Student-centered Learning

Lecturing is easy. Successful teaching is hard. Teacher-centered classrooms support the teacher’s impression that “information is being distributed to students”. Student-centered classrooms support the ways student’s successfully receive the information, the way student’s feel about the information, and the way student’s go on to apply that information in meaningful ways. It’s definitely much more difficult.

Not only must the teacher master the content being delivered, but also understand and accept the many ways that students receive it. Despite the administrative efficiency of well-funded schools, learning itself is not an ordered process. Even with desks neatly lined in rows, learning is messy, full of mistakes, wrong concepts that must be corrected, errors of procedure, as well as frustration, anger, and hopelessness. Think back to your own education experiences, subjects that you struggled with. When were you afraid to raise your hand to ask a question? Or wonder why the rest of the class seemed to know what was happening when you did not? Were you ever angry at yourself for not getting it or jealous of others easy success? Alternatively, did you ever dismiss another student’s question as foolish? Wonder why they could not understand something so simple? Did drawing help you understand science better than taking notes? Which was easier: geometry or algebra? To be as successful as possible, the teacher at the front of the room is expected to deal with all of these setbacks. See my post on flipping the classroom to understand why training and supporting teachers ability to work one-on-one and in small groups is so important to ensuring success for all learners.

Learning Moodle


I have known about Moodle for a few years, but I have not fully explored its capabilities. To familiarize myself, my plan is to create a simple course using Moodle,  about Moodle. I will update my progress as interesting things happen. I am hoping to complete in less than a week.

So far, I have found a slideshow that uses a Lego blocks as a metaphor to explain the modular nature of Moodle. This model provides both a structure for this mock course as well as content, so I will speak to this model as I make progress. According to this model, any Moodle course will include four elements:

  • information storage
  • communication among classmates
  • evaluation of self and others
  • collaboration on projects and problems

These four provide an easy-to-understand yet powerful model of what should be in a course. If the designer can meet the requirements of all four components, a robust learning environment is probably being created.

3/28 update: The course outline is up. Some of the supporting activites need to be completed, but essentially, I have met my goal of publishing a Moodle course to the Web. This was easier than I thought it would be. If you are familiar with any LMS or CMS, you should be able to navigate the design interface pretty quickly. I would think that any course with a solid set of supporting materials in digital formats could quickly be uploaded to create a good hybrid or e-learning course.

7/31 update: I just completed a contract to create a course in Moodle! My task was to convert a three-hour-long narrated slideshow  into an online DIY course using Moodle.  I decided to break the slideshow up into 7 sections and create a module to go along with each section. Within each section, I created supporting documents, quizzes, and forums. Unfortunately, the structure of the content is all proprietary, so I can’t share it.  I did it all in about 35 hours (with breaks, of course!).

What Is Instructional Design?

There are long answers to this. I would like to give a simple answer by focusing on the word design. Design is the practice of creating products that are both easy to use and functional. Principles of design have long been applied to consumer products. With consumer products, a good design makes the product’s use intuitive and powerful. A bad design forces the user to waste time, effort, or is unpleasant to use.

Designing the Human/Machine Interface

A human/machine interface is where person and tool meet. The meeting point can be anything from the buttons on a microwave oven to the shape of a shovel’s handle. Consider the amount of effort Apple has put into designing good human/machine interfaces.  Users of Apple products experience the products as pleasant to use, easy to learn to use, and performing valuable functions. It’s no secret that good design has made Apple successful.

