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Learning Molecules Model


Approaches to online learning design: metaphors, taxonomies, and metrics

As designers of online learning experiences, it’s not unusual to find ourselves working with subject matter experts (SMEs) who are relatively new to the field. They may be technical specialists, stand-up trainers, or university faculty; they may be first-rate classroom teachers. But even with the emergence of new production technologies that facilitate the rapid development of online content by SMEs, asking a stand-up trainer or classroom teacher to develop instructional material for the online environment is like asking a theater director to direct a movie. What works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work in the other, and each has its unique vocabulary, tools, and capabilities. Our ability to communicate and collaborate effectively with SMEs plays a significant role in determining how well we take advantage of the online medium to create an engaging and effective learning experience.

The solution? Use metaphors, taxonomies, and metrics to manage the collaborative process, define an effective online pedagogy, and ensure the success of the project as a whole.

The model

eCornell, a for-profit subsidiary of Cornell University, has found that working with external subject matter experts—especially those with little or no experience in online learning—presents four distinct challenges to design and production teams.

  1. We need a shared vocabulary to bridge the communication gap between the SMEs and the design and production teams. A metaphor can serve to ground that vocabulary and make it accessible to SMEs who are new to the online environment.
  2. We need to establish and consistently apply a pedagogy appropriate to the subject matter and the needs of the learners.
  3. We need a set of reusable media templates arranged according to a taxonomy that enables the team to gain efficiencies in the design and production processes.
  4. We need a set of metrics that enables us to calculate production effort, ensuring that we can produce the course on time and on budget and with the resources available; and that accurately predicts the amount of time the average learner will require to complete the course.

eCornell met these challenges by developing a model it calls Learning Molecules (see illustration below).

The model uses the metaphor of a molecule to help organize the content and structure the learning experience. It supports an object-oriented approach to the design of the individual parts of a course, while providing a framework for maintaining the pedagogical integrity of the whole. It provides a systematic way of organizing reusable media templates for presenting content in a variety of formats. The model also provides a set of metrics for calculating the effort it will take to produce a course, and the time it will take the learner to complete it.

At the nucleus of the molecule is a Scenario (S)—the contextualizing problem or case study that is the lynchpin of eCornell’s application of a problem-based pedagogy. Surrounding the nucleus are the other four elements of the molecule:

  • resources (R): materials that provide the knowledge and skills necessary to solve the problem or work through the case study
  • utilities (U): tools and takeaways that facilitate the cognitive application of new knowledge and skills in the workplace
  • collaborative tools (C): activities that enable learners to communicate, compare, and construct knowledge in the online environment
  • evaluation tools (E): actions that enable learners to assess their mastery of the material.

Organizing elements

eCornell then extended the metaphor to create the Periodic Table of Online Learning Elements (see illustration below):

Periodic Table of Online Learning Elements

These elements represent different presentational formats—ways in which learners can engage and interact with the content. The elements are color-coded to correspond to the components of the learning molecule: green elements are specific to scenarios, blue to resources, yellow to utilities, purple to evaluations, and orange to collaboration. Those in gray are "neutral" elements that are adaptable to all components of the learning molecule.

The neutral elements are arranged according to a taxonomy. Each column represents a media type: text, illustration, animation, or video. Each row represents a container type: document, flipbook, mouseover, assessment, and simulation.

Just like chemistry’s periodic table, each element has an atomic weight, which is a metric that enables developers to estimate the total length and complexity of the learning experience. LW represents "learning weight"—a measure in minutes of the amount of time that eCornell estimates the average learner will require to complete that element. In the ilustration above, the resource called Ask the Expert has a learning weight of 7, which means an average learner will require 7 minutes to complete it. PW stands for "production weight"—a relative measure of how much effort is required to produce the element. PW ranges from 1 for very simple elements such as HTML pages to 32 for complex elements such as video-enhanced simulations. In the illustration, Ask the Expert has a production weight of 12. Currently, eCornell translates 1 unit of PW to approximately 1.7 person-hours of labor.

Prior to the commencement of the design process, eCornell developers agree on overall limits to LW and PW. For example, most of its courses are six hours in length, which translates to a course-long LW of 360. Given the size of the production team, development time frame, and budget, eCornell currently assigns a PW limit of 320 (approximately 544 person-hours) to a six-hour course.

As eCornell continues to refine its tools, processes, and presentational templates, it expects the correlation between PW and person-hours to drop, enabling developers to either adjust the total course PW upward to enhance the overall production values of the course or to reduce the production budget required to achieve the same production values. Your PW limit for a course will depend on the length of the course, the size of your team, your production budget, and the production and programming tools and processes you use.

Using the model

Designing a course involves constructing learning molecules (equivalent to topics or lessons) that draw from a number of elements in the periodic table to create different combinations of scenarios, resources, utilities, evaluations, and collaborative components. Not every topic or lesson includes every element of the molecule. Many courses include multiple resources; some include multiple utilities, some none at all. Other courses may include collaboration opportunities or assessment components, but not all do so. Nearly all courses include a scenario.

As eCornell designs the course, it uses the metrics assigned to each element to track overall LW and PW. If designers find that the total LW is over the specified limit, they may need to work with the SME to trim the amount of content in the course or find more efficient ways to present the content. Likewise, if the total PW is over the specified limit, designers may need to scale back the amount of media richness in the course—substituting illustration for animation, for example. The point is that these metrics remove the guesswork from the design process. If developers find themselves having to revisit some of its design decisions, everyone on the team, including the SME, knows why. Most important, before the production team commits time, effort, and dollars to the production process, it can be certain that learners will be able to complete the course within the target time frame—and that they will be able to build the course on time, on budget, and with the available resources.

Using the Learning Molecules Model and its accompanying Periodic Table has enabled eCornell to achieve significant reductions in overall cycle time. Prior to implementing the model, it averaged 200–250 person-hours per finished hour of content. After implementing the model, eCornell reduced that number to 93 person-hours per finished hour of content. And, as mentioned earlier, eCornell expects that figure to continue to drop as it adds new content templates to the periodic table.

In short, the application of metaphors, taxonomies, and metrics to learning design processes has helped design and production teams to apply technologies more efficiently and improve communication and collaboration with subject matter experts. eCornell has every reason to believe that your application of these principles will enable you to achieve similar results.

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