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What I’ve Learned about Designing eLearning

 “An idea is a point of departure and no more.  As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.”  — Pablo Picasso

I recently went to the Pablo Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  The $5 I dished out on the audio tour was well spent.  I learned things about the personal Picasso that changed the way I thought about his art.  He is an interesting study in adult development.  Even more interesting is his long and productive career “marked by unflagging spirit of exploration and discovery.”  The connection between eLearning design Picasso’s work, a process of exploration and discovery, was apparent to me.  Both develop over time as the ‘artist’ grows in skill and dares to challenge the pervasive thinking of ‘what is art.’ Picasso’s quotes that pepper this post demonstrate this parallel and frame my course design experience.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

From the start, my proposed project was lofty.  It was intended to be a redesign of a day-long face-to-face training for teachers, integrating eLearning strategies using a blended-learning instructional delivery model.  The clincher:

  1. This was my first try at designing an eLearning experience.  I had never actually used a LMS to deliver instruction or a digital tool for building a course.
  2. I had only read about blending learning, but felt it was an appropriate approach for what was to be accomplished.  Effective blended learning, as I had read, has at least ‘five key ingredients.
  3. Two professional development programs I had discovered also appeared to be great   models – but they were semester-long, and day-long conference models.
  4. With all this in mind, I chose to redesign the one day training into a six week, one full day a week, full-blown professional development course on the same topic – developing authentic integrated project units (AIPU).

My enthusiasm for the course framework soon gave way to an ‘oh crap’ moment, when I realized I could not draw on ANY previous experience for this project, other than years in the classroom and experience in facilitating high school teachers as they plan for and design new schools.  But I really wanted to learn how to do it.  So why not do it all?

This was the biggest challenge of the project, and became the key driver behind the design – experience so that you learn how to do.  What better theoretical framework for this than social constructivist theory (and by association connectivism).  This is one way to become an ‘expert.’

 “Bad artists copy, good artists steal.”

This is not advice (from Picasso) that I had at the time, but I have to admit I don’t mind being thrown into the ‘good artist’ category.  The entire project is based on material and resources used for the day-long training by SREB.  (I did add several resources and activities from my recent facilitation experience as time went on).   I stole from the PLEK12 MOOC model for outlining the weekly sessions.  I liked the model of having Live Sessions and a PLE component.  I also stole from the Maine Professional Development Collaborative – New Literacies Institute model.  This included the Design Studio and Cool Tools component – both of which were essential to the ‘experience so that you learn how to do’ concept.

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

I had a solid framework, I had great models to fit the framework, I even knew a bit more about learner needs from interviews I had conducted for another course project.  Great ideas were swimming in my head, waiting to be transformed, but the canvas had not yet been prepared.  Robin Smith’s Conquering the Content approach is to map out the entire project.  This required destroying the big idea, and breaking it down into its component parts:  competencies, major points, chunks, activities, transitions, resources (digital and otherwise), and assessment.  To this I added the F2F vs. online decision. 

This effort, though quite extensive, turned out to be a step worth taking as I began to transfer the content to the final products.  Picasso, over the course of his development as an artist, built on previous work, changing some parts and keeping others as a constant ‘signature’ of his work.  So, too, it was with my creation.  I sought to incorporate the ‘community of practice’ ideas of Palloff, Pratt and Anderson and the digital social and learning tools of my previously built PLE. In particular, I added a complete day devoted to ‘managing’ the change because I began to realize what I had learned, it takes a great deal to manage online learning and still have presence.  From observing teachers during the SREB training, I knew this was also a topic they enjoyed exploring in great detail.

“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?”

Second only to my learning curve in challenges was determining the activities associated with each day.  I wanted to honor what I knew about the users of the end product – they are teachers.  They are not what’s on the face (the topic) or what’s inside the face (the content), but what’s behind the face.  They want learning to be practical, useful, and engaging.  Practical is built into the course framework, but useful and engaging depend on the level of the teacher, and became a struggle as I developed the activities. 

