Teaching With 40 Year Old Software

I read an article that mentioned that someone teaching game design was using the old game "The Oregon Trail" as a simple example of game design. I felt a little wave of nostalgia for that computer game that I used with middle school students in the late 1970s on Apple IIe computers.

What can we teach with 40-year-old software?

The game was developed in 1971 and produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974. My school subscribed to MECC and received many software packages on the big 5.25 very floppy disks which we could duplicate.

The original game was designed to teach about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The single player is a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848. 

But many teachers used it in other ways. In those early day, just teaching students to use the computer and navigate a game was a learning experience. I knew teacher who, like myself, used it was a way to teach cooperation by having players work in pairs or teams and justifiable arguing about choices was encouraged.

I used the game as an example when teaching literature as away to discuss the consequences of actions (draw branching diagram here).
 

Looking at the game again today via one of the several emulators available online (such as https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990 and https://classicreload.com/oregon-trail.html), it seems about as primitive in its graphics as it did back in 1975 in my classroom. But it worked. My homeroom students enjoyed playing it just for gaming fun, and I was able to incorporate the decision-making aspects into lessons. I taught English, not social studies, and was less interested in the historical aspects of the game. I did use it briefly in an interdisciplinary manner with a social studies teacher, but having students do research into the real Oregon Trail and that period seemed to kill interest in the game itself. 

Apple IIe screenshotIt was one of the most successful games of all time and “The Oregon Trail” was inducted into World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016. If you played it a few times, many of its screens are probably etched into your memory. I recall entering my real family members' names into the game the first time I played, and then sadly dysentery them "die" along the trail - probably from dysentery. It had game play moments (like hunting buffalo) and simple animation, but it was mostly text and so involved a lot of reading.

I would have my students work in small groups and map the game both on a real map of the trail, and then later on a decision tree style "map" of the game's options.

For me, the strength of the game in the classroom was in understanding how decisions could change the game's outcomes and their traveler's fates.

I recall that students would argue about the design. They didn't like the random things that would happen, such as a fire in the wagon destroying objects that were worth game points. But that also worked its way into my discussions with them of literature. Things happen in novels - and our lives - that seem random and out of our control, and they have consequences.

The other software that I used back then which was more sophisticated (though not graphically) was made by Tom Snyder Productions. I met Snyder at an educational conference and we talked about his Decisions, Decisions series. The series focused on the best aspects of what I was using in "Oregon Trail." The series included products on politics and the environment and came with printed material to supplement the games, so "research" was easy and necessary to play well.

I had no luck finding online what happened to Snyder and his company. It seems to have been consumed by Scholastic, though the link I found was a dead end.  I did find something on Amazon, but it doesn't seem that the series was continued or updated recently. It could easily be an online or mobile game. 

Can we use old software to teach new skills? Absolutely. Though these software packages seem crude by today's standards, they are also "classic" curiosities. I haven't taught secondary school students since 2000, so my sense of what is acceptable is lost. Certainly some of these games, or similar decision-tree kinds of games are a very viable classroom tool at all grade levels K-20. Maybe someone has already updated them or created new versions. If not, there is an opportunity.

     

The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.

And the next generation of learning management systems will be...

LMS

Earlier, I wrote about Google Classroom developing as a nontraditional learning management system (LMS). Now, I want to consider what the next-gen LMS might include.

One thing I have read is that rather than being just an eLearning portal, this next-gen LMS must be an "engagement engine." That is a buzzworthy term because not only in education but in the social media marketing world "engagement" is considered to be very importent. 

In the U.S., we don't hear much about LMS products from other part of the world. Growth Engineering is a UK  Learning Technologies company, and they see their mission as making learning fun with gamification and engaging content. Their LMS (Academy) and their authoring tool (Genie) are both new to me. They appear to me to be intended for corporate training rather than school use, but I suspect the next-gen LMS will be able to operate in both domains.

Juliette Denny, of Growth Engineering when writing on elearningindustry.com, notes 9 Characteristics Of The NextGen LMS. I could come up with other characteristics and I'm sure a group of faculty or instructional designers could come up with others. With a focus on corporate training, her list probably won't agree with one from academia but, again, I think that next-gen LMS will work in both places.

I agree with her that the earlier Learning Management Systems were very much portals and content depositories for learning units. In the late 1990s, we sometimes called them a CMS which could mean course management system or content management system and institutions used them both ways.

I worked for a few years designing corporate training and clients definitely want a way to manage content - documentation, help files etc. - as well as a way to track employee uses of that content. The ability to monitor employee progress and mastery of training was the next thing that was a concern. This is not unlike academic use of an LMS.

The LMS of 2017 is much more sophisticated than the ones I used at the end of the 20th century. They are easier to do authoring. They are not beautiful, but they are less ugly. They take into account user experience much more and their use is much more intuitive.

In corporate use (and perhaps in some free and non-credit use) "informal learning" is a definite consideration. One key element of that is a system's ability to track and predict in order to direct the learner toward the next piece of content. This individualized learning path is something being developed more recently but will certainly be built into the next-gen LMS.

Connected to this informal learning is social learning. The current LMS you use probably has ways to interact with social networks. It might even have its own social tools. Most of these do not have the appeal of the most popular networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al). The next-gen LMS will include the qualities of a social network and will "help organizations capture and retain intellectual capital."

Some social features appear in LMS, but many companies use separate application (such as Sharepoint) for social collaboration, and in schools outside social network still rule. Combining the two successfully means learners have a reason to return to the LMS and complete more training or coursework. We are not there yet.

The next-gen LMS will be mobile. I still have not seen a really well done mobile version of an enterprise LMS, though vendors will tout that their LMS is "optimized for mobile use."

What about this engagement engine concept? As the aforementioned article points out for the corporate world, "It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that employee engagement is a big problem. Training aside, poor engagement is responsible for low productivity, high employee turnover and lifeless company cultures. The sad thing is that these consequences exacerbate the issue of engagement, locking organizations in a downward spiral." In education, these translate to poor grades, dropped courses and lower enrollments.

Things you will see being developed more now are improved vectors for feedback and communication from facilitator to learner and from learner to learner. Learners want to know how they are progressing and want to be "rewarded" for progress. Whether those rewards will be most engaging as grades/salary, status/advancement, badges, rankings or some other system is yet to be decided. 

Gamification is currently one of the ways to let learners see progress and become engaged. But "gamification" still carries with it the incorrectly applied impression (especially in higher education) of playing games and "making learning fun." Learning, at its best, is fun, but don't tell professors that is the goal for them to strive for.

I realized early on in doing corporate training design work that tracking employees’ "key performance indicators" was surprisingly much more important to companies than it was to educators. Our corporate courses were actually more concerned with formative assessments (frequent checks for learning), than our academic courses that more commonly used summative assessments (quizzes and tests).

That future ideal LMS will include "performance management suites that tie together objectives, competencies, reviews and training in one streamlined process."

Are these unrealistic goals for a future LMS. No. In fact, I know that all of these items are being studied and tested by developers. It is just a question of how long it will take for them to be ready in one LMS.

Nontraditional Learning Management Systems in Higher Education

Classroom logoWhen I interviewed for an instructional designer position with Google a few years ago, I was convinced that they were looking to take their Classroom product wider and deeper. I thought that they were ready to take on Blackboard, Canvas et al and start to integrate their free LMS with student information systems, add a gradebook etc.  Mixed in with all their existing tools for video streaming (YouTube) and conferencing (Hangouts) plus Docs and the rest, I really expected them to offer a free LMS that colleges would use. It would be very tempting. Look at how many colleges switched over to Gmail as the official institutional mail system. 

"Nontraditional" learning management systems (I'm thinking of both paid and free ones) have increased in online courses. Much of that movement has come from MOOC use and also from companies who have created their own systems to promote training and course offerings.

A new article from EDUCAUSE looks at graduate student use of Google Classroom. If you were using Classroom for your course a few years ago, you were more likely to be teaching in K-12 than at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

The study looks at many of the areas that have been studied before: improving effectiveness, increasing students' interactions with each other and their instructors and building community online. The difference is the audience of grad students.

The earliest MOOCs were using nontraditional web applications like Facebook and Twitter for higher education. But their use has been more limited - perhaps for an assignment - and few educators would call any one of them or a combination to be the equivalent of an LMS.

The study also points out that products like Schoology have borrowed a lot of UI and design from sites like Facebook. 

This study is small - "When asked if they would use Google Classroom again, five of the seven participants said, "yes." I would consider using Google Classroom again as well, but only for a small course."  But it is a study worth conducting at other institutions and with larger classes, even MOOC-sized ones. 

The author, Stephanie Blackmon, feels "the stream can be a bit daunting for some students" and she is hesitant to rely on it for larger classes. I would be less hesitant, but I don't think Classroom is ready to be the nontraditional LMS for a traditional college-credit course.

But some company, perhaps Google, is going to offer that free LMS and that's when things will really get interesting.

 

 

An overview of Google Classroom features: