People spend more time in virtual worlds than ever before. And educators are leveraging these popular forms of recorded and interactive escapism to increase student engagement. Recently academic departments have begun to experiment with the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets, which have become much easier to use and far less expensive. Headsets can make people feel like they have traveled to a new place, so they are an intriguing new tool for learning. They can create an experience that differs significantly from using a computer to work or play in an online environment.

When using a computer to visit an online world, your sense of immersion is affected by many factors, including the quality of video and audio, the number of distractions from real life, and your virtual representation on the screen. It is like a tug-of-war. Your avatar may be traveling in a helicopter through a fantasy landscape, but your brain also knows that you are sitting in front of your desk. You can see and feel the cat in your lap for example, but it is not in the helicopter with your avatar, so you are managing two worlds at once. In a continuum of this sense of immersion, at what point is there presence, where you lose connection with your environment and truly feel that you are somewhere else? 

Using a VR headset instead of a computer may move you along this pathway, because you don’t see your desktop or clearly hear the sounds of your household. The sense of being connected with the everyday world changes. “I usually say the way to tell if it is working is if you take off the goggles and are surprised by which direction you are now facing,” says Warren Blyth, Multimedia Developer at Course Development and Training Department (CDT) at Oregon State University’s Ecampus. And whether you are a student who may find themselves in a class with VR components, or an instructor curious about adding this kind of experience to your teaching, VR, like most new adventures, will be shaped by your readiness for it.

You could think of the act of putting on a headset as departing on a voyage, because for many it feels like traveling somewhere and being present in another place. When you take off the headset at the end of the trip you may have moved physically, mentally and/or emotionally. Or not. Just like a trip to Paris, everyone’s experience will be different. To help you get ready, this article is a checklist about the very beginning of your journey, before you put on the goggles. It is about the pre-departure phase in which, as for any other trip, you might prepare by researching, planning, packing your bag, and saying goodbye to the cat.

Researching

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Image by Okan Caliskan from Pixabay

Technology lift may be a part of your pre-departure phase. This is a term floating around the CDT Department, thanks to the adventurous lexicon of Assistant Director of Course Development & Training Laurie Kirkner, who says that “technology lift takes place over a longer period of time than cognitive load, which is specific to working memory. It includes activities like reading manuals, investigating safety protocols and coping with expectations. And it will vary with the difficulty of the task and your skill level, just like cognitive load.”

Technology lift in anticipation of a VR journey may be analogous to researching luggage before taking a trip to a foreign city. You may ask: how much weight can I lift and for how long? Many of us have witnessed the oversupplied backpacker on a trip overseas. She struggles with a heavy load while shouldering her way through the crowds. One wonders if more thoughtful preparation could have saved her from being on the brink of pitching over during her first day in Paris. And although she probably had a great time anyway, planning ahead may have been worthwhile.

Platform Safety

Before entering a new VR space you can find out what controls exist for dealing with inappropriate or annoying behavior. For example, some platforms allow you to mute the audio of other avatars or create a personal space bubble. If you plan to meet others or visit a popular platform it can be helpful to do a test run by yourself beforehand, taking the time to get used to the location without any social awkwardness concerns. Owners, builders and organizers of platforms may have additional controls like banishing certain users –  instantly and/or permanently. In addition there may be codes of conduct governing acceptable behavior. It is great to learn something about the culture before arriving.

Pre-departure planning can increase positive experiences and keep you safe. For example, people have experienced sexual harassment, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and socially undesirable behaviors in real life (IRL) as well as in VR. “Social VR creates a life-like, immersive and public experience. Given this immersive nature and the overwhelmingly unequal gender dynamic with more men than women in this space, respondents talked about these spaces as seeming similar to public settings where they have been harassed.” (Outlaw & Duckles, 2017) You can take off the headset for a quick exit and also research other strategies to keep your trip free of pests.

Privacy

Because there is so much more data to potentially capture via these headsets, privacy is an increasingly important issue. “I think we’re all sitting on this time bomb with regard to “inside out” tracking,” says Blyth. “At the moment the companies using it are carefully assuring us that the 3D models they’re building at 30+ frames per second, of the insides of our house (including other people in our houses) are just for local tracking and not being sent back to any server for processing/monetizing. But even those assurances (from Facebook specifically, regarding the Quest and Rift S) have carried an ‘at the moment’ tag.” (Lang, 2019) So before you turn your headset on, it is a good idea to really consider the privacy policy on the manufacturer’s website.

Navigation Controls

If you took a trip to Paris, how would you get from the Charles de Gaulle airport to your hotel? After getting through customs you may feel jet lagged and confused, which is not a good time to learn new things. So your cognitive load would be less heavy if, for example, you already knew how to buy a ticket and get on the right train. In VR, navigation systems vary widely, so you may want to learn something about them before departure. A good example is learning how to move, fly, or teleport. And especially if you plan to meet others, it is helpful to know how to open the menu system and search for locations/meetings. 

Planning

A young man standing in a room wearing a virtual reality headset.
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

When you go places, you occupy new spaces. Once you put on a VR headset, you will set up a play area that can be stationary or quite a bit bigger. For the Oculus Quest 2, a popular newer headset, at least 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet is recommended for natural body movement. Once you get out the measuring tape, your house may suddenly feel claustrophobic as you figure out the distance between the couch and the cat box. So consider how much movement you would like to have on your trip and whether it is worth moving the furniture. 

Packing your bag

A man wearing a virtual reality headset and using hand controllers.
Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

For a voyage to Paris, you might think about which beret (and matching scarf) to bring along for a feeling of style and comfort. For your VR trip, the headset will eliminate any possibility of style, but you can still plan for comfort. In the last couple of years, headsets have become much less onerous; for example, they are now untethered from computers, and lighter. But there are still personal adjustments that can make you feel more at ease. And in regards to style, you could always try a beret over the headset.  

Headset

“Did you know? The world’s first VR headset was created in 1968, and weighed so much it had to be mounted from a ceiling. Due to its appearance, it was nicknamed “The Sword of Damocles.””  (Best Reviews, 2020)

Interpupillary Distance

When shopping for the right backpack for your trip to the City of Light, the size and shape of your body comes into consideration. For VR, it turns out that the distance between your eyes is important. This is because you want the lens spacing in the headset and your interpupillary distance (IPD) to line up in order to decrease the possibility of motion sickness. This may be especially important for people with smaller bodies, such as women. According to the 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel, the mean interpupillary distance is 61.7mm for women and 64.0mm for men. The Oculus Quest 2, for example, has three IPD settings: 61mm or smaller, 61 to 66mm, and 66 mm or larger. You can check with your optometrist to find your own IPD and then make sure that your headset is on the right setting.

Straps and Comfort

Even though headsets have become much more comfortable, it is always a good idea to make sure that things fit properly. A trial run with the headset powered off but resting on your face can give you some time to dial in the best strap tension and see how it feels on your head. “I often tell people before a demo that they want it just snug enough that it isn’t falling off their face – but not so tight that it’s cutting off circulation,” says Blyth. Some people report discomfort with the way their headset feels on their face, which can be distracting. Because you may need to spend less time using it than anticipated if it bothers you, taking the time to adjust your headset properly will help you feel more immersed on your trip.

Controllers

Before you put your headset on and can’t see anything, you may want to try out your hand controllers, which can include features such as buttons, thumb-sticks and triggers. You could view support materials from the manufacturer or other users to investigate all of the functions in order to create a tactile memory of the controllers.

Saying goodbye to the cat

Expectations

As you get to the final stages of pre-departure, you may want to check in with your expectations. “Virtual reality – even the name is hype,” says Nick Harper, CDT Multimedia Developer. “VR only addresses the senses of sight and sound, and even those may not work well for some users. Touch, smell and taste are underdeveloped at this point. So trying to immerse yourself in VR through a headset can feel like a struggle because your body wants to keep you safe and your brain is getting so many mixed signals.” One thing we know for sure is that your virtual trip will not be like anyone else’s experience. It may disappoint, or possibly blow your mind. And your memories will be affected by any problems you run into along the way. For example, if you walked right into a sewer during your first trip to Paris, it might be hard for you to believe other people had an amazing time in the Louvre or atop the Eiffel Tower.

Au revoir

Right before you leave, there is a point where you say some goodbyes. After all, you are leaving to meet new people and experience groovy new things in virtual reality. And the cat can’t come along. So saying goodbye may mean removing pets and humans from your play area, shutting the door, and putting the phone on mute. With the headset on, immersed in video and audio, it won’t be fun to step on your pet or hear snarky comments from your roommate (even if you are wearing a beret). Finding a way not to have an audience on the ground can help you relax and feel immersed.

It may be said that reading about VR is like dancing about architecture. So if you do get the chance, try it for yourself, (and also maybe think about that trip to Paris). No matter how many descriptions you read, the final destination will surprise (and hopefully delight) you in ways you may never have imagined. Especially if you have researched, planned, packed your bag and said goodbye to the cat, you will be ready for a great trip. Bon voyage!

VR Readiness Checklist

  • Read and consider the privacy policy of the headset manufacturer.
  • Take some time to plan/create your play area.
  • Research the platform codes of conduct.
  • Find out what controls exist to minimize unwanted interactions.
  • Learn how to navigate, access the menu system and search for locations/meetings.
  • Check with your optometrist to find your IPD and then make sure your headset is on the right setting.
  • Experiment with controller functions and create a tactile memory.
  • Adjust the straps so that they are snug but not cutting off circulation.
  • Explore your expectations.
  • Create a distraction free space.
  • Take a test run before meeting others.

References

Best Reviews. (2020, December). Best VR Headsets. https://bestreviews.com/best-vr-headsets

Kei Studios. (2017, November 23). A Complete Virtual Reality Glossary.  

      https://kei-studios.com/complete-virtual-reality-glossary/.

Ffiske, T., & Mandahus, L. (2020, January 21). Analysis: How the Design of VR Headsets    

     Causes Motion Sickness. Virtual Perceptions. 

     https://www.virtualperceptions.com/vr-headset-motion-sickness-design/.

Fulvio, J. M. (2020, January 1). Variations in visual sensitivity predict motion sickness in virtual  

     reality. BioRxiv. 

     https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/488817v5

Gordon, C. C., Blackwell, C. L., Bradtmiller, B., Parham, J. L., Barrientos, P., Paquette, S. P., 

     Corner, B. D., Carosn, J. M., Venezia, J. C., Rockwell, B. M., Murcher, M., & Kristensen, S.    

     (2014, December). 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel: Methods and  

     Summary Statistics. Defense Technical Information Center.  

     https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a611869.pdf

Lang, B. (2019, August 6). Here’s What Facebook Says About Camera Privacy on Quest & Rift  

  1. S. Road to VR. https://www.roadtovr.com/oculus-quest-camera-privacy-rift-s-facebook/

Mason, W. (2020, August 19). Oculus “Always On” Services and Privacy Policy May Be a  

     Cause for Concern (Updated). UploadVR. https://uploadvr.com/facebook-oculus-privacy/

Outlaw, J., Duckles, B. (2017, October). Why Women Don’t Like Social Virtual Reality: A Study of Safety, Usability, and Self-Expression in Social VR. The Extended Mind.  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56e315ede321404618e90757/t/5afca0716d2a73e7b3c77f28/1526505624385/The+Extended+Mind_Why+Women+Don%27t+Like+Social+VR_Oct+16+2017.pdf

The Economist. (2019, November 21). Virtual reality continues to make people sick.            https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/11/23/virtual-reality-continues-to-make-people-sick

 

chart of five phases of engagement: connect, communicate, collaborate, co-facilitate, and continue

 Why Group Work Is Important 

Love it or hate it, group work is an important part of education. Learning to work cooperatively with diverse people is a core 21st century skill, one which employers increasingly value and expect new workers to have mastered. Experience gathered from group work in educational settings directly transfers to and prepares students for successful collaboration in work teams. By collaborating in teams, students learn a wide range of discrete as well as soft skills that make group work worth the effort, including those below.

  • Technology skills
  • Social skills
  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Coping with stress
  • Creating work plans and schedules
  • Forecasting needs and hurdles
  • Time management & meeting deadlines
  • Working with difficult personalities
  • Managing & navigating unmet expectations
  • Following up & messaging
  • Accountability
  • Leadership
  • Development of academic/professional voice 

Pedagogically, group work supports a constructivist approach to learning, in which students contribute to the learning environment, build knowledge both individually and collectively, and co-create the classroom environment. Constructivist theory posits that learning is a social process and values student interaction with and contributions to collective knowledge. Group work and student collaboration are foundational methods in constructivist classrooms that help students develop the knowledge and skills that allow them to meet learning objectives. Additionally, group work is seen as a key element of student-student interaction. 

Considerations for Successful Groups

The first thing instructors should consider when planning to incorporate group work is to reflect on WHY they are assigning it- as an objective of learning or as a means of learning. Group work for the purpose of learning collectively, producing collaboratively, or for gaining experience working cooperatively are all valid reasons to include group work. 

Additionally, instructors must consider the limits of the asynchronous modality when creating group assignments. We all know how difficult it can be if the group you end up working in is not harmonious; For students in asynchronous online courses, group work can be even more difficult, with challenges like different time zones, different daily schedules, and lack of face to face collaboration opportunities. Even the most thoughtfully designed group activities can run into problems. What happens when one student fails to contribute? Do the other group members take up the slack and cover for their absent partner? How should a group handle an overbearing group member who takes on more than their fair share of the project? Anticipating the potential hurdles that may arise when planning the group project and incorporating support and resources for struggling groups can alleviate these barriers to a large degree. 

