Deja Vu All Over Again – Revisiting Mod 2 Concepts

I started this post during the Games in Education Conference this week but alas am only getting around to finishing it up now. I probably will overlook some of the details of what I was thinking at that moment in time, but I clearly remember the “AHA!”. In Module 2 we were asked to look at some exemplar classes and see what we could take from those as we designed our own classes. I think we all took away a good deal. But now, after building and reading and the conference, I can see a common thread in multiple conversations that I either overlooked or perhaps I thought was common knowledge: frontloading!

At dinner with some conference folks, some of whom were ETAP folk, others in a similar program at Marlboro College, we were discussing strategies for gamification, among other things. I was telling someone about the things I had heard that day at the conference and had run home to implement before dinner (badges, multiple paths, differentiated activities for instruction, reflection, systems). As we discussed in more detail, she suddenly stopped me and said “Woahh – that is soooo much work up front to make that happen!”

Yes it is.

Frontloading is necessary for even the most basic online course. Those of us who teach online or help others build online courses know that, as SUNY data indicate, it takes about 120 hours to build a course. In Rob’s French course interview he said he was no exception, despite having spent years as an instructional designer. I started to think about all the exemplar courses again, the course we are taking, the course I am building and I did this while sitting in conference sessions about classes conducted as or with Alternate Reality Games, Pervasive Games, gamified structures and actual video games. Whether integrated or added on, each of these strategies adds a layer of complexity over all the other “systems” of a given classroom – or online course.

We’ve all experienced frontloading if we have ever built a test. Think about multiple choice tests vs essay tests. It is hard to build a good multiple choice test, but it is easy to grade. An essay test is usually easy to build but takes a significant amount of time and effort to grade. Essentially they both are about the same amount of work, but the work on the multiple choice test is frontloaded.

Looking at the exemplar courses, there are actually 3 different balances of “load” in evidence. The psychology course has writing prompts and rubrics. The major workload is in the extensive discussion requiring timely and time consuming faculty involvement in all levels of instruction in the course throughout its duration – foundation basics to conceptualization. The art history courses introduced home made video with embedded quizzes which is a huge frontloaded component in terms of multimedia production and planning, but they can be used throughout the course and have automated feedback. The work is frontloaded for the structures and foundation interactions, and faculty live time can be spent in other meaningful interactions with students with these pieces in place. And they can be used in subsequent years.  The language courses I happen to know were initially created with a great deal of home made audio recordings and structures for students to engage with listening and speaking. That is a lot of frontloading, but I did notice the French course has publisher links now. I believe this eliminates some faculty frontloading freeing up time and energy for meaningful interactions beyond these foundation pieces. And in all three courses, the use of an LMS should be streamlining structure and technical needs, eliminating the need for building websites with interactive plugins from scratch. This becomes another efficiency in support of frontloading, that can free up the instructor to be there for students, by first creating a richly automated and interactive foundation.

I am thinking of these courses as systems of interaction and strategy. I am looking at who does what work where. And now, with my investigation of gamification, or perhaps adding actual games, what happens to the process of building the system? Fundamentally, it needs to be frontloaded. There is no other option. To gamify you need to weave a system into a system. You need to identify your system of teaching and learner support in the online structure of your course, then identify what pieces are flexible and what pieces must remain. Then you need to put a system over that and figure out how to make them work in harmony to support student learning.

At this conference I saw some really elegant solutions. They required massive amounts of frontloaded work. In all cases the presenters each said at least once – “you may be wondering if it is worth all this work…”. Because it was obvious to everyone how much work a Pervasive Game set up requires, or an Alternate Reality Game setup requires, when they are presented and explained in a conference session. But when students are playing/learning in these scenarios, their focus is not on making the game “work” but on simply using it effectively to win, learn, score, discover or otherwise meet a goal. Just as they would be in a well designed course that had nothing at all to do with gaming.

It occurred to me that a really well designed course, one that encouraged significant student engagement and retention, that was scalable to multiple courses that had over 30 students, MUST be frontloaded as robustly as a gamified course. Because the things that make the gamified course work, are essentially the same things that make a good non-gamified course work. Motivating work, fast feedback loops, visible evidence of progress, differentiation, multiple paths – one person can’t do that on the fly for 160 students a semester. It has to be built in advance, using effective automation where possible, as the foundation of the learning experience and environment.

