine the best of both the worlds? Is it possible to use computer-based games in a classroom in such a way that the instructor has a meaningful role in their facilitation, control and monitoring?

Fortunately, the answer is yes. A new paradigm which makes this leap forward for classroom instruction is called Facilitated Group Activities.

Facilitated Group Activities are computer-based templates that are implemented using platforms such as Flash and PowerPoint. An instructor can quickly and easily create and facilitate custom activities such as games using these templates.

Using this approach is a two step process. In the first step, the instructor customizes the game template and includes it in the presentation slide. In the second step, while presenting, the instructor uses facilitation tools to configure groups, rotate turns, time the learners, score them and so forth - while the class plays the game.

Advantages of games conducted as facilitated group activities over other approaches are easy to see.

  1. Ability for teachers to customize games by themselves
  2. Ease of controlling the game flow
  3. Preservation of group dynamics while the class is together
  4. Leveraging the instructor's presence
  5. Monitoring learners while they are playing the game

As an example, consider Bingo, the popular party game. This game can be easily adapted to learning use, to generate excitement as participants answer questions to win a house. A sure hit with all audiences, this is a great game format that ensures reinforcement of knowledge conveyed, and particulary works great as an energizer in the later part of your class session.

Let us see how the Bingo game works. Before the class begins, the instructor inputs several questions in the game and saves it. Once in the classroom, the game allows the instructor to form competing groups of students, and rotate turns among them to answer questions within a fixed time limit, in an attempt to win a house. The instructor has the ability to look up correct answers, provide helpful hints and mark right or wrong answers. The game maintains a score for each group and ends with a cool animation celebrating the winner.

What are the applications of this approach? Where do you think you could use this approach? Do you think there will be additional advantages if learners can use clicking devices to participate in such games?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Template Based Rapid Interactions: Overcome the Myths

"Are you shopping for a ginger bread cookie or a wedding cake?"

That was the question Seema Chaudhary posed, to highlight the difference between template-based rapid interactions and traditional custom interactions.

Seema Chaudhary, President at Harbinger Knowledge Products, was speaking at the 2009 Online Learning Conference held in New York on Sept 23-24, 2009 in a session on Optimizing Rapid Development co-presented with Bryan Chapman.

Traditional custom interactions meet unique needs by offering full programming freedom. Template based interactions, on the other hand, are pre-coded, so you need no additional programming to customize them using your own content.

Seema stated five misconceptions about template-based interactions. Template-based interactions, according to these misconceptions -

1. Are hard to customize
2. Offer limited selection
3. Cannot fit in multiple authoring systems
4. Might at best be a canned solution
5. Look tacky

Then she went about busting these myths one by one, by showcasing examples drawn from a large library of cool looking interactions that are easy to customize and easily embedded in several authoring tools. The examples, drawn mostly from Raptivity, did all the talking.

A link to this session is available here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Learning Events vs Environments: A Case for Putting the Learner in the Center

Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of TheTipping Point, has come up with another book that has created plenty of buzz. Outliers is a fascinating exploration of the factors driving outstanding success, presented in a nice storytelling fashion.

Among other things, the book mentions a study on learning effectiveness by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. It has some very useful insights for professionals involved in learning initiatives in organizations.

According to Gladwell, Alexander tracked the progress of 650 first graders from Baltimore public school system, looking at how they scored on a widely used math and reading skills exam called the California Achievement Test. These are reading scores for the first five years of elementary school, broken down by socioeconomic class – low, middle and high.

As you can see, the differences in first graders across income groups are meaningful, but not overwhelming. This modest gap, however, widens as you go from year 1 to year 5. What causes this achievement gap? Is it because the disadvantaged kids aren’t as smart? Or is it because somehow the schools do a better job with kids already in a position of advantage?

To answer this, Gladwell provides another interesting data set. Kids took these tests not just at the end of every academic year. They also took them at the beginning of the school year. Which means you could calculate school-year gains.

This gets interesting. Now, all income levels are making comparable gains during school years. So, we can safely absolve the schools. But then, why was the achievement gap widening? Obviously, we need to also tabulate the summer vacation gains.

The gains show dramatic differences here. Some kids are gaining in summers, others are losing what they learnt in school.

What is going on? Presumably, the affluent kids get to engage in useful activities in summer, including reading at home, summer camps and what have you. They not only hold on to their gains, they even go further. Poorer kids don’t get to do those things.

Clearly, when you put the school in the center, every school year is going great, and schools are doing a good job. When you put the learner in center, you can see that the some learner groups are missing out.

