Category: For Higher Education

These days, you can hardly be an instructional designer without being prepared to show that you can use either Captivate or Storyline.  So, I decided to dive into learning the basics of both of these programs to see what all of the fuss is about.

Captivate, by Adobe, is an e-Learning authoring program that is very similar in function and appearance to the old lecture standard – PowerPoint – although it offers many features and improvements that take away the frustration of turning lectures slides into online instructional materials.  With improved support for narration, multi-media embedding, and flow control, Captivate takes creating materials for online or hybrid courses to a new level.


  • If you have been using PowerPoint in the classroom (or in online education) for years, you can import your old slides into Captivate to get a head start.  Tech support at Adobe says that support for converting PowerPoint animations during the import has improved, but you might download a demo version and check if your slideshows will convert smoothly.  On the other hand, if you’ve been using those animations to “create interest” – you probably should think about revising them substantially anyways.
  • With some attention to settings early on, you can create a slide show that will work on multiple devices: desktops, iPad/tablets, and smart phones, automatically adapting to fit the size of display.  As students increasingly shift their studying to the most convenient device in reach, the ease of creating a lecture once for multiple devices is very attractive.
  • Unlike PowerPoint, Captivate was designed to create e-Learning lessons and has far superior support for recording voice overs for slides and embedding multi-media – even allowing a video to play over multiple slides and adding closed captioning.
  • The ability to create a lecture that responds to student answers opens up the possibility for formative quizzes, student self-check of understanding, and branching within a presentation to allow students to view material that applies to them while skipping the rest … or get a review of material that they did not grasp on the first pass.
  • With the branching and assessment features, you can create very responsive interactive lessons, but you will need to spend time flowcharting your presentation or lesson and may want to work with someone who understands computer programming.


  • As a big proponent of active online learning, I have to caution instructional designers considering the adoption of Captivate.  While this program offers some handy features, such as quizzing and branching, it is essentially cut from the same cloth as the father and granddaddy of lecture aids: PowerPoint and the overhead project, respectively.  Of necessity, it boils down ideas to the few words that will fit on a screen, possibly with images, animation, and short video to augment the point, presented to the learner as part of direct instruction.  The theory of learning as consumption presented in a (mostly) linear fashion is not challenged by the newish tool.  And as students have been telling us for nearly twenty years, this is not an engaging way to learn – either in the classroom or online.  Adding pretty, moving pictures doesn’t really help.  Certainly, use this as a way to present content, but also consider using other techniques to engage students in activities that address higher order thinking skills as part of their learning.


  • With Captivate, you can publish your lesson or presentation in HTML5, for those viewers (most people) who do not have Captivate on their computers.  In general, most people should have modern browsers that can handle the new web standard, but I’m often surprised at the number of students (and faculty members) who are milking along old, out of date software.
  • Responsive design is a great feature, but you still need to pay attention to details of positioning as you build your lesson, slide by slide.  You may need to prioritize what will appear on a mobile device screen since no magic allow you to show a great deal of text and images on a small display.  Also, you cannot import a PowerPoint presentation into a responsive (i.e. adjustable size) presentation.  To take advantage of this feature, you’ll need to start from scratch.


For most uses, I suspect faculty members will not use the advanced features of Captivate and should stick to the old standard, PowerPoint.  Nearly every computer on any college campus has PowerPoint … or the free viewer …. installed.
But for direct instruction materials that can scale to a selection of display sizes AND do some quick quizzing, Captivate may be the solution you are seeking, especially for content-heavy courses aimed at adult, professional development or end-user education.




This month, I made the difficult choice of discontinuing my subscription for World of Warcraft (WoW).  Actually, in many ways, it was not so hard to do.

A treant from World of Warcraft

Image via Wikipedia

My initial reasons for playing the game had evaporated, and all the reasons for continuing the game  just left me feeling blah.  While I may eventually dip back into the world of Azeroth for research or educational purposes, I am not sure that even the new expansion, Mists of Pandaria, will tempt me for some time.

World of Warcraft had captured my interest years ago predominately because it gave my whole family something that we could do together and that would continue to challenge both adults and children for many hours of game play.  Unlike many board games, World of Warcraft allowed our little band to work together as a unit.  Different characters played different roles in exploration and combat, supporting one another as tanks, damage dealers, and healers.  We could also split up the different gathering and crafting duties, meeting one another’s needs for armor, weapons, food, potions, glyphs, etc.  We even created our own little guild and shared responsibility for running the guild and deciding what our game play objectives would be each weekend.  It was an ideal way to teach by example and experience key understandings such as sharing and collaboration, responsibility, and dealing with the occasional failure in a responsible manner.

I really enjoyed and emphasized in occasional talks the important opportunity to play a game with family members that fostered cooperation among members instead of the the usual family board game that emphasizes competition between family members.  It also allowed children to see parents model dealing with disappointments and setbacks (as often happens the first time you go up against one of the really hard “boss” monsters) as well as how we learn and problem-solve in order to improve performance the next time we try to defeat a particular beastie.

The game is also remarkably rich in experiences that can provide the foundation for informal as well as formal learning.  The deep backstory of the game entices many teens to read novels about the “history” of Azeroth and is being used as a basis for English language arts lessons by some innovative middle schools in their WoW in the schools program.  Since many actions in the game also rely heavily on basic mathematics and probability, it can also be used to reach disengaged students and provide context for understanding math concepts and developing skills in computation, modeling, and problem-solving.  As a potential platform for education, it remains an inviting forum for research and education.

Unfortunately, many of the problems its critics have pointed out are wearing on me and are tipping the scales in favor of some other games.

WoW is incredibly repetitive.   “Grinding” (performing the same simple task over and over in order to get resources) has always been annoying, but as I have less free time, spending the few hours I can allot to gaming each week on these tasks is not worth it.  For a while, it was interesting to see if the drop rates (the probability of getting a particular item) were accurate over hundreds of repetitions, but this has lost its charm, particularly as the server I’m on has matured and prices have dropped.  Many young people seem more tolerant of this practice than adults, but I have also known teens to sit at their computer and hit the same set of buttons repeatedly while they are engaging in other tasks, such as reading.  Somehow, this mechanic needs to be adjusted, which should also help Blizzard solve the problem of the gold farmers.

Most of the end game content is equally repetitive.  The raids and instances, which are challenging group combat events, offer nothing new after a few attempts.  Working with a group to succeed in them is a useful lesson in group cooperation and preparation, but after a few runs they are either boring or extremely frustrating (you can fail after hours of work just because someone’s computer connection lagged at the wrong time).  This is likely to be true of any game in the genre, however.

WoW’s portrayal of gender differences really is quite annoying.  I generally was able to ignore this until I started playing the new Star Wars MMOG and was given the opportunity to customize body types.  Combined with clothing in Star Wars that is not clingy and revealing (Jedi Knights can wear loose robes), the ability to lessen the stereotypical portrayal of females as wasp-waisted, big-breasted Barbie doll clones was highly refreshing and enticing.  While I have had many good conversations about the the need for critical reflection of racial and gender stereotypes in the media in response to the portrayal of women in WoW, I welcome the opportunity to vote with my money and pick a game that offers some alternatives.  Of course, I remain interested in how WoW designers plan to draw female pandas in the game …

WoW’s allusions to different ethnic or racial groups really is hard to accept let alone defend.  Portraying the Native Americans of the plains as bipedal cattle still has me shaking my head after all these years.  While this does start a good conversation about racial stereotypes in the media, it is really difficult to sell the good points of multiplayer online games for teaching and learning when, unfortunately, most people only know about this one game and judge the rest in light of it.

Finally, for reasons that have nothing to do with World of Warcraft, many long-time player friends are moving on, including my family.  Kids have grown up and moved on to other things, and my dear ol’ hubby has decided that he’s lost too many hours to online gaming.  While a few friends (such as the Terror Nova guild) are still rocking and rolling on the new newest expansion, I’ve become interested in a host of other games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Skyrim, and Minecraft.  I’m particularly looking for games that offer something different but still rich and engaging.  Minecraft, for instance, is growing at a pace to challenge WoW – which is amazing for a game that does not rely upon combat as its sole game mechanic.

As part of the assessment plan for my educational technology course for pre-service teachers, I included the production of a portfolio as a semester-long project for the students.  This addressed several objectives important for the course as well as for the students as pre-professionals.

Introduction to Types of Portfolios

The first objective was to give students an introduction to the theory of portfolios, and the different types of portfolios that might be used in education.  Most of them were familiar with historical, “kitchen-sink” portfolios.  Most students have been shown our university’s standard ePortfolio tool in their introductory writing course.  They get started with uploading writing samples and resumes, but they often forget all about this resource in subsequent courses —- and they forget to continue to save examples of representative artifacts throughout their college career.  I wanted to remind students, especially those who would go into teaching, to keep collecting examples of their work so that they would be ready for graduation.

They also forget the reasons that they might want to save examples of their work — either for reflection, to showcase their best work, or to prepare for job interviews.  So, when I laid out the plan for the term, I spent some time explaining the different types or reasons to keep a portfolio and shared with them the most excellent work of Dr. Helen Barrett, whose presentation and website on eportfolios completely changed my understanding of the role of portfolios in education last year.