It is not the gamification itself that supports student learning and engagement, it is the deliberate and thoughtful frontloading in the design and build of a course – especially an online course – that increases student engagement and success. It is thinking about what has to happen and when, in advance, and finding ways to put that structure in place. AHA! – as our Tuesday keynote quoted,  “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges”.


My Manic Moodle Muddling and Multiple Motivations

In this module we are being asked to blog about who we are, what has challenged us in the course, what we have learned and how we have applied it to our course designs. In my last post I discussed the challenges of decision making about course “chunking,” and my thoughts on that as a veteran Instructional Designer with extensive multi-LMS experience. I also discussed in several previous posts about my goal to gamefy the course design, while simultaneously maintaining motivation and engagement for different levels and skill sets of a community college student population. In this post I would like to expand on what it is like to be a learner: learning Moodle, learning gaming strategies, and being a student in this course in general.

Being a student in this course

I have been asked repeatedly by faculty friends and others during my tenure as an ETAP grad student why I am taking these courses. The easy answer would be that I want to get a degree in the field in which I have been working for almost 30 years (education/teaching) with a focus on what is most exciting to me (technology integration and online learning) – in other words get “credentialed”. But that would not completely explain why I have doggedly chipped away at this degree for almost 10 years now.

While I train faculty in a 12 week class every semester, that closely parallels this course, I find that I am regularly updating the materials and rethinking the multiple strategies presented to my trainees. What I find most challenging about that is the not infrequent resistance to learning a new teaching strategy that I encounter on the part of some trainees. This has been true in every institution that I have been training faculty. I once had a trainee who was a lawyer tell me that teaching is teaching and just because it is online does not mean you have to do anything different – and she truly believed that. I know that is not true, and I know there is an extensive body of research on how students learn in different environments, and I know that more research is done every year. I believe the more we know and the more questions we ask, the better able to remain flexible, dynamic and progressive in our teaching strategies. I know that if I can be the “designated learner” for theory, practice and technology, I can help faculty strategize more effectively and appropriately for their discipline and course level. The ETAP courses I have taken over the last 10 years have given me dedicated time to dig deeper into the research, reaffirm the foundation concepts I have, and most importantly learn new things from new research as well as fellow students and the instructors. Rather than sit back and feel like I have already learned everything there is to learn, I actually look for different approaches, challenge my own assumptions, get cool ideas from other students, and practice peer teaching presence with an eye toward bringing this back into my own training. This particular course is helping me understand how my faculty trainees who learned to use Moodle are thinking about the tools, and how best to help them conceptualize a different LMS and make the transition.

Learning Moodle

Within the first week of this class I realized I could make a big list of documents, create a few forums and assignment drop boxes, maybe a few quizzes and be done. Those components seemed simple enough. But I also noticed that every time I got a grade, I got an email telling me my grade was changed to “F” – so probably basic tools were not as simple as I thought. Then I looked at documentation to see how some of the tools worked, what the lexicon for the product was, and how I would need to adjust my work flow. My first impression was, “Wow – this feels like something pieced together by a committee!!” Then I realized, oh yeah – it was – a committee of thousands because it is open source. And like many (but not all) open source products I have used, I see very elaborate tools and settings to do some pretty detailed stuff, and some glaring basics that are just simply not sexy enough to warrant attention. For instance, table display. There really is no excuse in 2014 for a web based product not to be able to display basic html table code properly. Or for it not to be more urgently addressed (I researched the reporting history, which is long). Many helpful members of the global committee have workarounds. My favorite? Go to the code for every individual cell in your table and use the Advanced  tools to change the properties, with subsequent suggestions for using find and replace on the code. How about just fixing it?

Annoyances aside, I have a dilemma. I don’t know how the more advanced interactive tools work in Moodle and yet I want to structure the course in such a way that I can collect data to gamefy and score. I call this the “chicken and egg” design dilemma when working with my trainees: How to design a course with unknown tools. If we teach all the tools they won’t be remembered when the content and interaction actually get designed. If we build content we may find that we have used the wrong tool as we get further into the process. The solution so far has been a very basic, very flexible template that allows faculty to “hang” stuff around the course as they see how things work. I tell them to “trust me” because at about week 5 they will know the basics of how the tools work and will suddenly rethink the entire course, including ways to break apart the template into something that works better for them. And here I am in essentially that “week 5” sweet spot of knowing just enough about Moodle to be dangerous.

