Online Blogucation
7Dec/111

Up In Lights

I just got back from performing a keynote address in Berlin at Online Educa.  It was an amazing experience.  Not only was the conference packed with over 2000 people, but the city of Berlin was quite breathtaking this time of year.  Everywhere you look in Berlin there is some kind of Christmas decoration, tradition, or ornamentation.  People gather together at the Christmas markets to drink Gluehwein (a spiced, boiled wine drink that smelled delicious) and sales abound in the shopping areas.

So as I was walking through one of the markets with some friends, I thought back to the decorating of my own tree just a few weeks ago, which led to thoughts of…instructional design!  (Seriously, I need a break).  With a four year old, Christmas came early this year and we had our tree up on Thanksgiving day!

But the lights on the tree, specifically, were quite an ordeal.  Actually they still are.  See, last year we bought a new tree.  We took our daughter down to “St Nick’s” Christmas store (no joke) and asked for a guided tour of the new trees.  While the trees look amazingly real, they ALL – 100% - had a major flaw.  It was impossible to buy a tree without pre-decorated lights!  And not just pre-decorated, but all white lights.  Ugh.

Of course, I get why they do it.  Most people hate lighting the tree.  It’s time consuming, you end up missing spots, and the only thing worse than getting them on is taking them off.  But, I knew then what proved to be true this year.  Pre-lit trees are not what they appear to be.  See, this year, I had happen EXACTLY what I asked the sales-elf about last year:

ME: “What happens if a light goes out?”
ELF: “That hardly ever happens!”
ME: “Okay, but what if it does?”
ELF: “Well, the lights aren’t connected like they used to be.  If one goes out, it doesn’t affect the others, it just goes out.  You can replace it or leave it, but the rest of the lights will shine.”
ME: “Riiiiiiiight….”

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  This year, just as I suspected, we got the tree up, plugged it in, and yep, you guessed it – the entire middle of the tree was black.  So, I got to spend about an hour, finding, unplugging, and re-plugging new lights into the old sockets, hoping each one would light the strand back up.  (I never got more than 4 in a row to light up with any new bulb…)

Alright, enough about my holiday nightmare.  So what does this have to do with Instructional Design?  Well, as I stood there checking bulb after bulb, I realized that some schools are taking this approach to their online courses.  The premise is simple:  Most instructors don’t have any education around teaching.  Instructional designers know how to design quality courses.  So, create a course with a group of designers and let a dozen different faculty teach it.  Done and done!

But, of course the analogy then starts to take over.  What if you allow instructors to change the course?  Some of those new courses will be awesome – amazing even!  Others, will be like a darkened bulb bringing down the outcomes average for the department.  What if it’s a blinking strand kind of course?  In other words, what if it has all kinds of whiz bang media and social interaction?  The answer there is that most faculty would need a boat load of instruction just to teach it.  (This is why most standardized courses don’t have cool stuff…they just have text, pictures, and some videos.  It’s easier to deliver, even though it’s not nearly as engaging for students.)  This straight forward approach to design for mass clusters of courses would be the equivalent of an all-white tree.  Guess what?  I don’t WANT an all-white tree.  That’s why last year I spent about 3 hours going through and changing out 4 out of 5 bulbs to a color.  I want color.  I LIKE color.

Ok you say - so let’s not use instructional designers.  Let’s let faculty design all of their own courses!  Guess what you get then?  You’ll get some lights perched perfectly on the limbs.  They will be unobtrusive, casting a healthy glow from the inside of the tree, almost as if the tree itself is on fire.  But you’ll also get…well, you’ll get the Griswald tree too.  You’ll get lights that look as if they were flung on the tree by a four year old with a slingshot, appearing as if they may fall off at any minute.  You will get some bulbs that are significantly dimmer than others.  You’ll get 5 reds in a row.  You’ll get classes that have nothing but text and no interaction with the professor except for an occasional rant and the final, posted grades at the end of term.

See, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  There HAS to be a better way.  There has to be a healthy mix of instructional design, subject matter expertise, and personal touches that allow a class to be unique, engaging, and a quality experience in terms of assessment.  The school that figures out how to truly mix sound pedagogy with effective delivery and authentic assessment in a media rich, social environment will rule the world.

But until then, we’ll have to take it one light at a time.  We’ll have to create the best possible bulb section for our trees or try to create at least tri-color trees that are uniformed.  But one day…it will be different.

Oh, by the way, when I landed in Germany my daughter got on the phone.  She just HAD to tell me something.

ME: “Hey Peanut!”
ADDIE: “Hi Daddy.”
ME: “What’s going on sweet heart?”
ADDIE: “The middle of the tree is dark again Dad…”
ME: Guttural moaning...

Happy holidays and may your light shine brightly on whatever educational environment in which you teach.  Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Sr Director of Teaching & Learning

Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I think you are absolutely correct in pointing out that effective teaching requires an appropriate mix of subject matter expertise, pedagogical proficiency, and a solid foundation in learning theory. That is, teachers need to command the content they teach, possess the ability to share this knowledge in a captivating way, and understand how individuals successfully integrate new information with preexisting knowledge. The challenge of combining these elements has, of course, vexed schools for as long as there have been institutions of learning.

    However, I believe your identification of schools as being the primary locus for achieving this goal overlooks the important role that a company like Pearson eCollege could—and I would argue should—play in realizing this ideal. In fact, I would contend that the most promising avenue for figuring out how to mix these elements is to be found in the development of LMS software that goes beyond simply managing learning (assuming learning is actually taking place at all!) to actually fostering it. What is needed is an LMS that could function as an instructional partner—a product that could empower anyone with sufficient knowledge and passion to be a successful teacher. Now that would be powerful; that would be a product to change the educational world.

    What would such an LMS look like? It might include features like the following:

    •Intelligent guidance in creating effective assessment progressions and query types based on learning outcomes
    •Instructor support in selecting graphic types based on the concepts/ideas being taught
    •Tools that permit the easy creation of interactive and personalized web content

    These are merely a few ideas. It would be like having an instructional designer in a box—just add your ideas and passion. The value such a program could bring to schools, which are always looking to raise retention rates among students as well as embolden their teachers to create great online courses, would be immense. The value such a program could bring to society as a whole would undoubtedly be even greater.


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