Overcoming Role Rut in Online Course Design: The Alternate Roles Approach

Despite the growing influence of web 2.0 technologies and social media in online learning, there is still a persistent challenge for the educator who is charged with designing online learning. The challenge is to avoid simply replicating what one does in the face-to-face classroom. When one runs into trouble making the transfer, it is sadly too common for the online course to lose out, easily turning into reading texts and writing papers with few other elements. From an instructional design perspective, I see another challenge in both face-to-face and online courses. This challenge is what I call the “role rut.” The role of student and teacher becomes so embedded in our thinking that we often fail to consider a variety of potentially powerful and engaging designs.

With these two challenges in mind, I now turn to the nature of digital culture. In the digital world, roles and identities are constantly shifting as we move from site to personal blog to news blog to video sharing site to search engines. In a single day in the digital world, I may be a student, teacher, researcher, blogger, consumer, mentor, lurker, video producer, team member, and friend. Of course, this same thing is true in the face-to-face world, but these roles are even more fluid online. One can quickly try on a myriad of roles. With this dynamic in mind, I see promising possibilities with an alternate roles approach to designing learning experiences. It is not new or profound, but it does offer a strategy for escaping the ordinary, a way of getting out of those role ruts that are commonplace in online and face-to-face education. The alternate roles approach is a simple thought experiment or challenge: try to design a course, unit or learning activity without using or thinking about the traditional roles: teacher, instructor, learner, student, facilitator, or participant. Instead, design the learning environment with two or more alternate roles. Consider the following possibilities: mentor, boss, coach, guide, expert, consultant, travel guide, assistant, supporter, advocate, leader, mayor, employer, director, manager, owner, administrator, advisor, editor, assessor, professional, team member, player, novice, explorer, tourist, supporter, advocate, member, citizen, investigator, research assistant, researcher, consultant, employee, actor, director, manager, steward, owner, designer, creator, patient, client, offender, defender, author, apprentice, activist, or member.

This is more than role-playing. Role-playing tends to be a single activity in an otherwise traditional teacher/student environment. Instead, this is an exercise in simulation learning, still starting with learning objectives (What do I want them to learn?) but then quickly bracketing the teacher/student roles in lieu of alternate roles. Experimenting with this exercise has been a delightful experience, affording me a fresh and exciting way to think about instructional design in the digital world.

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Turn Your Lesson into an Educational Simulation

Clark Quinn’s book Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games has implications for so much more than online learning. He provides a roadmap for designing immersive learning experiences across mediums. Clark, having a background in both education and game design, does an excellent job blending the vocabulary and theories of education and gaming. Along the way, he lays out eight elements that he considers important for an educational simulation.

  1. Theme – The simulation should involve a setting and context (neighborhood people working on a community garden, editors working on a newspaper, a family moving into the Old West, etc.).
  2. Goal – There should be a clear goal that can guide the student actions and it should be tied into the story (neighborhood people must choose where to plant the garden and what to plant, newspaper editors must get the articles read to publish by the evening deadline, family must gather proper supplies to survive a trip to the Old West, etc.)
  3. Challenge – If the goal is too easy or too overwhelming for your learners, then they will likely check out.
  4. Action-Domain Link – Students should be expected to make decisions (action) in the context of the story. A bad example cited by Quinn is creating a game where students have to solve a math problem and if they do, then they get to play a game. For a good simulation the game should be part of the simulation, not just a separate reward.
  5. Problem-learner Link – The problem or simulation should match the interests of the learner. You will want to keep in mind things like gender and age-level interests when creating or selecting an appropriate simulation.
  6. Active – The simulation should require the learner to take frequent actions…be given situations and then have to make frequent decisions. This keeps the learners engaged in an ongoing basis.
  7. Feedback – Related to action, a good simulation should give the leaner clear and quick feedback on decisions. This is where much of the learning takes place in simulations. As a learner makes a choice in the story/simulation, he or she should be able to see the consequences of the decision.
  8. Affect – There should be some emotion created in the simulation. Emotion is a powerful way to keep the attention of learners, and Quinn suggests that keeping things a bit unpredictable is a good way to add interest and emotion.

What would it look like to take one or more of your lessons and redesign the lesson(s) to include each of these elements?

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