Instructional Design Basics


Running on Empty

I’m not a real runner—at least that’s what I tell people when they find out I run.  You see I know real runners. I know people that run with respectable pace times, or ones that do 20 plus miles a week, or even those that approach every race as an opportunity to make a personal record (PR).  No, I’m not one of those guys—I am just out there playing.

And since I am playing, I have a whole different set of tricks that I use to keep me focused on running.

One of my favorites is the themed race—here races are based around a central idea or theme like St Paddy’s Day or Halloween.  In these events the bystanders and event organizers usually have signs, costumes, music and other activities that support the theme of the day.  Runners in these events usually participate as well which is nice as running next to an Elvis or a Waldo can keep you going when times are tough.

Because of this, these races seem less like running and more like a big social event. Using themes in your courses can provide similar effects.   In this regard, courses built around themes can provide extra motivation and interest into your content. And themes can make your courses feel less like a required activity and more like a fun and engaging event.

Today I’ll talk about a theme that I like to use with my course building activities.

Numbers Matter

A lot of the training content we build can be tracked back to significant numbers like costs, profits and reported incidents. And with numbers like this a common training objective may be to reduce or increase these numbers.

Other significant numbers like people affected and times an action is performed can be equally important to our course goals and objectives as these numbers highlight the importance of our training content. In this regard, these numbers can provide a way for us to sell our content which is why they may be associated with attitudinal objectives within our courses.

As mentioned these number are often large and as such may be difficult for our users to realize or fully grasp. So to help them make sense of our content we should break these numbers down into something that our users can see and or relate to.  Using a counter in this regard is an easy way to do that.

Let’s look at how this may look:

Infection Control Example
This course used a counter to sell the importance of Incident Command Management.  By using a theme of a possible H1N1 epidemic we were able to wrap the content around a story. Users saw infections represented in the counter—a counter that moved very fast according to the prediction that 40% of Americans could be infected.

Adjustment Codes Example
This course used a counter to sell the importance of using the right codes within our processing centers. Users were able to see how much money was being lost as a result of incorrect use of these codes and were able to connect these losses to equipment, staff and other resource needs.

BLS Example
This course used a counter to sell the importance of proper BLS techniques. Here users were able to see how often these skills are needed and how truly valuable they can be.

Adding Engagement

Besides presenting a visual that can help your users connect to the content, these counters can be used to create engagement.

In the Infection Control and BLS examples we developed content triggers based on the counters:

The Infection Control course was set up so that popup boxes would open at every 2000 infections.  These popup boxes presented a storyline that followed an H1N1 epidemic.

The BLS course was set up so that every two cycles of the counter (which represented two people suffering a cardiac arrest) an interaction would open up that the user had to complete before continuing.  These interactions were scenario based and forced users to practice basic life saving skills.

The real power behind these counters can occurs when you take them a step further and move into the gaming realm.  In this regard these counters can represent scoring elements.

The Adjustment Codes course used its counter as a simple scoring mechanism.  This course was built as a simulation where the user’s choices influenced how fast or slow the counter moved.  So when a user picked the right choice the counter would slow down and BJC would save money.

To reinforce this game environment cut scenes were added to this simulation—saving money meant scenes played that showed new equipment being purchased and losing money showed scenes where equipment purchasing and plans were put on hold.

Give Us a Call

As can be seen these counters can be used in a variety of ways and can be quite fun to develop. I’m sure though that some of you are thinking that they are beyond your abilities.  This may be true as getting them developed and working within a course can be difficult.

Luckily you don’t have to go it alone, we have templates and resources available that can be used to facilitate your needs here. So there’s no reason to go it alone and in addition there is no reason to produce a slow and tedious experience for your users.  Here themes can make courses and running an exciting activity.


Being a Carpenter Part 2

With my last post I may have over simplified things when talking about what can make for a bad course—the truth is there are all kinds of things that can influence this. The point I was trying to highlight though is the importance of content.  Here even if you have the time, tools and resources needed, if your content is bad your course is going to be bad as well.

Today I’ll show you an example that will hopefully give you some ideas on how you can create better content in this regard.  So click on the following link to review this course example:

Wimpy PCT

Writing a Story

In my previous post, I described how you could shape your content around a storyline as a way to make the course more interesting.  With my example, I framed the course content around a new employee that was having trouble communicating. To make the story a little more interesting, I repurposed the Dairy of the Wimpy Kid concept.

The story that developed has a nice flow and is probably something that most can relate to, that is, many of us have worked with someone that doesn’t communicate well. With the story I let internal dialogs and character interactions drive the content forward. These dialogs/conversations focus on the application level content—How to communicate with SBAR—rather then on recall level information.  Here definitions, lists, and other factual content are support elements within the story.

This story treatment creates ties across the content and follows a real world situation. This makes the course more interesting then the typical, I am going to cover topic A first, then B and then Ccontent most of us are use too.

Now Where Did I Put My Hammer

So once I had a story I could move on to my tools. With this example I only wanted to use free and or standard software tools to build my course. Here I wanted to demonstrate that you don’t need expensive tools and resources in order to build a good course.

So with my limited toolset, I asked the following question:

“How can I use my available tools to support my story?”

Course Pages
The main tool I used for the course was the Knowledge Kit, which is an internal BJC application that allows you to create online courses.  This form-based tool has a simple interface that allows you to create basic text pages.  Here you can add images, glossary links, hyperlinks and normal formatting elements to your pages.   The tool is pretty limited but with some creativity you can create a fun little course that is ready for the Learning Management System (LMS).

The tool forces a linear navigation structure to your content, which supports the storyline format of the course. In addition the glossary and link functionality allowed me to capture the recall level information (definitions, links for more information, job-aids,…) without shifting the focus from the story.

For the images I used standard clipart as the backgrounds and drew stick figures on them as needed. Now I must admit I did cheat a little in this regard. For these figures I used Flash’s drawing tools, but you could get a similar effect using standard drawing programs.  If you don’t have any drawing tools you can access some free graphic applications here.  You could also find cheap stock art of stick figures that would work as well.

As I indicated the background images were from standard clipart; however, you could stage and capture these images yourself with a regular digital camera. Stock art sites can also be an additional source of cheap backgrounds. With these images you may want to apply some simple effects to further support you story.  Effects like blur, cropping and zooming can add subtle changes to the emotional context of the story.

I wanted my course to have some audio in it as it conveys extra information that isn’t easily translated with straight text.  Here tone and inflections can provide information that text simply can’t do.  This audio use is perfect to setup events or to model a role playing activity. In my course I used the audio to set up my Knowledge Check questions.

To create my audio files I used a basic recording tool that was pre-loaded on my computer. If you do not have any recording software on your computer you can use Audacity, which is a free tool for this purpose.

I also wanted to use multimedia in my course to break up the text and engage another set of learners.  Multimedia adds multiple layers of information that simple text does not convey. Besides the audio input, users can see body language and facial expressions, which will offer a whole range of information for the user to pick up and evaluate. In my example though the stick figures are a bit lacking in this regard!

As with simple audio, multimedia can also be used to set up interactions or to model behaviors.  In my course I used it to demonstrate how Jane could have gotten more information about Mr. Winkler during the hand-off.

To create the movie I used Jing, which is a free tool that you can use to capture screen interactions.  Screen capturing software is typically used to create demonstrations for software applications and websites.  However; with a little help from PowerPoint I was able to use Jing to create the Jane and Joe two-way communication movie.

To do this I inserted a series of images on several PowerPoint slides. Then I selected the size of the capture window and started recording the movie on slide one.  As the movie recorded I read the audio portions and advanced the slides as appropriate.  This took a couple of tries to get a decent version but wasn’t much work in the end. Here I was able to create a still image movie that you could easily replicate. To do this you could use standard clipart; stock art; or even stage and capture a series of images yourself.

An alternative to the still image movie is to film an actual movie using a camera.  There are all kinds of digital cameras out there that will produce content for your course. Some of these cameras are cheap and produce high quality video in a ready format for your course.  Once you film the movie you can drop it into your course.

Other Content
It is often useful to provide materials that users can access after the training is completed as this will help with transfer.  In addition the factual and procedural nature of the SBAR content lent itself well to job-aids. Here I used Microsoft Word to create the materials and then converted them to a pdf.  Once I had the pdf ready I saved the file to a web site and established a link to it in the course.

Practice Makes Perfect

Developing content around a story can take some time and practice. In addition learning some of the techniques I demonstrated above can take some experience as well, but don’t give up on your content.

Having interesting content is important and by focusing on your content creation skills you will eventually get better at it. Practice makes perfect in this regard and in others; for instance, if we go back to my poor performance with frisbee golf you will see that I eventually improved as well.  So much so in fact that the last time I played my buddy Joe, I beat him quite soundly.

And Joe’s response to this defeat—no temper tantrum, no lame excuses—he just hasn’t played me again, that is, he’s a big baby and is scared.  Yes, these improvements can be really satisfying and it’s nice to know that your success isn’t because of your tools.