Human/Learning Environment Interface

Thinking of the learners as product users is valuable to the designer. Users are active. Users have rights. Users needs must be considered. Traditionally, learners have been thought of as either passive or needing to increase effort when experiencing failure. Increasingly, principles of design are being applied to learning environments: kids/adults in classrooms, an apprentice and a journeyman in a workshop, summer interns at a law firm, basic military training, or Microsoft Flight Simulator. However, considering the needs of the user does not mean compromising the objectives of the course. The needs of the user are considered so that the assessments, the measurements of learning, are valid.  For example, a welder needs to pass a certification test after successfully working as an apprentice. The test evaluates the ability of the welder to follow standard safety procedures. He is a proficient and safe welder, but functionally illiterate. Is a written test a valid way to assess his ability to weld safely? I would say it is not valid. An observational or verbal test would be a better choice. Certainly, gaining literacy would also be good, but the certification was intended to measure ability to weld safely, not literacy. Our welder’s characteristics must be considered, since he is a user of the certification, a type of assessment.

Verifying that assessments are valid is critical to having a pass/fail mark that meets the needs of the user. The users need to pass, but you do not want to pass users who have not learned whatever knowledge, skills, or attitudes (KSAs) the environment is meant to teach. Conversely, you do not want to fail users who have learned what was required. By knowing your users, you know the KSAs each user begins and ends with. Distilled to its essence, the process goes thusly:

  1. pre-assessment of specific KSAs
  2. intervention (i.e. the learning environment imposed on the user)
  3. post-assessment of specific KSAs
  4. repeat as necessary, with appropriate modifications
Any difference in results between step 1 and step 3 are, hopefully, the positive effects of the learning environment. These four steps are supported by many theories, methods, and tools of varying complexity. However, the underlying principle of instructional design, like consumer product design, is knowing your user’s needs.

eLearning Tools

The following are commonly used eLearning tools. Development in this area is rapid, so this is far from a complete list. There are a few links to items I have written.

Development – These tools allow you to write, edit, and publish modules that are in commonly used file formats such as .swf (a Flash movie).

  • Articulate, a powerpoint add on, based around slides, with options for quizzes and spacial organization of information (flowcharts, etc)
  • Camtasia, another powerpoint add on, but video rather than slides
  • Captivate, more robust, but essentially more of the same from Adobe
  • Flash, by far the most versatile, but requires a more extensive set of skills to wield effectively.
Content Management System –  Tools to organize collections of content so that users can navigate to what they want.
  • WordPress – easy to use, intended for blogging but one could easily use wordpress to share reading course materials with students
  • Joomla – open source, harder to use in that you run from your own servers, used for many different types of sites
  • Youtube – easy to use, millions of free videos of all kinds, used by everyone on the planet
  • JStor – if you’ve written a research paper, you likely used JStore. Lots of peer-reviewed journal articles.

Learning or Course Management Systems –  These tools facilitate learning goals by organizing content, allowing communication between teacher and students, provide a means for teachers to give and receive assignments.

  • Blackboard – proprietary, typically used by larger organizations with large budgets
  • Moodle – open source with many extensions and add-ons

Technology Standards – These “tools” take care of certain kinds of compatibility issues involved with plugging modules into an LMS.

Web 2.0 – These tools can support social aspects of learning.

  • Facebook
  • Ning
  • Yahoo and Google groups
  • wikis – set of user-editable pages where a group of learners/practioners collectively write and edit to develop a body of knowledge into a mature reference work

Flipping the Classroom

The “flip” refers to where students first see the content and where they try to apply what they have learned. The traditional model has lecture in class and assignments done primarily outside of class. Homework and assignments are typically done in isolation from the teacher and other students. Any problems had to be solved (or skipped) by the student until the next class. In a flipped classroom, the polished lectures or videos are available online for students to view at home. In class, students apply what they learned outside of class in groups with the teacher available to help.

Two years ago I reviewed Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson  in another blog*. The concept of flipping reminded me of one of the authors’ points: technology can efficiently deliver polished lectures/readings/videos to students. When teachers are relieved of this task, they can concentrate on helping individual students or small groups. For a teacher seeing 150 students a day, this is an invaluable efficiency. Flipping the classroom promises exactly this. Students watch lecture or read a chapter outside class via the school’s learning management system, then apply it inside class where the teacher’s expertise or elements such as a laboratory are immediately available.

