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.


From http://www.houzz.com/photos/36213135

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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Future of Education Interview in Unlimited Magazine

About a month ago I had an interview with Lewis Kelley at Unlimited Magazine.  A portion of the interview, called The Future of Education, was published yesterday, along with interviews with two other “leading education thinkers.”

Here’s a short excerpt from the interview …

“I’m not optimistic that real change is going to happen from within education. I think education is kind of a behemoth. It’s an interconnected system, and any kind of interconnected system is really hard to shift. You can push on parts of the system, but they still have to align with the rest of the system. You can’t push too far.

We can’t radically change our curriculum because that would affect the students coming in and the students going out. K-12 can’t radically change their curriculum without affecting their students’ ability to do well in college, and college can’t radically change its curriculum because students would be coming in out of K-12 and not prepared.

We can’t move unless everybody moves together, and that’s the thing that I think is particularly rough. But …”


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What IS a Learning Futurist?

One of the things that’s been keeping me busy is my new position as the Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute at Muskegon Community College.  This is, essentially, an advisory position (read: not full-time), and really, I think I’ve been doing the job for a couple years, but without any kind of official designation.  So I’m thrilled that the college has chosen to acknowledge the role I play at the college by incorporating it into our new faculty center.  (by the way, LIFT = Learning. Innovation. Futuring. Technology)

I got to choose the specific job title for our futurist position at LIFT and I was torn between Education Futurist and Learning Futurist.  Ultimately I chose the second, because I wanted to acknowledge that plenty of learning happens outside of formal education.  I also wanted to make sure that attention is paid to the non-formal learning that the college can foster in our students and in the surrounding community.

So, what is a futurist? First, a futurist does not “predict” the future, they use foresight skills to complement insight and hindsight.  One foresight skill is basic forecasting (trend analysis), but this only works if the field under investigation is relatively stable.  In unstable fields, futurists use scenario planning to project several possible outcomes – by examining the possibilities, an organization can plan for the most common outcomes, or at least think through some of the planning necessary for extreme possibilities (often, several extreme possibilities have some commonalities).  Futurists have to think creatively about the direction and meaning of trends, not just within a field, but in the surrounding fields.  You could say that Futurists have to be excellent systems thinkers.

Who does futuring? Well, technically, if you’ve ever made a budget for the next year, or participated in a strategic planning process, then you do.  In both of these activities, you look at the trends, social, technological, environmental, and political indicators to make your best plan for the future.  Is it a guess? Yes. But it is an informed guess, and we do it to help us to weather change.

So, what is a Learning Futurist, in particular? A learning futurist looks at characteristics of intelligence and brain development. They examine educational research to look for valid learning methods that might develop into technologies and learning strategies in the future.  They help people to recognize the necessity and importance of lifelong learning (with the acceleration of technology, you’re losing ground if your learning is not keeping up).  A learning futurist examines the available and predicted science and technology, social trends, and shifts to the political, economic, and cultural environment to thinks creatively about how learning will be impacted.   Because education, in particular, tends to move slower than business and other industries, it is particularly important to pay attention to the trends and technologies outside of education.  A learning futurist also keeps tabs on the future of careers and watches how “work” is changing.  After all, students eventually become workers, and even workers should still be learning.  To prepare our students (especially in higher education), we must pay attention to trends in the work force.

As far as I know, I am the first person to identify myself as a “Learning Futurist” (but you can find examples of many well-known education futurists).  In particular, I focus on higher education and adult learning in a timespan  5-15 years out.  I read voraciously, everything from academic journals to blog posts.  I rely on my social network (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and social connections) to keep me informed about new developments in other fields that might be important to learning and education.  I share what I learn and think in open spaces, to encourage conversation and idea development about the future of learning.

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Levers of Change in Higher Education

Here’s the latest Prezi on Levers of Change in Higher Education.

We’ve seen many major industries undergo dramatic change in the last decade (i.e. manufacturing, newspapers, and customer service).  While education seems “untouchable” to those within the system, there are many “levers of change” that have the potential for dramatic restructuring of higher education as well.  Online courses, adaptive computer assessment systems, open-source textbooks, edupunks, pay-by-the-month degrees, … these are just some of the levers that are prying at the corners of higher education.  In this presentation I will identify many of the levers of change that have the potential to shift higher education, resources to learn more about these, and a few scenarios that describe some of the possible futures of higher education. You can also watch the video of the live presentation here.

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