Interdisciplinary Courseware to the Rescue?

In the midst of all the bling of media-rich, adaptive, personalized, [insert-buzzword-here] digital products, there is a lurking underlying problem:

The general education curriculum in higher education has barely changed. Today’s world is cross-disciplinary, culturally diverse, and team-oriented. There is almost no problem that can be solved in a silo content area with a team of one.

Map showing the interconnected nodes between a variety of subject areas in research.

Interdisciplinary Thinking, from New Scientist’s article “Open your Mind to Interdisciplinary Research”

We need new cross-disciplinary curriculum. We need courses that are more engaging and reflective of today’s real issues. We need courses like these (referenced from my 2009 post on Hacking Higher Education):

  • Trend Analysis (Math + History)
  • Biology and Human Enhancement (Biology + Philosophy)
  • Science of Exercise (Science + Health & PE)
  • Exploring Water Issues (Science + Politics)
  • Design and Digital Presentations (Graphic Design + Communication)
  • Data Analysis and Information Presentation (Statistics, Graphic Design, and Communication)
  • Exploring Recycling and Refuse (Science, Government, and Humanities)
  • Chemistry of Nutrition (Chemistry + Health & PE)
  • Poverty and World Culture (Humanities, Government, and Sociology)
  • Sociology and Psychology of the Web (Sociology + Psychology)
  • How Computers Think (CIS + Philosophy)
  • Art, Media, and Copyright (Fine Arts + Law)
  • Writing for the Digital Age (CIS + Communication + English)
  • Energy (Physics, Chemistry, and Government)
  • Information, Query, and Synthesis (Literacy, Logic, English)

The problem is that very few faculty can teach courses like this without extensive learning or teamwork, and very few authors that could write such a curriculum from scratch.

This is exactly the moment when “digital courseware” should rise to the occasion. Digital courseware could be built to support these kinds of inter-disciplinary courses with a well-designed learning experience (not just text, but formative assessment and designed interactions with students and faculty). It could be multimedia rich, adaptive, personalized, and all that good buzzword stuff.

With a solid digital courseware backbone to support the learning, faculty could be tapped from different disciplines to evaluate work, answer questions, and coach students in their learning. No one faculty member would have to learn all the nuances of the course immediately.

So why aren’t we getting that? Why are we just getting more Algebra, English Comp, and Freshman Biology courses? Because that’s what we keep asking for. We keep saying, “give us better pass rates for these courses we currently teach.” We keep funding the rebuild (and rebuild) of those courses that create retention and graduation pressure in higher education. What if the problem is not the delivery of the course, but in the course itself? What if students are never going to do better in these courses because deep at the heart of the issue, the student knows the course isn’t applicable to the world they live in?

The Big History course (funded by Bill Gates) is an admirable step towards creating a more modern and more interdisciplinary curriculum. MOOCs do not have to pay attention to credit counts, what “department” the course lives in, or how it will or will not count as an elective towards multiple degrees. Consequently, MOOC providers have the freedom to build interesting, modern, and cross-disciplinary courses like The Science of Everyday Thinking (from EdX) or Politics and Economics of International Energy (from Coursera).

But why is it outsiders to education that have to lead these efforts? Educators should begin asking for the “right” curriculum from courseware providers (looking at traditional publishers, digital platforms, and MOOCs). We need to ask for the curriculum we want to teach instead of that which we have always taught.

Of course, courseware providers aren’t going to build something they don’t think has a market yet – and so we have a classic “chicken and egg” problem. This seems like exactly the kind of problem that needs a funding push. If a beautiful digital course on “How Computers Think” or “Poverty and World Culture” became available nationally at a low cost, I’d like to think that institutions and faculty would be able to step up to the challenge of figuring out the rest of the logistics to offer these courses.

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Why prototype a digital course?

Very few of us would buy an unbuilt home without at least viewing a model home that conveys the look and feel of the interior and exterior of the rest of the community. We should be unwilling to build (or buy) an entire course (a “row” of units, modules, chapters, or weeks of content) without seeing at least one “model unit” first.



In the software world, a low-fidelity prototype is used to give the look and feel of a future product. With this prototype there is some hand-waving (mockups) to explain away missing functionality and potential users are asked how they would navigate and use the product. This happens long before the product build, and is iterative.

In the learning world, we should consider that course builds (especially large-scale digital courseware) need the same kind of prototype.  Before the time and money is invested to build the a full course, consider building one unit as completely as possible, and make sure your stakeholders (students, faculty, instructional designers, deans, customers) actually want to learn in this course.  Choose a prototype unit that is most representative of the majority of the learning in course; this is usually not the first or last unit.