Indeed, this rings true beyond K-12, for a broader range of learning initiatives. Time and again, focusing on formal learning events alone turns out to be myopic. A more complete goal is to improve the whole learning environment – pre-class, in-class and post-class - through a variety of modalities, such as online self-study, virtual classes, reference materials and social informal learning. Only then will all learners have a shot at holding on to – and furthering - their gains made during discrete learning events. Otherwise, end-results will vary depending on who has the most opportunities outside of formal classes.

Interactive learning cannot possibly limit itself to making learning events more exciting. That is part of the game. The architecture of a learning initiative should encompass what happens beyond formal learning events, to get consistent outcomes.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Stop Hovering over Learners

Helicopter Parents: Image courtesy The Telegraph, UK

Helicopter parents, as we know, hover over kids, micromanaging every aspect of their lives.

Unfortunately, like many other well-meaning actions, helicoptering can deliver more harm than good. It has been argued that too much hovering sometimes backfires, because kids learn their values backwards: they feel entitled to things that they must earn, they lack empathy where it is needed.

How does a parent instill a sense of personal responsibility in children? What will help teens develop decision-making skills? One school of thought says, stop hovering. Don't go nuts with worry.

Excessive hovering is not unique to parenting. Such excesses have their parallels in the learning world.

Take e-learning design, for example. Often we design courses that spoon-feed learners. When we do everything for learners, they end up thinking they in fact cannot do it themselves. Excessive guidance and tracking can actually shut down communication, depriving us of a key goal of interactivity.

Are you a helicopter instructional designer? Take this simple quiz.

  1. I don't always provide immediate feedback - sometimes I delay it so the learner can observe the consequences of mistakes. (Yes/No)

  2. My learners have a choice to navigate a course relatively freely - they can jump ahead or drop several levels back based on how they are doing. (Yes/No)

  3. I allow some means for learners to self-assess, and reflect on their accomplishments (Yes/No)

  4. My games and simulations carry an element of risk to learners, so they must weigh their decisions carefully (Yes/no)

  5. I use pre-test or other methods to establish a learner's current level and maintain an element of stretch throughout the course. (Yes/No)

  6. Assessments I design have multi-level hints: I do not give it all away at once. (Yes/No)

  7. I mix informal learning experiences in the structured learning path. (Yes/no)

Please grade yourself. Here is a suggested grading scheme based on the number of affirmative replies:

6-7: The chopper has landed. Your learners will breathe easy.

4-5: The Hovering Bird. We know you enjoy flying, but with some persuasion, you can land the helicopter.

2-3: The Black Hawk. You have the approach of a military helicopter. The target will never be out of sight. At times you hover at close range.

0-1: The Lawnmower. You believe in mowing down the learner's path clean of all obstacles.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

eLearning Shows the Way!

A digital cinema provider from Hollywood will soon start using Raptivity for sales presentations. The owner of a Spanish humanities and technology web site has plans to use Raptivity for enhancing his web portal.

Raptivity, the e-learning tool? Yes, and no. Yes, because in essence, both will use the same Raptivity software we use in e-learning. No, because their versions of Raptivity -Raptivity Presenter and Raptivity Web Expert - are specially adapted to support presentation making and web development respectively.

What is happening here? Rapid interactivity building, which started in e-learning, is now spreading to presentations and web development. Boredom is a common problem, except e-learning professionals were the first to address it using rapid interactivity. Now presenters and web developers are realizing they too can fight the affliction this way.

The history of human innovation is full of stories where an idea took root in a niche, and soon broke out into the mainstream. For example, Nike air cushion shoes use a technology that was designed for Neil Armstrong's first expedition to the moon.

How does this process work? It all starts when several market segments begin to suffer from what could be a common pain point. However the awareness of the pain is at varying levels - some markets feel it more than others. Accordingly, the willingness to do what it takes to fix the pain also varies.

Sooner or later, one market segment can bear the pain no longer. At this point, if an innovator introduces a solution, it creates tremendous value for its users, who respond overwhelmingly in favor of the new product.

Sooner or later, this success is visible to other markets, and they realize that their risk in adopting the innovation is only incremental. With relatively little effort, they derive benefits of the new technology, and spread the buzz. Thus, it is a matter of carefully adapting the innovation to new markets, to start a virtuous circle of innovation and market response.

So much for the process. Why should this should bring cheer to e-learning professionals? Well, when rapid interactivity spreads to other applications, some innovation historian will remember e-learning's pioneering role in its development. It doesn't hurt to say we showed the way, does it?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Creating Reusable Interactions

What are Interaction Models?

An interaction model is a template which one can easily change (customize) to create interactivity. With interaction models at hand, you don't have to build interactivity from scratch. For example, a crossword puzzle where you can put new words and clues easily, to create an entirely new crossword, is an interaction model. So is a scenario simulation where you can easily change the content, learner actions and their consequences - building multiple scenarios without coding.

