Instructional design toolkit: Markdown


To be a power user of Carmen (or any LMS), WordPress (U.OSU), the web in general, or e-learning authors (such as Softchalk), you have to do some HTML.

If you’re new to HTML, intimidated by HTML, or just a little bit lazy (like me), you have a friend in Markdown. It’s a sort of HTML Lite language, an easy way to write your content in just a text editor, and you can convert it to full-blown HTML when you’re done.

For example, you can write a bulleted list like this:

- This is a list
- It's just using hyphens and spaces
- It's pretty low key

And then it’s smart enough to convert that to this nice clean HTML, which you can paste into your web page:

<li>This is a list</li>
<li>It's just using hyphens and spaces</li>
<li>It's pretty low key</li>

Markdown has easy-to-type, easy-to-remember ways of doing just about every basic HTML thing you’d need. Many cheat sheets are around. It’s easy to learn, lightweight (uses text files), and it’s a perfect way to dip your toe into HTML.

Many Markdown apps (which are tiny and usually free) will give you a preview pane that shows how your code would look on a web page. My Mac recommendation is Mou, and there are a slew great options for Windows, iOS, and Android.

What I’ve been reading


It’s cold out, so I’ve been curling up with some books. (I’ve left off the novels.)

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson

Are we losing some of our humanity? What happens if the Internet goes down: Do our brains collapse, too? Or is the question naive and irrelevant—as quaint as worrying about whether we’re “dumb” because we can’t compute long division without a piece of paper and a pencil. (18)

I was expecting this to be mostly a response to the Chicken Little “The Internet Is Making Us Dumber!” genre, but it’s actually more interesting than that. (And Thompson doesn’t set himself up as an armchair neuroscientist like many of those books’ authors do.) This is a thoughtful examination of the gains we make when we partner with technology, when we all play to our strengths.

The chapter on learning is fairly insightful. Again, the discussion focuses on using technology to free up humans’ time and energy for parts of the process that really benefit from human involvement: guidance, feedback, and so on.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

McGonigal is a part of the TED crowd, I think. Her ideas are optimistic, intriguing, “worldchanging.” At about halfway through, her book certainly convinces me that lots of people play videos games, that many gamers are productive and happy, and that games can be used for positive gains, but I don’t think there’s much of a case for the inherent positives of the medium itself.

It’s entirely possible that I have insurmountable bias, though; I’ve never been a gamer. (Unless solitaire and the online NYT crossword puzzle count as video games.)

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

A really playful book, as might be expected from the title. The book isn’t about gamification or  specific game mechanics; it’s about what, broadly, makes games fun. Koster believes that games are all about engaging ourselves with patterns. We learn a game’s pattern and then derive fun from practicing that pattern in different iterations and partially mastering it. Games whose formal mechanisms are too baroque won’t seem fun; similarly, a game whose pattern we can master effortlessly (e.g., tic tac toe) isn’t fun either.

Many of Koster’s observations mirror theories about learning, especially when it comes to that sweet spot of finding graspable-but-challenging tasks. There are good lessons in the book for instructional designers about understanding that spectrum from busywork to fun/motivating to intimidating.

Three-act math stories

Problem– and task-centered instruction can lead to active learning, intrinsic motivation, and the beginnings of problem solving. One key element in these kinds of instruction is providing a real-life story.

Dan Meyer’s “three act” math instruction is a simple approach for instructing through story and real-life tasks. He’s focused on K-12 math, but I think the approach and the problem it addresses (teaching reasoning and not mindless computation) apply more broadly.

  • Act 1: Introduce the story, beginning with a real-life dilemma. Do this as visually as possible (images or video) and keep the explanation and commentary to a minimum. You want to give students a chance to get interested and to start thinking in broad terms about how to approach the problem.
  • Act 2: Let students discuss the problem and figure out what tools to use. You could facilitate this process with varying levels of involvement, depending on many factors. The important thing is that students call on course materials or previously learned skills voluntarily–with only as much scaffolding as necessary.
  • Act 3: Show the real-life results and compare to the students’ solution. The final, satisfying part. Show the real-life resolution as visually as possible (images or video) and give students a chance to decide for themselves if their solution worked. If it didn’t, you have an opportunity to talk through what they did (educational for you). And if the real-life solution is slightly off or is messier than the calculations, all the better–a teachable moment about real life vs. class.

Meyer’s blog has hundreds of examples, mostly adapted from less-compelling textbook math problems, and he has an explanation of his approach on there. He also has a TED talk (which I link to in spite of my general TED wariness).

I’ve used this approach as inspiration for some pretty neat video-based problems in an (online) economics course, but as I revisit my notes I can tell we didn’t create the opportunity for enough meaningful student collaboration (in that Act 2 phase). Perhaps an asynchronous online environment lends itself to bigger stories, or a different pace, because otherwise each problem would take days.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on how to make this kind of story approach work online.