Category Archives: eBooks

Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOCs as a Community

Martyby Martin LaGrow

In his February 28th post called ‘Rethinking the Class Paradigm: The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs,’ Hap Aziz posed the question, “Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students,” and went on to suggest that the answer is no—a MOOC should not be perceived as a course so much as it should be a community. If this perception does not change, he predicted that “the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.”  So what are the limitations of the MOOC as we have come to know it, why do those limitations exist, and what do we do to overcome them?

In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution. However, it is not a haphazard mutation. It is evolution influenced by the application of technology to education. The problem with this kind of evolution is that our preconceived notions are carried over from its predecessors—along with their limitations.

The first e-books are a great example of dragging physical limitations into the technical sphere. To increase consumer acceptance of the new technology, the e-book experience was designed to be as much like the book experience as possible. The end product was a book—a book that was functionally no more exceptional than a standard book, even to the point of turning pages. The technology was limited in its scope and provided little improvement over the actual book experience (or none, as some opine). It even brought its own limitations—expense, the need for power, and the dangers of reading in the bathtub! The e-book has since all but disappeared, absorbed into the tablet trend, as any tablet in existence can provide a far richer e-book experience while performing other functions as well.

When higher education ventured into online learning, much the same approach was taken. Educators took their paradigms about the classroom and shifted them into the online modality. When this was done, often the limitations of the classroom carried over, the limitations of technology were added to the mix, but the benefits of technology were not adopted, creating a shallow academic experience. After all, what was an in-person classroom? A synchronous group of 15-25 students, perhaps, an instructor, some lecture component, assigned readings, the submission of papers and perhaps quizzes and tests. Not surprisingly, this was the shape that most online courses took (any many still do today). The classroom paradigm has been transferred online with mixed success. When designed and facilitated well, the limitations are mitigated by a sense of community. As noted by the Illinois Online Network (ION),

“Online learning has its most promising potential in the high synergy represented by active dialog among the participants, one of the most important sources of learning in a Virtual Classroom. However, in larger classes…the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator. The medium is not being used to its greatest potential (source).”

Enter the MOOC.

The MOOC is the next evolution of online learning. The limitations of the classroom, once passed down to online courses, are now also in the DNA of the MOOC. Often, the MOOC is little more than a standard online course opened up to a much greater number of participants, inheriting the issues of its predecessor without embracing the new opportunities that the structure provides. If ION is correct, then the MOOC that fits this description is the worst of both worlds.

If, however, MOOCs are removed from their historical roots, and considered to be Massively Open Online Communities, as Hap suggests, the limitations of the class may be released along with the paradigm. This view is also espoused by Doug Holton of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Center in Daytona Beach.

“The question is, are MOOCs an example of imposing an existing worldview (traditional instruction, courses, and instructors) on a new medium for learning?  Is it necessary for all the ‘students’ in a MOOC to be learning the same topic at the same time (synchronous learning)?  That appears to be a common defining characteristic of all MOOCs.  Does there have to be a single, unchanging instructor?  Does it have to be a ‘course’ at all, with a finite beginning and end?  Most students forget much of what they learn once a course ends…Many topics are constantly changing and evolving (like science and engineering and technology), and one’s learning may be out of date sometimes within months, if not years, after a course ends.  Much of what we learn comes from outside the classroom anyway – what we call lifelong learning and informal learning (source).”

Holton gets to the heart of the issue. What if the finite classroom model, which is the basis for online classrooms and thus the grandfather of MOOCs, is flawed? After all, what is a course? It is usually a set of predetermined objectives that are stated, accomplished, and measured upon completion. It does not necessarily represent authentic learning. It does not model the professional realm, or the communities for which students are being prepared, in which they will be expected to continuously learn, contribute, and foster relationships. These are the things that a MOOC does well. The question is now, how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?

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Filed under eBooks, Hap Aziz, higher education, Martin LaGrow, MOOCs, virtual classrooms

Bringing Computer Games into the Teaching and Learning Environment

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

In conversations regarding the use of games within contexts of education, there is often great enthusiasm for the transformative potential of integrating computer games in the teaching and learning environment. Kurt Squire has observed that good games allow students to explore a wide range of knowledge areas by motivating them to understand rather than to memorize content—and even to expand their understanding to other related knowledge areas. In fact, the potential for computer games to positively effect learning outcomes has been observed and commented upon by numerous researchers. Even more broadly, entire educational environments can be built using game frameworks to improve learning outcomes by promoting elements of challenge, collaboration, and engagement.

