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Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Improving Presentations (or videos, or other multimedia) with Learning Science

Note: This blog post was derived from a presentation I gave at the New York Law School. I was invited by Doni Gewirtzman and Kris Franklin to speak about the impact of learning science on the creation of presentations. I realized there are many nuances to the use of presentations. Some lecture with them, some don’t. Some use only a handful of slides, some use a deck of sixty. These are very general and basic principles that I think cover the widest range of situations. However, there are absolutely many ways in which this can be interpreted and implemented. For example, if we’re walking through language from a contract, then yes… it’s absolutely ok to have a mess of text on the screen. We can do simple things like text fading and using boldface fonts to control attention.

That said, I hope you find this post useful. Many of the concepts are at their very basic, but as we move forward with creating materials for a blended or flipped classroom, consideration to how we design these presentations/multimedia will be necessary to improve the efficiency of the teaching and learning process.

Finally, I apologize for the length of this post.  There’s a lot of information to communicate. I’ve provided three multimedia videos that help illustrate some of the points, as well as break up the information into three separate chunks. The content in the videos is the same as the content in the text, so you get to choose which information intake method is most effective for you! 

Plan of Action
This post will cover three primary topics.

First, we’re going to talk a quick bit about what we ultimately want for our learners. I’ll introduce two key terms from the learning science literature, then offer explanations for what they really mean.

Second, we’re going to talk about the impact of these concepts on the presentations we use or the multimedia we expose to students. I’m going to be talking specifically in the context of effective presentations, but this is really where the rubber hits the road for other types of learning like blended or online courses.

Third and finally, based on the theories and principles we’ll have discussed, I’ll offer three practical examples of how this information can improve your presentations and then ultimately benefit your students in their comprehension of learning materials.

A Quick Introduction to Learning Science

1. What is Learning Science

As mentioned, I’m a student of the learning sciences. At it’s heart, learning science is:

“An interdisciplinary field that works to further scientific understanding of learning as well as to engage in the design and implementation of learning innovations, and improvement of instructional methodologies.” Wikipedia

So based on this definition we can see that much of what is currently going on around us in education is starting to base itself on scientific understanding of how people learn, then reacting to those results through improving ways in which we currently instruct AND innovating new ways to promote learning. Blended learning and online learning are examples of these innovations.

2. What can it tell us?
Learning science can tell us what we should do for our students, and back it with science. Obviously, we want our students to learn the most they can. We want them to engage with this information, to process it, to understand it, to reuse it, to apply it. Learning science can advise us on how to best accomplish these learning objectives. The first idea will inform us on what levels of understanding our students have, telling us how much they know, and how they know it. It’ll also help us adjust the way we teach to make sure everyone has an opportunity to learn the same amount. It’s the idea of Depth of Comprehension.

3. Depth of Comprehension
In terms of human evolution, depth of comprehension is a relatively new topic. In 1988, a professor by the name of Walter Kintsch (who just so happens to be my advisor’s advisor) offered an explanation of learning called the Construction-Integration principle. For this post’s purposes… what Construction-Integration is isn’t as important as what this actually means to us. The CI principle tells us that there are three levels of comprehension that learners can possess: surface, textbase, and situation model. Let’s take a quick stroll through these.

A surface level of comprehension is one in which the information is learned absolutely. Think of memorizing a poem. If there were one in a language you didn’t know, you could probably “learn” it based on sounds and intonation… but you wouldn’t have a clue as to what it means. Generally speaking, this rarely happens in learning, so we don’t talk much about it in my field.

The textbase level of comprehension is one that is much more prevalent in learning. For ease, we’ll call this the shallow level of comprehension. A shallow level of comprehension occurs when a learner “learns” just enough to paraphrase the main ideas back to you, when they learn it just enough to pick out items from a multiple choice list. A shallow level of comprehension occurs primarily when students cram for exams. Hoping to get the gist just long enough to take an exam and do relatively well in it.

As you might imagine, this level of comprehension isn’t the best level of comprehension. Why?

A shallow level of comprehension can result in inert, unconnected knowledge. It’s inflexible and unusable in novel situations… situations that many learners encounter in legal education. Further, because it has such a transient existence in a learner’s mind, it’s often out just as quickly as it gets in, leaving it outside of the long-term memory of the learner.

What we want our students to obtain is a situation model level of comprehension. We’ll call this one deep comprehension. A deep level of comprehension is constructed when the learners truly absorb what is being taught. They integrate the information with their prior knowledge. They connect what they’re learning to what they already know. They have a well-developed structure of knowledge, which is a hallmark of deep comprehension. In turn, they’re able to apply this new knowledge to novel situations. It’s flexible, so they can apply it to new problems they encounter, inside and outside of the domain in which it was originally learned. And because it’s integrated with their prior knowledge, it’s much more stable and permanent than when it’s a shallow level.

Unfortunately, as you might imagine, deep comprehension is also the most difficult level of comprehension to achieve in the classroom. There are some things we can do, however, that help us give students an opportunity to develop the deep level of comprehension we hope.

Two Theories that Inform Multimedia Design

1. Introduction to Multimedia Theory
Fortunately, there is one way in which we can immediately impact a learner’s ability to develop a deep level of comprehension – through our presentations and other multimedia. They way we structure our presentations can have a profound impact on the level of comprehension our learners can achieve. To better understand this, we’ll turn to two key ideas in multimedia design: the dual-coding theory and the other is the cognitive theory of multimedia learning.

2. The Dual-Coding Theory
The dual-coding theory was developed by Allan Paivio in 1971. At its essence, the dual-coding theory explains that when you provide learners with two ways to learn or encode information, they can understand it more deeply than if you only give them one.

Paivio offers the reasoning for this is because different kinds of information are processed differently and along distinct channels in the human mind.

Verbal information goes in through the ears and is processed as verbal information, visual information is taken in through the eyes and processed as visual information. The brain can then “smush” these together and allow them to build on themselves and provide a better encoding of the to be learned information.