Pre-built vs Custom Interaction Models

A pre-built interaction model is already coded for you. When working with pre-built IMs, your focus is on selecting the right IM, customizing it using your content, and finally adding it to your course. The larger the library of pre-built IM's you have access to, the wider your choice, and the more you are likely to find one that exactly fits your need.

Sometimes, however, your needs are unique. You won't find an interaction model that quite works the way you want. Now you are in the province of custom interaction models.

But before you get ready to flex your programming muscles, I recommend three simple checks which will tell you whether you really need custom interaction models.

  1. Can you get more out of the pre-built interaction models? Often, the interactive behavior you need can be accomplished relatively easily with an interaction model you already have. You need to be a bit creative, that's all. This can save you valuable time and programmming resources. For example, a survey could also double as an essay type question. Or, a path animation can easily illustrate a timeline nicely.Please convince yourself that your pre-built library does not cut it before the next step.
  2. Will you ever need to create variations of this interactive behavior you are trying to build? If now is the only time you need this interactivity, you may as well write a program that does what you need, and not bother with a custom interaction model.
  3. How many variations do you foresee? Writing a program has one major downside: each variation of interactivity will need a change in the program, and you will either do it yourself, or have a programmer do it. Then you end up with multiple versions of the program, and that is a nightmare when it comes to bug fixing. It is still okay to go this way if all you have in mind is a couple of variations, and if you are the one who will create them.

Once you have completed these three checks, you are clear that the library doesn't have what you need, you will need to build it yourself, and it must be a customizable interaction model. Now you are ready.

How to build custom interaction models

There are several ways you could build custom interaction models. One method is to use a tool such as myRaptivity, which allows your Flash program to be written in such a way that other users can use Raptivity to create custom variations of your IM's.

You can also develop your own Flash program with due care, so that it provides a way for other users to customize interactions. This will be tedious, but can be done using XML or other data files.

What is the payoff?

If you go the custom interaction model route, there are several benefits. You code only once, and each variation is simply a matter of customization - which a non-programmer can do. This means, you could publish a library of custom interaction models to your users, and they could use your custom IMs to build interactivity. You only maintain one version of the program file, and that is easy to maintain and bug-fix.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where Did YawnBuster Come from?

When someone is addressing a group, a yawn serves two purposes. One, it tells the speaker - the rare one who cares to notice it - that someone is bored. Two, it produces more yawns, which in turn tell the speaker... well, you get the picture.

I was fortunate to be part of the innovation process that led to YawnBuster, and in this post I'll try to capture some of it.

When one person speaks and others listen in a moderate size group, one thing that often breaks down is two-way communication.

Suppose you are in the audience. If you let this person go on rambling, you get one-way monologue. If you interrupt too many times, the speaker may lose the thread and everyone ends up in a mess.

Now let's see this from the speaker's perspective. If I talk non-stop, I may end up getting bored of my own voice. If I encourage people to talk, someone could easily go off on a tangent.

Clearly, what is needed is a way to present, where four conditions are satisfied.

  1. The speaker can control the amount of interaction
  2. The interaction serves a specific purpose: energizes the audience, creates fun, provides a breather and so on
  3. Everyone has a way to participate
  4. The interaction is organized and guided by some kind of a structure. (Sometimes, stating it negatively is more emphatic. So let's just say: No chaos.)
These conditions point to a non-trivial problem. One needs a concept that helps us put our heads around this problem. One such concept is a Group Activity.

A Group Activity is initiated by the speaker: "Okay, let's play a game of Bingo!" The design of the activity is based on its purpose: "We're going to get you thinking with this brainstorming session", or "We will cool off a bit with this trivia game". Everyone can participate - directly, or indirectly : "Let's have a show of hands". The Group Activity's structure guides what happens next: "Now, it's Group B's turn." A certain order prevails, even as people participate: "Your time is up", or "Let's put together all the key takeaways now".

With the idea of Group Activity at the center, a framework for group activity facilitation evolved. The facilitation framework minimizes the speaker's workload, by doing many of the things that involve keeping the audience on track.

How do you classify myriads of Group Activities that are possible? A taxonomy of group activities fell in place: participation enhancer activities, collaboration activities, breather activities. Trainers could choose from icebreakers, activators, group exercises, energizer games and closers.

Research by eLearning Guild shows PowerPoint to be the tool most commonly used by trainers. This should surpise nobody, we all do it. It became clear then, that the best way to provide this technology was as Flash templates for PowerPoint.

In short, we had created a way to easily build and also to professionally facilitate group activities with minimal effort.

The last act was to pick a name for this software. What's in a name? A lot, one would think, especially when you stumble upon a name like YawnBuster. So we chose it, and YawnBuster was born.