I have spent a great deal of time in the Moodle documentation, and I can see that I will need some pretty complicated tools to do what I want to do. And that the lexicon is totally unfamiliar, the processes very hands on with few presets that I recognize, and an overall zeitgeist that is pretty cool, but will take some time to master. Fortunately for me I am working with a course I already taught and do not have to develop all the material, just revise and retool some of it. But I am thinking I need databases for much of what I need to do and they have been very challenging. I have created a few, but still don’t have the core concept internalized well enough to use it effectively to meet my goals. (Frankly, I can’t imagine what others in the class with no LMS background are going through.) I want to build a functional course using the tools effectively. I know how to do that in about 5 other LMS environments as well as basic web sites, but Moodle is slow to reveal its secrets. I have no doubt I can do it, but can I do it in a few weeks?

Learning Gaming Strategies

Gaming strategies are a totally foreign concept to me. I don’t play games (unless an occasional Words with Friends on my phone counts). I don’t play or watch sports. I am not competitive. I don’t care about badges, leveling, points or winning. But I DO like the pace and flow of working through a challenge in steps and succeeding over obstacles and experiencing “Fiero!”. So I can relate on the basis of internal motivation, and personal success.

I don’t know if my gaming strategies will actually work because they are mostly theoretical, except for my experience with the quizzes I currently use. I do know that even if I learn about a game strategy, I try to figure out how it parallels and replicates engaged learning. I am finding significant overlap and using those components as starting points. For example, “leveling up” and “failing up” are two ideas from gaming that are exactly what is happening with my multiple attempt weekly quizzes. I just didn’t know at the time that it was a proven game strategy.

I also just changed all my modules to Quests. I tend to think of my entire course as a WebQuest anyway, and I suddenly realized that expanding that concept will create more believable social dynamics and goals for leveling up and earning badges and points. Or for those who are intrinsically motivated, a more authentic inquiry based process.


The pieces I am trying to bring together in this course as a student, and in the course I am designing, are coming from a past I am challenging in as many ways as I can, decades of teaching I am critically sifting through in my mind, new research I am finally getting the time to study closely, and a fairly comprehensive knowledge of systems. Frankly I do not recognize the course and structures that are emerging as I work. It is almost like sitting outside myself and watching it happen. Every piece that goes together generates another idea or connection. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make it actually work.



Modules, Modules everywhere! Why and how to get there?

By now everyone in the class knows I am struggling with the use of Modules in my course design. I am more specifically struggling with the concept that 15 weekly modules is any more frightening or overwhelming to students than 7 2-week long modules. As I indicated in my assignment of submitted structure, I tried valiantly to cluster my topics into 2-week long modules, but it was an arbitrary additional level I could not justify and I felt it would confuse my students. Additionally the exemplar courses were not much help in convincing me of the efficacy of clustering this way as they use different tools, or actually have weekly modules disguised as parts of a 2-week module.

In Beth’s art history course audio interview she states that she has 2 discussions per 2 week module that “sometimes overlap”. This sounds like weekly module discussions to me, as well as a perfectly appropriate amount of time for an undergraduate student to be contemplating one of many topics in a survey course. Both Beth and Steve indicated they had created their multimedia presentations with quizzes in them – nesting the feedback loop – and that they created these because the text book was too advanced for their undergraduate students. The standard texts from which to choose for art history are written at a level that should be appropriate for college work. My institution uses them and I, like Beth and Steve, see a challenge in helping students understand what they are reading. They chose to replace with video that had fast feedback loops and quizzes integrated. I chose iterative standalone quizzes that encouraged time on task.  I could have created a 2 week long module and put 2 weekly parts in it, but I think we are all in agreement that our population needs as much help as we can provide in managing content. So again I conclude that a 2-week module structure with 2 weekly parts is just another layer that could confuse.

Other exemplar courses use text heavy content and discussion forums and perhaps a 2-week period of time  is necessary for those modes of intake and output. But I am trying to build in “flow” and “fiero” which will require more discrete and smaller chunks of activity and different tools. It will also require smaller cycles of achievement that can be made visible to students as they progress.

I have also had great success with a one week long discussion window because my discussions are usually debates or “Teach the class…” activities. As Alicia and I discussed in this week’s discussion of teaching presence, asking students to teach the class is a more complex and deeper level of engagement with the material than simply asking students to demonstrate knowledge and context. I also have to point out that 33 students posting for 2 weeks becomes overwhelming for all of them. Community college students are generally a diverse group in terms of reading and writing skills, and an iterative opportunity to try their hand at teaching the class 14 times rather than 7, provides more opportunities for growth and feelings of improved performance and mastery. Which in my gamefied course will be critical. Leveling up is a key concept in this design.