When the model unit is being designed and built, this is the ideal time to collaborate iteratively with students, faculty, IT, assessment, and instructional designers. While it will take some time to change the model unit as opinions shift, it will not take as much time as remodeling every unit in the course.

After you’ve got stakeholder approval for the model unit design, make sure to carefully document what features this prototype contains, since your team will need to apply it consistently across the full development. Here are just a few of the learning features you might want to apply across your multi-unit build:

  • content: where did it come from? what quantity per learning objective?
  • examples: how often, how relevant?
  • interaction: how much, what kind, and how often?
  • assessment: what kind? how often? authentic? purely for practice? for learning scaffolding?
  • images: for what purpose, how often?
  • videos: how long are they, what stylistic elements are there, how often do they occur?
  • simulations or games: for what purpose? how often?

As digital learning becomes more accepted (thanks MOOCs) and blended learning becomes a more standard model at traditional institutions, I hope we’ll see much more collaborative prototyping, followed by intentional design, in these courses.

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Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed (Part 1)

Part I: Tiers of Vocabulary and General Education

In many courses in higher education, we have a need for the students to learn a new set of vocabulary. Vocabulary words can be broken into three tiers (the following are the definitions from Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2013):

Tier One: Words typically found in oral language.

Tier Two: Wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users.

Tier Three: Words limited to a specific domain.

While there are three (simple) tiers of vocabulary, and these are often depicted in a pyramid or a cake with three levels, I think the learning of vocabulary is much more complex than that, especially as a student acquires the very domain-specific vocabulary of their future career. I prefer to think of the tiers as a more complicated structure of garden tiers, where the plants from one tier might intermingle with other tiers as priorities shift for the learner.

Landscaped tiers containing a variety of garden plants.

Let’s assume that Tier 1 words are what a college student picks up in K-12 education. For solid instructional design of assessments (both formative and summative) in higher education, first consider whether the vocabulary should be learned at the level of Tier 2 or Tier 3.  You might think of this as the difference between teaching to recognize a word and identifying some general connections to it or teaching to recall a word with specifics of function/definition.

As an example of this critical design thinking, let’s do a brief analysis for a set of biology vocabulary for a general education biology course:

  • cytoplasm
  • mitochondrion
  • cell
  • nucleus
  • nucleolus
  • vacuole
  • virus
  • chlorophyll
  • chromosome
  • chloroplast

Pay attention, because in this context of general education, the highest cognitive-level learning objectives do not occur at the highest vocabulary tier.

Tier 1 (words typically found in oral language): cell, virus

Most likely, college students already have common knowledge of how these two Tier 1 words are used in context, but they may lack specific details on how we differentiate between the words. For example, a student may understand both a cell and a virus to be very small structures in the body that carry genetic material but not understand the differences between them. In a college course, you may want to focus learning objectives for already-acquired Tier One vocabulary on differentiation of these words from other common language words, a deeper dive into the understanding of the word, or on how these words relate to other newly acquired higher-tiered vocabulary.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Compare the structures in a virus and a cell.
  • List the types of cells.
  • Identify the organelles that are often found in a cell.

Tier 2 (wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users): nucleus, chromosome, chlorophyll

Even if this is a general education biology course, it is likely that students will hear, read, and use these Tier 2 words again during their lives. High-utility means we should try to help the student learn the words at a permanent recall/mastery level (understanding both definition and context).  Learning objectives should be focused on definition (with relevance, like function), characteristics, and comprehension in context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the function of the nucleus.
  • Describe the function of chlorophyll.
  • Locate the nucleus, nucleolus, and mitochondrion in a cell.
  • Explain how a plant cell benefits from its chlorophyll.
  • Describe the structure of chromosomes in the human body.
  • Explain the function of chromosomes during human reproduction.

Tier 3 (words limited to a specific domain): cytoplasm, mitochondrion, nucleolus, vacuole, chloroplast

In a general education biology class, it might be important to recognize Tier 3 words and their functions, but it may not be necessary to recall specific definitions of the word or store it in long-term memory past the end of the course. Remember that biology majors that take this general education course will take more biology courses. Each subsequent biology course will provide opportunities for repeated vocabulary retrieval and in-depth learning. A general education course is not the time to drill in every property.  The learning objectives for Tier 3 words in a general education course should focus on the recognition-level with enough comprehension to make sense of the context in which the vocabulary words appear. These learning objectives should also focus on how the Tier Three words relate to lower-tiered words, since that is what will help the learning do sense-making around context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the function of the mitochondrion, nucleus, and nucleolus.
  • Label the chlorophyll, chloroplast, and vacuole in a plant cell.
  • Select the organelles that might appear in a plant or animal cell.