An important consideration when creating group assignments is Conrad & Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement model, which advises instructors to structure group work so that students can build up group cohesion through low-stakes activities like icebreakers, introductions, and discussion forum posting towards the beginning of the term before ramping up to more complicated collaborative projects. This scaffolding of tasks helps groups bond and build community among members, facilitating better working relationships and the trust necessary to work through the intricacies of a complex group project. The theory can be helpful when approaching a series of courses within a specific degree program as well, moving from simple group projects in lower division courses to co-facilitating and transformative ongoing engagement at the upper levels. 

chart of five phases of engagement: connect, communicate, collaborate, co-facilitate, and continue

Another model that can help instructors understand how to structure group work is Peter Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which describes a pyramid of features that are required for groups to function effectively. Lencioni claims that trust is the foundation of any functioning group, followed in ascending order by managing conflict through healthy discourse, ensuring commitment and buy-in, providing a method of accountability for team members, and a focus on collective results over personal prestige. Avoiding dysfunction by clearly structuring group work to anticipate and provide tools for dealing with these problems can ensure teams get off on the right footing and can work together smoothly.

pyramid of five behaviors of a cohesive team: trust, conflict, committment

 

Additionally, instructors should consider the type of collaboration that is common within their own discipline, whether it be performing distinct roles within a team or more general projects requiring cooperation. Designers often work together creatively to develop and improve products; medical teams must work collectively but in distinct roles to serve patients; computer software developers must be able to distribute work and manage tight deadlines; public-facing personnel must be able to amicably respond to a range of customer behaviors. Connecting group work explicitly to real-world work scenarios helps students see the value and relevance of their learning, which helps increase engagement and dedication. Structuring group projects to mimic the type of work tasks they can anticipate also provides the added value of preparing students for scenarios they will actually be faced with on the job.

Finally, since asynchronous group work relies heavily on technology, ensure that the technology to be used by the group is familiar or can be mastered quickly. Provide detailed instructions or tutorials for how to use the technology, plan for how to handle issues students might face with technology, and share resources they can tap should they run into problems. University instructional technology support can be linked to, and websites and apps often offer training videos. 

Types of group work

  • Pair/partner work
  • Informal cooperative active learning
  • Group essays or projects
  • Group presentations

Setting groups up for success

  • Set up groups of the right size, preferably with an odd number of participants
  • Make groups heterogenous to encourage peer-to-peer learning
  • Provide opportunities for students to activate their unique background knowledge and perspectives
  • Provide detailed instructions for group interaction expectations
  • Provide guidance on strategies for dividing the workload, such as setting up roles (ie: organizer, recorder, liaison, etc.)
  • Provide detailed instructions and rubrics for expected process and product
  • Split the grade for group work between collective and individual grades
  • Build in check-ins with instructor early on and midway
  • Plan for interventions if groups are not functioning well
  • Allow team members to evaluate each other’s and their own performance for contribution, cooperation, & timeliness

Sources

What are the benefits of group work? – Eberly Center

21st Century Skills Map

Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of group work

Group work – Teaching practice – Learning and teaching guidance – Elevate – Staff

Transforming The Online Learner

Increasing Student-to-Student Engagement: Applying Conrad and Donaldson’s “Phases of Engagement” in the Online Classroom

Teamwork 5 Dysfunctions

 

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash.

This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

  1. We generally avoid failure.
  2. We experience failure when playing games.
  3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid. (Juul, p. 2)

As a continuation from my last blog post considering grades and Self-Determination Theory, I wanted to take a brief side-quest into considering what it means to experience failure. Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games will provide the main outline and material for this post, while I add what lessons we might learn about feedback and course design in online settings.

Dealing with Failure

Juul outlines how games communicate through feedback using the theory of Learned Helplessness. Specifically, he focuses on Weiner’s attribution theory, which has three dimensions:

  1. Internal vs. External Failure
    1. Internal: The failure is the fault of the player. “I don’t have the skills to defeat this enemy right now.”
    2. External: The failure is the fault of the game. “The camera moved in a way that I couldn’t see or control and resulted in a game over.”
  2. Stable vs. Unstable Failure
    1. Stable: The failure will be consistent. No recognition of experience gained or improvement. “No matter what I do, I can’t get past this challenge.”
    2. Unstable: The failure is temporary. There is a possibility for future success. “I can improve and try again.”
  3. Global vs. Specific Failure
    1. Global: There is a general inability preventing success. “I am not good at playing video games.”
    2. Specific: Poor performance does not reflect on our general abilities or intelligence. “I’m not good at flight simulators, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad at all video games.”

In general, a combination of Internal+Stable+Global failure feedback would contribute most strongly toward a player adopting a learned helplessness mindset. There is a potential parallel here with course design: when a student does not do well on an assessment, what kind of feedback are they receiving? In particular, are they receiving signals that there is no opportunity for improvement (stable failure) and that it shows a general inability at the given task (global failure)? Designing assessments so that setbacks are unstable (offer multiple attempts and a way for students to observe their own improvement over time) and communicating specific skills to improve (make sure feedback pinpoints how a student could improve) would help students bounce back from a “game over” scenario. But what about internal vs. external failure? For Juul, “this marks another return of the paradox of failure: it is only through feeling responsible for failure (which we dislike) that we can feel responsible for escaping failure (which we like)” (p. 54). This importance of internal failure aligns with what we know about metacognition (Berthoff, “Dialectical notebooks and the audit of meaning”) and the numerous benefits of reflection in learning.

Succeeding from Failure

Now that we have an idea on how we deal with failure, let’s consider how we can turn that failure into success! “Games then promise players the possibility of success through three different kinds of fairness or three different paths: skill, chance, and labor” (Juul, p. 74):

  1. Skill: Learning through failure, emphasis on improvement with each attempt. (This is also very motivating by being competence-supportive!)
  2. Chance: We try again to see if we get lucky.
  3. Labor: Incremental progress on small tasks accumulates more abilities and items that persist through time and multiple play sessions. Emphasis here is on incremental growth over time through repetition. (Animal Crossing is a great example.) (This path is also supported by Dweck’s growth mindset.)

Many games reward players for all three of these paths to success. In an online course, allowing flexibility in assignment strategies can help students explore different routes to success. For example, a final project could allow for numerous format types, like a paper, podcast, video tutorial, interactive poster, etc. that students choose strategically based on their own skills and interests. Recognizing improvement will help students with their skills and helping students establish a routine of smaller, simpler tasks that build over an entire course can help them succeed through labor. Chance is an interesting thing to think about in terms of courses, but I like to think of this as it relates to content. Maybe a student “gets lucky” by having a discussion topic align with their final project topic, for example. For the student in that example, that discussion would come easier to them by chance. Diversifying content and assignment types can help different individuals and groups of students feel like they have “lucky” moments in a course.

Reflecting on Failure

Finally, how do games give us the opportunity to reflect on our successes and failures during gameplay? Juul outlines three types of goals that “make failure personal in a different way and integrates a game into our life in its own way” (pp. 86–87):

  1. Completable Goal: Often the result of a linear path and has a definite end.
    1. These can be game- or player-created. (i.e., Game-Driven: Defeat the ghost haunting the castle. Player-Driven: I want to defeat the ghost without using magic.)
  2. Transient Goal: Specific, one-time game sessions with no defined end, but played in rounds. (e.g., winning or losing a single round of Mario Kart.)
  3. Improvement Goal: Completing a personal best score, where a new high score sets a new goal.

For Juul, each of these goal-types have different “existential implications: while working toward a completable goal, we are permanently inscribed with a deficiency, and reaching the goal removes that deficiency, perhaps also removing the desire to play again. On the other hand, we can never make up for failure against a transient goal (since a lost match will always be lost), whereas an improvement goal is a continued process of personal progress” (pp. 86–87). When thinking about your courses, what kinds of goals do you design for? Many courses have single-attempt assignments (transient goal), but what if those were designed to be improvement goals, where students worked toward improving on their previous work in a more iterative way that replaced old scores with new and improved scores (improvement goal)? Are there opportunities for students to create their own challenging completable goals?

I hope this post shines a light on some different ways of thinking about assessment design, feedback types, and making opportunities for students to “fail safely” based on how these designs are achieved in gaming. To sum everything up, “skill, labor, and chance make us feel deficient in different ways when we fail. Transient, improvement, and completable goals distribute our flaws, our failures, and successes in different ways across our lifetimes” (Juul, p. 90).

Audio in Online Learning banner.

Audio is a term we all understand on some level. Commonly we think of audio as the transmission, reception, or reproduction of sound. Audible sound is what we hear. So, when we consider audio as an element of course design we are thinking about how sound can be used to communicate or support learning in an online course environment. Integrating audio in course delivery can be quite powerful if done well.

Perhaps the most common method of using sound in an asynchronous online course is via narrated lecture. The narrated lecture is typically a voice over a slide presentation or screencast. It can be an essential tool of instruction if designed effectively.

Another way the voice of an instructor can be incorporated into a course is via audio feedback on student assignments. These are short audio recordings that have been found to help build a sense of instructor presence in an online course.

Highly focused use of audio is also utilized in subjects where audio is, in essence, the topic at hand. Here we are considering language, music, and media arts courses as examples.

Other valued voices are often brought into the online learning experience via guest interviews in either audio or video format. Not to be left out, the voices of students are increasingly present in online course via tools such as VoiceThread and university provided video portals such as Kaltura Media Space. And with tools such as Zoom recording audio interviews and voice overs is easier than ever. With the availability of media platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Amazon Prime, Audible, and Apple Music and Podcasts the ability to bring external audio resources into the online experience seems almost limitless.

Audio is also used as a supporting resource for text-based content in online courses. In this case screen readers may typically provide the audio support. When using audio as a primary learning resource it is necessary to provide text-based transcripts as accessibility options. A fuller description of making audio accessible can be found at the W3C website.

The examples listed above are common ways we integrate audio elements into online learning. Are there other perhaps different ways we might consider? In the next few paragraphs we will explore a few ideas of how we might use audio in specialized ways in course design.

Specialized Audio Use

Orientation & Review Audio

Audio is a great tool to use when smaller segments of media should be used to orient students to a part of an online course. Think about short, more ephemeral, voice messages that can be easily produced and updated from term to term as the course changes. These audio segments need not be highly produced but should be of good quality. This type of audio segment reconnects students with the instructor via voice.

Listen to the orientation audio sample below that was used in an online course: RE 270 – Outdoor Recreation Resources, Behavior and Values | Module III Orientation by Dr. Craig Rademacher; Northern Michigan University c. 2012. (00:02:56).  [download orientation audio transcript  from Temi.com]

Similar short segments of audio may be used to review sections of content. The review audio may be produced by instructors or students. These audio reviews may be used in preparation for an exam, major project, or collaborations within the course. The goal of such reviews may vary but certainly one goal would be to re-focus the listener to the task at hand while providing timely tips or learning objectives.

One of the things you may have noticed about the audio clip above is the integration of music to the orientation message. Purposeful music selections can support the emotional feel of a course or module being introduced. Music can also serve as an audio cue, or audio branding, for a course. So, selecting audio stingers, or music introductions, can highlight that a particular message or topic is coming or reinforce an emotional tone if carefully planned.

The primary benefit of using audio for orientation and review is that audio is less production intensive making it a quick way to provide feedback. Audio is also fairly easy to edit with a free cross-platform audio tool such as Audacity.

Narrative

The oral traditions of learning go back centuries. Prior to print, learning was interwoven in spoken traditions, legends, and cultural stories. Today story remains a potent vehicle for learning. As you might imagine audio is a great vehicle for story.

An example of this is an Oregon State University political science course titled Governing after the Zombie Apocalypse which was designed and taught by Dr. Rorie Solberg. The story that underpins this course is that a natural disaster has caused the breakdown of the U.S. government. In response citizens must create a new government including a bill of rights and constitution. Students become the citizens creating that new government taking into account marginal populations such as the surviving zombies which are called “blues”due to their virus-caused color.

Audio is used creatively in the course by periodically inserting radio broadcasts about odd happenings around the country. Although not the heart of the effort of the course, these audio presentations, really imagined radio newscasts, provide situational tenor and decision points as students go about creating a new government. Listen to a segment of a mock radio broadcast below.

Mock radio broadcast excerpt: Story by Dr. Rorie Solberg. Produced by Oregon State University Ecampus. Voice acting credit: Warren Blyth (00:02:04)

This segment highlights how audio can be used to shape and carry a narrative through an online course. You might imagine how different narrative audio presentations may support history, literature, or science courses.

Soundscapes & Nature Sounds

Experiencing authentic places or environments is believed to be a valuable form of learning. This idea is a driving force behind field-based learning and experiential learning. Audio soundscapes provide access to authentic acoustic environments that can support online learning about the context of an environment. The environment may be urban, rural, or perhaps in a wilderness-like setting. Soundscapes may also be used to create sense of cognitive and emotional world building that can be used in instruction. Soundscapes typically feature a molar perspective of the acoustic environment.

Listen to an example of such a soundscape titled Elk Rut and Rain Shower — Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado by Gayi immersions (00:28:03) at SoundCloud. (link will open in a new tab)

Other, more specific sounds of nature are potentially positive resources for online instruction. Below is a sound sample of the call of a common raven. Listen to the raven’s call.

Audio recorded in the Beaver Basin Wilderness at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in 2010 | Craig Rademacher. (00:00:26)

Now imagine how this simple recording may be utilized in a course. It might be used to help identify ravens from crows in an ornithology course. Perhaps this audio clip could be used to help communicate a sense of isolation for listeners studying wilderness values. Or, perhaps it could be used to introduce the poem by Edgar Allen Poe titled The Raven. In each case the audio would be used intentionally to deepen the context or experience of the learner.