1000 Words

The other day I found the formula used to determine the exact number of words a picture is equal to and I must say those math guys are really ingenious:

Image/Word Conversion Formula

Ok so that formula may not be true but most of us are familiar with the saying, “an image is worth a thousand words.” And this is something we can probably relate to, that is, most of us have been in an instance where someone was trying to explain something and we didn’t “get it,” until they drew us a picture.

Visuals like pictures, images and drawings are important to include in your courses because they provide students with another way to internalize your information.  This is useful in that some students prefer a visual learning style—in order to “get it” they need to “see it.”

In addition, having multiple inputs (text, images, audio) allows your students the ability to process your information on multiple levels. These multiple inputs will allow them to form a stronger connection to the content when they store the information into long term memory. And a strong connection here will make it easier for them to retrieve that information when they need to use it.

So in saying this we should expect to see a lot of images in online courses. However, this isn’t the norm, rather a lot of courseware tends to be text heavy and only uses the occasional image.

Rules to Follow with Your Images

Some of this is good as there are certain rules you should follow when considering images in your course.  These rules are important as images can interfere with your users ability to learn content. A few simple rules to follow are:

Don’t Obscure Presentation Text
To ensure readability you should size and position your images so that they don’t cover up text in your course. And if you are using an image as a background make sure that your text has a high degree of contrast with it so that it can be read easily.

Use Professional Images
A poorly created image can reflect negatively on your course. To avoid this problem you should use professionally created images.  This may seem like a big limitation; however, you have a large selection of free images you can use at your fingertips.  Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have a large selection of Clipart and Photographs you can use. In addition there are several websites that offer access to free/cheap images you can use.

Support Presentation Styles
Your images should compliment your course design.  Colors that clash will make your pages hard to read and make your course unpleasant to the eye.

To support this need, find a theme or style that fits with your course design and use it consistently.  Consistent use is important, as random images can be a distraction.

Support the Slide Content
Your audience may get confused if your visuals don’t match your course content.  Ensure that your images support the ideas presented in your course.  Here your images should supplement or expand on the content presented.  This is important, as you don’t want to make it hard for your users to internalize your information. Random images can distract their attention—this is bad, as their attention should be focused on meaningful content.

Tricks and Tips With Images

When used correctly, visuals can help your audience internalize the information you are presenting.  Some tips and trick I’ve found over the years with images include the following:

Use Your ClipArt
As I mentioned earlier you have a large selection of ClipArt and Photographs available to you through Microsoft Office. The great thing about these images is that you can edit them to fit your needs.  Here you can use a graphic editor like Photoshop to edit any photographs or you can edit specific ClipArt files directly.

With ClipArt you have the ability to ungroup the objects within a file and edit each piece individually.  You can resize; change colors; delete and add items; and change the orientation of the objects.  With a little work and imagination you can create some nice graphics for your courses.

For instance click on the following links to see some of things you can do here:

Original ClipArt Files
Revised ClipArt File

While working with ClipArt, select files with similar styles—you need images with similar colors and forms.  This is necessary in order to keep a consistent theme and look within your program.

Don’t Forget Tables
Just because tables, flowcharts and graphs are not created with graphic editing software doesn’t mean that they are not considered visuals.  These items can be powerful images and will act as graphic organizers of your content—don’t forget to use them.

Quote Your Content
It may not make sense that you can break up text and or add a nice visual by adding more text to your course, but that is exactly what you can do with pullquotes.  With this technique you can highlight key information, facts/figures, or an interesting piece of content.

To use these effectively you should change your pullquote text formatting and play with the page whitespace. Adding a graphic to act as a background can add an interesting effect to your pullquotes.

Use Simple Filters and Tools
Many graphic editors have simple filters and tools you can use to add specific effects to your photographs.  Some of these like zoom, flashlight, crop and blur can change the emotional effect of your images.

For instance look at the following images and think about what each says:

Original File

Make Your Images Interactive
The great thing about online content is that you are not limited to static content.  With images you can add additional layers to them by making them interactive. Here you can have your users click on your images to trigger certain effects.

Doing this well will make your content more meaningful and engaging to your students.  With relative ease you can use show/hides, pop outs, animations, and other effects to create great menu structures and discovery interactions within you courseware.

Design Your Images for Your Needs
With online content you have a limited amount of space to work with, as you don’t want to force users to scroll a lot.  This can be a problem when you want to use a large detailed image.

Fortunately there are additional effects you can add to your images to address this issue. Panning and Zoom tools will allow you to scale your images down to a manageable size while also allowing your users access to the needed detail.