So, put into practice, it looks like this. I can give you the word “dog.”

I can give you a picture of a “dog.”

But, as the dual coding theory goes, if I provide you with a picture of a dog as well as the word “dog,” the fact you’re seeing both allows you to encode this information more thoroughly than receiving one alone.

When the verbal and visual contents are complementary and overlap, there can be multiple retrieval cues, which enhance recall and in some cases a deeper comprehension of the information.

One thing to understand, though, is that learners do not have an infinite amount of bandwidth. Humans can only process a finite amount of information in a channel at a time, and they make sense of the learning materials by actively creating mental representations. If we overflow their channels, we run the risk of limited comprehension by our students. The more load we put on them, the more likely it is that shallow levels of comprehension will be attained.

3. Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

A professor from UC Santa Barbara by the name of Richard Mayer came along and went one step further and offered the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. This theory was proposed in 2001. Its basic idea builds on what Professor Paivio found with the dual-coding theory. Words and pictures are superior to words alone – with a few caveats.

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning consists of 10-12 individual principles. These principles have held up fairly well over the last decade but many of them have been tweaked as more and more people turn to learning with multimedia, such as online classes, hybrid and flipped learning, and so on. I’ve chosen three of the most relevant to talk about: multimedia principle, coherence principle, and the redundancy principle.

If you’re really interested in the other principles, which are no less important, you should buy his book Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Press, 2001). There’s likely an updated version – I know he’s done more work refining the principles since the blended learning revolution is upon us.

a. The Multimedia Principle
The multimedia principle bridges us from the dual-coding theory to the multimedia principles.

Basically, it states that learners learn better from words and pictures than words alone or pictures alone. Recall this is something that Paivio also advocated for. Mayer studied how students engage with different types of learning materials and found that students’ comprehension was more shallow when they learned with text alone – they weren’t engaging in deeper processes that allowed them to connect the new information with what they already know.

So, you might imagine this comes into play when we have PowerPoint slides that are nothing but text… as far as the eye can see. Our learners aren’t really learning much from that. There’s so much text on the screen, the best they can do is try to “get the gist” of the slide and engage in shallow learning tactics to absorb it all.

b. The Redundancy Principle

The multimedia principle leads directly into the next principle we’ll talk about.

The redundancy principle states that learners learn best from pictures and narration than from pictures, narration and on-screen text – especially when that on-screen text is the same as what’s being spoken to them. The redundancy principle offers that learners don’t learn well when they hear and see the same verbal message during a presentation. Many people will use their PowerPoint presentation as a script, and read from the slide, offering very little new information that isn’t already on there.

This brings up an interesting point that involves the dual-coding theory. Remember how we said that images are processed through the visual channel and sounds are processed through the verbal channel? Well, our channels are not infinite and have a pretty limited capacity. When visual stimuli like pictures are presented, the visual channel picks those up, no problem. When spoken narration is heard, those are picked up by the verbal channel. Text, however, is weird.

Text, you’d think, is picked up by visual channel, but it’s not. Text actually imposes on the verbal channel. You can test this out by reading something and having someone talk to you. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to take both information in. So, if you’re reading your slides and your learners are reading your slides, you’re consuming a lot of their brain power. This is brain power they could use to form deeper connections with what you’re talking about, formulate questions, or make inferences. If we overload one of the channels, we run the risk of shallower processes.

The redundancy principle basically asks to minimize the amount of text that you put on slides. Reading is very instinctive, and people can’t help it. if you have a mess of text on a slide learners are going to read it, if you’re talking, you’re adding to their load. Learners can’t process both at the same time. If you’re going to say it, don’t put it on the slide. Just use a word, or a keyword, then speak the rest.

c. The Coherence Principle
Finally, we’re going to chat about the last principle, the coherence principle. It states that learners learn best when extraneous pictures, words, sounds and other such things are excluded rather than included. Essentially, less is more.

Things that move, sparkle, or shake can confuse novice learners. They may be distracted by the movement. They may try to figure out what it means and spend some of their processing power on something that isn’t relevant to the topic. This also goes for images that have nothing to do with the topic. When you select images, they should be relevant to the topic to help them understand or to illustrate a point.

So, that fancy animation you found online? Ditch it. The sparkly transitions between slides? You don’t need them. Random clip art or pictures that “looks cool.” Leave it out. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the learning, understanding, and comprehension of information should be left out. Use movement to draw attention to salient and important details, not to wow the audience.

d. Depth of Learning
The multimedia principles were studied for the depth of learning they provide learners, and through Mayer’s experiments, they found that adherence to these and the other principles can help in providing learners with a deep level of comprehension by making connections more concrete and allowing students to focus on what’s important and seeing how things may relate to one another. This is done by freeing up some of their cognitive capacity, allowing them to think more deeply about the topic. This is done by connecting words to images to show examples of topics or concepts.

While there’s no perfect solution to designing multimedia to always result in deeper comprehension, every little bit can help.

Practical Implementations

All the theory in the world isn’t worth much to you if it can’t be applied to your day-to-day operations. This is where the fun part of my job comes in. I’m going to talk about three ways in which the research we’ve just described can be applied to your presentations.

1. Less Text, More Visuals
This is the one you saw coming. Both the dual coding theory and the multimedia principles advocate for less text on the screen for your learners. This is sometimes hard to do. Many professors I work with use their presentations as a script… in fact, many people do this, but while it might make things easier for you, it also distracts from the learner. Large passages of text compel a learner to read.

When they’re reading, and listening, and watching, they’re overloaded with information and some will be lost. Since their verbal channel is being overloaded by reading and listening, there isn’t much bandwidth for deeper comprehension, they’re trying to read and write and listen. Typically their comprehension forms on a shallow level.

I offer the suggestion of using key words or short phrases as anchors for your talk, then articulating what they mean, use fewer bullet points on a slide. Rather than putting five or five bullet points on the screen and repeating them out loud, use three. The less text you can put on the screen, the easier it’s going to be on your learners. When selecting images, find ones that can help support your message.