Fidelity Matters

Sound quality is an important factor when selecting and using audio in an online course. Audio files need to be of sufficient quality to clearly indicate what you are expecting students to hear. Poor audio, or a confusing sound recording, is experienced as distracting and student will likely tune out. Recording and editing audio does require some knowledge and practice. And there are many places where you can learn to produce audio. LinkedIn Learning offers courses in audio production, podcasting, and even how to select a microphone. So, if you are interested give it a try.

If you are not inclined to produce your own audio content there are resources available where you can find high quality audio for use in courses. Some of these resources are royalty free. Others may require licensing of audio for use.

Final Thoughts

We have reviewed how audio is commonly used in online courses and how we might think about new ways of integrating audio. As you explore the links to resources below start to think about your next course design. How can you augment the text and video you normally use with audio? How might you leverage voice, narrative, or soundscapes to connect online students to the context, authenticity, and humanity of learning? You might want to experiment with audio at first. Start small. If it works, then you will have truly found a sound idea for online course design.

Select Audio Resources

Royalty free online resources:

Podcast Resources
There are several ways to find audio podcasts to review for inclusion in a course. Apple Podcasts is a dominant resource in this area. Apple streams over 750,000 podcast shows with over 20 million episodes. Google Play Music is another good resource. Podcast feeds can also be found simply by browsing for podcasts online.

Audiobooks
Audiobooks are found in many online book seller sites such as Amazon (Audible.com). Additionally some more specific sites such as audiobooks.com also provide resources.

Soundscapes and Nature Sound Resources

 

**Special thank to Matt Djubasak and Chris Lindberg for their contributions to this post.

Canvas Survey with Mud Card Questions

New online instructors often express concern about the loss of immediate student feedback they get by teaching in person. These educators count on in-class interaction to help shape their lesson plans in real-time. Student questions, lack of interaction, or even blank looks, help them understand what concepts are difficult for their learners. Others just feel more comfortable with the two-way nature of in-classroom communication.

But teaching in an online environment doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from gauging student interest and comprehension.

Mud Cards

child in mud puddle in rain boots

I was first introduced to the concept of “Mud Cards” or “Muddiest Points” through an open course MIT offered in Active Learning in College-Level Science and Engineering Courses. The instructor described handing out index cards to each student at the end of class asking students to write down an answer to one or more of a few prompts (MIT OpenCourseWare, 2015).

In an online course, this could easily take the form of a weekly survey that looked something like this:

  • What concept from this week did you find confusing?
  • Is there anything you found particularly compelling?
  • What would you like to know more about?

Potential Benefits

The answers received have multiple potential benefits. First of all, instructors will get to look for trends in a particular class.

  • Are learners missing something central to a course learning outcome?
  • Is there a concept they need additional resources to master prior to an upcoming exam?
  • What excites them the most?

Getting this information weekly can provide information that is normally gathered during in-class interactions. It may even be more informative, as participation is likely to be higher (or can be incentivized through participation points). This feedback can be used to add content, perhaps through an announcement at the beginning of the next unit, addressing any common problems students reported. It can also help improve the content or activities for the next iteration of the online course.

The second benefit of an activity like this one is that it is an easy way to introduce active learning to your online course. Active learning, with origins in Constructivism, includes the idea that students build knowledge through “doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”

Rather than passively watching narrated slide-based lectures or videos, or completing assigned readings, they are asked to think about what is being taught to them. Each student, by reflecting on questions like the examples above, takes some responsibility for their own mastery of the content.

3-2-1 (a similar tool)

I recently attended the keynote at the Oregon state Ecampus Virtual Faculty Forum by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2020). At the beginning of her presentation, she told all of us we were going to be asked to email her our “3-2-1.” A 3-2-1, she defined as:

  • Three things that are new to me
  • Two things so interesting I will continue to research or share with someone else
  • One thing I will change about my practices based on the information shared today

Even though I was very familiar with the underlying pedagogical practice she was leveraging, I paid significantly more attention than I would have otherwise to an online presentation. I wanted to come up with something helpful to say. To be honest, suffering from COVID related ZOOM fatigue, it also made sense to ensure the hour of my time resulted in something actionable.

A Word of Caution

The use of a tool like the Mud Cards or 3-2-1 will be successful only if used consistently and students see the results of their efforts. If not introduced early and repeated regularly, students won’t develop the habit of consuming content through the lens of reflecting on their own learning. Similarly, students who never see a response to their input, through a summary or additional explanations, will get the message that their feedback is not important and lose the incentive to continue to provide it.

Conclusion

Introducing a reflection activity like those suggested is a simple, quick way to incorporate active learning into a course while simultaneously filling a void instructors sometimes miss through being able to ask questions of their students in a classroom.

Canvas allows for building anonymous graded or ungraded surveys in which a weekly activity like this would be easy to link to in a list of tasks for a unit of study. It is a low development effort on the part of the instructor, and participation from students shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.

I will link below to some of the resources mentioned that discuss the use and benefits of Mud Cards and active learning in instruction. If you try it out in an online course, I would love to hear how it works for you.

Resources


Rainboots photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Lately I’ve heard from a number of faculty whose students have expressed stress or overwhelm at the workload in a course. Further, students as well as faculty have had to adjust to a new routine or pace in their lives in recent months. All of this change gives us a chance to examine the workload and pace of a course so that it is manageable for both students and instructors. To that end, I offer three simple things that faculty can do to make their workload more manageable:

  • Manage expectations
  • Post time estimates for each activity
  • Consider your own availability

Manage expectations

One of the most effective ways to help students understand how much they should plan to do each week in the course is to be explicit and specific about the workload, early in the course. Refer to the credit hour policy to help students understand expectations. At OSU, it is expected that students engage with course materials and activities for 3 hours per week for every credit hour. So for a 3-credit course, students should expect to work about 9 hours each week on reading, studying, assignments, discussion boards, and other activities. This information is generally listed in the syllabus, but it’s nice to highlight this in an announcement early in the course, or perhaps even in an intro video or weekly overview video. Being explicit early in the course sets expectations for everyone, builds trust, and cuts down on negative emotions from students who feel there is too much (or not enough) in a course.

Post time estimates for each activity

One complaint that students occasionally have is that there is an uneven workload from week to week. One way to address this is to post estimated times for each activity for the week. This could appear in a task list on a weekly overview page, for example. This helps in several ways. First, it helps students who struggle to manage their time effectively. If they know that the assignment takes about 2 hours to complete, they can plan for that chunk of time in their week. Moreover, perhaps there are six readings posted in one week, but each reading is only about 5-10 minutes long. Posting this helps students understand that there are a number of short readings this week. That way students don’t assume each reading takes too long and decide to skip some of them. Moreover, being explicit about time estimates helps students know that you are sticking with the credit hour policy as well, which is another way to build trust.
If you find that the tasks you’ve outlined exceed the credit hour policy, let your learning objectives for the course guide your decisions for what to keep and what to cut.

