Category Archives: Learning Unlocked

A Refreshed Idea for Game-Based eLearning

As an instructional designer for Istation, my entire world these days revolves around ways to integrate technology, teaching, and learning.

One of the traps of educational technology is the tendency to use it to do exactly what wasn’t working in the classroom.

Not only do instructional designers have to be creative about the use of technology itself, but we have to be creative about our instructional approaches. The challenge when designing instruction specifically for use with technology tools is marrying the best instructional methods possible within the parameters of the technology available.

When I started with this program, it was not much more than a nebulous idea.

The Nebula:

  • The teacher character’s name is Paige Turner.
  • Paige’s “thing” is storytelling.
  • We want to incorporate the hero’s journey, mythology, fables, folklore, and social studies standards.
  • We want to expand the types of activities included in the program.

Now, let’s fast-forward two years to where we are today with the program, now called Timeless Tales with Paige Turner, which is a part of Istation’s larger Advanced Reading Curriculum.

  • We’ve organized the state and national standards, ranked them according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • We’ve created a logical scope and sequence.
  • We’ve fleshed out Paige’s character, creating her as a graphic novelist, a blogger, a world traveler, and a writer.
  • We’ve selected humanities-based themes for each of the program’s ten instructional units.
  • We’ve built frameworks for instruction in reading comprehension, vocabulary, word analysis, text fluency, writing, grammar, and self-selected reading.

Most notably, and also most recently, we’ve also created templates for each activity, so that every lesson begins with metacognitive strategy instruction and an explanation of terms. Then we introduce a guided practice activity surrounding a story or nonfiction text. We finish each lesson with an independent practice activity that mirrors what students will experience on their state reading assessments each spring and also aligns with our own separate benchmark assessment.

However, as we’ve developed these templates, which both lend research-based structure to the lessons and also smooth the production process, we’ve been faced with a new challenge.

We know that “our assumptions about instruction, learning, learners, and design can lead to the creation of formulaic instruction”(McDonald & Gibbons, June 2009). And we know that formulaic instruction isn’t always the most effective approach.


  • How do we keep a predictable lesson structure from being boring?
  • How do we keep things fresh, use new and interesting activities, and get students involved in ways that will actually activate their prior knowledge and allow them to make connections between what they’re learning and the real world?
  • How do we integrate technology, teaching, and learning in a fun, meaningful, and engaging way?

According to the International Society for Technology in Education in 2011:

School districts that have successfully led school turnaround and improvement efforts recognize that education technology is one of the best ways to accelerate reform, providing the immediate tools to ensure that all teachers and students have access to the latest innovative instructional pathways. If we are serious about school improvement, we must be serious about education technology.


If ed reformers and districts ready for change are serious about education technology, then we as instructional designers must be serious about creating what they call “the latest innovative instructional pathways.” Period.

One of the answers we’ve played around with is game-based learning. As a company, we’ve always incorporated games into our programs, but they have been somewhat rudimentary and have typically focused on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

This time around, our challenge is to create gaming experiences for students within the guided practice segments of the lessons that activate higher-level thinking skills and allow them to make authentic connections to their learning.

We’re not alone. “Developers and researchers are working in every area of game-based learning,” from entertainment to education and training (Johnson, Adams, & Haywood, 2011).

We’ve been tossing around the idea of using the classic Role-Playing Game (RPG) format because we can incorporate enough text to require reading comprehension and because they’re flexible enough to allow for higher-level questioning.

Here are a few of our ideas:

Lesson 2.1B – Symbolism

  • Theme – Fairy Tales & Folklore
  • Learning Objectives
    • Understanding symbolism
    • Using resources to identify and apply the meaning of various symbols
    • Idea
      • Students might encounter three doors and six or eight symbols. On each door would be written a blurb or scenario. Nearby would be a large reference book with the meanings of the six or eight symbols. Students would have to select the symbol most appropriate for each door and then use the symbols to unlock the doors. Payoff behind each door.

 Lesson 4.1A – Author’s Purpose

  • Theme – Filmmaking as  Modern Storytelling Vehicle
    • Here we’ve been brainstorming ways to convey how the various members of a film crew contribute to executing the producer’s or the director’s vision for the film (the “author’s purpose).
    • Learning Objectives
      • Identifying author’s purpose
      • Analyze how various parts of the whole contribute to the author’s purpose
      • Idea
        • We could have a film production meeting, have each character share their ideas for their contributions (costume designer might have two or three costume style suggestions, set designer might have two or three set design ideas), and then the students would have to choose which of their ideas would best contribute to the given purpose/intended feel/direction for the film.

Lesson 6.1A – Understanding Point of View and Perspective

  • Theme – Age of Exploration
  • Learning Objectives
    • Analyze and evaluate how point of view can impact the telling of a story
    • Idea
      • Students could interact with two characters who tell widely varying accounts of the same story. Then, they could answer questions about each character’s point of view and evaluate the accuracy of each version of the story. The idea is to show them that the same story can be told from varying perspectives. Payoff would be to find out what really happened.


For inspiration, we’ve been exploring some RPG games from yesteryear. Check them out:

Swiss Family Robinson on Apple II


Monkey Island for MS Dos PCs


The Legend of Zelda for Nintendo 64

It might be a tried-and-true educational method to simply introduce a skill, give students an opportunity to practice with a graphic organizer or a multiple-choice format, and then to assess their mastery of that skill.

However, the students who will be using our program are those who have not been traditionally successful in the classroom. What makes us think that doing the same thing on-screen that we tried in 3D is going to work? Isn’t there some old adage about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Well, this time, Timeless Tales is going out on a limb.

So, we’re going to build some old-school games with modern style, pepper in some real-life connections, and see how the kids using our program respond. I am genuinely excited!


Churches, A. (2009). Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy: It’s not about the tools. It’s about using the tools to facilitate learning.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2011). Top Ten in ’10: ISTE’s Education Technology Priorities for 2010. Retrieved January 26, 2013, from iste: International Society for Technology in Education:

Istation. (2012, June). Istation Reading. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from Istation:

ISU College of Education. (2012). ADDIE: Develop. Retrieved from Idaho State University College of Education, College of Science, Math, and Technology Education:

Johnson, L., Adams, S., & Haywood, K. (2011). The NMC Horizon Report 2011 K-12 Edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Masters, N. F. (2011-2012). Timeless Tales with Paige Turner. Retrieved January 2013, from

McDonald, J., & Gibbons, A. (June 2009). Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology. Educational Technolgoy Research & Develoment, 377-392.

National Research Council. (2002). Learning and Understanding: Improvinig Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Learning in Two Dimensions

In this, my fourth and last installment in this series on instructional design, I felt it fitting to reflect on some of the theories and techniques behind the practice of building effective instruction.

Several years ago, I partnered with a former teacher colleague of mine and opened an innovative tutoring company called Unlock the Box that provided targeted, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for struggling students.

Our focus was on giving students the tools they needed to take charge of their own learning, as well as giving them the confidence they needed to actually use those tools to succeed.

Our students weren’t successful in traditional school environments, so we were endlessly creative as we designed outside-the-box learning experiences for them.

To teach geometry, computation, and interpersonal skills, we had a team of students collaborate to build a clubhouse outside our learning center. To teach the parts of the brain, we hosted a glow-in-the-dark scavenger hunt wherein we transformed the whole center into the inside of a brain and had students practice performing fun tasks which used the various parts of their brains throughout the lesson. To practice spelling words, students bounced on a trampoline and made up jumps to go with the letters in their words.

Besides being a whole lot of fun, creating these kinds of learning experiences for students was so rewarding. This wonderful combination of hands-on learning, higher-level thinking, collaboration, and metacognitive strategies actually worked. Our students progressed exponentially. It felt almost… miraculous.

It was extraordinarily satisfying to see how engaged students were as they were learning, to watch them grow in their knowledge and skills, and most of all, to witness their confidence building as they transformed these genuine learning experiences into academic and personal success.

One of the challenges I now face as an instructional designer for an educational technology company is creating positive learning experiences for students within the limitations of two dimensions. We can’t go outside and blow bubbles to learn how to measure wind direction. We can’t build the parts of a cell out of pipe cleaners and felt. We can’t make fossils out of paper mache or paint the whole wall with neon math facts.

But as instructional designers, we still want to activate students’ prior knowledge, build meaningful learning experiences for them, and focus their attention on the mastery of critical skills. Not only that, but we want to encourage students to use transferrable, higher-level thinking skills in an online environment.

While even I’m not sold that the instruction we can provide in an online environment can rival the face-to-face, one-on-one interactions we had at my old tutoring center, I do support a number of experiential learning strategies that can be translated into the land of two dimensions:

1. Model, model, MODEL!!

I’m not sure enough can be said for the value of modeling. When students clearly understand what is expected of them, they are bound to be more successful. This is a good thing. And showing them what it looks like or sounds like to successfully complete a task or demonstrate a skill gives them something tangible to remember.


2. Provide multiple and frequent opportunities for students to interact with the learning environment.

I remember taking a community college course back in the early nineties – by VHS. I had to sit there for what seemed like endless hours just watching a video lecture on American History up through 1865. It was the closest thing to actual torture I can remember ever enduring.

No matter how much information a designer has to convey, the more students get to interact with the content and/or the learning environment, the more engaged they will be.

Don’t just display a graphic organizer and tell them how it works; instead, have students click on each section to reveal the content contained within. Don’t just display and read through a list of vocabulary words on-screen. Have students click on each word to explore its meaning. Let them drive the learning experience as much as possible.


3. Ask meaningful questions.

Even when the online learning environment restricts the degree to which assessments can be authentic, it is possible to activate higher-level thinking skills by asking the right kinds of questions. Instead of asking students to recall information, ask them what they’d DO with the information if given three or four possible options.

The e-Learning Coach offers three tricks for asking good multiple choice questions. Read ‘em and use ‘em. She knows what she’s talking about.


4. When using avatars, make them likable.

One of the most profound lessons I learned as a teacher through my experiences at Unlock the Box Innovative Learning was that students learn more through relationships with others than they will ever learn through text. When they feel safe and comfortable in the learning environment, and especially when they trust their instructors, students’ brains are open to learning. They’re ready to receive. They want to know more when they like and respect the person teaching them. Otherwise, they’d rather just find out on their own.

Since the online learning experience is often instructor-driven by necessity, it’s important to create characters and avatars that students LIKE. Create encouraging dialogue. Don’t just tell them they’re wrong when they make mistakes, model another way to think about the question. Make them laugh. Don’t be too serious.

And most importantly, allow avatars and characters enough time with instruction that struggling learners don’t feel rushed. The beauty of using avatars and characters in online learning environments is that designers can create wonderful and supportive personalities. Take advantage. Not everybody is as cool as that.



Chapman, A. (2008-2010). Bloom’s Taxonomy – Learning Domains. Retrieved from Business Balls:

Chapman, A. (2008-2010). Experiential Learning. Retrieved from Business Balls:

Fairman, N. M., & Wortham, M. S. (2008, October 13). Not So Perfect Parent: Unlock the Box. (P. M. Smith, Interviewer)

Malamed, C. (2012). Writing Multiple Choice Questions For Higher Order Thinking. Retrieved from The eLearning Coach:

Smith, P. M. (2008, October 13). Unlock the Box! Retrieved from Not So Perfect Parent:

Introducing ADDIE, the Mother of Instructional Design Models

Ruh Row

We Have a Problem

It’s been a while since I blogged on this site. I’ve been busy designing instruction. So busy, in fact, that I completely forgot how to log in, how to get to my control panel and my dashboard, how to embed videos and other media…

After I initially set up this blog as part of my graduate coursework on instructional design and technology, I felt like an expert. The process itself was challenging, but once I’d been successful a few times, I really felt like I “knew my stuff.”

And then a few months passed. And then a few more months passed. And then I started to initiate this post, and suddenly, I drew a complete blank. See, we’ve got our blogs attached to websites hosted by an outside source. We’ve got WordPress installed for blogging ease, and we’ve got the whole thing linked to Moodle so we can show off our instructional design prowess with real online courses!

If you’re a fellow blogger or an instructional designer, it’s likely that none of that sounds very complicated to you. If, however, you’re a novice or a casual reader, you might get the sense that using multiple tools requires a bit of know-how.

Well, it does. It’s not complicated, but it’s a lot of information to remember. And after several months on hiatus, it’s a lot to retrieve.

When Good Instructional Design Works

This brings me to the topic at hand: instructional design.

Thankfully, my previous instructor was an expert at instructional design, and my university makes previous courses readily available. So all I had to do was go back to good ol’ EDU520, pull up the instructions for initiating our websites and our first blog posts, review some of the materials, and voila! Presto! I’m in, and I’m blogging!

The video here is six minutes long. If you’ve got six minutes to spare and an interest in instructional design, it’s worth the watch:


A is for Analyze

But just in case six minutes is too much to ask, here’s the gist:

Good instructional design doesn’t just center around transmitting tons of information to unwitting “learners.” Rather, it should follow a process that starts with analyzing what information learners actually need to achieve their goals. If you’re not familiar with the ADDIE model, that’s the “A for Analyze.”

The ADDIE Model

While the exact origins of the ADDIE model aren’t clear, it’s usefulness is. It’s not enough to just throw a lump of information at a learner. It’s not even enough to break the information down into digestible pieces, or to create fun or engaging activities to help the learner digest the giant beefsteak of information.

Rather, an instructional designer ought to think first:

  • Who’s receiving the information?
  • What are the desired outcomes?
  • What information is needed to achieve those outcomes?

By first ANALYZING what to teach and to whom you’ll be teaching it, an instructional designer can filter down to the essentials, the information needed to accomplish the goal. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s not automatic. It takes conscious analysis, a process, deliberate and critical thinking.

Since my previous instructor likely followed this process and actually thought about what bits of information would get me to this page in the most efficient way, here I am. It took me ten minutes of review, and I’m up and running. What if she hadn’t thought about it? What if she’d just thrown the whole book, WordPress for Dummies at me, and said, “Here’s all the information you need. Go!” Well, I wouldn’t be posting right now. I’d be reading. I’d be frustrated. I’d be searching.

Analysis is critical. It’s a logical and needed first step. And it starts with “A,” so it’s place at the beginning of the instructional design process seems natural, doesn’t it?


ADDIE in Practice

I mentioned that I’d been busy designing instruction. I have. I’ve spent almost two years on the first two steps of ADDIE – Analysis and Design. I’m designing an interactive reading intervention for struggling middle school readers. The theme is the hero’s journey through world history, and the objectives include basically all of the standards from all of the states, plus the Common Core.

If I hadn’t spent a year on the analysis phase of ADDIE, carefully combing the standards for the most critical skills and objectives and the most important pieces of information contained within those standards, as well as deciphered the best examples from world history and the history of human storytelling to use to help learners actually acquire those skills, as well as carefully analyzing the learners themselves, including their strengths, weaknesses, and learning tendencies, well, I’d be writing an encylopedia of the world as well as a dissertation on learning standards and objectives that would make this exceptionally long sentence look like a dot on a star in the galaxy somewhere in the universe.

A! A! What Is It Good For, Anyway?

In short, analysis prevented me from overloading my audience with unnecessary information. It prevented me from making assumptions about what they know or don’t know or how they learn. It prevented me from trying to cram the history of the world into an interactive format. I had to think about how learners would experience the program, and what they ought to take from it. This type of thinking really narrows down the field and makes designing quality instruction possible.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be blogging more about the ADDIE model, how it has impacted me as a learner, and how I hope it will impact the learners who will be experiencing the curriculum I’m designing.

Until next time…



Culatta, R. (2011). Instructional Design. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from ADDIE Model:

Gustafson, K. L., & Branch, R. M. (2002). Survey of Instructional Development Models. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology.

Hodell, C. (2011). ISD From the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design. Chelsea, MI: Sheridan Books, Inc.

Molenda, M. (2003, May/June). In Search of the Elusive ADDIE Model. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from Indiana University:


Maximizing the Home-School Connection

Research clearly shows that students whose parents are actively involved with their children’s schools are more likely to stay in school, to exhibit better performance on standardized assessments of basic skills and knowledge, and to attend and graduate from college.

But striking a balance between the needs of students, teachers, and parents has been historically challenging, especially in public education.

The pendulum swings in all directions. For some teachers, it’s a struggle to get parents on board, to earn their trust, or to gain their interest in the education of their children. For others, the demands of uber-involved “helicopter parents” can be overwhelming at best, and overbearing at worst. Some students want their parents to be as active a part of their school lives as possible. Others cringe at the thought of mom or pop showing up to staple bulletin boards, stuff envelopes, deliver baked goods, or worse, attend the dreaded parent-teacher conference.

Still, we know that students learn best in a community that involves their families on a healthy level. Parents who understand the expectations in the school setting are more likely to reinforce those expectations at home. Overworked teachers, especially in today’s underfunded schools, legitimately need the support, and sometimes the elbow grease, of parents who are willing to volunteer their time, efforts, and money to help make projects, access to first rate materials, and a sense of school pride a reality.

Check out this video:

The bottom line is that “good communication between parents and teachers has many benefits. When parents and teachers share information, children learn more and parents and teachers feel more supported. Good communication can help create positive feelings between teachers and parents” (Kreider, Mayer, & Vaughan, 1999).

The good news is that today’s tools, specifically technology tools, can help make the home-school connection a reality, with less cost and effort for all involved, than ever before.

“Innovative technologies such as cell phones, e-mail, and websites provide schools with new tools for reaching middle school parents and keeping them informed about their children. Traditional methods of communication such as face-to-face meetings have been found to be effective (Decker & Decker, 2003); however, these methods require time that both working parents and teachers may lack” (Rogers & Wright).

The days of the class newsletter being sufficient are over. “Educators are often very good at mass communications via newsletters, calendars, letters, and handbooks, but mass communications are not effective in shaping or changing attitudes” (Rogers & Wright). What we need to see more of isn’t a folder stuffed with impersonal, though informative, letters home. What we need to see is communication from school to home and home to school moving at the speed of communication in most other areas of our lives.

When my friend in Rhode Island applied for a new job, I knew about it within minutes, thanks to social networking. When my boss needs something and I’m not in the office, well, an email gets the message to me and enables me to deliver the results the boss needs, on the fly. In fact, I can access documents on the major projects of most of my colleagues from anywhere in the world, thanks to Google Docs. So why, as a parent, shouldn’t I be able to access my child’s curriculum? Of course I should. And technology makes that possible.

The school website can be a key component of creating a legitimate, instantaneous home-school connection. “Electronic communication formats such as websites give families access to homework information and requires little time or effort to access” (Decker & Decker, 2003). Use of school websites to provide this type of information is on the rise. And in true Web 2.0 spirit, teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones generating content for school websites.

“Increasingly, school Web sites are used to convey a broad range of school information. Students often become involved with both the technology and the content of the Web site and may work together with teachers to create and maintain the site” (Graham-Clay).

At the end of the day, most educators and parents both have at least reasonable access to a wealth of tools which can help to support the development of a speedy, open dialogue and the rapid and broad sharing of important information.

With the amazing tools available today, the old-school notes home just aren’t cutting it anymore.

For some great ideas, check out these links on bringing the home-school connection into the 21st century:

21st Century Home-School Connection

Tips for Teachers: Using Technology to Connect with Parents



Connecting Home and (2010, August 29). Retrieved from YouTube:

Dwyer, L. (2010, March 19). Connecting the Schoolhouse to Your House. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from Good Education:

Graham-Clay, S. (n.d.). Communicating with Parents: Strategies for Teachers. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from The School Community Journal:

Kreider, H., Mayer, E., & Vaughan, P. (1999, May). Helping Parents Communicate Better with Schools. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from Harvard Family Research Project:

MED 7305. (2011, January). Using Technology to Communicate with Parents. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from Parent Communication Project:

Rogers, R., & Wright, V. (n.d.). Assessing Technology’s Role in Communication between Parents and Middle Schools. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, Vol. 7: