Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Report #5: A Reflection on Self-Directed Learning

An Interesting Question

In a recent team meeting, a fellow instructional designer asked the team to name a secret self-taught skill (his was throwing knives, another said juggling). Then he posed the question: where did you learn this? He also asked us to think about a skill we tried to learn, but couldn’t learn. Why couldn't you learn the skill? This kind of thinking - reflection on learning experiences outside of the classroom - inspired this post on my own paths of self-directed learning. What take-aways from my own experience will cross over into the realm of instructional design?

My Skill: Roller Derby

This is the team-based, amateur contact sport on roller skates that I play; I spend a lot of time dedicated to becoming the best skater I can be. Here is a quick list of what I’ve done to progress to what I think is an advanced level (3+ years, national level competition):
  • Attend at least 3 practices a week (2 hours in length)
  • Weight training 3 days a week
  • High Intensity Interval Training 2 days a week
  • Running Stairs
  • Tai Chi Daily (ok, I’ve been bad about this one lately...)
  • Research on Nutrition; implement changes to diet; special diet during tournament season
  • Attend 2 special training workshops (or bootcamps) in a year
  • Watch footage of self, team, opponents, or expert level teams/skaters: 2 hours monthly
  • Sports psychology reading/research
  • Podcast/reading derby articles: 1-3 hours a month
  • Participate in league discussion boards: 1 hour/week
  • Countless in-person, phone, and chat/text conversations with other skaters
  • Meetings: 1-5 hours a month
  • Bouts (that’s what we call games in roller derby)!
In sum, that's a lot of work (as well as motivation to keep putting so much time into something that doesn't earn me any money).


In all the hours I've invested in my sport, I've taken away some useful lessons about learning and motivation. Here is a list of take-aways:
  • I find joy in the activity itself (most of the time). It’s easier to be motivated that way.
  • When progress is trackable in small increments, I get the feeling I’m progressing and I want to learn more. I want to try harder. It’s addicting.
  • Feedback is essential to my progression.
  • Feedback is uncomfortable to give when I am a novice at a particular skill.
  • Feedback is easier (and more enjoyable) to give when I am closer to mastery.
  • Personal goal setting, with a larger goal and incremental goals to pave the way, is a faster way to mastery.
  • There is less fear when there is no such thing as failure. There is only falling, from which I can get up again and again. Eventually, I fall less, to the point where I typically only fall when I am pushing myself to a new level.
  • When there is no failure, it is still possible to label myself a failure. Don’t do that if I can. Keep trying, and there are people to help along the way.
  • There is inspiration everywhere, from skaters on Team USA to newly drafted rookies who try new things, fall, and get back up and do it again.

How Does this Relate to Instructional Design?

Finally, I'd like to map what I've learned in my derby life over to my professional life - to the world of instructional design, specifically for adult learners:
  • Feedback is important. Not only has feedback from others helped me track my progression, but my own ability to give feedback
    Beginner (in black) - only a few months skating...
    to others does the same thing as well.  I’d like to see more peer feedback. I’d like to see more students at mastery level helping the “rookies”. How do we achieve this, specifically in an online program of study?
  • Feeling a sense of progression is important. Seeing evidence of that progression is important.  I can watch video footage of my very first bout as a rookie and  then look at the most recent bout I skated. I see progress, and I feel proud, and I want to keep learning. I can look at one of thousands of photos available and critique my form (even in the 3+ years photo-  I need to get a little lower!) and see progression. I can look at my bout statistics and see progression.  I feel at ease giving feedback to others - that is progression! I think about this all the time when I’m doing design work. In what ways can we track progression, outside of grades?
  • Other people are important. Learning in a community has been an eye-opening experience. For example, one person may
    3+ years later...
    not get through to me when she is teaching me a skill, but someone else may be able to explain and demonstrate it in a way that works for me. How do we connect students to a community of learning and instruction? 
  • Falling (not failing) is important. I can always get back up and keep trying. This is a tough one-  especially with the imposed time constraints in a semester, credit-hour based system. What are some steps we can take to provide safer opportunities to fall?