Consider your own availability

Lastly, consider your own availability. Be explicit with students about when you are available so that you can be sure to carve out time to recharge your batteries. For example, if you like to have a bit of time to relax on the weekends, you might have your weekly assignments due on Monday of the following week for each module, rather than Sunday. That way, if students have questions about an assignment that they are wrapping up over the weekend, you still have Monday morning to get back to them instead of scrambling to answer multiple emails on Sunday evening.

Do you ever get the sense that students posting in their online discussions haven’t really engaged with the reading materials for that week? One way to encourage active engagement with course readings is to have students annotate directly in the article or textbook chapter that they are assigned. While it is common to see students annotating in their paper copies of their textbooks or readings, these aren’t easily shared with their peers or instructor. Of course, students could snap a photo of their handwritten annotations and upload that as a reading assignment task, though that does require additional steps on the part of both the student and instructor, and there is no interaction with others in the course during that process. However, it is possible to have students annotate their readings completely online, directly in any article on the web or in their ebook textbook. With this process, the annotations can also be seen by others in the course, if desired, so that students can discuss the reading all together or in small groups as they are reading an article or book chapter online. The benefit to this type of annotation online includes components of active learning, increased student interaction, and accountability for students in engaging with the course materials.

Active Learning

The shift to active learning is a bit like going from watching a soccer game on TV to playing a soccer game. Likewise, reading passively and reading to learn are two different activities. One way to get students actively reading to learn is to ask them to make connections from the course materials to their own lives or society, for example, which they then make into annotations in their readings. Annotation tasks require students to take actions and articulate these connections, all without the pressure of a formal assessment. Furthermore, many students arrive at college not knowing how to annotate, so teaching basic annotation practices helps students become more active and effective learners (Wesley, 2012). 

Interaction

“Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone” (Weimer, 2012). Discussion board activities are often where interaction with others in an online course takes place. However, rather than having students refer to a particular reading passage in their discussion board activity, they can simply highlight a passage and type their comments about it right there in the article, no discussion board assignment needed. Others in the course can also read participants’ annotations and reply. With some creative assignment design in Canvas, this can also be set up for small groups. Students may find this type of annotation discussion more authentic and efficient than using a discussion board tool to discuss a reading.

News article embedded in the assignment shows annotations made by specific students with a box to reply
Above, the online news article is embedded in the Canvas assignment. Students simply go to the assignment and can begin annotating. In the image above, a student highlights a passage to show what the annotation refers to. For a collaborative activity, students can reply to any peer’s comment. Alternatively, the instructor can set the annotations to be private, for more independent tasks.

Accountability

A popular way to ensure that students have done the reading is to give them a quiz. However, this is a solitary activity and is higher-stakes than asking students to make targeted annotations throughout a reading. It may make more sense to guide them through a reading with specific annotation tasks. Being explicit about what pieces of the reading students should focus on can help them understand what they need to retain from the reading assignment.

Possible Activities

  • Student-student interaction: Replace a discussion board activity with a collaborative annotation activity where students can annotate the article as they read. Then they can go back later in the week and reply to each other. 
  • Activate prior knowledge: Ask students to include one annotation related to what they already know about this topic.
  • Evaluate sources: Find a pop-science article in your discipline that includes weak support for arguments or claims, for example. Ask students to identify the sources of support in the arguments and challenge the validity of the support. Perhaps they could even be tasked with adding links to reliable sources of support for your discipline in their annotation comments. 

Nuts and Bolts

Two popular annotation tools are Hypothesis and Perusall. I would encourage you to test these out or ask your instructional designer about your needs and whether an annotation tool would be a good fit for your course learning outcomes. 

Resources:

Hypothesis

Perusall

Wesley, C. (2012). Mark It Up. Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Mark-It-Up/135166

Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

Welcome to the Webcam and Video Tips guide by Oregon State University Ecampus
This brief series of tips is meant to be a beginner’s overview for DIY home recording on webcam, with some additional options suggested if you want to take your video production even further.
Since this document may not cover every issue you encounter while acclimating to DIY video recording, we recommend contacting your school tech person for additional troubleshooting.

WHERE TO START

  • Internet Connection
    • Wired connection via ethernet cable is best
    • If wired connection is not possible, having a clear line of sight to wifi router will give the best wireless connection
    • Disconnect any wifi devices that are not in use or needed.
  • Computer Check
    • Determine if your computer meets minimum system requirements for streaming software
    • Close all non-essential programs to free up more computer resources
    • Disconnect any external monitors if you are on a laptop and it is running slowly
  • Testing Your Tech
    • Does your computer have a built in webcam or do you have a 3rd party webcam?
    • Identify where your microphone is and talk towards it
    • Test the webcam and audio settings BEFORE your first recording. 
    • Practice practice practice
      • The last recording will be better than the first
  • Making sure your voice is clear and easy to understand
    • Having a microphone helps with this
    • Smart phone earbuds have a built-in microphone that can help you with voice clarity
    • Airpods would also work when recording to an iPhone

PRESENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

  • Be aware of your environment.
    • Limit any background noise as much as possible.
    • Clean up your space and be aware of what is in the background of the video.
    • Rooms with carpets and drapes are best for audio.
    • Turn off lights and close windows that are behind you when you are recording.
    • If possible, turn on a light behind the camera.
    • Keep experimenting with lighting until you have a set up that works for you.

  • Try not to bump the desk, computer, camera, or microphone while recording.
    • Typing should also be avoided.
  • Do a test lecture and watch it.
    • See what works and what doesn’t.
    • If possible, get feedback from others
  • Practice
    • The more you practice, the more natural it will feel.
    • Run through what you want to say before you start recording.
  • Relax and be natural! Hopefully you are sharing knowledge that you are passionate about and we want that to show. (Remember that we are always our own worst critic, and your teaching team will be there to help you with constructive feedback on how to help students best enjoy and learn from these videos.)
  • Have notes in front of you while you’re recording. 
    • It is easy to get distracted or off topic, especially when you are uncomfortable.
    • Having notes in front of you while you record can help you stay on track.
    • These notes can be as vague or as detailed as you want, but avoid reading off of them directly and not looking at the camera.

DIGITAL NOTATION

GOING FURTHER WITH VIDEO PRODUCTION

  • For DIY video production, there are many ways to go about this!
    • The lowest barrier to recording on your own would be to use a smart phone attached to a tripod or other mount.
    • If you have access to a camcorder or DSLR, get out there and use it!
  • For smart phone video
    • Avoid handheld and invest in a tripod or smart phone / camera mount
    • If you have a decent internet connection for uploads, consider recording 1080p at 30fps
    • Use an external microphone whenever possible

ACCESSORIES TO CONSIDER IF RECORDING WITH A PHONE

Apps:

  • Filmic Pro – $14.99
    • Allows manual control of exposure and white balance, audio monitoring, and other useful features.

Audio:

  • Lavalier microphone – $18.99 
    • Highly recommended. Audio recorded from your phone’s microphone can be difficult to hear if you aren’t standing near the phone or if the location is noisy. 
  • Double lavalier microphone – $25.99
    • For when you have two people on camera. Both mic cable feed into the same phone, removing need to sync two audio sources. 
  • Audio cable extension – 10 ft. $9.95 or 20 ft. $15.95
    • For when you need to stand farther away from the camera.