I have also had the opportunity to work with 2 Moodle users in my day job. As trainees learning to build their own online courses in a different LMS, I have been able to help them make the shift from Moodle more effectively. This involves as well, understanding what they are trying to do in Moodle. In the one case, the course was created for him at Empire State by CIDs. He simply teaches it. The course has 7 modules, each with a part A and a part B that are – you guessed it – 1 week long. And part A and part B of each module are different topics with different quizzes and different discussions. He has not experienced any negative feedback from his students seeing weekly activities. When I asked why he thought these were set up like this, he assumed it was for the convenience of students seeing 2 weeks of work at a time. Otherwise he had no idea.

One of the things I am beginning to wonder about is how many of the structural imperatives derived from the SLN research are in fact artifacts from the limitations of the SLN modified Lotus Notes platform, upon which the research was based. I can’t help but notice the limited use of Angel LMS tools in our exemplars and how much they seem to be replicating the Lotus Notes structure, rather than taking advantage of rich web environments and the innate power of the tool. I recall in my early SLN days trying to find out why faculty were being told to close past modules as they moved forward in the course. It was being presented as a pedagogical strategy but did not make any sense to me. The course content once presented seemed an important aspect of the course to keep perpetually available to students. Finally after talking to many people I got to the bottom of the problem. I found out that because students tended to forget which discussion space to use it became a recommended practice to close earlier modules so the discussions were not available, because there was no way to close just the discussions themselves within a module. Judith Boettcher points out that “we shape our tools and our tools shape us”,  This seems like a very obvious example of this brain-based research revelation.

Alex asked me earlier in the course how I felt about the implied/imposed pedagogy of LMSs. Having used many of them (teaching, system admin, student on WebCT, Angel, Blackboard, SLN, other home made systems) I can say that they all begin with certain assumptions, unique and similar at the same time. Understanding the assumption, the zeitgeist if you will, of any one of these systems, and then pushing the flexibility of the tools as much as they are capable of, is part of what I have had to do as my job since the 1990s. Being the “designated learner” who figures out how to do 10 different things with the same tool in order to support a variety of faculty teaching strategies is a fundamental component of being an ID.  Interestingly I have watched faculty in the early days complain that they could not modify the tools enough to meet their pedagogical needs (generally not really true once they worked with an ID who knew the tool) to now complaining that they are too complicated to learn (as they are more like true authoring systems). In both extremes the point is missed. What have we gotten used to as our previous tools shaped us, that we need to let go of in order to shape and use the new tools? And what is our responsibility as regards mastering the use of tools – our level of digital literacy – in a digital age?

Are we being truly objective about the relationships of tools, systems and possibilities? Are we truly acknowledging the environment in which our tools will now appear – 21st C web 2.0 visually rich and interactive? Why am I posting 2nd or 3rd tier information in the key navigation real estate of my course web design? Might this have something to do with how previous tools shaped the pedagogy presented? My other trainee this summer made a stab at using Blackboard to recreate a Moodle course he had created for a community college in the Berkshires. He struggled (and actually is still struggling) with concepts of heirarchy, web navigation design, nesting, and meaningful “chunking”. The zeitgeist of Blackboard is a mystery to him and his thinking has been shaped by the Moodle tool -although on a very basic level as he is not very tech savvy. Even with a blank template that presents a simple Blackboard structure using the basic tools and navigation, an exemplar course that he is participating in and my cognitive apprenticeship approach to his training, it is going to take him another full semester to grasp the basics and make the switch. Our first encounter with tools appears to be our most powerful and  pervasive. My personal solution, not open to many faculty, has been to use every LMS I can get my hands on and deconstruct them.

I have had to let go of many robust automated connections within a course structure while using Moodle – something I also experienced with Angel. For some the automatic creation of a grade column when a test, assignment or grading tool is deployed in Blackboard is an imposition or assumption. For me it is an intuitive convenience. In Angel and in Moodle I have to let go of previous assumptions and work more as a craftsperson with a deeper understanding of the tool. In Moodle, as I apprehend the zeitgeist of this tool, I am seeing some very powerful opportunities that are my new challenge, and about which I will write my next post. First a bit more research and experimentation, as the nomenclature, assumptions and logistics of Moodle are excitingly brand new to me.


Boettcher, J. 2007. Ten Core Principles for Designing Effective Learning Environments: Insights from Brain Research and Pedagogical Theory. Innovate 3 (3).