As the student moves from general education to a majors-oriented biology course, the learning objectives should also shift and scaffold to support the deeper learning requirements. In this example, Tier 2 vocabulary should be treated as known by the student, but needing further differentiation. Tier 3 vocabulary should be learned to the recall level (instead of recognition). In addition, we ask students to do more sense-making with higher-order concepts while using the acquired vocabulary (even though we no longer mention the vocabulary by name).

Stay tuned for Part II of this series on Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed, where we will start to focus on designing digital interaction to teach vocabulary.

Note: I’m not 100% sure that cell and virus would be considered Tier 1 vocabulary words, but it seems to me that these are the most obvious candidates from the example list provided.  Both words appear in the Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary (which provides definitions in simple English). If you know of a definitive source for Tier 1 vocabulary words online, please let me know.

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What should K-12 teachers be learning about technology?

A few months ago I answered some interview questions about technology and the education of K-12 teachers. The interview questions and answers were never published, but I thought I would share them here.

Photo from Brad Flickinger:

Photo from Brad Flickinger:


What should K-12 teachers be learning about educational technology?

Ed Tech is a fast-changing world right now, and it is not always easy for teachers to make choices about what technology to use with students. First and foremost, teachers need to learn how to choose tools that improve learning or create efficiencies to free up their time to work more closely with students that need more individual attention. Making the decision about whether a technology tool is effective is a hard-enough call to make, but teachers are faced with other constraints too: they must pay attention to the cost of the tool, the platforms it is delivered on, whether their students’ data will be protected, and if students will have reliable access to the technology from their homes. Necessarily, the choice of platform is often made at a school-wide or district-wide level. Sometimes, the best educational technology simply can’t be used because of one or more of these constraints. What teachers have to learn is that a lesser tool is not always worth it. We should never use educational technology just for the sake of introducing technology into the curriculum.

Because the educational technology (both platforms and individual apps and programs) is changing so rapidly, it is important not to focus on teaching specific tools to teachers. It is possible that a tool will be out of date before a student graduates. What we should teach is learning principles for classes of tools. For example, what benefits can learners get from giving a digital presentation? What are the best practices if you assign a presentation? How do you scaffold the experience so that students get the most out of it? How do you write a rubric to assess whether the student has been successful in the task? Simply teaching a future teacher how to use the latest cool presentation software will not be useful to them if they go to a school where they need to use a specific program they have not learned.

Teachers need to learn how to make the decision about whether the technology will enhance the learning and engagement of their students, and they need to learn how to learn a new technology.

One of the things we can’t lose sight of is that access to the world’s information is now provided through hardware connected to the Internet. We should separate the use of educational technology tool from the general need to incorporate the Internet into daily classroom life. These are two different issues. Students absolutely need to learn how to make sense of the information presented online every day, to discern the credible from the nonsense, and to develop habits that make them good citizens of the digital world. Using the Internet is necessary and valuable enhancement to teaching and should be part of every students’ learning experiences in K-12.

What is the state of ed tech?

Ed tech is a category we use to describe a large set of tools including, but not limited to: digital learning games, adaptive learning, testing programs, analytics tools, tutorial programs, video-based learning, and experiential learning with VR. Some of these tools, like learning programs built around video, are more mature (consider that YouTube and the MIT Open Courseware project are now more than a decade old). But we see new twists on some of these older tools. For example Khan Academy, which began as a video delivery platform, now has analytics tools and flexible learning paths built into the platform.

Maybe it is better to look at ed tech with respect to the number of teachers it now affects. Recent surveys show that teachers are somewhat likely to use technology to improve their own workflow, but are most are still not incorporating technology with students. However, teachers in the United States are under enormous pressure to make sure that students perform up to state and national standards. With their jobs on the line, there is little room for experimentation that may or may not result in improved learning outcomes. No doubt, we do have educational technology today that can help teachers to give more individualized learning experiences to their students, but there needs to be greater dissemination of the findings for what works (see the What Works Clearinghouse from the Institute of Educational Sciences) and administrators must find a safe way to allow teachers to try new approaches without fear of losing their jobs. The best research can tell us that a technology is likely to work, but the infrastructure of schools and the population of students served. For example, research conducted at a suburban school with good internet access and one-to-one computing initiatives may not be transferable when it is tried at a rural school where students don’t have internet access at home.

Again this brings me back to my first point. It is incredibly important that future teachers learn how to evaluate how a particular tool might affect learning and engagement within the constraints of their environment. We can do this with teachers who are still in school, but this leaves us with a large population of existing teachers who may not be getting the right training to feel comfortable making the decisions about what ed tech will actually help their students.

What should teachers look for in technology schools? What will be effective?