Stabilization:

  • Selfie stick w/built-in tripod and Bluetooth remote – $23.99 (heavy duty, 51″ extended), $14.99 (27.6″ extended)
    • Terrific for self-recording in the field.
  • Combination hand grip/small tripod/tripod adapter – $8.89
    • Can be used as a hand grip for filming on-the-go or as a desktop tripod. Phone mount can be removed from the hand grip/tripod legs section, allowing you to mount your phone on most standard tripods.
  • Gimbal stabilizer – $94.99
    • Pricey, but will greatly increase the quality of your footage if you’re filming something that requires camera movement, such as a walk-and-talk interview or a field trip video.
  • Creative ways to mount a smart phone with household items:

 

ADD-ONS / TIPS AND TRICKS

  • If you would like to have access to a teleprompter as you record video, consider one of the following:
  • Here are some sound improvements to consider to reduce echo in your recordings.
    • Add blankets or blinds on walls to reduce echo.
    • Record in the smallest room possible.
    • Avoid rooms with hardwood floors.

Lighting for video

  • Turn a window or glass door into a soft “Key Light” by hanging a cheap, frosted shower curtain over the window. 

 

Authors: Jason Jones, Drew Olson, and Sammi Lukas, with special thanks to Victor Yee for technical support with the images.

Facilitating Active Learning with Zoom

connected learners image
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Christine Scott, Instructional Design Specialist, Oregon State University Ecampus

So you managed to get your face-to-face courses up and running remotely in the midst of a global pandemic. You’ve secured your Zoom sessions to avoid unwanted disruptions, your students are in their virtual seats, and you’ve successfully delivered a few lectures. So what’s next?

Now that you have students’ attention, you may find that you’re ready to focus on transforming your synchronous session into a space for active learning to take place. It’s no secret that students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process. The question is how that translates to a remote Zoom session. Is it even possible to recreate the dynamic learning environment of your face-to-face class? 

To answer that question, we can look to best practices in online pedagogy. We know that students in online environments experience better outcomes and higher satisfaction when there are opportunities for active learning and engagement with the instructor, the course content, and each other. Fortunately, Zoom has several tools we can leverage to incorporate learner engagement in the remote setting.

Creating Opportunities for Active Learning

To set the stage for active learning, consider breaking your content delivery into shorter chunks, punctuated by periods of activity. Ask students to do something meaningful to help them engage with the content. This approach not only supports learning, but it also encourages accountability. If students understand they will be called upon to complete a task, they are more likely to be motivated to engage with the lecture.

During your synchronous session, you might ask students to: 

  • Respond to a question
  • Take notes to share
  • Create a list of examples or discussion questions to share afterward on the Canvas discussion board
  • Prepare a reflection to submit after the fact
  • Solve a problem

Breakout Rooms in Zoom

Breakout rooms are easy to set up and operate in Zoom. These small group spaces are useful as a means of incorporating peer-to-peer interaction and feedback into your remote course. They can also promote inclusion by providing an opportunity for low-stakes participation for learners who may be reluctant to chime in during large group sessions. Finally, breakout session activities can serve as a tool for formative assessment as the activities students complete can help instructors gauge achievement of the learning outcomes. 

Creating Breakout Room Tasks

Breakout room tasks can be carried out on-the-fly in the synchronous session, or they can form part of a more complex assignment. You might provide a prompt, file, or a link as a springboard for spontaneous discussion in small groups. Alternatively, you might flip your remote classroom by providing students with a pre-activity to complete before the live session. For further engagement, you might have students build on what they produce in their breakout rooms through an asynchronous submission in Canvas. 

When creating breakout room tasks: 

  • Set clear expectations. Any explanation of expectations should include a clear relationship to learning outcomes. Provide a code of conduct for interaction, performance expectations related to the task, etc.
  • Prepare instructions in advance. Provide students with a clear task and deliverable. Include any resources needed to complete the task. Outline the deliverable or provide a model so that students understand what is expected upon reconvening with the whole class. 
  • Guide students in how to self-organize. Assign roles or ask students to assign them (host facilitator, notetaker, timekeeper, and speaker who reports back to the class). 
  • Provide technical support. A tip sheet for the technology can be helpful in case they get stuck, for example. 
  • Monitor. Circulate as you would in your face-to-face class by joining breakout rooms to check in. 
  • Report back. Ask students to present a summary slide (groups might contribute a slide to a class google presentation), share group’s response, etc. Follow up with whole-group sharing in some form. 

Sample Breakout Room Activity Types

  • Small group discussion
  • Think – Pair – Share
  • Group project
  • Data analysis/text analysis
  • Debate preparation
  • Simulation practice – mock interview
  • Peer feedback
  • Jigsaw activity

Polling 

Another option for interactivity during lectures is the Zoom poll. Polls are easy to launch and are a handy tool for icebreakers at the beginning of sessions, to check for understanding, or to allow students to have input on lecture content. They can be created as anonymous surveys or as simple question responses. 

Fig. 1 This example demonstrates how polling could be used to pose a question and elicit an anonymous response from participants.

Non-verbal Feedback in Zoom 

Sample of Nonverbal feedback icons from Zoom
Nonverbal Feedback options in Zoom

If you miss the non-verbal feedback of a live audience in a face-to-face setting, you might consider encouraging students to use Zoom’s non-verbal feedback options available in the chat window. This tool allows students to input quick yes/no responses to questions, ask for the speaker to speed up or slow down, indicate that they need a break, and more. 

Sample of a music activity
Fig 2. Consider how the simplicity of non-verbal feedback indicators might be useful in a cognitive psychology course for student feedback while listening to audio clips. Students could be asked to use the thumbs up when they can name the familiar melody mixed with interfering tones, for example.

 

Facilitating Lab Experiences Remotely

Live lab activities provide another opportunity for interactive experiences in Zoom. The following examples of lab tasks that implement active learning principles are taken from existing online courses through Oregon State University Ecampus. Consider how similar field and lab experiences could be used to engage learners in your remote courses. 

Sample Experiences

image from science course

Science Education

In this example from a phenology course, students observe and record specific elements in a local natural area over the course of the term. After watching an instructor-led demonstration, learners record key elements based on Nature’s Notebook. They then share their data, photos, and drawings with the class to create a collective body of observations. Students then contribute their observations to a national phenology network. 

Public Health

pedometer walker
Image source: pixfuel.com, cc

Learners in this course collect and analyze authentic data through a public health topic: the human-built environment. Students wear a pedometer to track how many steps they take over a 48-hour period. They ask other members of their family or community to track the same information. Students gather, analyze, and compare their data to identify potential strategies their community could implement to improve its built environment to promote active transportation by walking, biking, or other means.