2. Simple Graphics are Okay, Preferred in many Situations
When you’re assembling your presentation, don’t think that you need the fanciest, most detailed or complex images for your presentation.

Research has shown that overly complex imagery can distract learners from what is important. As an example, a lot of research has been done teaching things like the heart and circulatory system. When they use a “real” looking heart as opposed to a simplistic looking one, students didn’t perform as well. This is especially important when you’re dealing with novices and brings the coherence principle to the forefront. Novices can get stuck on the little details, like the veins and wrinkles in the heart.

As you think about which images to use for your presentations, they don’t need to be, and shouldn’t necessarily be, super detailed images. Silhouettes and stick figures work well. If you do need to show a complex picture, don’t put a bunch of them on the screen at the same time. Choose one that best illustrates your idea and stick with it.

3. Fancy Transitions and Animations Can Distract, not Enhance
I often get asked about transitions. Should I use them to “pep” up my presentation? Which should I use? Which are best? My answer is most always, none. These are known as seductive details.

When you’re creating a presentation, you want to make sure that you draw attention to two things. First, is you. You are the information source. You have information that you need to transfer to your students. Second, is your presentation. Your presentation supports what you say. Your presentation helps learners connect the dots, helps them find ways to infer and understand. You don’t want your learners to be distracted by the presentation.

Fancy transitions, movements, and animations will only help your learners understand if the movement helps them understand the content. So if you’re teaching combustion, then showing a moving engine will help learners deeply comprehend the concepts. If the animations or graphics aren’t necessary, don’t include them.

Now, sometimes I do use something that people may view as animation. Sometimes I’ll slide in text, pop up images, or something similar. This is done to control the amount of information a learner sees at any given time. If I have five pictures, or multiple bullets, I don’t want the learner to have to consume all of them at the same time, filling up their verbal channel. I will pop up what they need to see at any given point in time. Or, I’ll use it to draw attention to a point or concept.


As you can see, there are a lot of ways to sprinkle a little bit of learning science into your presentation. There are numerous concepts that branch out from this, such as how to select graphics themselves, what activities should I be doing in class, is there a “medium” level between textbase and situation model? All of these questions are good ones, and could be answered by diving into the research a little more and applying that to your specific and unique case. Either way, education has a lot to learn from learning science, and the quicker we are to understand, adapt, and implement those ideas, the better off we’ll be.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

The Working Group on Distance Learning in Legal Education Fall Meeting

NCCU Law Schoool Teleconferencing Room

The Teleconferencing Room in action

On September 13, I attended the Working Group on Distance Learning in Legal Education fall meeting that was held in the North Carolina Central University Law School.  Although the conference was small, it was highly informative. I learned a great deal about the current state of technology, regulations, pedagogy, and best practices for distance learning for law schools.  Attendees included faculty, administrators, vendors, technologists, and librarians.

The Working Group on Distance Learning in Legal Education is “a loosely structured alliance of law educators collaborating to provide increased opportunities for faculty, students and other participants to access high quality, innovative, and interactive online legal education.”  You can learn more about the group on their website which includes useful resources such as information about best practices, information the upcoming meetings, and model distance-learning policies.

The working group holds meetings three times a year: in the fall, in the spring, and at AALS.  The fall and spring meetings have been held at different law schools, allowing those law schools to showcase their distance learning programs.

NCCU is a technologically innovative law school. One of their showpieces is an impressive teleconferencing room. The room allows participants in seminars held on different campuses to interact with each other as if all of the students were in the same place.

NCCU’s clinic also uses advanced teleconferencing technologies.  They have a sophisticated set-up that allows students and lawyers to connect to clients from across the state.   This room can handle up to 16 video inputs at the same time, so it can also be used for distance-learning classes.

We discussed several issues facing law schools implementing distance ed programs.   These included:


Regulations affecting law school distance education programs can be complicated. For example, a law school may be located in one state, but students may be located in other states.  All of these states’ regulations may apply.  The out-of-state regulations may be complicated, expensive, or even contradictory. Of course, this issue can be more tricky if the students are international.


Choosing technology for distance ed programs can be particularly challenging. Schools need to select technology that offers the features faculty need to effectively teach. But the technology must also be accessible to students – students whose technology set ups are completely unpredictable.  Some students may prefer to access their courses on new iPads using high-bandwidth broadband, while other students need to use old computers and dial up.


It can be a struggle to offer students were not physically on campus services that are similar to residential students. For example, how can law schools provide IDs to distance learning students? It can be almost impossible to verify whether nonresidential students are the people that they say they are. But without the IDs, the students may be denied essential services.


Without solid netiquette policies, students may behave distracting ways when participating distance education courses, particularly synchronous courses. We discussed how to discourage students from distracting behaviors like eating, talking to children, or dealing with pets while participating in class.

Faculty also need to be taught how to present themselves online. Faculty may not realize that their physical background affects how they appear on camera. For example some faculty present synchronous lectures in front of a bright window –which means students can’t see them.

IP Practices

The question of who owns material from distance-learning courses has broad implications.  There are the standard questions about posting materials created by third parties to web sites, of course.  However, there are also questions about who owns the distance learning course material itself.  Adjunct faculty may wish to create a distance learning course that can be used at several different law schools, for example, while the individual schools may feel that they own the course material.

One of the best parts of this meeting is that it focused on deliverables.  For example, during the meeting, we reviewed a start-up checklist for law schools considering distance ed programs.  Shortly after the meeting, the attendees received a revised checklist based on our input.

Look for the next meeting at the upcoming AALS conference in January.


Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Dynamic Learning Environment (Jason Fiske, Guest Blogger)

Thank you for bearing with me for the last couple of posts! I have previously discussed the present – how we organize our courses – now I shift to the future. As the Program Director of Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s Online Graduate Program I am constantly looking for ways to improve information delivery to students. The LMS to choose or the live session system to use is cosmetic; the organization of information delivery is the heart of how students learn.

