On a recent flight to Madrid, I sat next to a glassblower from the Portland area and we talked shop. After hours of discussing the intricacies of blowing and shaping glass, I tried to explain to him where my work as an instructional designer and technologist finds overlap with his occupation.

I learned that working with glass requires an eye for the artistic and a concern for the technical. Glass can be stretched, colored, tempered and rendered opaque; yielding common tableware or a postmodern work of art. However, for most glassblowers, artistic concerns often take back seat to the exigency of making a living. So, the glassblower’s primary focus on any given day is to create objects that meet customers’ requirements: price, time frame, color, size and other form-related variables that can be manipulated. While cable TV often portrays the art of glassblowing in showy and captivating clips demonstrating dramatic movement of metal rods shaping molten glass, much of the work of the glassblower is in fact invisible to the customer. In fact, much of the behind-the-scenes process has little to do with the act of shaping glass. The more he talked, the more I realized how much instructional design resembles glassblowing.

1. Like glassblowing, instructional design is systematic. According to my glassblower friend, the customer sees the plate, vase or sculpture and marvels at its beauty while grumbling about price. Like instructional design, much of the cost around producing a deliverable is buried in the process of qualifying what approach to use, the audience’s needs, the scope and complexity of the project, ensuring accessibility and usability, and so on. Business maxims about 9 parts planning and one part execution are as true about glassblowing as they are about course design and production. To some, glassblowing might resemble a systems approach to design (Dick and Carey’s model in particular)—interrelated parts working together towards a predefined goal.

2. Glassblowers generally start their project by determining their patron’s constraints. Time, cost and complexity are most frequently the core considerations that define project specifics. If nothing else, these factors help keep the utility of the produced item at the forefront, prevent scope creep, and help establish project expectations early in the process. While there are glassblowers who spend more of their time creating art, this is the exception in the industry, and for most, constitutes a small portion of time on the job compared to those projects that allow one to pay the bills. Instructional designers also live in a world where constraints matter. Does a customer bring $300 or $300,000 to the project? Do they need it next week or next year? Is the course one hour long or one hundred hours long? Many businesses over the last decade have utilized e-learning as a means to cut costs of travel and this factor also feeds into a systems-based approach to instructional design. Are high-level stakeholders primarily motivated by cost cutting or by instructional concerns? The reality is that both viewpoints tug on a project and help shape its limits, tone, and utility.

3. Glassblowing is technical. Sketching, painting, shaping clay are artistic expressions that are generally accessible to the novice, albeit there are technical aspects found in each art form. Blowing glass requires access to a furnace and knowledge of how to inflate molten glass into shapes that depend on the molten glass viscosity. In short, the skill of the gaffer or glassmith is one that demands attention to the technical. Instructional designers must also be intimately familiar with how the various parts of a course fit together: process, production, editing, evaluation, distribution—and competency in each area should be developed enough to allow one to complete each step of the process with little or no assistance when the project demands it. And so, it might be fair to say that both the glassblower and the instructional designer are misunderstood: The glassblower does inflate molten glass and the instructional designer does design. But, both share a title that captures only a single piece of their occupational focus.

There is tremendous variety in what defines a glassblower. Some work in factories, others for cable TV. Some craft art and others are all about utility. At the end of the day, process and technical considerations are what all glassblowers have in common. While my new-found glassblower friend might find my analogy full of hot air, I still think back to our shared conversation and see the similarities between the life of the glassblower and the instructional designer. Like glassblowing, instructional design is both a science and an art. Moore, Bates and Grundlind  believe that instructional design is both a science and an art (2002): “a science because it is rooted in learning theories and an art because the designing of instructional materials is a highly creative process.”

Dick, Walter, and Carey, Lou. (1990). The systematic design of instruction. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education.

Moore, Dermot, Bates, Annemarie, and Grundling, Jean. (2002). Instructional design. In Mishra, Arun K. and Bartram, John (Ed.) Skills development through distance education [on-line]. Available: http://www.col.org/skills/.

A recent reference in the New York Times indicates the U.S. Army is close to declaring war on PowerPoint. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Times, “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” For many, PowerPoint has become “a way of knowing.” But is knowledge always best represented by a linear sequence of bullets? Are there alternatives?
No PowerPoint
The concept of a nonlinear presentation tool has been has been around for a while. Rather than lead your audience in a step-like manner, why not give them more control over the sequence of your presentation? If the group is interested in one or two aspects of your presentation, why should you lead them through four or five others? A nonlinear approach gives you the potential to respond to audience needs by altering your presentation to match those needs. With a nonlinear approach, you can assess audience clues, cues, and questions to move the presentation into more fertile and relevant topics.

I attended a very effective presentation on nonlinear storytelling that took it a step further and used audience response system clickers to query the audience on which path they wanted to take through the presentation.

How do you create a nonlinear presentation? In earlier blogs we have discussed Pachyderm, a nonlinear multimedia authoring tool. This open source web-based application allows a non-programmer to create media-rich flash presentations that incorporate text, graphics, videos, audio, and external links using a simple template-driven approach. Pachyderm is first and foremost a tool for creating interactive presentations for individual viewing on a browser, but if carefully designed, it could be a means to create nonlinear presentations for smaller groups. The newly released version 2.1.1 offers a toggle to increase font size for accessibility issues and could offer a solution for more intimate small group presentations.

Buzz has been growing about Prezi, a cloud-based nonlinear presentation design tool that offers a striking new paradigm for creating and delivering presentations. Rather than a linear sequence, Prezi acts more like a Google map of your information, letting you fly over an information landscape at will, zooming in to objects of interest—text, images, videos, links, etc—to pick up additional details. Prezi offers free access to public and educator versions, with 100MB of storage space. Additional features available are for an annual fee.

Prezi Map

A Prezi map.

In my first attempt at using Prezi, I found that I had merely taken a linear presentation and forced it into a nonlinear template. The result was disappointing. The power of Prezi’s nonlinear delivery was lost: zooming into information became just another transition effect linking my fixed linear slides. I realize now that using a tool like Prezi–like Pachyderm–requires rethinking how you plan and organize your thoughts. For example, rather than an outline, create a concept map. Use that to create a map that you can fly over, zooming in to key concepts and media at will, and in any sequence.

Here’s a showcase of Prezi examples. One that grabbed me is “The Future of Video” created by Jody Radzik from the Institute for the Future.

Note that Microsoft has just completed a beta test for an add-on for PowerPoint called pptPlex that provides similar nonlinear capacity (PC only).

Planning a nonlinear presentation using these tools or others will challenge you to rethink how you organize your information, and to just “let go” and give the audience more control over your presentation.

I am not dismissing traditional linear presentations with PowerPoint, Keynote, or other tools; I am challenging myself and others to consider an alternative when the topic lends itself to a new, fresh approach. If you give it a try, let us know how it works for you.

When I was a kid, the whole world was one giant “Learn-O-Rama.” For the most part (outside of the standard classroom), I picked what interested me and learned my way through it. It was a nonlinear process, much like a bloodhound follows its nose to sniff out new information.

Nonlinear learning suggests that how we work our way through information can itself contain information, and frame our learning. “It’s the road not the destination,” said Jared Bendis, a multimedia developer who works and teaches in the area of nonlinear multimedia storytelling at Case Western. This may seem like a new concept to many: the idea that the learner chooses the sequence in which they learn new material.

But the idea on nonlinear learning isn’t new. It’s been discussed in the literature for some time. It’s only in the past few years that tools have emerged to take advantage of a nonlinear approach and put it within reach of educators, not just programmers (remember Macromedia Director and Toolbook? Yikes.) One tool we’ve discussed here before is Pachyderm, a multimedia web-based authoring program that creates highly interactive flash presentations without having to be an Adobe Flash programmer. (See Chris’s Pachyderm post.)
Fractal Blues
Most online learning remains linear with learner choices limited to “next-page-previous-page.” What nonlinear learning offers is a model based on self-organization of ideas by the learner where, as Eleanor Duckworth points out in The Having of Wonderful Ideas, “the individual has done the work of putting [ideas] together for himself or herself, and they give rise to new ways to put them together.”

“Learning often takes jumps throwing new light on and affecting much that has been learned before,” says Dr. Uri Merry of the Institute of Organizational Consultation. “In learning sometimes a small input can have enormous reverberations. We learn with disorderly jumps between whole and parts, parts and whole.” (Nonlinear learning LO14329.) When you combine this nonlinearity with the power of these disorderly jumps in learning, you arrive at a place of wonderful chaos. The kind of chaos that made learning so effective and compelling to us as kids.

A nonlinear approach is not for every learner; there is evidence that learning styles can predispose a learner toward or against it. And some material is intrinsically linear, as in step-by-step procedural knowledge. But the potential for a nonlinear approach to impact e-learning is too good to pass up as another tool to add to the mix. It all boils down to the potential for nonlinear multimedia storytelling. But that’s a story we’ll take up at another time.

Don’t look now, but perhaps the next industry to be undone by robots is education. OK, maybe not.  After watching a video clip of the HRP-4C’s Frankenstein-like ambulation, you can more easily conjure up images of terrorized children running out of their classroom when the new substitute teacher shows up with lesson in head.clippy1

OK, so visions of robot faculty may seem fanciful and far-fetched, but virtual “mediators” of E-learning or web-based environments have become more prominent as the technology behind avatars has become more powerful and affordable for the average user (US News story).

So, why the initial hesitation and angst when you hear “avatar”?  Perhaps it’s Clippy, the talking paperclip.

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We recently began a project called, “Mastery of Aging Well: A Program for Healthy Living”.  The funding for this project came from the USDA and the principle investigator and content provider is a very well-respected associate professor tied to OSU Extension.  agingwell_image2From a very pragmatic standpoint, the PI’s stated goal at the beginning of the project was to take her content and represent it in a more compelling, web-based format that would incorporate multimedia.  This was an exciting prospect for our group as we have graphic artists, photographers, videographers, journalists, editors and a few instructional designers.  We chose to develop two separate tracks for the content: One option was what was termed “Tier 1” and would represent a pared down version of the content and very little user interaction. “Tier 2” would reside within OSU’s E-campus site and would cost the user a fee for access to this more robust set of media assets, i.e. videos, interactive games and other user-centric tasks that focused on knowledge retention and assessment.

So, after selecting Adobe Presenter as the most appropriate (and efficient) authoring tool to port the content into a web-based format, we began to think through some of the instructional design considerations for our baby boomer target audience:

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