Teachers should look for technology that individualizes the learning experience, and I want to be very careful here to emphasize that the learning process should be clearly separated from the end-of unit or end-of term assessment. A good individualized learning tool will be adaptive, quickly moving the student through topics they show mastery of, and slowing down to give more help to the student if they are struggling with a topic. The tool should provide instant feedback to the student, but not necessarily the right answer if the student is incorrect. It is vitally important that learners be given a chance to reflect for themselves on what is wrong with their approach to a problem. At the point of impasse (where the student is frustrated or stuck on learning a concept), the technology should provide a good set of learning resources that will give scaffolding to the learning experience. On the teacher side, the educational technology needs to provide very good analytics on the competencies mastered by each student and a warning if any student seems to be struggling or stuck on a particular competency. It is good analytics that will help the teacher to feel comfortable that students are adequately prepared for state and national exams.

What educational technology are you most excited about?

For the near future (next 1-2 years) I think that true adaptive learning tools, ones that are modeled around the research about what makes human tutoring effective, have an incredible potential to help teachers. Especially in K-6, learning games can be a fun and effective way for students to learn (provided the games are decent).

For the farther future (3-5 years), I am pretty excited about the potential of new learning exploration spaces using VR tools built off of existing smartphone technology. This technology is in its infancy, but the barrier to entry is a smartphone and a pair of cardboard goggles (under $20) to wrap the phone. The focus on testing has reduced the time spent on creative exploration, and I hope that VR will let us create worlds of wonder for students to explore and learn in. We’ve been promised this before (e.g. Second Life) but I think that this time the technology is easy to use and will be readily available.

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The Road Back to Higher Education

In 2012, I left Higher Education to work in the software world. It was bittersweet, because I had finished a Ph.D. on Higher Education Leadership only one year before I left. My decision to leave was a hard one, but I couldn’t see an effective solution path to change learning within traditional higher education. I studied effort after effort to make changes within departments, institutions, and systems, only to see that potential innovations to higher education rarely moved the needle very far from the traditional steady-state.

Maria at PhD Graduation

A proud graduate, but disheartened by the decreasing funding for higher education.

The semester that I finished my Ph.D. was the same one that huge cuts to higher education were announced in several states, most notably in Pennsylvania, where the higher education funding by the state was reduced by 50%.  By 2013, per-student higher education spending was lower than pre-recession levels in 48 states.

From the software world, I have watched as MOOCs, Coding Camps, and Microdegrees have been hyped as the next great thing to disrupt higher education. There’s no doubt that higher ed has been disrupted, though I would say it is more because increased regulation, lower funding, and decreased student enrollments put significant pressure on colleges and universities to increase efficiencies. While innovation like MOOCs show us that there is a tremendous market for learning outside of degree programs, these innovations are not focused at producing more teachers, nurses, or doctors – we still need higher education and traditional degree programs. We just need more affordable ways to get that first degree as well as flexible systems to update post-degree training, and allow quick pivots into other careers as the pool of available jobs shifts.

Finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that our institutions of higher education needed to move faster. Rather than taking years to develop new courses and programs, we needed to find ways to do it in months and without affecting students already in-program. In many degree programs, the curriculum needs to be adapted to the changing world every semester, not every 5-10 years. When I left higher education, I had a plan to learn everything I could about how the software industry uses agile techniques to iterate on solutions and pivot fast. I hoped that one day, I’d find an educational institution that would see the value in this unique learning experience, and take me back so that I could put what I had learned into practice (both from software and leadership). It was a gamble, but I knew that I couldn’t mentally survive at an institution where the pace of change was measured in decades instead of months.

The software industry was an interesting place to learn. It forced me to start thinking about what an agile institution of higher education would look like. What would you “bug” in a college or university? What processes could you refine through iteration? How would you explain the benefits of agile methodology to the stakeholders (faculty, administrators, and students)? Where should an institution be agile and where should it be traditional? This thought experiment has been occupying a processor in my mind, quietly chugging away, producing ideas and working through the implications.

2015-07-20 06.17.58

After a stunning sunrise, I saw this rainbow on my first day of work at WGU. Perhaps it was a sign.

Now I’m excited to announce that I’ve rejoined Higher Education as the Director of Learning Design for Western Governor’s University.  If you’re not familiar with WGU, it is an incredible institution (non-profit and accredited). The degrees are competency based (no grades), the classes are all online, students can begin a program of study any month, learning materials are provided to students at no additional cost, and the tuition is affordable. WGU separates learning, coaching, and assessment into distinct branches of the institution, providing a very unique and flexible structure.

As Director of Learning Design, I am responsible for the design of the student learning experience (from course design to software ease of use). It is an opportunity to help an already innovative institution incorporate agile processes throughout the learning and course design process. I think I’ve landed in the right place and I can’t wait to see what our design team is going to accomplish in the next few years!

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