How Professors Should Upgrade Their Boring Content

E-learning lessons significantly increase student engagement, assessment-integration, and personalization.

[image created with Midjourney]

Welcome to AutomatED: the newsletter on how to teach better with tech.

Each week, I share what I have learned — and am learning — about AI and tech in the university classroom. What works, what doesn't, and why.

Let’s take a look at a type of software that many professors would benefit from having in their instructional toolkit.

Although they require a significant time (or monetary) investment to create, interactive e-learning lessons crafted with software like Articulate Storyline 360, Adobe Captivate, or iSpring Suite are worth it.

This kind of software is effectively PowerPoint on steroids.

With it, a professor can create a lesson constituted by a sequence of slides — containing text, images, videos, dynamic characters, audio, assessments, etc. — that students navigate at their own pace.

The lesson can be embedded in your course in the learning management system (LMS) that your university uses, and bits of information from students’ engagement can be captured for pedagogical and/or grading purposes.

Here’s the story of how I became a believer in this medium…

😞 ➡️ From Static PDF

I teach philosophy. When I first started teaching, I was teaching courses that students would take as their second philosophy course — they had already taken Philosophy 101 or another introductory-level philosophy course before they came to my first class. Before I taught my first course, I assumed that students would have some baseline level of knowledge and skills from their prior philosophy course.

Let’s just say that I tend to be overly optimistic.

It was not that my students had done a poor job in their prior philosophy course, and it was not that they were poor students more generally. Rather, their prior professors were heterogeneous in their approaches and my students had forgotten much of what they had learned anyway.

I decided that I needed to provide my students with a primer. The goal of this primer was to ensure that they had a baseline level of knowledge and skills — namely, the baseline that I would expect them to have when they entered my course, were they to have received the proper instruction beforehand and had they perfect memory.

The idea was to get them up to speed quickly.

Initially, this primer was a PDF. It covered some of the fundamentals of philosophy, including some tips for reading and writing philosophy, for analyzing philosophical arguments, and for using basic logic.

I assigned the PDF to my students as a reading early in the semester, and my students did an admirable job. In fact, some absorbed, understood, and implemented the information perfectly.

However, many students struggled. There were several problems with presenting the primer as a document, including:

1. The medium couldn’t have been much worse — it was static and not very engaging;

2. The document could not be directly integrated with assessments — they had to be completed separately, even if a student could keep the document open while they completed them; and

3. It made no room for personalization — every student got the same document.

Students appreciated my efforts to get them up to speed, but they reported to me (in one-on-one conversations, mid-semester surveys, and course evaluations) that they wished the primer was better.

➡️ Through Low-Tech Alternatives ➡️

To address these problems, I began thinking about solutions. Here is what I came up with, in order, as well as what problems remained:

Solution A: Make a Super-duper Awesome Document

I started by improving the document by enhancing the writing style, by incorporating timely/interesting examples, by injecting it with some assessments, etc. I then assigned the document as a reading and the assessments as take-home assignments.

Remaining Problems: 

1. Regardless of how engaging the document was written, it was still static;
2. Assessments still had to be distinct, in that my students had to use a separate document (or a page or assignment in our LMS) to submit their answers; and
3. Every student still got the same document, so students with different needs were not having their unique needs specifically addressed.

Solution B: Combine Document with In-Class Components

Next, I created engaging in-class activities — related to the content of the document — that included or concluded with assessments. I assigned the document as a reading to be completed before the relevant class, and I dedicated one or two class sessions to the activities and assessments.

Remaining Problems:

1. The document was as static as ever, and students reported having trouble with the document as they completed the in-class activities, especially if they had some deficiency in background knowledge or skills;
2. To personalize the lesson, I had to circulate in the room during the activities, but at times it was hard to do this effectively and comprehensively with 25+ students (and the limited class time I wanted to dedicate to getting them up to speed); and
3. One or two of my class sessions were being dedicated to getting students up to speed rather than the content of the course I was supposed to be teaching.

Combining the document with in-class components was an improvement, but it wasn’t ideal. I needed something better.

➡️ 🧨 To Dynamic E-Learning Lesson

Solution C: Build Interactive E-Learning Lesson

Finally, I started researching software to create interactive e-learning activities. I settled on Articulate Storyline 360 for several reasons, including compatibility, ease of use, features, and community resources.

I initially created one lesson that contained all of the content found in the PDF, plus several assessments along the way. I later realized that it would ideally be split into three lessons, which I now assign as take-home assignments the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of the first week of my course. I embed the lessons in Canvas — my university’s LMS — as assignments.

Benefits of this Solution:

These lessons addressed all of the above problems.

1. The medium with which the primer’s information is presented is highly dynamic and engaging, and students can return to the lesson and repeat it as many times as they like throughout the semester.

A dynamic “argument” from one of my lessons.

2. The lessons are integrated with assessments, which appear at crucial points to assess whether students understand the specific concepts, information, and skills just covered.

An assessment from one of my logic lessons.

3. Students get immediate feedback on the answers they submit to the questions in the in-lesson assessments, and these submissions are used to determine, in real-time, whether a student needs remediation — additional instruction to address gaps in understanding. On the basis of these determinations, the student is shown personalized remedial content on the basis of the lesson’s branching logic. (You can also use branching to allow students to customize their experience.)

4. There is no need to dedicate class sessions to getting students up to speed.

Rather than spend much of the first week or two of my course making sure every student was on the same page (with regard to what they ideally would have learned and remembered from their first philosophy course), I could move forward to the content that my course was dedicated to. Precious class time wasn’t spent on tasks that could be completed at home.

After implementing this solution, my students now report that my e-learning lessons are their favorite part of my class and that they think that the lessons help them learn the most of all of my take-home content.

Furthermore, it is clear to me that the e-learning lessons get my students up to speed faster and more effectively than anything else I have tried.

💡 Some Tips and Caveats

There are many potential use cases for professors to deploy e-learning lessons in the university setting, including:

  • You could, like I did, create lessons that ensure that students are up to speed at the start of your course;

  • You could create lessons that cover crucial concepts, information, and skills that you present in the classroom — this adds another layer of protection to ensure that your students do not fall behind at key moments in your course;

  • You could work with your department or school to develop lessons that are shared across groups of courses to ensure homogeneity in how your department or school presents foundational concepts, information and skills; and

  • You could create entirely online and asynchronous courses to expand your department or school’s offerings.

Now, although I have now expanded my portfolio of e-learning lessons well beyond the start-of-course primer discussed above, it took several semesters — and their intervening breaks — to get to this point.

The software is easy to use but it is a bit time-consuming to get proficient at it and to make high-quality e-learning lessons. For this reason, it is worth considering when you can reasonably expect to have time to build your lessons in the coming year.

However, if you do not have the time, this is not the end of the story.

Many universities are expanding their teaching and learning teams to assist professors in developing course content, learning new pedagogical skills, and understanding how to make their courses accessible. Some of these teams have dedicated gurus who specialized in interactive software and multimedia. It is worth reaching out to them to see if they can help you develop the e-learning lessons you need.

Likewise, there are private consultants and companies that create content with these software tools. It is always an option to pay them to develop the content for you — and this is precisely the sort of cost that many universities have funding to ameliorate with small grants and awards.

Think of GPTs not as a database but as a large collection of extremely smart economists, historians, scientists and many others whom you can ask questions. Imagine getting Ken Arrow, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith in a room and asking them economics questions. If you ask them what was Germany’s GDP per capita in 1975 do you expect a perfectly correct answer? Well, maybe not. But asking them this question isn’t the best use of their time or yours. A little bit of knowledge about how to use GPT models more powerfully can go a long way.

Their final conclusion:

A final point, these models are improving almost on a daily basis and as they do so they are gaining new abilities. We will almost surely have to rewrite this paper in 6 months, or perhaps a GPT will.

Let’s check in again in 6 months.

  • Is this the future?