Those are all questions I would like to explore further. Does my experience really map to higher education and the design of courses and programs of study? What can we do differently, and what are we already doing that is similar to successful self-directed learning? What can I do as a designer to improve the quality of the student experience? These are all broad questions, but it is a good place to start.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Report #4: Take-away: Inquiry-Based Learning

I attended the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning in August - here's my take-away from "Inquiry-based learning in self-paced, online professional development" presented by Erin McCloskey, Faculty Associate, Distance Education Professional Development, Continuing Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Take-away: Consider using real-time, problem solving needs to drive your course (for adult learners). 

This was an online, self-paced, non-credit course on mobile learning, and the approach was something I'd like to see a bit more in online courses for adults . In this example, students began their learning journey with a guiding question (GQ) that they chose (How can mobile learning benefit non profits? How easily can teachers integrate mobile learning into pedagogy?). Jumping ahead to the end, the learner then produced a project that was driven by the guiding question, such as a survey, video, written report, infographic (you get the idea). The course was broken down into 3 phases: preparation, exploration, and consolidation.

From the diagram to the right,  you can see a box that says "didn't provide a lot of content". This session reminded me how important it is to teach students how to curate and consolidate content they find - information literacy skills - than to always provide them with content.

You also see a box on the bottom that says "course scaffolding".  Students weren't totally on their own (feedback on guiding questions, reflections, etc), but mostly on their own. According to their feedback, students felt a bit lost their first time around, so in the next offering, a screencast was added, the course checklist was revised, and all important resources were placed in a prominent location. 

Connecting this back to the take-away:  I'd like to see this approach more (even if it is just a smaller component of a course) because it allows these adult students to choose a guiding question or problem that they are interested in. To me that's about time and motivation. I'm thinking about professionals who are also investing their time in more education, for whatever reason. If they can use that precious time to solve a problem they are already thinking about in their profession, that's optimal. If it doesn't touch their professional life - if they can work on a question that they are at least curious about on their own, that's optimal as well. Then there's the information literacy piece - finding, assessing, and applying content to the problem - this is a skill that is applicable in any profession, and a piece that would be a great place for the instructor to offer feedback. On the motivation piece, this self-paced non-credit course, upon second offering, had a 75% retention rate (up from 59% on the first offering). I still need to contact Erin McCloskey about other factors affecting retention, but that's fantastic for a non-credit course. Does the format (inquiry-based) have anything to do with that? I'd like to know.

Edit:  Erin responded to the retention rate - the high percentage - the jump from 59 to 75 is most likely due to participants' motivation to earn a certificate. In the first offering (with lower retention), some participants were alumni (and not seeking a certificate), and in the second offering all were seeking a certificate. She also believes the second offering was substantially better (design-wise), that that the inquiry-based format did matter, and was better for people with more specific needs or goals, though she is working on ways to scaffold the inquiry format for students with less defined needs.

Further reading on Inquiry-Based Learning:

Theoretical frameworks that informed the design of this course are: Nesbit and Winne and Kulthau.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Report #3: Badges and Competencies

Badging has been around for a long time (Military, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts) and recently, in our digital world, it has caught on and is making its way into education. I'm even working on a digital badging project for an online course (more about that in a later post). I've received badges like these:

Look! I'm serious about beer tasting.

I don't limit myself to American Lagers.

As you can see, badges are more meaningful than a neat piece of flair - in the example above, you see that my Beer Connoisseur badge carries more information.  In this example, I wish it were a bit more sophisticated (you could see a list of exactly what 5 beers from what countries I tasted to earn the badge). 

This is where I'm going with this post: badges are meaningful representations of something the earner did. It signifies that they completed a competency, an objective. Here lies a strength of badging systems: how can you issue a badge for an objectives that are written like this:  know 5 different beers from 5 different countries. How do you issue a badge for that? It absolutely requires action-oriented objectives.