Two components of the ADLT 642 course design helped me through this although I considered them extra work and effort at the time:  weekly reflection and weekly updates.  Reflective practice helped bring clarity to what was ‘behind the face.’  Experiencing this clarity from reflection is important, as similar ‘artifacts’ – evidence of process thinking – are a component of my course’s formative assessment. As much as I was reluctant to provide updates on a weekly basis in class, getting feedback from my peers along the way was a great help.  I had not yet fully determined the direction of the Live Sessions, but it was suggested that these could be attended synchronously by some and asynchronously by others that needed less intensive background.  From this, the development of the model’s ‘digging deeper’ sessions turned into discussions based on experience that would engage each teacher in meaningful dialogue. Their knowledge could then be shared with all ‘levels’ within the participant group.  This takes care of engaging.  The Design Studio holds great promise as an extension of breakout learning and as a way to develop team among the participants, but more importantly as an opportunity to result in a relevant and useful product.

 “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”

Another component of the course that changed as it was developed was the Cool Tools and PLE Activity.  I began thinking how great it would be to really immerse the participants in the use of digital tools – with the main purpose of transfer to student use.  As we continued to discuss our projects, I learned that others were struggling with the same issue – not overwhelming users with technology for the sake of technology, but selecting what was meaningfully linked to their purpose.  The tools I chose for each session are merely suggestions.  Many teachers have used tools that would be relevant to share, and will have the opportunity to do so.  The main idea of incorporating technology in the course now is to stress to teachers the building of a digital network, and offering the opportunity to do so with the support of their peers. 

Finally, my respect for a LMS as a learning tool is evolving.  The turning point was when I logged on to COURSEsites and was prompted regarding the structure of my course.  I selected constructivist, and was happily surprised when offered a prompt on how to set up the course tools using this structure.  Even the terminology used helped me to keep my focus on the main components of the theory – “guiding students through active learning experiences and encouraging peer-to-peer collaboration and interaction.”  With the peer coaching provided during the past few weeks, I have learned the value of the tool from those that use it currently in instruction – along with the large learning gap yet to be filled in making full use of the tool.

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

The course development of Developing AIPUs is on pause for now.  It is time to review purpose and process, time to evaluate the current product and plan for future development.  The evolving product can also be considered my ‘diary’ of eLearning design.

 What I intend to do as the result of reading my ‘diary’:

  1. Use my network.  George Siemans says, “learning is a process of growing connections.”  I did not develop or use connections as I should have while designing this course.  At one point, I even stated that I missed collaboration. While classmates were supportive and helpful, I used models from two individuals that would most likely have been willing to collaborate with me as I struggled through the course development process.  I also had at close disposal the developer of the original training and the end users.
  2. Continue to resolve lack of efficacy with digital tools. I am not sure if digital tools make teaching and learning easier or more complicated.  I just need to keep using them and discovering new tools through interaction with colleagues.  I am optimistic, based on the recent article about learning tool convergence that it will become easier over time.
  3. Take advantage of continuous collaboration of design and evaluation – the elements of rapid prototyping that I believe are just good practice regardless of the ‘rapid’ approach. 
  4. Provide more structure as part of course design purposeful feedback.  I have to admit that I felt like a first year teacher again – too focused on curriculum and delivery and not focused on my primary role – to guide the student through the learning process, which includes evaluation. 

“Id like to live as a poor man with lots of money.”

Picasso’s work was always a personal expression, very reflective of his own style, life, and experiences at the time.  His work, like course design, is both simple and complex.  While he engaged in a whole spectrum of media and materials, he was primarily a painter.  I am primarily a teacher, a workplace education practitioner. With a whole spectrum of digital media and materials at my disposal, I plan to continue developing that ‘niche’ in the eLearning world that effectively connects teachers to the changing needs of the learners.


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