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Friday, June 19, 2015

Blended Problem-Based Learning: Finding the Best Blend

Problem-based learning has proved to be highly effective for careers and industries in which a great deal of hands-on learning / skills-based practice is required and also in team environments.

Examples include petroleum exploration and development, pipeline construction, manufacturing / processing, construction, medicine, pharmaceutical sales, allied health industries, and hospitality / tourism.

Outcomes are often measured in the ability to effectively and accurately perform tasks.

Keys to Successful Learning Program Design

The keys to successful design of a problem-based blended or 100% elearning program include the following:

    *  Definition of the outcome - the level of competency required by the skill or task
    *  Identification of a representative problem or task
    *  Determination of how to develop materials that provide information, conceptual underpinnings, and support
    *  Determination of the best ways to effectively collaborate, either digitally or face-to-face
    *  Identifying the limitations of the communications technologies and the learning management system
    *  Alignment of abilities of the team members, both in terms of the subject of the training and their technology skills / abilities.

Collaboration Materials and Methods

In a blended problem-based learning program that includes face-to-face with online learning, it is very important to determine the best blend of online and face-to-face. Generally, collaborative activities are done both face-to-face as well as online, but in some cases the collaborations take place completely online.

Collaborations can take the form of the following
    *  Collaborative forum
    *  Wiki
    *  Collaborative project
    *  Portfolio
    *  Gallery

It is important to find the best combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication so that joint work on the collaborative project is done in a way that is confidence-building for all the members of the team.

Good collaboration project design provides an excellent opportunity for assuring optimal conditions for learning as well as for building self-efficacy. Creating flexible roles and a wide range of topics also helps foster a sense of self-determination, which can be very motivating.

Building Block Process for Problem-Based Learning Design

Modifying the widely-used Maastricht University design (Schmidt, 1983) for blended solutions can be highly useful in order to avoid missing elements of content or process.

Seven-step process for developing materials / design

1.    Case:  Find the one that is most effective for the learning outcomes
2.    Define problem:  Within each case, find the core issue or problem
3.    Brainstorm:  Take a moment to start to uncover ways to solve the problem; this is an invention stage.
4.    Form possible solutions: After doing the  test them
5.    Define deeper learning objectives (metacognition)
6.    Self-study -- conduct research, work with group, use a "pull" model for information
7.    Collaboration / Synthesis: final outcome and/or assessment


Evaluating the learning situation in order to optimize the methods, tools, and materials in problem-based learning is very important. However, more important is the method in which collaboration takes place so that constructivist learning can be optimized. This paper lists a few methods and methologies.


Moeller, Stefan; Spitzer, Klaus; Spreckelsen, How to configure blended problem-based learning -- Results of a randomized trial. Cord. Medical Teacher. Aug2010, Vol. 32 Issue 8, pe328-e346.

Schmidt, HG. (1983) Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. CRLT Technical Report No. 16-01.

susan smith nash, ph.d.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Design for Learning in E-Learning: Making the Notion of "Quality" Concrete and Implementable

Design for Learning focuses on how to transform existing educational situations into desired situations where it is easier to achieve learning outcomes (Guislandi & Raffaguelli, 2015). The emphasis is on quality, and in doing so, the approach links the vision of how quality should be enacted in a program to the actual activities and procedures that are built into the learning program.

In the learning design, it is important to think of how the design of the course can affect ways of knowing, and also how to connect to improvements in practice.

Breaking Down "Quality" into Recognizable Elements

It is really all about breaking down quality into recognizable elements, and moving "quality" from an abstraction to something that can be recognized, measured, reviewed, and remediated (McNaught etal, 2012).

1. System: Make sure that the system used in learning is of high quality.  This means that it is necessary to review the learning goals and the potential users of a learning system (whether it be a learning management system, or a LMS-free approach) to assure that it can deliver what it needs to deliver.

2.  Experience:  Make sure that the learner / user experience is a positive one, and that it is friendly, not just for the learners, but also for the facilitators.

3.  Culture:  What are the institutional values? How and when are certain high-quality elements perceived?  What is the definition of quality?  How does it extend to a sense of respect for diversity, as well as efforts to build an authentic structure that can help learners and facilitators feel confident about their ability to achieve the mission of the organization and their goals as they relate to the institution.

4.  Flexible and Forward-Looking Vectors of Communication and Change:   Be willing to adapt existing structures to ones that are more flexible, and which accommodate changing technologies and locations. Ideally, learning organizations should be able to accommodate and even welcome individuals in all situations with a minimum of disruption. Further, the quality elements should extend to encouraging experimentation and innovation, with a high tolerance for failure (and success, which can bring about its own stresses and stressers).

University Degree Programs / Field Research Courses

Here's a concrete example. Let's say that we are a geology department in a state university, and we have a number of field courses. We've been intensely impacted by technology, not only in the way in which we communicate our findings, but also in the way in which field investigations are conducted.

We require all our graduate students to go out into the field and map outcrops and retrieve samples. However, our administration as well as our insurance providers have recently pulled the plug on the way that we were doing things in the past. They claim that there is not enough quality control in the design of the courses, so what the students bring back from the field are of dubious quality. Worse, they're considered dreadfully unsafe; only last month one student tumbled off a cliff and impaled herself on a cholla cactus. She was alone, and it was a minor miracle that she made it back alive. One might say it was only sheer luck that the escarpment was only 15 feet high, there was a ledge that partially broke her fall, and the cholla cactus plant was small and it broke apart upon impact. The weather was chilly and wet, so she was wearing pants and rain gear, which help minimize the impact of the cactus spines.

cholla in bloom - photo by susan smith nash, ph.d.

Details and luck notwithstanding, what happened to her was a clear indication that the department needs to go back and revisit Design for Learning and look at the four criteria:

1. System:  It's possible that the system itself is not giving people an opportunity to plan their research projects well. There may not be effective templates, and it may be important to customize the approach, given that each student's research project will be slightly different.

2.  Experience:  What is the user's experience? For the female student who fell down an escarpment and impaled herself on cholla cactus, it's less than ideal.  But it could have been worse.  Her experience in the field should not be confused with the learning design; the design should be developed so that she had a positive experience in planning and implementing her learning program.

3.  Culture: If the culture of the organization puts a high priority on eliminating all risk and all potential exposure to liability, then they may lose students. They will certainly lose innovative impulses, and many of their creative, inspired (and inspiring) thinkers will be drawn to different places, where they will potentially contribute transformative breakthroughs which could tangibly / substantially positively impact the institution itself and affect its persistence / viability.

4. Flexibility:  Communication could be improved. How about requiring digital inspections before going into the field and maintain an archive of photos of the sites (all of which are geotagged) and the gear.  Also, it would be possible to use low-cost satellite phones if there is no cell phone coverage. It's not always possible to work in teams, and so it's necessary to at least have a digital nanny.

Conclusions & Observations

Design for Learning articles are often cloaked in rather obtuse language which can be less than concrete. In order to really grasp the importance of the concept and the potential contribution to an organization, to learners, instructors, and a community, it's important to look at case studies. The concept of Design for Learning does, in fact, provide a powerful mechanism for operationalizing "quality" by breaking it into observable, measurable actions and by providing a platform for dissecting case studies with the idea of incorporating them in one's own learning programs.


Ghislandi, Patrizia M. M.; Raffaghelli, Juliana E. Forward-oriented designing for learning as a means to achieve educational quality. British Journal of Educational Technology. (Mar2015)  Vol. 46 Issue 2, p280-299.

McNaught, Carmel, Paul Lam, and Kin Cheng. (2012)"Investigating Relationships Between Features Of Learning Designs And Student Learning Outcomes." Educational Technology Research & Development 60.2: 271-286. Professional Development Collection. Web. 11 June 2015.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hed Kandi Sayulita Beach House: Travel-Tourism Economic Development Using Social Media

I love Hed Kandi’s chill and house mixes and eagerly look for them. They evoke a beach and surf vibe and even if I’m squeezed into an economy seat on a sold-out regional jet flight, I am immediately transported to gorgeous places and climates. 