I am certain that there are teachers who have been doing this for a while. Flipping is not a new concept, but it is reinforced by the affordances of the Internet and the increasing access students have to streaming content.

*update: my old company “rebooted” the blog. i will try to find a copy and post it.

TED-Ed: Adding Animation to Great Lessons

I have mentioned TED talks in previous posts. TED-Ed is an initiative to have professional graphics developers animate selected teachers’ best lessons for web distribution. The TED-Ed introduction video is only two minutes long and shows what TED-Ed envisions better than I can write. The video itself is the case in point! Better to show and tell than just tell. Top comment on the video as of my viewing was “I hope this turns out to be something like an animated Khanacademy 😀 [sic]”.

3/19 update: TedTalks available for streaming on Netflix. Still available free on YouTube.

SCORM and the Value of Metadata to eLearning

What is SCORM? Not the bad guy in a sci-fi film, but a standard for sharing digital content. Developed by Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) was written to simplify inclusion of learning objects in a learning management system (LMS). SCORM is a set of technical specifications that allows SCORM-compliant products to be loaded quickly into an LMS for students to access. Although SCORM was created for the Department of Defense, it is used outside of DOD by many organizations because it is one of the only standards for sharing digital learning content.

SCORM does not currently include metadata tagging for categories like learning activity type, teaching method, differentiation category, or many other pedagogical considerations. So while SCORM is ‘smart’ about IT issues, it is “dumb” when it comes to issues teachers and instructors face when developming courses. For example, I have  often found myself searching the Internet blindly for a well-packaged teaching activity that I know is out there, is better than what I can create in one afternoon, but not sure what search terms to use to find it. Learning Object Metadata (LOM) is a standard that would solve this problem, but it is not used very widely. LOM tags would make it simple to locate an activity that is, for example,

  • in English with Spanish/Vietnamese supplements for English Language Learners
  • falls under relevant state or Common Core Standards
  • is constructionist in theory and student-centered in method
  • about soil erosion and watersheds
  • includes short video with pre and post-quizzes
  • list of materials for hands-on, small group, 20 minute classroom activity
  • relevant to a particular school district’s watershed (e.g. Chesapeake Bay, the Ogallala aquifer, or the Rio Grande)

The state of LOM and metadata is still in limbo. Researchers at MIT report that “The Metadata Unit has found that even with all the forward thinking and cutting edge tech…it is the traditional cataloger’s sensibilities regarding good descriptions and access…that is most valuable in discovering access to the library’s new class of electronic objects”. <sigh> The problem is the same: search terms on the Internet are analogous to the terms chosen by the archivist in any metadata system. Here in the Information Age, awash in information, we struggle to catalogue it all so that we can use actually use and share it efficiently.

Teaching With Stories

Storytelling is fundamental to human communication. Consider how much of your conversation with others consists of swapping stories about personal experience. People have been learning from each other’s experiences for as long as we have been people. Anthropological and linguistic  research suggests that storytelling has been the primary means of learning in hunter/gatherer societies for over 100,000 years at least. With this in mind, it seems important to include narrative when designing effective learning environments.  While facts might capture curiosity about the unknown, narrative is what hooks emotive interest.

In transitioning from hunter/gatherer society to more complex civilizations, when does formal education become important? History indicates that until only recently, few people underwent any type of formal education. These few included specialists like priests and scribes, living in societies where most people were field laborers or craftsmen. These laborers learned through apprenticeship, probably more similar to learning in a hunter/gatherer society than learning in a classroom. In short, education for the masses has only come about in the last couple hundred years. From my perspective, the idea that we are still working out the kinks in education is the understatement of the year; I would guess that the worst kink is that classrooms can be really boring. Do you remember how much better sitting through lecture was when the teacher or professor told great stories? Or how you remember a great novel or film because the story kept you rapt for the next chapter or scene?

I have come across the idea teaching through storytelling several times over the years. While working as a science writer, one of my editors stressed the importance of adding narrative to our dry, fact-saturated science content. As an anthropology major, one of my professors lectured on the power stories (read myth, cosmology, origin stories, etc) have over our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. As much as I believe in the effectiveness of stories on learning, it is not always easy to do. Combining content with a good story is twice the work of just delivering content. In short, experts (the teacher) deliver what they learned (the content) without the interesting bits about what they went through to learn it. Efficient, in its own way, but not effective for holding the attention of most learners. I came across one interesting method of telling the story over the weekend while watching TED.

I am a big fan of TED, founded to be “a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading”. Every idea is presented on stage, by one person, sometimes with a multimedia slide show in the background. The presenter tells a story of how their idea came about and why  it is important for other people to know about this idea. Already, you see why I like TED. The talk by Nancy Duarte is doubly interesting because she is talking about effective delivery of ideas. She provides a template for storytelling to effectively convey the impact of a new idea. It’s worth watching, but the sum of her talk can be seen in this screen capture. Don’t look at the screen cap below if you want to learn through her story!


3/19 update: TedTalks available for streaming on Netflix. Still available free on YouTube.

Learning with Microworlds

Microworld is the academic term for a simple learning simulation. The simulation will focus on a dynamic but limited environment with only a handful of operating variables with at least one variables under the learner’s control. In my post on using simple games to teach linear algebra, each game I discuss is based around a microworld. Add gaming elements to a microworld, and you have a simple game.

One of my favorite microworlds allows the learner to play with momentum and gravity. Unlike the linear algebra games, this simulation of gravity in a solar system has no mathematical or gaming elements. The learner manipulates velocity and size of objects orbiting around a star to see the effects.

If students took measurements from a planetary gravity simulation such as this, they could derive principles of gravitation and orbital mechanics in a way similar to the way early astronomers did. Research shows that this type of learning, often called discovery learning or recapitulation, is profoundly more effective than instruction received via lecture or traditional textbook. The affordances of digital devices, broadband, and wi-fi make including elements like microworlds in classrooms easy.

Apple’s iBooks2

Apple is getting into the e-textbook business with iBooks2. However, this may not be the death knell for the big players in the industry, as a few of the big names have been working with Apple on this project. Maybe we’ll get a hint of the direction this takes textbook publishing with a new academic year this fall. Perhaps the $14.99 max price tag will save schools a lot of money compared to $100+ for many traditional textbooks?

1/25 Update: Fox didn’t agree about the pricing. iPads aren’t exactly cheap, even if the texts might be.

My hope is that this release will seed the ground for some open source projects that really do push this idea of interactive textbooks forward.

1) Nearly all of what is taught in schools is public domain. Why do schools pay for textbooks? e-textbooks should be free, and the money should go to other needs in schools. One Slate writer agrees.

2) Bill Gates was on Bill Moyers last night, which I didn’t see, but this brief article relates what I think is THE most important, yet unrealized ability of using computers to deliver instruction: individualization. I don’t just mean a fast student taking 4 months instead 8 months to go through the same course as every other student. I mean courses that can react to student’s learning styles and adjust complexity, depth, or review of material according to a student’s grades or learning style. Individualization does not mean a course won’t be rigorous, or that every student shouldn’t have to do well on standardized test. My thought is that a great e-textbook will offer a student several paths to achieve state learning standards, or do well on the SAT or an AP exam. There is no reason a state, say California or Texas, couldn’t take 10 of their great teachers (capture the “paths” they provide in their own classrooms) and give them a year to write, say, a biology e-textbook with the help of a few graphic designers and software developers, and then provide that e-textbook for free to all the students of the state. Teachers can submit updates that go through committee to keep up with advances in research. Seems simple enough to me.

3/8 Update: Some background on e-books pricing methods in this WSJ article on DOJ’s threat to sue five publishers for alleged price fixing.