Let's look at the Boy Scouts as an example. Have you ever looked at badge requirements? They are ridiculously detailed. It's amazing how one little patch carries so much information.

From the Boy Scouts of America official website:
You are expected to meet the requirements as they are stated—no more and no less. You must do exactly what is stated in the requirements. If it says "show or demonstrate," that is what you must do. Just telling about it isn't enough. The same thing holds true for such words as "make," "list," "in the field," and "collect," "identify," and "label."
After I read this, I was interested to look up requirements for badges. Check out the requirements for the American Business badge.

What does this mean for higher education? For now, just imagine that you're an employer. What are you more interested in: a transcript, or a link to your potential hire's badges showing every competency she achieved (one could argue both - the overall picture and the supporting detailed information would be a very powerful tool in my opinion). Imagine that you're a student and you can look at your badges for any given program, see your progress, see your completed competencies, see your weak points and strong points - would this add to the overall learning experience? These are questions we have to ask. One could argue that badges are just a shiny visual representation of what we should already have: clearly written objectives that are measurable. If badges, however,  can provide:

  • help in writing better objectives
  • a sense of progression
  • an easy view to the big picture and how the little pieces fit together
  • motivation
then badging can be defended as a very useful and powerful tool for higher education.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Report #2: Zebras and Case Studies

Cases on the Brain

I did some Google-fu and found some case studies about zebras, but nothing about these wild equids learning from (or teaching using) case studies. I felt a sense of relief, because that would be terrifying to me.

Inaccurate Representation of Zebra, sharpie on legal pad, 2013

In all seriousness,  I've got cases on the brain because I'm developing a course that uses them (cases, not zebras). I'll use the term case study, but case method will work too. If you want to do a search you'll find resources using either term, though "case studies" tends to trend towards science. 

The purpose of this post, however, isn't to talk terminology. It's not about how to write a case study, either. This post is about case learning happening organically -- outside of the classroom. This post is also about zebras. 

You could also use the term "referees".

A Little Background Info

I went to the penalty box shortly after this. 
The hand signal you see is for "cutting the track".
 That is a very bad thing to do in roller derby.
Photo credit: Dutcher Photography/Madison, WI

I play roller derby, which means I'm connected with a large network of volunteer referees. It's not easy being a zebra -- they must know the ruleset exhaustively and apply it in real-life situations. Let's take that one step further:  the actions of skaters on the track happen lightning-fast and while these aren't life-or-death situations, one call can mean an advantage or disadvantage that affects the outcome of an entire game.  There are different levels of mastery for referees and they must go through some tough assessments to get there that include  a skills test, a written test, and performance evaluations. 

You can imagine how tough it would be to learn all of this (there are 60 pages in the ruleset, to give you an idea). Imagine being a novice and thinking about a penalty you just saw, and then thinking about the proper way to do the hand signal, and then making the call quickly. You can imagine all the practice it takes to be able to do this. 

Where the Cases Come In

How does this relate to cases? I noticed some similarities between a skater/referee online discussion and the case study I'm currently working on. What are the similarities? The referees need a lot of background information (the ruleset and the video scenario) and there was no clear answer.

A skater posted the following scenario from a recent tournament on Facebook. She thought the moves looked pretty cool but had a question: is that legal? In "case" you're interested,  here's the video in question.  Hint: in roller derby, you can't hit while moving backwards. Watch the skaters in the black uniforms.

The conversation went something like this: 

Skater: Hey (refs) would some of these be direction of gameplay penalties now?

Summary of ref response:

  • There's quite a few that would be direction of gameplay
  • There's also a cut on the white jammer
  • There's a direction of gameplay at 0:14
  • Disclaimer - we weren't there, so if you can't see the exact angle that the refs there were looking from , you can't be completely sure.
  • We're all human. There's a lot of stuff happening and mistakes will be made. 
  • "The key is to keep learning and adapting so you do better next time, and own up to any mistakes you made"

Not only did we learn about what's happening in the video, but we learned the referee point of view (all from a very short time of  11:23 to 11:40).

I can't help but think these mini-cases and discussions are a great learning tool if you're not ready to do a full-blown case study. Again, the similarities between the case in the class and this discussion on Facebook were that the participants needed background information (here, the ruleset), discussed in teams,  and presented the decision (the skater in this case; in the class it's a CEO).

 I've been involved in similar discussions as the one presented above. For example, after a bout (what we call a game in roller derby),  teams can watch the footage and send the refs any questions or feedback after the fact. The refs will then respond, and everyone involved ends up learning from the experience. Skaters end up with knowledge that can help them play cleaner (if they choose to apply it), or get apologies for blown calls (oops!), and refs can learn about what types of calls they are missing (or making correctly) consistently.

It's very interesting when this type of learning happens organically and outside of the classroom. All it took was a few people that were passionate or eager to take the time learn to get better at something they like (or love) doing. Discussing cases or scenarios, especially in upper-level undergraduate classes and at the graduate level,  may have a similar feel and level of interest from the participants. I'd like to particularly explore using short videos with a specific problem, along with accompanying information (like the ruleset) as a framework for mini-cases.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Report #1: Humor and Learning

Last week I was out of the office for a few days. I traveled to San Francisco. 

Proof: here are some seals.

Seals, however, aren't the point. I traveled on Delta Airlines. This detail is pretty unremarkable, except for the fact that I was thinking about their airline safety video nearly a week after I disembarked from the plane. It was really funny. I encourage you to watch it yourself. 

Air travel is not new to me, so there's really no way to gauge how effective this video is in communicating everything I already know. What it did do, however, was make me pay attention. There's even an alternate version that has changed a few fun details to keep frequent flyers amused. The fact that I was thinking about the video yesterday was actually remarkable. I remembered it for some reason. And that reason is that it was funny. It was different. 

My next thought was (of course) how does this apply to learning, especially for adults? One instructor I work with states, in his intro video, that he uses humor intentionally because it's linked with retention. I did a web search [humor and retention] to find articles or studies on this, and there is a lot out there. Here are a few conclusions, and the links to these studies:

In a nutshell, all of the studies I skimmed had positive things to say about humor - lectures are more engaging interesting, etc. A great example I came across was how to use humor to make statistics more engaging. I don't, however, see definitive proof that humor directly affects test or assessment scores.

I came across this article in JOLT that focuses on the use of humor in the online class that basically says humor creates a positive learning environment. In my experience this has been absolutely true. It's hard to say how much of a role humor plays, however, because those particular instructors are usually extremely involved and passionate about teaching, as well.

I work with three instructors in particular who have fantastic senses of humor and each of them is responsive, proactive, and  really show they care by making themselves available and approachable. They all have completely different styles of humor. One is goofy, one is dry, and one is pretty weird, and all this comes through in lectures and discussion interactions. Looking at their individual cases, I would say that humor absolutely adds to the value of the course. What happens, however, when you have an instructor and that's not their style? I know another instructor who is very straightforward but whose lectures are very meaningful and useful - this instructor is also very well liked and valued by students (and the course gets excellent reviews).

Where does this leave humor? In my very light and non-scientific analysis, I'd say don't be afraid of it, especially in an online course. It's very humanizing, especially if it's you. As far as humor and retention goes, my gut says that if you can teach a concept in a straightforward way and then surprise students with a memorable joke, then that's helping, at least in the short term. If I were teaching a course I would absolutely use humor where it was appropriate. When I get a PowerPoint narration from an instructor and there are relevant jokes or entertaining stories involved that add color to the concepts, I'm immediately enthusiastic and I get an impression that this instructor is going to be good. And when I say good, I mean I'm not going to have to worry about students wondering why this instructor dropped off the face of the earth. So if it's that kind of an indicator, there's some correlation between humor and good instruction.

Back to Delta: If I had a straightforward flight safety video, I probably would have ignored it because I already know the information. Maybe, however, I only think  I know the information. The humorous video would be a great way to call out new information that I'd miss otherwise.

Thanks for reading. Here's a video of some entertaining physics: