Passive learning online isn’t enough!

Asleep at the Wheel by Aaron Jacobs (Flickr)

Yesterday the Chronicle’s Wired Campus blog  had a post trumpeting what sounded like a pretty obvious conclusion about massive online courses: “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.”

The study’s author explains:

We’ve observed that the highly structured MOOC design focuses on content provision, which the participants are very positive about.

The structure, however, does not encourage learners to actively self-regulate their learning. If anything, participants, even those with high self-regulated learning ability, tend to limit their activity to reading and interacting with course content, overlooking opportunities to use the theory they’ve learned to improve their practice.”

It seems obvious enough (that experiencing course content through osmosis doesn’t mean really learning something), but it’s a lesson we have to keep reminding ourselves of when we design online courses.

For all the time, energy, and technology that goes into making videos, web content, ebooks, and quizzes, the crucial elements of the course are the low-tech ones: discussion, collaboration, and (most important) practice with feedback.

As time passed… [students’] main concerns shifted to completing the course and getting high scores, not practicing their newly acquired skills.

“Learners focused on activities such as watching videos and taking tests, with little evidence of learners’ relating new knowledge into practice, or connecting to their peers through the discussion board,” said Colin Milligan, a research fellow at the university, in a news release.

Active learning makes courses messier—but more meaningful. A canned course that’s just videos, readings, and exams can be easier for both the instructor and the students, but it probably won’t lead to the kind of learning that students come to Ohio State to experience!

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.

Beyond the QM rubric: Where do we want to go?

Many rivers (and streets) to cross

My colleague Ben Scragg and I have been reading a lot of Hybrid Pedagogy and other conversations challenging the status quo of designing and teaching online courses. (The status quo seems to come in two forms: ground classes with PowerPoints that have been recorded and put online, or old-style online courses with cookie-cutter activities—“post your reply and respond to two classmates’ posts,” and so on.)

Quality Matters and solid backward design will get us to a point of courses being usable and generally sound, but where else do we put our effort? How do we make our offerings excellent and not just acceptable?

If I were writing my own addendum to the Quality Matters rubric, here’s what I’d include as qualities to measure:

  • digital first — Content/experience created for the web
  • ethical, learner centered — Course policies, activities, assessments are designed to empower students to control their own learning
  • authentic assessments — Student assessment focuses on students’  creating actual professional or scholarly work and receiving feedback
  • activity centered — Course work emphasizes student projects, tasks, collaboration, and inquiry, not instructor or textbook content
  • human — Course design and delivery emphasizes human interactions: instructor/class, instructor/student, student/student, class as community
  • local — Content (at least the front-and-center content) is primarily created by OSU faculty and staff, not a big publisher or elearning company; tools are primarily OSU tools
  • open — Uses open content and shares content openly (to students, to people outside the course and the institution)
  • accessible — Content and activities are accessible to students of all abilities and on all devices

Alternative to a lecture video: Audio


The multimedia principles of e-learning are, in short, about the superiority of employing multiple media at once to instruct.

When your instructional goal isn’t to show and tell, specifically, or when you simply have lots of words but no visual component, you can use a medium with a long history of engaging people in journalism, entertainment, and education: audio recording of spoken words.

Audio is probably most powerful as a vehicle for bringing attention to people’s voices and stories. It may not be the best medium for explaining a technical concept or promoting memorization of specific details, but it’s surely better than text (or perhaps even video) for having experts or other interesting people share their stories.

A few examples:

  • Planet Money / This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money
    Voice and audio used to narrate an investigation. The hosts explain their journey toward to understand the financial crisis. You can see (hear) how the medium lends itself to seamlessly incorporating the frequent new voices of experts and others included in the narrative. The personality and idiosyncrasy makes the topic seem so much less dry. This could have been  an (expensive, time-intensive) animated/video documentary, but just see how well they explain with just words!
  • #PHONAR: Fred Ritchin lecture
    In this “guest lecture” from #PHONAR, an open online education project about photography, audio is used as a medium for story and personal voice in a sort of long interview. NYU photography professor Fred Ritchin recounts memories and shares thoughts about the trickiness of telling stories through photos. Notably, by having audio only, the lecture seems to encourage you to Google the images, stories, and facts he’s talking about. (How much more interesting that journey was than if they’d just stuck the photos there in front of me!)

Multimedia principles

While this is technically not multimedia, I think we can see its value by looking at a couple of Mayer’s multimedia principles:

1. Coherence principle – People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.

11. Voice principle – People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

When the subject is personal—especially telling stories or building rapport, and when the visual components aren’t serving an important purpose, audio can be powerful. It’s a familiar medium to people, and it’s fairly easy to produce compared to video and animation.

Technical considerations

Equipment and technique:

On the DE team we use a few different USB microphones (the last of which can plug into an iPad with the right adapter). These are noticeably better than talking into the built-in mic on your laptop, phone, or tablet. They’re also not as good as using professional equipment.

Your audio recordings need not be NPR quality to be engaging, though. Most importantly, remember to speak slowly and keep the microphone close to your mouth. And don’t be afraid to let in ambient sound (or even to add sound, tastefully).

If you’re looking to get more serious, especially if you’re recording something that’s really worth keeping around for a long time, an excellent resource (which I found through that PHONAR course, mentioned above) is the Multimedia Train website.

Software for recording and editing:

On a Mac, use GarageBand! It’s easy to use and it’s fairly powerful. Just remember to export your file as an MP3 (or something else that works across platforms). On a PC, I’d recommend the free, tried-and-true Audacity.

On iPad, GarageBand only really lets your record “loops” and not long audio clips, so I’d possibly recommend Hokusai. You can also record easily in SoundCloud’s app, especially helpful if you’re uploading to there. Better still to edit on a computer, honestly, if it’s going to be at all complex.


The fanciest option for incorporating audio into your online course is embedding it through SoundCloud, which has sort of become the YouTube of audio. It’s pretty slick looking:

Audio files (especially a judiciously compressed MP3) are pretty small in 2014 terms, too, so it’s probably also feasible to offer your audio files as downloads.


Alternative to a lecture video: Text and images

Text and images

I’ve been thinking a lot about what might be better alternatives to video lectures. My first suggestion is the easiest to make, the most familiar to Internet users, and the most extensible. The simplest and most fundamental medium of the web: the web page.

I think web pages with text and images are a better alternative to videos for topics that require a lot of detail, step-by-step processes, or long discussions.

Some examples that are getting me thinking:

  • William J. Turkel: Installing Debian Linux in a Virtual Machine
    Text and screenshots are used to guide through a process, a somewhat long series of computer tasks. The medium is scrollable and easy for reference–sort of a long recipe. While we often jump to screencast videos for purposes like this, I think Turkel’s simpler approach is eminently more useful to the user/student who actually wants to do this task and not just watch it.
  • New York Times Magazine: Miscellaneous examples
    Journalism, particularly the (overly trendy) online “long-form” flavor, provides endless examples of creating engaging, instructive, long discussions of a topic. We can take lessons about the power of story as means of explaining and keeping students interested. (And think of how long and less engaging it would be to have a video of the reporter reading one of these stories into the camera or narrating it over PowerPoint.)

Multimedia principles

In a very real sense, these web pages are the basic flavor of multimedia learning: text (the basic medium) enhanced with images (adding the multi-). This format allows us to take advantage of some of the multimedia principles in a carefully controlled way—to present information free of clutter, positioned and formatted how we want it, with endless options for segmenting.

Technical considerations

I’d consider “the web” to be an instructional designer’s fundamental medium. Online learning platforms and elearning/tutorial tools are almost always some mix of HTML, CSS, and Javascript. We don’t need to be web developers, but I think it’s imperative to have some basic literacy in those!

Some resources I’ve found helpful (and a shameful reprint of material from a previous blog post):

  • Dash: An online learning platform with short lessons on HTML, CSS, and Javascript. It would only take a couple of hours to go through the lessons, and when you were done you’d know enough to be an HTML master in Carmen. (Seriously!)
  • “What Screens Want”: A visual essay on what it means to design natively for screens—for “digital canvases.”

Are lecture videos the best approach?


The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC from Duke’s Cathy Davidson is confirming in my mind that long video lectures aren’t a great medium for instructing or learning.

Lecture videos (talking heads) and screencasts (usually of PowerPoints) are becoming synonymous with online education in people’s minds, mostly because of MOOCs. They’re easy to make, especially because most instructors already teach in the classroom with a backdrop of PowerPoint slides. This works better in person for a host of reasons, not least of which is an instructor’s personality and human touch, most of which gets lost in the translation.

Lecture videos are secondary artifacts of a face-to-face class experience. For transformative, engaging online education, what we need is content that successfully uses the media of the Internet. We need to look at the best ways people learn and share online—and then we should experiment and innovate in those media.

We also need to consider (and probably update) the multimedia principles of instructional design. The principles I’m thinking most about are (1) coherence , (3) redundancy, (6) segmenting, (8) modality, and (9) multimedia.

From Richard Meyer (2001), Multimedia Learning:

  1. Coherence principle – People learn better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are excluded rather than included.
  2. Signaling principle – People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.
  3. Redundancy principle – People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration and on-screen text.
  4. Spatial contiguity principle – People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  5. Temporal contiguity principle – People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
  6. Segmenting principle – People learn better from a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.
  7. Pre-training principle – People learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.
  8. Modality principle – People learn better from graphics and narrations than from animation and on-screen text.
  9. Multimedia principle – People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
  10. Personalization principle – People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.
  11. Voice principle – People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.
  12. Image principle – People do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.


I’ve been spending time exploring how to improve lecture videos and how to substitute with less flashy alternatives. I’ll be sharing what I learn here!

However we choose to present content, though, I believe the important thing is to build our online courses around stuff students do and not just stuff they watch/read/osmose. If the course content—whether lecture, textbook, web page, podcast, or whatever—is supplemental to engaging activities, students will take it in more willingly and enthusiastically.