Friday, April 15, 2011

Instructional Design: The Necklace-Maker Analogy

With our two-pronged online learning efforts in Iowa -- online professional development and K-12 online learning -- many educators are inquiring about the process of creating an online course.  Does it take a lot of time?  A lot of skill?  How would one even start?

The problem of course, is that in all cases, the answer is "it depends".  But, that doesn't help very much at all.  So instead, I've started using my necklace-maker analogy.  (Yes, I know.  Necklaces.  But as my oldest would say, "Dad, you don't have to worry, you sacrificed your manly credentials long ago).

One place many start with is the purchase of a gold necklace.  It is already put together, wrought into an interlinked set of links which would make using any of the parts separately very difficult.  You can use this right out of the jewelry box if you would like, although putting your own shine on it, through adding some specialized vocabulary to the glossary or some specialized instructions wouldn't hurt.

In this case, the Gold Necklace is the Apex, Plato, or E2020 that is out there (or their professional development-side counterparts).  And the Gold Necklace comes with its set of benefits and drawbacks.

Most obvious, it is easy to do.  Go to the store and buy it.  You have to learn how to close the clasp, but you don't have to build it -- or know how to build it -- at all.  Also, you have a good sense that it will look pretty good.  The individualized pieces are indistinguishable and are expertly put together to look that way.

On the minus side, though, what qualifies for "gold" now days isn't always a certainty.  My youngest daughter in fact is right now showing me her "gold" necklace that she won at Chuck E. Cheese's.  And while it looks fairly good (gold-colored shiny metal linked together), the quality of those links beyond their looks isn't very high.  Many of the packaged courses are the same way.  Their assessments are low-level multiple choice questions, their activities require little imagination, and most of the "learning in the course" is simple delivery from the content into the student's mind.  They don't employ constructivist learning very well.  Now... that isn't all the packaged courses, but it is more than you would think.  You need to examine the quality of the gold before you purchase.

Also, you pretty much have to use them as is.  You can't go and add your own links, unless you have specialized skill (instead of a goldsmith, of course, you would need a web designer).  Some teachers will go and add their own items and links to a packaged course, and the end result is predictable.  It is like adding some plastic charms to the gold necklace.  It doesn't fit very well.

And most of all... you have to buy it.  They can be very expensive, and in the case of many, that expense is an annual cost.

The exact opposite of this is the do-it-yourself, build from scratch hemp necklace.  I actually have some skill in this area.  Camp counseling pays off... well, not literally.

Here, you are starting with very basic building tools, and creating the necklace with a series of knots over and over.  It is a very time-intensive task which, for some, is a fun thing to build laboriously.  If you are really good, you can get quite elaborate with your knots, but many make a very basic and uninspiring necklace.

Similarly with a do-it-yourself course, you start with some beginner tools, like what Moodle provides.  Some become sophisticated and use Moodle's advanced features, like interactive databases, collaborative glossaries, and grouping features.  Others stick with what amounts to copying their Microsoft Word files from their face-to-face class and pasting them in a sequence of Moodle webpages... the basic knot.

The disadvantages might be very apparent.  It is very time intensive.  It is not often very pretty, except for the maker, where it can become a symbol of pride outstripping the actual worth of the course.  And, it can be something people try to build for a few hours and then throw it away as the end product wasn't meeting their idea of what it would be.

But, don't overlook this option.  The quality of the content, and more importantly, the instruction can be outstanding.  More so than packaged courses, the activities can be constructivistically built, collaborative in nature, and very adaptable to student needs.  In fact, this course can be adjusted and tweaked extremely easily, even in the middle of a course.  And perhaps most importantly, these courses aren't sterile.  You can embed within them a personality, like the "teacher who loves Disney so much that every lesson contains a Disneyworld analogy."  This is what students remember and respond to in the long run more than the initial flash and glitter.

This is a bit in the middle.  Here, you find beads, which can be low-cost or free in many situations.  The craft comes in stringing them together to make the finished necklace.  Each bead can be taken in with the viewer's eye by itself, and then can be seen as a whole.  And while you still have some flexibility in this option, it also is quite a time saver over knotting-it-yourself.

In the instructional design world, this means an instructor looks for reusable learning objects, of which there are many available.  In fact, there are some large repositories out there, featuring a variety of end products: lessons, simulations, activities, surveys, pre-assessments, databases, and more.  In most cases, these are free, and of great interactivity and high quality.

The talent is in weaving these together.  Novice instructors will find the shiniest of these and try to string them up into a necklace, but the pieces don't fit together nicely... it is too difficult for the viewer's eyes to move from one bead to the next without getting lost, so to speak.  More seasoned instructors selectively choose the beads that do fit together in a nice pattern, and then subtly weaves them together with transitional instructions, reflective activities, and a tied-in overall theme to the course.  In this case, the instructor has a good sense of what the overall effect of the necklace is to be (the end outcomes of the course), and all the fitting together is done with that purpose in mind.

As mentioned, the danger is getting too focused on the individual bead and not focused on the overall necklace, and there is a talent in the art of weaving it together.  Plus, it can be difficult for new teachers to find the beads they are looking for.  But overall, this system is what I'm advocating, since it allows for all the benefits of the Gold Necklace and the Hemp Necklace.  It involves high levels of design without requiring specialized design skills and maintaining flexibility.  And it provides the opportunity for the necklace to retain its character, over a stock gold necklace.  Students are more likely to have positive feelings about the course.  And finally, it represents a low-cost, low-time solution.

I'm morphing my analogy over time, and the latest is the addition of the Pearl Necklace.  Like the beaded necklace, you are finding the learning objects and stringing them together.  However here, by using a growing number of tools out there, you are able to make them look uniform in their design, much like a set of pearls.

Some low-maintenance tools like Adobe Captivate or Lesson Builder allow you to embed easily the learning objects you find.  Think of a series of YouTube videos.  These tools allow you to easily embed them within a common package, so those lessons look more uniform.  But basically, you are not doing any more work (as the oyster would be quick to interject).

In years past, this wasn't a feasible option, since I'd only put Moodle as a low-maintenance, low-skill tool, and its lesson features aren't in the "pearl" class.  But these other "rapid e-learning development" tools are now becoming available, and what was never an option for teachers is now becoming one.

As mentioned, the answer is, "it depends".  You have to look at the urgency to get it out, the skill of the instructor in instructional design, the overall quality and level of instruction you are after, and the funding you have.

Long term, though, education will move towards the last two... the beaded or pearl necklace.  I'll admit my impartiality here, since I taught this way even in a face-to-face class, where I eschewed textbooks in favor of weaving together some online mini-lessons into the context of interactive student activities.  I saw in that method of teaching a vibrant learning atmosphere, filled with unpredictability and discovery for students, and one that mimicked real life much better than an "all-laid-out-for-you" textbook.  It gave me the opportunity to teach more so than merely make sure students were reading the book properly.  And, that is where our online courses need to be for our online instructors to truly work to their potential. 

(Gold Necklace photo by Tiffany Day.  Beaded Necklace photo by Sweet Stuff by Ashlley.  Pearl Necklace photo by Millica Sekulic).

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