Tips for setting up remote lab demonstrations or tasks: 

  • Consider common household items to recreate a lab experience
  • Add or find components online
  • Use online videos or DIY recordings of a demonstration
  • Present simulations and provide an analysis or breakdown of what is happening
  • Connect students to virtual labs or simulations
  • Provide instructions and expected outcomes
  • Demonstrate or show the process for collecting data
  • Provide raw data for students to analyze
  • Offline – engage students with assignments or discussions related to the remote lab experience

Whether you opt to use breakout rooms to facilitate collaborative tasks, quick polls to gather student input on lecture content, or non-verbal feedback options to take the pulse of your audience, the features of Zoom offer a means of interaction that can help you to bring students to the center of your remote teaching sessions. 

Adapted from slide presentation by Cyndie McCarley, Assistant Director of Instructional Design, Oregon State University Ecampus

Narrative and World-Building

For this post, I will focus on two simple strategies you can use to improve motivation and engagement in your online course, narrative and world building. These terms are used frequently in games, as well as in literature, film and other domains. They are a powerful tool, easily applied to your existing course material or as you develop new content.puzzle world

If you want some background about where my thinking is coming from, check out my last blog post, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement, Part 1, where I take a deeper dive into gaming and Self-Determination Theory. I would also recommend a post by Dr. Meghan Naxer, Self-Determination Theory and Online Education: A Primer.

There are two kinds of world building I’d like to talk about; instructor-created narrative and student-created narrative. To set the tone for our thinking about this, I’ll start with a quote from Designing for Motivation.

“… if you increase autonomy then engagement will improve, if you increase competence then motivation will increase, and if you increase relatedness then wellbeing will be enhanced–these needs become the controllers we tweak and adjust to iterate on and improve experience.”
(Peters, D., Calvo, R. A., & Ryan, R. M. (2018) Designing for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing in Digital Experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 28 May 2018. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00797)

So how can we use world building to ‘tweak’ these three controllers?

Instructor-Created Narrative

role-playing game diceInstructor-created narrative refers to the world or environment created by the course builder and determined by the story they are telling about that world. This world building can be for a particular course activity, but also keep in mind that your entire online course is a learning environment and you, as the course builder, have significant influence over how that world is curated. A colleague recently described how an instructor begins their course with the phrase, “Welcome scholars”. This sets a tone that is a competence-supportive environment with just two words. Tone is a commonly used tool for world building across many domains.

As a simple entry point for world building, I’ll start with a classic type of game, role-playing.

Brainstorm Exercise

Consider setting up a role-playing scenario for one of your existing activities or assignments. What is the outcome you expect students to achieve from this activity? Imagine a situation (or world) where that outcome exists or can be applied. What does that situation look like? Now, imagine you are a student in that situation, what does this world look like? (See what I did there? Role playing!) How will your student interact with that world to achieve your outcome? Take a minute or two to note your answers to these questions. This is a good way to begin sketching out your narrative. Once your sketch is complete, you can begin moving the parameters and rubrics of your existing activity into this world.

The world you create for your scenario can be the ‘real world’ in a particular time period, a hypothetical political situation, a business/client relationship regarding a product, or a hypothetical world to resolve a physics problem. Here are some ways you can frame your thinking as you practice the above exercise:

  • Take the tools you have provided in the course content (competence) and use them to analyze the following situation (world building). “How would you apply what you learned this week to the following situation?”
  • Even better, “How will the situation change as a result of your decisions?”

A small change in wording can provide big changes in thinking. In the second bullet point, we have moved from applying the week’s content to a given situation to a personalized critical analysis.

Student-Created Narrative

The other side of the coin is allowing students to build on your narrative, or create their own. This is where you significantly impact autonomy. This is your world, you create the rules. You set the parameters that will focus student thinking toward the outcomes you hope for them to reach. The rules you set will determine the level of autonomy the student experiences.

Brainstorm Exercise

For this exercise, you can continue with the role-playing scenario you built in the previous Brainstorm Exercise or choose another existing activity from a course. Let’s brainstorm some ways you can add autonomy to this activity.

A simple addition to the role-playing scenario we built previously would be to allow students to choose the role they will play. You have built a narrative, now let the student choose the character they will play to build on that narrative. If you need to keep things more focused, it is totally acceptable to restrict the roles to a list of options. Even with restrictions, is it possible for students to choose the gender, race or economic background of their character? What other characteristics can you think of that will help a student take ownership of the role?

For other kinds of activities, consider giving students the creative freedom to choose and build their own narrative. The instructor still defines the rules of the world and sets the outcome and rubrics for the activity. Can you open up the choices a student has to meet these outcomes? Allow students the autonomy to take ownership of how they get to your outcome, using your rubric as a guide.

For example, select a concept that was covered in the course. In your activity, allow students to choose where and how that concept can be applied. Let them build the narrative around the concept. Conversely, select a setting in the world, much like you would for the role-playing scenario. Allow students to choose the course concepts they want to apply in that setting and build a narrative around that. This strategy lends itself well to case studies. Rather than taking on a specific role, students become story creators, while still working with instructional concepts and within the rules defined by the instructor.

Group World Building

As I mentioned in my previous post, group work and community building (as modeled by gaming communities) are great ways to increase relatedness in a course. Community members are able to share their competence and, in turn, feel valued by that community. This is another great support of motivation.

All of the strategies discussed above can be applied to group work. You can set up the same role-playing scenarios, but this time multiple students will take on different roles and interact in those roles within their group community. Relatedness is impacted as decisions and actions taken by one student will affect the world that is being collaboratively built. Here are two examples from a media course I recently helped develop. They both reflect the range of complexity group world building can undertake.

Pitch Game (Group Discussion)

For your Initial Post in this discussion, pitch a new television show. Follow the parameters presented in class; including X+Y claims, audience description, sketch of the show’s audience and the ideal network for the show. For your Peer Response, you will take on the role of media buyer. Choose which network or streaming service you work for. Review all available show pitches. Decide which show you will purchase. Reply to the show you wish to purchase; identify the network you represent and write your reasoning why you want to make the purchase. Use course material to support your decision.

Trial Simulation (Group Project)

To better understand the ways in which civil law shapes the media ecosystem, we will enact a short trial simulation. The court of the Honorable Judge is an appeals court: this means that the FACTS of the case were decided by the TRIAL court. The question that will be litigated in class regards the law and the interpretation of those facts.

One student will take on the role of Plaintiff, another will be Defense and a third member of the group will be the Judge. Over the next two weeks, you will follow the posted schedule to present your arguments and answer questions from the Judge. Before proceeding, review the Debate Rules and Trial Facts documents. You will be expected to cite actual Supreme Courts cases to support your claims.

Hopefully, this blog has provided some simple entry points for using world building to increase autonomy, build competence, and improve relatedness in a course to improve motivation and engagement. I would love to hear what you come up with in the Brainstorm Exercises.

Dice Image: “DSCF5108” by joelogon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
World Building Image: puzzle-ball-1728990_1920 from Pixabay