Since many of these students will be assessing their own students in a year or two, I also wanted them to appreciate how portfolios can be used as a tool for assessment of a student’s growth over a period of time by seeing this enacted in their own learning.  Hence, their very first assignment for this class was a short term paper discussing what they knew at the beginning of the course about educational technology and to reflect a bit on how they had seen it used in their coursework throughout high school and college so far.

Since they had already done a portfolio for their freshman class, many students rolled their eyes at the assignment.  But, by the end of the term, nearly all of them admitted that they realized, in preparing their final portfolio for me, how much they had grown and learned in 15 weeks.  Many were amazed at their own growth and were even eager to show their portfolio to their family over term break.

Portfolio Tools

Students also rolled their eyes in exasperation over my guidelines for the assignment, which were extremely open-ended.  I let them not only choose what type of portfolio to create (historical, reflective, showcase, or job-hunt), but I let them decide what type of tool to use to organize and present the portfolio.  They could even use a 3-ring binder, although – since this was an educational technology class – I encouraged them to try a digital format from the list pulled together by Dr. Helen Mongan-Rallis on her ePortfolio resources website.  Making a choice, and defending it to me in a final review of the portfolio with each student, was an important part of the learning for this assignment.  By the end of the term, we had reviewed many different tools in terms of accessibility and fitness for purpose; I wanted to see how many students were developing the critical ability necessary to choosing educational technology for their own K-12 classrooms.

Although many students took the easy route, printing out the assignments from the term and putting them in a binder, a number went out and used online tools.  Google sites was one of the most frequently chosen options, offering students a free but customizable option that they could also share with friends and family.  Many also chose the university’s program, ePortfolio, although they found quickly that it has limited options for putting a personal spin on the presentation.

Some other free website hosting options existed, and a few students chose them, but a drawback turned out to be the inability to include “alt tags” to increase accessibility for the visually impaired.  We had included accessibility as a major criterion for choosing technology for the classroom, especially for online materials, and a number of students noticed that they couldn’t create alt tags when adding images and photos to their some of their portfolios.  At first, they assumed that they were overlooking something, doing something wrong, but upon closer examination, we found that some of the free website creation tools simply were not amenable to creating accessible sites.  It was another good learning experience for us all.

By the end of the term, I think the portfolio exercise demonstrated to us all – teacher and students – how much we had learned and how many tools we had experimented with using.  It was a very worthwhile assignment.

Image representing Google Docs as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

One of the tools cited by students as most helpful was the free set of tools provided by Google, known colloquially as “Google Docs“.  If you haven’t run into them yourself, these free, online tools include simplified word process, presentation software, a spreadsheet, and form creator (often used currently for short surveys), and a drawing program.  In most cases, they do not have the sophistication and range of features found in commercially available tools such as the Microsoft Office Suite, but their feature set often does the trick for most basic uses of these tools.  The word processing program, in particular is a perfectly adequate tool for producing term papers.  But the biggest claim to fame I found for my classroom use was the ability for groups to edit documents collaboratively and simultaneously.  This is a feature that I’ve been employing with co-writers for more than a year — freeing research groups from purchasing special access to systems such as Basecamp or Huddle.

The Good

When I introduced this set of tools to my students, I was extremely surprised to find that nearly all of them were entirely unfamiliar with Google docs, despite the adoption of Google apps by our campus more than a year ago.  They used commercial software in their freshman composition course, which costs each student about $40 under our campus agreement, but they were unaware that a free set of tools were an alternative that they could use now …. and more importantly, after they have graduated.

As college educators, we constantly ask ourselves how much do we need to teach the so-called digital natives about new developments in digital communication.  We assume that students will be ahead of us in adopting these tools, but as Joanna Goode pointed out in a recent article (Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.), many students are not exposed to essential tools informally.  Hence, instructors need to check with students and be prepared to point them in the direction of computer tools and techniques that will aid them in achieving academic success.

For my students, the suite of free tools was perfectly adequate for most assignments – and it allowed them to do more collaborative work with fellow students.  Several reported during the term that Google docs had allowed their groups to succeed in completing assignments for different classes, encouraging more participation from the whole group instead of the tendency for one or two people to do all of the work because they alone could meet face to face to do the assignments.

For my class, we often used these tools for small group engagement over readings as well as preparation for group teach-backs and practicing instruction with educational technology.

The Problematic

Some tools in the Google apps suite are still in development.  While the word processor was robust and full-featured, the spreadsheet and drawing programs could not complete with the commercial solutions.  Microsoft‘s Excel still has more formulas and a stronger graphing feature set that make it a better choice for creating spreadsheets even for simple tasks like creating a course grade book.

The Solutions

A small number of my students had difficulty throughout the term in using Google docs, especially in logging into the suite, even with their official campus ID.  Since mine was a course on educational technology, I used these situations as an example of how to do problem-solving to resolve technology glitches.  In some cases, we had to make do by creating an alternative, new log in for these students.   But many cases were occasions for patience and persistence … the willingness to find a work around to try later is an essential disposition in education, especially whenever trying out new techniques or tools.

Students generally found that the advantages of Google Docs …. especially the ability to edit a document by several people simultaneously …. outweighed the drawbacks.  But they also learned to do quick tests of concept to see if a feature set for a specific tool would be adequate for the assignment.  In my class, this was an important learning objective!  For professors using this suite for class, you probably should double check the feature set of any tool before you suggest it to students.  Since they often wait until the last minute to even start an assignment, this will lessen the likelihood of a “gotcha” situation and much frustration on the part of the students.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how Google extends their application suite.  If it remains free and readily accessible, many recent graduates will be able to keep using technology in their classrooms even with thin (and getting thinner) school budgets.

Image representing Moodle as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Generally, I teach classes that are offered largely online.  We might have a weekend meeting once during the term, but the rest of the course is usually conducted online.  So, when I took over a face-to-face course for the first time in (*cough*) too many years, I naturally gravitated toward using online content organized using a course management system.

I’ve used many of them over the years.  In the early days, we used tools such as Top Class and Web Crossing (anyone remember them?).  Then came WebCT/Vista, Blackboard, and Moodle.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Fortunately, I am rather fond of the emerging standard at our campus – the open source CMS, Moodle.

The Good

As a consultant, I’ve often been frustrated that faculty don’t seem eager to use the various tools that this – or most other – course management systems offer.  But, now that I’ve been on the other side again for a term, I have to say that using this online tool as the supreme organizer of topics, materials, and assignments – including collection of assignments electronically – made life a lot easier for not only me but also for (most of) my students.

I tend to organize my course chronologically.  That way, students have a ready check-list of what is coming up and know what to expect each week.  I created a module per week, therefore, and posted the topics we’d be covering, the readings, the lecture resources (such as my PowerPoint presentations and links to online videos), and assignments due.  This allowed students to read and prepare for lectures and to have the materials right in front of them on their lab computers as we worked in class.  Since seeing the board or the projected screen was difficult for about half of the class, this allowed them to see materials clearly …. overcoming some of the limitations of the room by using the room’s resources in conjunction with the online organization.  It also allowed me to adjust the class as we went – adding resources to meet student needs and interests, especially as they prepared to write their big research paper for the course.

The online, digital nature of materials was also very helpful to one of my students who was legally blind … he could use the digital copies along with text-to-speech software or ZoomText to access documents before, during, or after lectures.  Since I also gave the two tests using Moodle’s quiz function, we did not have to make any special accommodations for this student!!  He was able to be just another student in the class, making use of educational technology and universal design to access the class materials in ways that worked for him.

The Problematic

For this class, I did not have a book.  All materials were provided online.  For some students, this was somewhat of a challenge.  Despite the common perception of this generation as “digital natives”, many students expressed dissatisfaction with reading materials online for long periods.  They told me that they often printed out online readings and complained about printing costs and that reading online made them tired.

The Solution

Since I knew that some students did not have ready access to materials online, I always allowed for work and reading time during class periods and allowed students to submit printed …. rather than online …. assignments.  A few students did take me up on that option, and I accepted printed homework during the term.

To address the online reading problem, I taught students how to adjust fonts in Word documents and in web pages.  Most students did not know that it is easier to read sans serif fonts (such as Arial) online nor did they know how to adjust fonts.  Once we had made that change — and I generally remembered to change fonts in materials I handed out electronically — students found it much easier to do the reading for this class.

For those who still wanted to print documents in order to read them, I pointed out that, even at 5 cents per page, they would spend less in printing than they would have if I had made them by a text book.  The cheapest book I’d considered was $35, and they rapidly went up from there into over $100 per copy.  While I realized that this may not seem very student-centered, I was trying to save the majority of students money by offering all materials online.

But I also addressed ergonomic issues, such as asking them to be aware of lighting (to reduce glare) and their own posture when doing class work.  So much literature recently has been aimed at telling faculty how we need to catch up to students who “naturally” want us to adopt digital media that we forget how little students really know about managing their environment and habits …. even when online.