For example, I imagine Sayulita, a bohemian coastal village in the Nayarit Riviera in Mexico close to Puerta Vallarta, famed for its surf and Stand Up Paddle Board (SUP)  competition in May.

In certain times of the year, Sayulita is a mellow place of pink sunsets and glassy waters.

sayulita, nayarit - susan smith nash, ph.d.

However, according to blog posts and reviews, Sayulita was pure enchantment 30 years ago, but has been sullied by crowds and poor infrastructure, as well as a failure to enforce sanitation laws.

This is disappointing to me, and I wonder how many others are like me – they’d love to spend an extended amount of time in a beach community, and perhaps even invest in a house or a business.

Accelerating Private Infrastructure Investment for Economic Development

Perhaps the problem is that of a lack of private investment for infrastructure which is uniformly administered by a board that follows an approved development plan.

sayulita sand tortugas - photo by susan smith nash, ph.d.

Personally, I think it would be a good idea to use templates already in place for development plans. For example, the “Pueblo Mágico” concept in Mexico has resulted in gorgeously maintained villages which are charming and clean. Examples that come to mind in the state of Jalisco are Tapalpa and Tequila.

It would be a good idea to share infrastructure improvements in order to encourage development via social media:
•    tweet new developments
•    post photos of prize winners on Instagram & share
•    use LinkedIn to connect owners of businesses / services
•    post videos of contests & the implementation of new infrastructure on YouTube
•    develop weekly shows to post on YouTube

While it might be tempting to try to shame people into not erecting fences that encroach on public roads, disregarding property lines, leaving piles of mangos and fallen branches to rot, and to letting their dogs run free in the streets and beaches, putting up ugly photos on the web is a very inadvisable strategy that will certainly have unintended negative results. It’s much better to encourage and envision positive change, and reward steps made in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Social Media Collaborative Digital Inspections for Optimizing Field Safety

 A common problem with field courses is the fact that safety is often viewed as a checklist and there can be a certain level of complacency. Given the ever-changing nature of field conditions and also the fitness levels of the participants, it is very important to develop an approach to safety that heightens engagement and also becomes collaborative and participatory. The result would be an elevated awareness and an emphasis on a culture of safety.

By leading by example and by emphasizing collaboration and teamwork, the field culture can be one of enthusiastic, engaged cooperation, which results in a sustainable, ongoing example of transformational leadership. Ultimately, the individuals will be safer and healthier, and the organization will provide an increasing number of opportunities for innovation and positive change.

photo by susan smith nash, ph.d. - volcanics near tapalpa, jalisco


The primary objective is to inculcate a collaborative, participatory approach to field safety that is ongoing and omnipresent. Further, it is structured around collaboration which helps reinforce constructivist learning.

This approach is also very motivating, particularly if some of the activities can be gamified and competition / rewards are incorporated. 


* everyone has a phone / handheld / tablet
* take photos
* highlight safety checklist items to do via social media collaboration
* ask everyone to open a Flickr or other account where they can post (can include privacy settings so it is not public) their photos
* or, alternatively, create a collaboration space in a discussion board, wiki, or other place where people post links or actual photos. Make it shareable only to members of the team and the host organization leaders


*  Make sure that the field guide is digital

*  Have a safety checklist
    * Initial -- vehicle, equipment, supplies -- used for the group
    * Personal protective equipment
    * Each stop

* Collaborative activities
    * Each person takes photo of checklist item and posts it (can do individually or collaboratively)
    * Each person takes photos of their personal protective equipment / checklist supplies  / items
    * Instructor takes photo of each stop the day or week before in order to "ground truth" the location for a review of conditions

* Gamification
    * Give stars for people who complete the checklist effectively and thoroughly
    * Have a contest for safety / health insights – who can identify ways to make things safer and to assure optimal health


Incorporating a digital inspection and also a safety / health optimization set of activities can turn a task that is often looked upon as compliance-based drudgery to something that is fun and ultimately a part of an integrated solution that achieves a culture of safety and health.

The facilitator should incorporate emulatory leadership strategies, and should lead by example. Further, the goal should be transformative leadership, which can bring about a sustainable organizational change.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hybrid / Blended Courses: Constantly Evolving for Optimal Effectiveness and Access

Blended learning can help overcome the limitations of face-to-face delivery. Blended learning can take many forms, and is easily adapted to specific needs and technical requirements. Incorporating elearning and mlearning (including synchronous and asynchronous), blended (often referred to as “hybrid”) courses can include face to face elements as well as a blend of different technologies and delivery modalities.

Types of Hybrid / Blended courses

Hybrid can incorporate a combination of F2F, elearning and mobile device-structured social media. 

Because needs are constantly evolving, and technology / access can be a moving target, the configurations of hybrid / blended delivery can be quite diverse. The can include:

•    Primarily F2F, with web enhancement

•    Primarily e-learning, with traditional LMS, with F2F facilitated discussion groups

•    Synchronous e-learning (webinars, etc.), with archived recordings, plus repositories with content, with learning “clusters” (small student groups that come together informally)

•    Conference with digital follow-up

•    Discussion-focused online, with readings / topic-structured forum, plus synchronous microblogging (tweets / chat)

•    Collaborative  project-focused online course with portfolio, plus synchronous microblogging (tweets / chat)

susan smith nash, ph.d.
Blended learning encourages dynamic collaboration.

Best Approaches

The philosophy of learning in blended courses is learner-centered, with an emphasis on making sure that there is a great deal of learner engagement and collaboration. Most blended courses are most effective if they are problem or project based, with very clear outcomes that require the application of knowledge and skills.

•    Pull not push content
•    Problem or project-based focus
•    Emphasize tangible, measurable outcomes that require collaboration
•    Optimize engagement via collaboration

Materials for Maximum Effectiveness in Hybrid / Blended Courses

It is very easy to overwhelm learners with too many instructional materials, that can range from digital texts to videos / audios / graphics / presentations. It is a good idea to look at materials from the point of view of how they would be used in conjunction with the collaborations and outcomes.

Further, it’s a very good idea to keep in mind that the core philosophy of blended courses has to do with constructivism, which involves optimizing collaboration and cooperation. Further, with a problem-based approach, the materials can be arranged in order to facilitate the outcome.

•    Digital readings that encourage active reading via collaboration / comments
•    Building blocks
o    Skills
o    Concepts
•    Collaborative activities that result in a tangible product / outcome
•    Shared experience / stories
•    Scaffolding points consisting of ways to identify relevant and useful prior learning

Conclusion and Example

Here’s an example that help us bring the approach into focus.

Let’s say that we want to develop a plan for analyzing the lithium content in different salt lakes, ranging from Utah (Lake Bonneville) to Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni). We will develop teams and each will be tasked with finding the best possible possible processing approach.

We’ll divide into groups and there will be a clear outcome, which will be fairly easy to complete because it’s a template.

However, analyzing and organizing the information is not so easy. That’s where the teams come in. It’s also where the design needs to help the teams attack information overload and get the information that they need, and then to discuss / work / play with the information.

So, clearly it’s necessary to find out where the students are, what their backgrounds are, and what kinds of technologies are available to them.  Then, knowing something about their background will also help.

The hybrid approach will need to be flexible in order to build on the strengths of the group. Then, when the outcomes are drafted, it would be good for the other teams / team members to be able to see and review each others’ work.


Gerbic, Philippa. (2011) Teaching using a blended approach - what does the literature tell us? Educational Media International. Sep2011, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p221-234.

Ghislandi, Patrizia M. M.; Raffaghelli, Juliana E. Forward-oriented designing for learning as a means to achieve educational quality. British Journal of Educational Technology. (Mar2015)  Vol. 46 Issue 2, p280-299.

Moeller, Stefan; Spitzer, Klaus; Spreckelsen, How to configure blended problem-based learning -- Results of a randomized trial. Cord. Medical Teacher. Aug2010, Vol. 32 Issue 8, pe328-e346.

McNaught, Carmel, Paul Lam, and Kin Cheng. (2012)"Investigating Relationships Between Features Of Learning Designs And Student Learning Outcomes." Educational Technology Research & Development 60.2: 271-286. Professional Development Collection. Web. 11 June 2015.

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