The debate will eternally continue on what delivery method of learning is better, in person or online. Naturally, the answer will always be “it depends.” However, I believe I have found one instance where online learning is without question superior. Of course, my twisted brain thinks in this manner; realistically it may be the craziest/most ridiculous idea ever! That is part of the fun isn’t it? I don’t know, as I have not tested it yet (test run starting this Fall). For now, you can decide!

I run a Master’s level program where the entering students have a fluctuation of a base level of knowledge at first. For example: some students enter our tax concentration with 20 years of tax experience and are looking to add an expertise in a different type of taxation. Other students come in with no tax experience at all. Yet we need to filter them through the same courses. We have five different concentrations, and all face this same problem. The way I am going to combat this is with the first-term course that everyone takes. The challenge is that those with tax experience will be frustrated taking an entire course on basic taxation principles, but there are certain pieces of information they will absolutely need about various types of tax systems before entering more advanced courses.

The first-term course will be what I call a “dynamic learning environment.” It will essentially be five courses in one (one course per concentration offered in our program), before you put me in a strait jacket and carry me off, let me explain. The student will enter the course and see five tabs in the LMS that will indicate the different concentrations and will have a syllabus posted up front to start. The syllabus will have a flow chart in it. Our courses are broken up into two-week “learning units,” so each student will be able to choose based on the flow chart which learning units to complete based on the individual’s needs. A student in our US Tax concentration with no tax experience will take all 10 weeks of US Tax introduction. A student with 20 years of tax experience can jump in and out of the US tax learning units (to maybe, say, the International Taxation concentration material) if material is deemed too basic. The course will be set up asynchronously utilizing recorded lectures, but will have access to one professor for each concentration, and the students will be told when a professor from each concentration is holding online office hours if there are any questions on the material.

I hope that this idea is a seed in which our Program can grow to something unique and meaningful. But maybe the seed will die, time will tell! If you are interested in hearing any more crazy ideas of mine you can follow my blog on online education .

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

De-Aggregation Method (Jason Fiske, Guest Blogger)

Since you are now reading this I can assume that either I did not completely bore you out of your mind in my first blog, or you are ignorant to my first blog post and I now have a new opportunity to bore you. Can’t wait!

I thought I would now spend one blog talking about our research-based solutions that resulted in our current setup of our online program, and spend my next blog talking about new ideas I have for the future. We conducted a massive amount of internal research through targeted student surveys (this could be several blogs in itself!), and also pulled from numerous other sources.

There were two main things we found through our research and observations: 1) when our adjunct professors were left to their own devices there ended up being massive inconsistencies with the way different courses were taught, organized and delivered online; and 2) our adjuncts simply did not have the time to do everything that I would have liked to see in an online course by him or herself (it is physically impossible).

Our solution: what we internally call the “de-aggregation method” of course instruction. We have split up the functions of each course into its core components and have a different person specialized in that part handle it:

1) Instructional core: We follow the flipped classroom method that has been discussed in other blog posts, our adjuncts create these videos and they are placed in our “study guides” (see below), and they also teach live-online with students coming in having viewed the created videos. This is the primary function of the course, as well as creating the assessments.
2) Feedback/Study guide creation/discussion forum engagement: We have a “course manager” for each course who is a professor that gives timely feedback on all assessments (within 72 hours), runs active discussion forums (20% of overall grade for students), and also creates study guides. We have one study guide per week that students work through before each live session. Essentially it breaks down a topic into sub-parts and tells a student to read 5-10 pages, then asks a few questions about those pages and has the pre-recorded 8-10 minute video of the professor on that sub-topic for the week there as well. There are usually 7-8 sub-topics per week broken down in the study guide in this manner. Each study guide starts with a concept map that charts the entire course and where that week’s material falls within the grand scheme.
3) Online set-up of course in the LMS: We have a separate person entirely set up everything online. I have a team of federal-work-study JD students who help me with this. I train them on how all courses need to look and feel, and this has resulted in a consistency of format and delivery of information for all courses. Professors and course managers have very little power to change things themselves within the LMS, though they can always post announcements. Naturally, not all the professors liked this (though some were actually relieved) and I would not recommend this in all instances. However, we have seen a substantial improvement in satisfaction of course organization as a result.

If you would like more detailed discussion on any of these topics, check out my blog on online education .

Monday, May 6th, 2013

About Me

Hello, my name is Will Monroe, and I am the Head of Instructional Technology at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. I have not written for a blog before and I am very excited to have been asked to do so here during the month of May. I have worked as an educational technologist in a university environment for nine years. For six of those years I was also working on my Ph.D. in educational technology which, I am happy to say, is now done!

As some of my colleagues have noted, answering the question, “What do you do?”, can be difficult. I provide direct support and manage instructional technology services, I help design and lead audiovisual projects, I am responsible for the development of training and support materials, and I lead workshops for and provide consultation to faculty and students. These roles require me to schedule time acquiring new information each day, to refine how I learn, to share what I have learned and expand my connections with others, and help others to overcome their own limitations. So having said all this, it becomes easier for me to recognize that I am a teacher who happens to be an educational technologist.

These last two years, I’ve discovered much more interest from our faculty about blended/flipped classroom methodologies and the possibility of conducting online courses. Maybe this is due to the attention given to MOOCs or the surge of financing for ed tech startups. Maybe the possibility of more relaxed rules for online courses in legal education is responsible. But regardless of the reason, this faculty-driven interest has resulted in an increased amount of time I spend consulting and leading small workshops. It’s also meant that I need to stay abreast of developments in how online courses are being developed and supported. I find all of this to be very exciting. But it’s also demanding, as the scope of the instructional technology support services I manage (and provide) has also increased. Consequently, the biggest question I confront in my job right now is: how can I successfully transition into a role that includes instructional design and online course development while continuing to succcesfuly manage our support services?

So as I blog this month, I hope to be able to share my ongoing attempt to answer that question. One topic I will write about is the Working Group for Distance Learning in Legal Education, a small but growing group of folks in law schools from whom I’ve learned a great deal. I will also host a guest blogger who has developed an highly-sophisticated approach to streamlined course development that combines instructional design and project management. I hope that some of you will take part in this conversation with me as I’d really like to learn what challenges you face and how you have met them.

More to come!

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Infographics in Legal Education

Have you noticed that data use and distribution has hit the mainstream lately?  Data visualization is becoming a popular field of study.  Empirical research is gaining greater ground in fields not usually associated with high levels of data analysis, such as law.  2013 has even been declared the International Year of Statistics.  Perhaps more so than any of these previous examples, infographics have spread like wildfire across the internet.  Covering topics ranging from silly to serious, infographics offer a dynamic and visual means of displaying data.

Ask virtually anyone involved in empirical research, and they’ll tell you that you have to let the data tell the story.  I’m relatively new to empirical research, having begun conducting my own studies only a couple of years ago.  And while I heartily display my data results in bar graphs and pie charts, I often wonder if this does enough to truly convey my data’s story?  Infographics are a great tool for doing so (though, admittedly, within a print journal article, a lengthy infographic probably wouldn’t work – we’ll have to reserve the infographic as another means of communicating your findings, beyond the journal article!).

I’ll confess that I consider myself an infographic junkie.  I just can’t get enough!  And while I’ll admit that some of the infographics I enjoy are less than scholastic in nature, I have found so many that are brimming with educational content – I had to keep exploring.  The more I dug, the more convinced I became that infographics are a relatively untapped educational resource in law schools.  My next question was how best to apply them in this environment.

I’d love to say that I was immediately inspired and I have a secret library of brilliant infographics I’ve created for the law school setting, but such is not the case.  Instead, I began by looking for various platforms for creating infographics.  I came across this article on powerful infographic tools, and started exploring.  My personal favorite – Piktochart.  Even at the basic, free account, the designs they provide are very easily manipulated to create the chart you want, and as with similar platforms, paying for the more professional licenses gives you many more themes and allows you to eliminate their watermark.  (Of course, if you’re an Adobe savant or a graphic designer by trade, you could also just create your own from scratch!  Alas, such is not the case for me – I’ll take all the help I can get!)

I’m still in more of the exploring stages now, but I’ve begun creating a few infographics pertaining to legal research, as well as infographics that advertise our library services and social media accounts.  I also quickly realized what a useful tool an infographic is for creating posters for poster sessions, and am currently using Piktochart for a few projects for some upcoming conferences.  Additionally, in my explorations, I have found (and continue to find) several law-related infographics, which I have pinned to our library’s Pinterest account.

It’s no secret that different people learn in different ways – some by rote, some visually, some by teaching others.  Adding to that the fact that the majority of today’s students have grown up with the internet and therefore expect and engage most with quick, visual stimuli, infographics could be a very powerful educational tool.  Is it preferred by every student?  No.  Can it replace a traditional lecture?  Certainly not.  But can it supplement course materials?  I think so.  We’re working in a time that legal education is being reevaluated and renovated.  I am not here to argue that infographics are the way of the future for legal education, but we as legal educators are being called upon to think of new ways to convey legal education to better prepare our students to become lawyers; infographics are not going to create lawyers, but their ability to convey information visually might serve as a powerful tool for helping students see the bigger picture, understand difficult concepts, and better retain lecture content.

(I should note here that there are some obvious cautions that should be noted when working with infographics.  If you create your own, it’s certainly not as much of a problem, but if you’re using someone else’s infographic, first of all you’ll want to make sure and attribute it to its creator, but also you may want to verify its information for accuracy.)

The more I explore infographics that others have created and continue to create my own, the more possibilities I see.  If any of you are creating infographics for your schools, I would love to hear about them.  If you’re interested in learning a little more about infographics and education, here are a few resources:

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Changing of the Guard

Hello everyone!  My name is Ashley Ahlbrand, and I’ll be the resident blogger this month!  In this first post, I’ll just introduce myself.

I am the Educational Technology Librarian at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.  I began last July, so I’m rounding out my first year.  This is a new position at our library, so we’ve been enjoying exploring the bounds of this position.  I balance my time between technology projects for the library and technology projects intended for faculty, while also devoting my time to reference duties and teaching responsibilities.  I’m guessing many of you can empathize, but my answer to the question “What do you do?” is not a simple answer!  In fact, one of my favorite aspects of working in a library is that my days are unpredictable, and each one is unique.

The technology aspect of my job takes many forms – from creating and maintaining our social media accounts, to researching for and creating research guides, to creating slides for our digital sign, and so on.  Most recently I’ve begun exploring infographics and their use in libraries and legal education.  As you know, a large part of this job is keeping abreast of changes and trends in technology, so I find myself constantly attending webinars, reading the literature, and participating in training sessions that I believe will be useful to our library and the faculty and students of the law school.  I had the pleasure of attending the CALI conference for the first time last year, and I look forward to this year’s as well!

Being new to the position, there is a lot for me to learn from others in the field, but I think I have a few insightful thoughts and ideas to share as well.  Hopefully you can expect to see one post each week from me this month.  I don’t want to give away too much up front (and not just because I don’t have my posts completely hammered out yet!), but you can expect my posts to be primarily tech-in-the-library focused, particularly exploring different ways newer technologies can help us reach out to our students and patrons, bridge formality with informality, and remind patrons of the library’s continued role and importance in a digital age.

More to come – have a great weekend!

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Blending the First-Year Legal Classroom

Introduction to our Contracts Pilot
With all the talk about blended learning, flipped classrooms, and the like, we wanted to visualize what that might look like in the legal classroom, but first lets take a peek at a situation that could be a catalyst for blending a legal classroom.

The first-year courses are widely taught using the Socratic method. This method is a very useful and effective way to teach content to learners. This method works really well in smaller groups, so all students have an opportunity to “test” their knowledge on a topic in class. I like to think of this dialogue as a mini formative assessment, where the teacher can probe the knowledge of the student and foster an environment where that student can scaffold their knowledge and build it up to a level the professor deems satisfactory, causing the student to consider all sides of a particular issue.

In today’s world, class sizes of 50+ can often dampen the effect of the Socratic method. As Schwartz said in his 2001 paper titled Teaching Law by Design, students are asked to learn vicariously when they aren’t “on call”. Vicarious learning happens when the students in the class imagine themselves in the shoes of the student engaged in Socratic dialogue with the professor.

Many students in class do not take advantage of this “watch and imitate” environment (Schwartz, 2001). In doing so, they miss out an opportunity to engage with the content and imagine how they might answer the questions posed by the instructor. Further, with computers, iPhones, and iPads entering the classroom in droves, its likely the student is anywhere but imagining themselves in the shoes of their peer.

In-class time becomes an issue. Though it is nearly impossible to hit all fifty students each day in class, if the faculty member had more time, more students would have an opportunity to be tested, quizzed, and in turn, tested on their understanding of the topic. With so much content to cover over the course of the semester, faculty find it difficult to “find more time” in class to create more opportunities for dialog, assessment – or even better – create activities for the students to put their knowledge into play.

This is where the concept of blended learning can come into play. By taking some of the more rote or routine information that is usually conveyed by lecture or PowerPoint, we can save some time in class that can be used to engage more students, be filled with active learning opportunities, or anything else.

Implementing a “Blended” Legal Classroom
We aimed high.  We wanted to try this out in a first year class and chose contracts – because two professors (as opposed to four) were teaching the class. They had larger sections (50+ students), and it was easier to implement this pedagogical change with two professors. In all, our first year student body is approximately 101 students.

Instead of trying to cover all possible areas of content, we chose one specific area that typically lends itself to lecture – the Restatements. Jointly, the two professors reviewed their syllabus and identified roughly 40 videos that could convey the information in the Restatement that’s typically delivered by presentation/lecture in class. The senior faculty members were granted course release time to develop these videos.

The faculty members partnered with an instructional designer (me) who would facilitate development of the multimedia. The process went like this. The faculty members would write a script that would articulate the information to be conveyed. This process typically took 3-4 hours per script. Upon completion and approval of the script, it was given to the instructional designer. The instructional designer would then review the script (as a novice learner) and came up with a rough sketch for the content. If there were any revisions to be made, they were done after this point.  If the instructional designer had a difficult time understanding the information, the faculty member would work to clarify the script.

This was actually a serendipitous occurance… many times expert teachers have difficulty viewing their content from the perspective of a novice.  Since the majority of the learners are novices, my preview of the script was a good test for comprehensibility. If I couldn’t figure out what they were saying, I was either: not trying hard enough, or it truly was worded incorrectly.

After final, final approval, the script was read and recorded by the instructional designer. The audio was married with the multimedia and produced as a video.  This video was then uploaded to YouTube.  The process from start to finish could take anywhere up to 15 hours per video. In comparison, we aimed to have the individual videos no longer than 10 minutes in total viewable length.

The original aim was to have the modules complete one week prior to when they would be relevant in class. Though we originally stuck to this timeline, the time burden of creating the videos caught up to us and we wound up delivering them a day or two before they were to be covered. Fortunately, this only occurred the last two weeks of the semester

We wanted the students to watch the videos prior to class. Instead of spending 30 minutes lecturing about the Restatements and then discussing them, the students came to class prepared to do the discussion. This reduced the time necessary in class and also facilitated a deeper discussion.  The time savings was used throughout the semester for more in-class group work. In class time was constructed assuming the students had watched the videos.

At the conclusion of the course, we administered a survey that covered four primary areas of interest: questions about the videos themselves, questions about their use in class, questions about student satisfaction and motivation, and general study habit questions.

Wanna check ’em out? You can see the playlist of Contracts videos on YouTube.

How were they made?
All of the videos were made using Keynote – an Apple presentation product.  Surprisingly (or not) Keynote is a powerful tool for making animations like this. I don’t like to add a lot of extraneous movement to the slides… like those you’ll find in crazy transitions. The ease of use and availability make this an ideal tool for making multimedia presentations. Also, these could be used live, in class to achieve the same effect.

I plan on applying for a CALI slot to walk people through the steps in making their own, from script generation to export of the final movie. It would be catered to a non-technical audience – there are plenty of programs like iMovie, Vegas, and Final Cut that could be used to achieve the same outcome for the power users.

Survey Results
Of the 101 students that took the class, 69 of them responded to the survey. They were split virtually even with 34 females and 35 males replying. Here are some very interesting results that came out of the survey:

Regarding video questions

  • Roughly 97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the modules made the Restatement content easy to understand.
  • 10% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the length (8:30 on average) was too long.  40% were neutral. This answered our hypothesis that most students would be ok with a length lower than 10 minutes. A few students noted in their qualitative feedback that some of them were too long.
  • Students were mostly neutral (37%) or agreed (36.2%) when we asked if there was desire to have a way to clarify questions after watching the module.  We asked this in anticipation of a message board or discussion forum or something. This conflicts a little bit with a more direct question later.

Module use in class

  • Students typically watched the modules before class time (49%). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen scheduling (one professor was ahead of the other), the modules were sometimes released very closely to class, if not after.
  • The previous point was supported by the fact that nearly 85% of the students reported wanting more time with the modules prior to class.
  • Students also reported using the modules as a review after class (70%)
  • Not surprisingly, 42% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would rather watch the videos than read about the restatements. 29% were neutral.
  • 50% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the videos allowed them to pay better attention in class. 31% were neutral. We were very satisfied with this response, because it speaks to the idea that moving the non-interactive content outside of the classroom can facilitate a better learning experience in the classroom.
  • Nearly 60% of the students wish they had a way to assess their knowledge after watching the videos. This question was asked in anticipation of administering the videos with a formative assessment to allow students some idea of their comprehension.
  • Interestingly, over half of the students reported that they wouldn’t have used an online discussion board to talk about the content in the videos.
  • Several questions asked the students if they used the videos as a substitute for outlines or note taking in class, overwhelmingly the students replied. “No.”
  • Finally, students would choose a class that implemented videos over one that does not (85%)

Qualitative Feedback
There were a few common threads through all of these:

  • Contrary to what multimedia theory says, the students wanted me to read the text of the restatements. They hated the silent time I gave them to read to themselves. Confused?  There’s a multimedia principle called the Redundancy principle.  Basically, it says that if you have a bunch of text on a screen, and you read it to the viewer, they spend more cognitive energy reconciling what you’re reading out loud to what’s printed on screen.  The unfortunate side effect is they aren’t reading to comprehend, they’re reading to reconcile.This was probably the most surprising to me… and I’m willing to admit that I was wrong.  Just proof that what is proved in a “lab” may not be the best thing in real life.  If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can pick up the book on Amazon.  I think anyone who uses technology to create learning environments, especially multimedia ones like videos, animations, or the like, should understand the principles in this book.
  • As stated in the survey, many wanted them far ahead of time. This was strongly emphasized in the feedback. Having already made the videos and a better understanding of their use, etc… this shouldn’t be an issue for future iterations, but this is something to keep in mind if we want to do new courses in the future.  We definitely need more lead time.
  • A funny one: Students were tired of “widgets”. A few feedback statements and some verbal feedback (given to me in Torts class) told me they wanted real examples and not theoretical “widgets” as part of the examples. There must be something too theoretical about a widget… something lacking in their prior knowledge. Next time, we’ll use something like iPhones or paintbrushes. Maybe we can make some money with product placement!  Just kidding…
  • The students really, really liked the videos, and found them extremely helpful. They noticed towards the end of the semester when we were a little rushed to get them all out… but I thought we still stayed on a pretty good release schedule considering the amount of time that went into them.
  • Captioning or script availability – this is a feature on YouTube and might just need to be mentioned in class.

Putting these videos onto YouTube has been one of the best decisions we’ve made so far. Of course, Utah has the most visits and minutes watched, but even more amazing is the use outside of our school – especially because there was no advertising anywhere for it.  Many people found these just by searching around YouTube.

We ended up with 37 videos for a run time of 5:35:28 (335 minutes). Average video length was around 8′ 25″.

Here’s a look at the relevant YouTube statistics for our videos (as of 8/15/2012 – 12/7/2012):

  • 8,373 views; 38,810 minutes watched
  • Top three videos based on views: Promissory Estoppel (618), Unjust Enrichment (598), Statute of Frauds 1 (502)
  • Top three videos based on minutes watched: Unjust Enrichment (3,287), Irrevocable Offers (2,723), Consideration (2,446)
  • Top five countries based on views: U.S. (7,720), U.K. (173), Canada (75), Hong Kong (38), Jamaica (38)
  • Top five countries based on minutes: US (37,446), UK (430), Trinidad (205), Canada (186), H.K. (103)
  • Top four states based on minutes: Utah (21,538), Cali (3,859), Florida (1,906), North Carolina (1,183)

I’m absolutely thrilled that other states had so many views and minutes watched.  Someone in the other states had obviously found these, used them, and potentially shared them.  I don’t anticipate the numbers climbing much higher than this from here on out, but it will be interesting to see after finals are done across the nation.

This does show that certain pieces of blended learning can be repurposed into review sets.  Since this is fundamental knowledge, if it’s designed right, anyone can use it to get the shallow, surface level comprehension of the topic.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Again, I want to thank Profs. Debora Threedy and Terry Kogan for the tremendous amount of work they put into this project over the course of the semester.  After reading the survey, feedback, and checking out the YouTube statistics, the students – here, nationally, and globally – benefited from their hard work and effort into this project. I really do think we’re onto something with it and look forward to the next iteration of the project.

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

The Rise, Fall, and Re-creation of the Counter-terrorism Simulation (Part 1)

Sometimes, we get lost in the excitement of technologies. When you’re a hammer, all you see is nails, right?.  It’s like that for us.  Every problem or situation we see can be “improved” with technology. Last year at CALI, I talked a little about this… the “shiny object syndrome” we often develop… looking for places technology can be used.

My story over the next few postings will be just about that.  We had carte blanche over a newly created program at the College of Law (CoL) called, “The Counter-terrorism Simulation.”  Like kids in a candy store, we saw this as an opportunity to show the awesomeness that is technology, and make the other faculty come knocking at our door.  Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t play out like that.  I’m going to tell you how it did.

Part 1: The Rise and Fall

So, what is the Counterterrorism Simulation, anyway?
The Counterterrorism simulation is an annual exercise put on by Professor Amos Guiora as part of his Perspectives on Counterterrorism class. Amos came to the CoL in the Spring of 2006 and immediately connected with the IT group to help facilitate this simulation exercise.

Of course, we jumped at the chance.  See, it was our job to help facilitate the realism of the simulation, so the students could have an approximation of what life would be like in a real-life situation. Plus, there’s a major learning theory out there that students can learn just by taking part in an activity called situated cognition.

It worked like this:  about 20 students total, take part in a full-day Counterterrorism simulation (8-9 hours).  The class was run like many law school courses are run.  The course is centered around a book Amos’ has written about Counterterrorism.  Each day was a lecture/discussion/dialogue about whatever chapter was currently being read. At the end of the semester the students were put in this Simulation and asked to “play out” a scenario put before them: dirty bombs, international border disputes, torture, and whatever the hot topic was for that time. The students took on roles of the Cabinet.  Someone was President, someone was Vice-president, Secretary of State, and so on. They made decisions based largely on what they had learned in the chapters they had read.

Amos had experience running simulations during his tenure in the Israeli Defense Forces, and found it a good way to train soldiers for situations they might encounter in the field. This experiential learning experience was very valuable for learning. He liked it so much, he brought it to Case Western (where he started teaching) and created a simulation to train students for the decision making environment they’ll see themselves in after they leave law school. When he came on board at the University of Utah, he brought the Simulation with him.

First year was slow, second year exploded…
As you can imagine, the first year was a little dance between Amos and IT. The technology we interjected wasn’t terribly advanced or well thought out. We just wanted to impress him with our application of technology.

The Simulation separated the students into three or four separate groups. Each group was “somewhere else” in the world: France, DC, NY, etc.  We facilitated this by putting the student groups into different rooms. So, some technology implemented was to contribute to the illusion of this distance and facilitate communications. We set up phone lines, video conferencing, pseudo-email accounts, etcetera.

We pre-recorded news clips, burned onto DVDs, to be delivered to the students at preplanned times throughout the scenario. These clips helped progress the storyline of the Simulation. We also tried to simulate television news in bringing information to the students in a way they might receive it in real life – through video.

The first Simulation was slow and simple, but we already had ideas for improving it the next year.

The second year saw tremendous improvement.  First, Amos recruited a student volunteer to help write out a new simulation scenario. This person consulted with IT to discuss how we could better “tell the story” and “make it more real” for the students.  It was this person’s (singular) job to draft a scenario that would last 8-9 hours.

We injected a little more technology. We did away with the DVD’s and created a mock CNN website, complete with embedded video news clips. The website was modeled after the real CNN site to contribute to the realism.  We contracted with the University’s Media Solutions team to help us make our news recordings look more realistic, complete with graphics that CNN might use on-screen during a real time of crisis.

The biggest increase in “technological innovation for realism” was a bit of a mistake. Some students made an off-hand comment to Amos about talking to the CEO of Home Depot. He passed my phone number (my personal phone number, mind you) to the students and said, “The person on the other end can help you.”  Sure enough, they called me and I acted out the role of the CEO. Soon after that another call came asking for the Governor of Maryland. Then the Police Chief of New York.  At the end of the day, I had over 300 missed calls and 70 voicemails.

This phenomena showed us that if we want to increase the realism (which was our goal, right?), we need to have “shadow players”. People whose job it was to play these roles to contribute to the activity of the simulation. We had to facilitate web conferencing, cell phones, personal blogs, email addresses, Google docs, and more.  Technology had to step in to create this illusion of reality for the students. If there was a problem and the storyline called for it, we threw technology at it, then beat our chest as to how awesome technology was for the Simulation.

Everything can be better with technology!
We started to command a pretty heavy role with the Simulation design and planning. If the simulation script writer needed something, they often contacted IT to help facilitate whatever it was they needed. We were the go-to engine for virtually every aspect of the Simulation.

Eventually, we started to stream the Simulation out to the masses. We wanted to show the world everything that was going on in the Simulation rooms.  If we told the students that thousands of people could potentially watch their performance, we’re increasing the reality – creating the “high pressure” environment. Not only that, but technology would help us turn the Simulation into a big event – almost a giant social media event for the CoL.

Not only that, but we were able to recruit a local community college and their journalism department. To fill the mock CNN website with news, we had journalism students interview and write stories over the course of the simulation. They used their digital cameras and recorders to capture the conversation, then transformed them into news articles/video clips and posted them online.

So, what are some things we did by year three of the simulation?

  • Mock CNN website (WordPress) to deliver “news” articles and video streams to participants.
  • Rooms all outfitted with video conferencing hardware to facilitate communication between “countries and organizations”.
  • Live video streams of all rooms at all times.
  • Interactive dashboard where external viewers could “peek” into the simulation without intrusion and chat about what they saw.
  • Local and remote shadow players, complete with phones, email, blogs, etc. that could interact with the students
  • Student journalists to report on the activities

Are we doing it right?
Eventually, we started to grow a little too big for our own britches.  We enlisted full-time help from the Media Solutions team to help run the web streams and capture the events. We looked at adding outside groups (hospital, political science, communications, external professional organizations) to help add additional fuel to the “realism stew” we were creating. One volunteer simulation writer became a committee of students. We even had a documentary made about the simulation that won some ABA awards.

This is all good, right?  A win for IT’s involvement in CoL affairs. Legitimacy! Faculty loved us, trusted us, and wanted to collaborate with us – right?!  Our Alumni looked forward to it every year – right?! The fact that we integrated technology with the educational environment made it a huge success that everyone wanted to be a part of – right?!

Well, not quite.  Interest in the program wasn’t quite what we thought it would be. There was even word was going around that it was a distracting circus. It’s around this time that this question popped up – “What are the students actually learning?

That single question made us wonder, what ARE the students learning? And further, how do we know?

Part 2 on Thursday….

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012


Talk about an acronym that’s fun to say! MOOCs are a popular term in educations these days.

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course.

I first learned about MOOCs through the eduMOOC last year so I could learn more about online learning. Since then, MOOCs have been featured in national news sources and discussed at countless conferences.  While I don;t think the rumors of MOOCs becoming the be all and end all of education, I think there are some interesting applications of MOOCs in education today

Here are some links if you want to educate yourself on the MOOC boom:

The Language of MOOCS: by Inside Higher Ed

The Year of the MOOC: New York Times MOOC news from one of the term-coiners

Warming Up to MOOCs: Chronicle of Higher Education

What in the World is a MOOC?: Washington Post

There is a lot out there on MOOCs, but I’d suggest that if you are interested in learning more, take a look at the writing of Audrey Watters who seems to spend a heck of a lot of time writing about MOOCS and how they relate to higher ed.

If that isn’t enough, take a look at how one law school is responding to the MOOC boom.

Drexel and MOOCs