The following links will show you some of the interactive and sizing effects you can add to your images:

Zoom # 1
Zoom #2
Zoom #3

That’s Cool but How Do I Do That

Editing your images and adding effects can take some specialized skills and software. Fortunately resources like the CLL and Media Services are available to you. With our help, you should be able to develop appropriate images for your courses.

Or if you want to go it alone there are many great tutorials sites for learning graphic editing skills as well as free graphic editing software.  The interactive component might be a little bit more complex so you may need to reach out to that high school kid that lives down the block.

Regardless of how you get them, you should include visuals in your courseware—after all each image is worth 1000 words.


Feedback you must give

Many years ago a young man named Daniel was learning Karate in order to defend himself.  His neighbor, an old Asian man, became Daniel’s teacher and employed an unorthodox approach to his training. This training consisted of having Daniel complete a series of tasks. Here the master didn’t provide much in the way of feedback—Daniel didn’t know why he needed to do the activities or how well he was doing at each task.  Needless to say, Daniel soon became frustrated with the training and was ready to quit.

If you go back farther in time, you will find Luke, another young man trying to learn the art of self defense. In this pursuit, Luke had an equally frustrating teacher—his master provided feedback but often spoke cryptically or in a way that was difficult to understand. Under this type of training, Luke soon wondered if he would succeed in his goal.

If you are a fan of movies from the 80’s you may have guessed the teachers I am talking about and if so, you may think that they were effective teachers. After all if you have seen the movies, then you know that their students succeeded in their endeavors. If you don’t know who I am talking about the below quotes may help:

Master 1: Daniel-san... [taps Daniel’s head] Karate here.  [taps Daniel’s heart] Karate here. [taps Daniel’s belt] Karate not here.

Master 2: …Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.

If you still don’t know who the teachers are then you have missed a couple of classic movies.  The first teacher is Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid and the second one is Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back—and regarding training, you don’t want to be a Mr. Miyagi or a Yoda. That’s because each teacher failed to give their students proper feedback.

For instance Mr Miyagi let Daniel, “Paint the fence” and “Wax the car” for days before giving him any feedback on what or why he was doing these activities. And Yoda, well he was terrible at giving clear concise feedback, “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

Seriously Yoda, what the hell does that mean?

This lack of feedback was a key reason for their student’s frustration and initial failures. It is amazing that Daniel and Luke succeeded in this type of training environment at all as most students would have quickly failed and quit. Luke was strong in the force though and maybe that is what saved him here.

So assuming you don’t have skilled pupils, those strong in the force, you will need to give them feedback that is timely and clear.  Let’s take a look at some of these requirements.

Giving Detailed Feedback
I once had an Instructional Designer give me a job-aid that they had developed which outlined feedback requirements.  This job-aid stated that each instance of feedback should indicate:

  • If a choice was the wrong answer
  • Why it was the wrong answer
  • What was the correct answer
  • Why the correct answer was correct and
  • The area in the course where the content was covered.

Now some will agree with that designer and say that giving that level of detail is necessary. They may even proceed to pull out a study or two supporting their position.  And technically they are right—studies will point to the need for detailed feedback.

I however, immediately took this job-aid and threw it away.  I suggest you ignore it as well because few, if any, students will spend their time reading all of that content.  Online learners skim, skip and jump around in our courses—they don’t spend their time reading dense passages.

So instead of spending all that time writing out that extra detail feedback, focus on something that will really engage your users—make your course scenario based, add a good interaction, develop additional graphics to support your content, follow up with remedial activities or whatever.  Just don’t get bogged down in writing out a bunch of content that your users will not read.

What Feedback Should You Cover
Now if detailed feedback isn’t necessary, what then should you cover in your feedback?  My advice here is to tailor your feedback to your needs at the time. If why a choice was wrong is particularly important then hit that and let your students move on. If the correct answer is what is important then cover that well and let your students go.

One point I think that you should include in your feedback is to identify where the content was covered in the course.  Since your content is online you can probably link to the content directly, which will aid your students in their quest to scan through your content.

Limits You May Encounter
Besides your students wandering attention, other things may limit your feedback options. For instance the test engine we use at BJC only allows for 1 feedback option.  So with this limitation you can’t have specific feedback for each choice, rather you get one shot at feedback and it has to account for each choice in your question.  This poses a challenge and in this instance I recommend just indicating the correct answer, why it is correct and where students can find the content in the course.

This last option (where this content is located) may prove to be another limitation as courses and tests are usually separate learning objects within an LMS.  Linking between these separate objects (the course and test) can require advanced programming needs and if this is the case, I suggest referencing the topic or the specific page within the course.

By following these suggestions and giving timely and clear feedback you should help ensure your students success and maybe one day that student will grow up to save the universe or win some silly Karate tournament.