In order to better comprehend the complexities of infusing educational activities with computer game content, it is instructive to consider the more generalized challenges of leveraging computer software and related technologies in the classroom. There are significant difficulties for faculty when it comes to utilizing new and continually-evolving technologies. The “technology-adoption cycle” described by Patricia McGee and Veronica Diaz depicts a timeline in which a faculty member requires about three to four academic terms to comfortably adopt a learning technology solution, and that it takes additional time to actually produce improved teaching and learning outcomes. In part, this is due to the hesitancy among faculty to experiment with the multiple tools that are concurrently available (which to choose?), and therefore faculty move much more slowly by examining a single tool or solution at any particular time. Ultimately, the relentless pace of change among available tools along with the relative lack of information regarding the best practices for tool adoption acts as a de-motivator to the use of any tool—computer games included. It has been further pointed out that students adopt new technology tools much more readily than faculty, and that institutions of higher education (particularly) suffer from limited budgets with which to support faculty, move courses online, and otherwise integrate the new tools.

While studies have made use of commercially available software as well as software developed by design for specific learning environments or applications, there is little research that applies to the specific scenario of game software created by individual instructors for use in their own classroom situations. The field is not completely unexplored in terms of research, but the work is spread over a wide variety of academic disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature) with few linkages between them. This is due largely to the fact that the modern computer game software so highly prized by students for entertainment value and praised by educators for engagement potential is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and cost prohibitive to develop. The amount of time available for the development and modification of gaming scenarios that can be used in the classroom as well as the availability of computing resources greatly influence the manner in which computer games can be utilized as a component of education.

We do know, however, that computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations. Further, faculty themselves attribute value to the use of computer games. In a 2002 study by McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, and Heald of opinions regarding the potential as well as the limits of computer games, faculty involved in secondary education reported very positive views of adventure games in particular (as a subset of the simulation computer game genre).

The opinions captured, however, were tempered by the admission that using these types of computer games in secondary teaching is made difficult by the lack of time to complete complex games and by the need to cover specific educational curriculum, for which the games are not tailored. Kurt Squire asserts that the main disadvantage of using computer games in the classroom is the time-consuming nature of thorough game play for both students and faculty. Begoña Gros further refines this sentiment by observing that developing the sequence for appropriate activity within a commercial game is a time consuming instructional design exercise in itself. Certainly, this is a significant challenging to utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for instructional purposes.

There appears to exist, then, a challenge and an opportunity for the education community to develop computer games that address both curricular specificity and resource-demanding characteristics. A Problem Statement for more in-depth research might be fashioned like this:

While there are indications that computer and video games may have positive impact on learning outcomes among secondary students, integration of game content within assignments and exercises is problematic due to 1) the lack of “off-the-shelf” games that align well with existing curricular standards, and 2) the great difficulty of developing game content specifically for particular content needs.

The key is to construct engaging computer games specifically to meet curricular needs, and to provide faculty with the tools to be able to develop the game content themselves (or with minimal assistance) in a time frame that is comparable to that for the development of other course content; i.e., in a matter of weeks and months rather than over the course of months or years (as is the case for commercial games).

In regards to developing games to meet curricular needs, educators and game developers have partnered to build content that might tap in to the vast potential of the education market. However, these efforts have yielded titles focused primarily on early childhood audiences such as Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and the Magic School Bus, to name a few. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in the development of games for the more sophisticated late-adolescent (secondary school) student. This is unusual, since this age group can be considered to be the core of the multi-billion dollar game market. While there have been some successful game franchises of greater sophistication, including the Civilization, Sim City, and Railroad Tycoon franchises, these titles regrettably do not meet the criteria of “ease of development” for faculty, nor are they inexpensive to produce.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the concept of small-scale computer game development—at least for games that will engage students meaningfully—is that the quality and narrative complexity of these games dictates development cycles that go well beyond reasonable instructional design time frames. But must this always be the case? Fortunately there are other game genre options that are fit-for-purpose, customizable, and relatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Several researchers point to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of Interactive Fiction game that unfolds over a period of time, and that includes a series of puzzles to be solved collaboratively in order for the players to progress to subsequent stages. There are advantages in working with Alternate Reality Games: primarily, they are lo-fidelity (which means they do not require the resources for development as do typical high-end commercial computer games. As a result, the games are much less expensive to design and implement, and they can be aligned with curriculum to ensure that specific learning outcomes are met.

Looking deeper specifically at the Interactive Fiction component of Alternate Reality Games, we are able to identify a tremendous opportunity. There already exists an established form of the Interactive Fiction computer game genre that facilitates meaningful and engaging interaction with the player (student), and this type of Interactive Fiction (IF) game is simple enough for a single faculty member to develop compelling experiences. IF games are straightforward for players to understand the format and immediately engage in play, and IF games have the added benefit of being able to maintain the full form of the original text (on any topic) that is being implemented in the IF format.

The good news is that there are a large number of available game production middleware and gaming engines that have been developed by the industry in order to mitigate the rapidly growing costs of development. These game engines are available to educators at greatly discounted rates, and often free of charge. Inform ( is one such game engine that has been created in order to facilitate the development of robust Interactive Fiction titles. Quoted from the Inform website:

Inform is a design system for interactive fiction based on natural language. It is a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world’s best-known writers of IF…. Inform is used in the classroom by teachers at all levels from late elementary school through university. Playing and writing interactive fiction develops literacy and problem-solving skills and allows the development of historical simulations.

Given the cost of the Inform software tool (free), the learning curve for the game engine itself (fairly low with the program code grammar and syntax primarily English-based), and the relative ease with which custom game scenarios may be developed in short time frames by small teams or individuals, creating Interactive Fiction-based curricular activities for students at the secondary level and above is a strategy worth exploring further. There are other Interactive Fiction game engines such as Text Adventure Development System (TADS,, Curveship (, and Adrift ( that may be utilized effectively as well, though they require more knowledge of computer programming conventions to varying degrees.

Interestingly, there may be a resurgence in Interactive Fiction taking place from the standpoint of computer entertainment. Leigh Alexander argues that the penetration of smart phones and tablets into the consumer market is creating a broad field of devices ideally suited for IF content. Additionally, Alexander states that the publishing industry is looking for new ways to leverage the ebook format, and IF fits the criteria of engagement and interactivity. In his article “Interactive fiction in the ebook era,” Keith Stuart makes a similar observation regarding IF and ebooks. At the 2011 Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, Ben Collins-Sussman presented “The Unexpected Resurgence of Interactive Fiction” (, making the case that the development tools now becoming available are positioning IF for mainstream acceptance once again.

There may yet be a perfect storm forming for the development of games suited to the teaching and learning environment, and Interactive Fiction does appear to be a very likely genre for curriculum integration. The IF game engines are available and very accessible to the non- or novice-programmer. The format is well-suited to be an ebook replacement for the traditional classroom text book. Perhaps most importantly, IF game scenarios can be readily authored to meet specific learning objective needs, even to the assignment level. This is where potential for computer games in the classroom may ultimately be fully realized.

Just for fun, here’s a brief Inform tutorial.


Filed under Alternate Reality Game, computer games, creativity, Curveship, eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, high school students, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, learning outcomes, narrative, smartphones, tablets, technology, Text Adventure Development System, vintage technology

Is iAuthor a Learning Management System?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

This was the question I found myself asking this weekend as I attempted to move my robust ENG 201: Writing About Literature course into the format.  Compare iAuthor to any LMS feature list and the application fails, miserably.  It doesn’t have a gradebook, discussion forum or chat; it isn’t designed to integrate with any SIS or offer any sort of Single Sign On capabilities.  In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize that comparing iAuthor to any LMS on the market is like comparing apples to oranges — quite as frustrating and quite as futile.

Of course, iAuthor isn’t meant to be an LMS.   It’s an alternative; not a competitor.   iAuthor takes one aspect of putting a course online and does it extremely well.  It manages content.  This makes sense as that is what iAuthor is meant to do.  Arguably, iAuthor puts content online better than any LMS out there.

There’s definitely a learning curve.  After a short weekend investment, I had all of my pre-written content divided into sections and up in an iAuthor template.  The table of contents was created automatically and the use of styles allowed me to change all of the formatting in a single swoop.  This is also one of the main attributes of the template.  Much more time would be required to make my course content unique and a true showcase, but the time I invested was a good enough start.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what the iAuthor interface looks like and what I was able to do in about five hours over the weekend:

In doing one thing, and doing it extraordinarily well, iAuthor exposes another chink in the armor of the traditional LMS.   There are single products out there for almost every function of the LMS; they do it and do it better.   This is one reason why some contend that the days of the LMS are numbered.  iAuthor does a great job of presenting content, even more so because it allows for the seamless incorporation of Creative Commons and other open materials.

However, the reason why iAuthor’s powers of disruption are limited is that it is tied to the iPad.  In order to invest the time it takes to learn the full capabilities of iAuthor, you had better be sure that your students have access to this technology.  As far as academic use is concerned, the fate of one seems tied to the fate of the other.  All we can do now, is to keep testing the viability of the iAuthor + iPad in the classroom to see if the utility of the two together is enough to overcome the cost.

In the coming months, we will be posting on one experiment of designing a course on iAuthor and using that course in the face to face classroom.  Stay tuned… it’s going to be an exciting ride!

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Filed under eBooks, education course content, education technology, iBooks, Learning Management Systems, online education, Suzanne Kissel

The Real Apple Education Gamechanger… iTunesU?

by Dr. Suzanne Kissel

When reporting on Apple’s entry into the educational space, most commentators lingered fondly over iBook and capabilities offered by iAuthor.  However, the new iTunesU App may be the real game changer in how institutions offer and students interact with course content.

It’s easy to understand why the new iTunesU App played third fiddle to the other initiatives.  A mostly bypassed button on iTunes, iTunesU offered free-to-watch lectures and audio podcasts.   In Apple’s iPad-centered view of education, the capabilities of the iTunesU App for content delivery and interaction could render technologies such as the Learning Management System, obsolete.

Here are some of the reasons why:

1)   Ease of Use:  Quite simply, materials offered in iTunesU look like the typical course binder where learners can view course information, posts, notes, and materials.  The only “electronic” thing about this is that it’s offered on an iPad.  This is a far cry from current electronic delivery methods that require elaborate help mechanisms and student orientations.

2)   Single Point of Access:  From the iTunesU course binder, learners can download all course materials whether they’re videos, apps, or books from iBooks.  This also includes lecture, notes, study sheets and PDF’s that can be attached to the syllabus.  Moreover, instructors can create materials in iAuthor and make them available in their iTunesU course binder.  iTunesU is not only the glue that holds iBooks and iTunes together, but it’s the mechanism that could weave these applications into the very fabric of education.

3)  Interaction:  We’ve already seen how iTunesU allows the instructor to gather materials in one and offer them, possibility even free of charge, to students.  What hasn’t been apparent is how the applications offers students the same capabilities.   Learners can synch their notes and course information between devices, all kept in their iTunesU account.  In addition to taking notes on the material, iTunesU offers students a checkbox for each course section, allowing them to track their progress.

Although there are many questions still to be answered, iTunesU holds enormous promise for the delivery of content.  Not only does it promise to be the venue for integrating low-cost textbooks in the lives of students, it offers instructors the means to tap the endless customization promised by iAuthor.  Anyone who has witnessed a learner pay over 90 dollars for a textbook and than another fee on top of that for access to electronic materials knows that textbook cost is an issue.  Anyone who has seen instructors pour hours into revamping a course when publishers release new editions or ask students to buy several textbooks, only to read a chapter from each one, can see problems in these practices as well. It could be, with iTunesU, that the revolution is finally at our door.

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Filed under eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, Learning Management Systems, online education

From eBooks to iBooks: Apple Repositions Itself in the Education Space

Dr. Suzanne Kissel provides thought leadership to a number of higher education institutions in the Teaching & Learning areas. She has been in instrumental in developing Academic Technology Strategies for colleges and universities throughout the United States, and she provides valued leadership in program development, academic assessment, and strategic planning. Suzanne joins the Learning Through Play & Technology blog with her first post here on Apple’s announcements of the day regarding the education market.

Upon hearing the word eBook, most students and faculty members imagine lines of text with an intermittent picture or two.  Purchase models for these books vary, with some available for lease.  Despite a decent amount of hype in 2011, eBooks had what can best be described as a very uneven reception in pilot programs across the United States.

In a much anticipated announcement, Apple positioned itself to make the eBook story a very different one in 2012.

Speaking from the Guggenheim Museum, Apple representatives announced two new applications.  The updated version of Apple’s popular iBook application, iBooks2 is free and available from the app store beginning today.  The other of the two applications, iBooks Author, allows any interested party to easily create interesting, interactive iPad lessons.  Rather than simply putting a book on the screen, iBooks Author allows authors and publishers to harness the multimedia advantages of the tablet to transform text into experience.  For instance, learners can electronically “mark up” their iPad books and keep those annotations, along with the books, after the conclusion of the course.

In addition to the two applications, Apple announced that it was expanding iTunesU beyond the realm of higher education to reach into elementary and high schools.

Apple iPad with iTunesU – Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

To support this initiative, Apple has formed partnerships with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  These three publishers are responsible for 90 percent of the textbooks used with courses taught in the U.S.  In addition, DK. Publishing, which offers vividly colored books for younger readers is also joining the team.

The promise of this announcement is that it could pave the way for the release of highly customized, interactive, and inexpensive textbooks.  According to Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, the new, interactive iPad books would cost $14.99.  Whether the low cost of the textbooks could outweigh the comparatively high cost of the iPad itself (beginning at $499) remains to be seen.  Regardless, the announcement certainly pulls the eBook to the foremost of the new advances promising to change the face of education.

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Filed under eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, iBooks, technology