Designed [Learning] Experiences

legolandThis article, “Why Schools And Hospitals Should Be More Like Theme Parks” speaks to the call for the design of what Ellsworth calls processual paths through pedagogically charged learning environments (Ellsworth, 2005). While this author focuses on physically-designed space, I recommend reading as if it were describing a semester’s course schedule, or even an hour of class time. For example, this excerpt:


So what does a well-designed environment look like? Varied rhythms are key—you need enough to engage you but not so much you get exhausted or stressed out. Think about what guided one of the original “experience designers,” Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Olmsted had a knack for arranging natural scenery to create a sense of mystery and discovery, which drew people in and ushered them smoothly through a space. More than a century later, his work influences Disney parks, where the park architects mix “decompression zones” in with the attractions to let people rest before finding something new to explore. A careful observer may notice that the middle sections of many Disney buildings are fairly plain, saving the ornate details for the corners. It creates a kind of visual friction that draws your eye and sparks curiosity. It can be seen as a kind of greeble—the model maker’s trick of adding non-essential surface details—to add a bit of novelty and visual intrigue, and to keep you moving.

The magic of the Magic Kingdom, however is not in the guided experience, but in the mix of guided and self-directed experiences. Self-directed opportunities honor participants’ prior interests and knowledge. It gives them agency in the experience, and lets them set a pace that is right for them. A guided experience is a movie, or a ride that you’re strapped into. In schools we lecture, assign readings and videos, etc. These can be very entertaining, and can be very immersive. But more cognitive effect is realized when there’s greater interactivity.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Disney is starting to do this more in mixing rides and interactivity. As educators, that we allow this, and how we do this in courses is key. Again, while the physical layout and design is important (the main point of the article), I argue that we cannot and should not try to compete with Disney or companies whose business is experience design — we just can’t afford to do it well. What we should do is learn from them and employ the concepts of rhythm, guided learning, self-directed learning, reflection/decompression, etc. A creative mind and a cardboard box can be as educational and engaging as a million-dollar playhouse.

We are embodied beings. We experience the world with our senses. It is important that they be stimulated to learn. We are also independent and interdependent social beings, so that balance must be respected as well.

Heartland Ramblings

heartland JournalA Curious Intellect* Visits the Heartland

Once. There was big, beautiful, clever brain. It was a very curious brain, and traveled all over the world of ideas, from field to field, across seas of knowledge and mountains of data. It collected trophies and specimens and souvenirs from its travels. By studying these carefully, it unpacked many mysteries, and discovered significant systems that seemed to be foundational patterns underlying the secrets of the universe.

It was a happy brain.

But there was one continent that perplexed the brain. Heartland. On it, lived an unruly and irrational inhabitants whose culture did not seem to fit into any of the patterns or systems that the brain had examined. Naturally, this piqued the curiosity of the brain. Though irrational, the hearts were exceptionally beautiful beings that cast a soft ethereal light that warmed the world around them — and while the brain had a great admiration for beauty, and had seen many many beautiful things in its explorations, this beauty eclipsed everything. The brain needed to understand this much more.

The brain quickly encountered a difficulty. It could not figure out the language of the hearts. It was, however, a brain, and was industrious when inspired. So, it eventually, with much, much, much — oh my god so much — practice the brain began to recognize some of the patterns in the language. This pleased the brain to no end. The brain began to feel things that it had not felt before. It was tidal wave of new data to consider! The brain’s deep interest in the hearts as they spoke ushered in a sense of connection that the brain didn’t know exactly what to do with. The brain listened intently, and was very happy. Sensing that the brain felt a connection pleased the hearts as well, who, by their nature, sought to connect with others, and were intrigued by this curious stranger to their land who seemed so interested in their normal lives.

Over time, the brain developed more feelings, and managed to invent a clumsy but rudimentary algorithm to convert its own feelings into words the hearts recognized. The brain was very happy the hearts could finally understand it, and began to run all its feelings through the algorithm to finally share with the hearts how wonderful it felt, and how it wished it were easier to connect! The hearts were often confused by the odd and sometimes insulting syntax that the new speaker used, but we’re delighted by the effort and expected that they and the brain would soon become very close.

However, there was another thing. Just as there was light in the day, and darkness in the night, the brain noticed that the inhabitants experienced both lightness and darkness. While the light brought blinding joy and a tremendous glow that stirred something wonderful in him, there was also a terrible darkness in these beings. Though the brain sensed danger there, the brain was brave, and ventured forth to try to live among the inhabitants. They saw it meant no harm, and greeted it with such radiant beauty that the brain was smitten. And all went well for a time. The brain would feel warm, connected, and bathed in light. But then the brain would notice a darkness cross the faces of the those closest to it, and invariably, they would either pull away, or draw closer. And the closer they came to him, the more the darkness affected them, dimming their glow. Sometimes they would draw so close that their light was nearly extinguished, and they would cry out in anguish. This was as odd to them as it was to the brain. One at a time, a few with strong lights were so determined with the brain to figure it out, that they pushed closer and weaker, and closer and weaker — driven by the last flickers of their light, until they could stand no more. The brain noticed that the more beautifully brilliant the heart glowed, the more they got hurt as they drew close to him. This made him quite sad because those were the hearts he most admired, and most wanted to understand.

The brain was a brain. Therefore, it was not completely dumb. It recognized what the pattern was. But it was frustrated because it could not understand why the pattern was. It tried very hard to get close to the inhabitants who were willing to try with it. But, because it was a nice brain, even a kind brain, it began warning the inhabitants of the pattern. Sometimes the brain would see an exceptionally bright and beautiful light that it could not help but want to draw close. And the brain would love that light so much that it kept it at a safe distance in order to be able to continue enjoying its light.

One day, one of the hearts approached the brain with an idea to take a Heart language learning class, with an actual teacher. (Sort of an obvious idea in retrospect). The next thing the brain knew, it was in a room with ten strange but powerful hearts who had joined forces to help the brain discover what was happening. Together, the hearts’ lights could not be dimmed.

heart:brain yin:yangAnd the brain realized that at some time, farther back that its memory could recount, something had short circuited its pain receptors. It could not recount ever being significantly hurt. Of course, it wasn’t just pain receptors that were fried. The group pitched in and helped scrape the char off the circuits. They helped with some basic rewiring. With this new (forgotten?) information now known, the brain vowed that he would get back to work and refurbish all the circuits. He had begun.

(To be continued…)

* Curious, but not particularly bright.


Active Teaching Lab

This past Spring, with the wonderful support of DoIT Academic Technology and the Teaching Academy, I launched a series of Active Teaching Labs — low-commitment, structured explorations of cool teaching tools and techniques to teach more effectively. The response to them was very positive.

GOAL: Capacity Building at faculty level; create deeply-embodied and socially-playful environments & experiences for learners — Lure with low-risk involvement. Inspire with stories. Motivate with hands-on success.

SUCCESS: Because it is a safe & playful, low-risk environment where faculty are affirmed for trying, the Active Teaching Program inspires a willingness to try new things, and those experiences generate new discussions and new ideas.


  • invited 11 speakers to host 13 sessions that attracted 194 total participants (avg 18/week) from 11 SCIDs/programs
  • used simple tools to create & host 24 videos of sessions (instructor story video and Q&A video) with 541 YouTube views
  • garnered considerable positive buzz across campus
  • held first Active Teaching Showcase in SoN with 22 participants

Faculty tell us they like

  • light-touch: no commitment, low-stress, casual
  • environment: safe, playful energy
  • stories: by peers of pedagogical problems and solutions
  • hands-on: pressure to try
  • how-to sheet: to take home, get into more deeply later, or share
  • community: interdisciplinary
  • discussions: on mitigations/alternatives
  • videos: to share (or for when they couldn’t come)
  • awareness: where to go for more information, integration with other programs  

Faculty tell us they want

  • more offerings: different times for those who teach Fridays
  • training: deeper explorations of campus-supported tools & processes

local talks: facilitated pedagogical discussions with departmental colleagues

This is a short explanation, evaluation summary, and proposal for expansion:

I’m happy to answer any questions. Ping me.

Teaching & Learning Symposium 2015

IMG_0452-John at 2015 SymposiumLast Wednesday was my birthday, and for my birthday my university held a huge two-day party, invited my favorite people, and held all sorts of sessions about my favorite topics. They called it the Teaching & Learning Symposium. I got to take pictures, show a poster, and help facilitate a few sessions, and attend others. There was cake (well, sweet breads and bagels) and ice cream (actually creamer for the coffee), and coffee, and sandwiches and fruit, etc.

Learning Outside; Mobile-Enhanced Field Research as Instructional Method
David Gagnon, Field Day Lab, Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery
Tim Lindstrom and Cathy Middlecamp, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
John Martin, DoIT Academic Technology

In this session, we will propose a practical and scalable instructional method for increasing the connection between course concepts and the world outside the classroom. Field research activities challenge learners to apply discipline-specific vocabulary or taxonomies to interpret their messy and ill-defined experience. Come see and try the easy and accessible mobile tools that scaffold this process, giving each course a shared database of student-created content for class discussion or projects.

50 Ways to Blend Your Learning
Jamie Henke and Jesse Stommel, Division of Continuing Studies
Michael Maguire, Civil Society & Community Studies
John Martin, DoIT Academic Technology
Lyn Van Swol, Communication Arts

The problem’s all inside your head / She said to me. / The ways to blend are easy if you / Take it logically. / We’d like to help you in your struggle / As you teach. / There must be fifty ways / to blend your learning. // [CHORUS:] Crowdsource it on YouTube / Make a case study / You don’t need to remake your course / Just try one of these: / Padlet or Voicethread / Don’t need a discussion bored / Try a Google Community / And get them to play. //


What I learned: Professional Painter

The biggest lesson is that I’m as good or better at mudding and painting (albeit considerably slower) than the pros were. I think it’s because it’s my place, and I care about it, whereas for them it’s just another day, and another job.

Lesson #2 is “buy good paint” and OMG Benjamin Moore’s Aura is amazing! A gallon of that covered the whole room —and it covered so well. I bought “Moonshine” (2140-60), though it looks more green at night than it did during the day…


I was thinking of using BEHR Premium Plus Ultra, because that’s what I knew, but I met with the owner of the painting company months ago to get an estimate, and she talked me into trying Benjamin Moore (“covers better, goes further”). She also asked me what level of prep-work finish I’d like, from 1-10. I had no idea what her 1-10 was, so I asked what an 8 looked like. She pointed to an invisible spot on the wall, where upon much closer examination there was a an exceptionally-minor blemish. I pointed to a hole that had been patched but not sanded, and painted over (~1/32nd of an inch raise). She said a 7 would take care of things like that. She thought 2 hours of prep time would be all that was needed for the room.

Fast forward two months and Justin arrives. Nice guy. Affable. He asks what I want. I point out a few things. Of course, of course, of course. I point out a roller line, where too much paint was on the edge, and it dried into a ridge. He said, oh yeah, I can run some sandpaper over that. So, I feel good.

Ten minutes later the owner calls to check if I wanted any finish done, because she thought I did. I said yeah. She said she thought so, but the deal (Angie’s List) only covered one coat and nail holes. I said yes (we’d covered that in the initial quote). She says, I”ll send Esteban.

Long story short, J tells E to just fill in the nail holes (this according to E). E does so (no apparent) sanding. Doesn’t come close to the “7” standard the owner and I agreed on. Doesn’t run sandpaper over the roller mark. Doesn’t sand down the 1/32nd inch patches. Doesn’t seem to do much at all. Meanwhile Justin does a quick (obviously) job on the paint. Brush streaks where he cut the lines along the ceiling. Paint on the window trim edges. “Speckled” rolls with spots of the previous coat/color showing through.

I didn’t notice this when they were leaving, of course. It was all still wet and awkwardly shiny. But once it dried some, the flaws came out in droves. I emailed the owner to ask her to come inspect because I wanted to know what it would take to fix. She called immediately to say that she’s really trying to take a day off, and she’s sending Esteban back, and I shouldn’t let him leave until I was happy — effectively putting me in the role of management. Nice (I hate that).

So, E comes back, all nice and “no problem” and spends the next 2.5 hours ($125) bringing it up to, I’d say, a level 5. That’s fine with me. I stayed home from work for this and caught up on emails and planning for my next conference, but I wanted to get out of the house, so I sent him off and said I’d paint over the patches.

Lesson #3 is probably that I’m too damn picky. I’m moving back upstairs to my smaller apartment, so I won’t even enjoy the new paint. But even beyond that, small imperfections cause me to pause. I need to get over that.

A Game Design Framework for Course Design

Who is the Course Designer?

Jamie attends a class that her instructor has spent months creating. Her instructor, let’s call him Dr. X, has slaved to make sure that all the content he wants to cover fits in the course. He has active learning activities peppered throughout the semester. He has chosen the best readings for each of the topics. He has weekly quizzes written to keep students accountable, and tests designed not just to assess but to teach. He has designed a well-thought out course that all students should easily pass, provided they follow his plan.

Q. Who designed his course?

Jamie attends four courses in total. She uses Google Docs to take notes in three of them where she feels comfortable using her laptop, and a spiral notebook for the other (Prof Q doesn’t allow electronic devices to be used in class). In two of her Google Doc classes, she takes those notes collaboratively with 1-2 friends. They use the chat function in the Google doc to check themselves, they fix each other’s mistakes; they fill in gaps that each other misses. It’s a good system. They use the notes to study for the tests, and because they all have a sense of co-ownership in the creation, they figure out problems together and do pretty well on the tests. If one of them is sick, the other two can cover pretty well because they are familiar with each other’s note-taking style and have, in fact influenced it with their own ideas and habits.

Q. Who designed their courses?

It turns out, that despite instructors’ best attempts, instructors and students are co-designers of their courses. The instructors set up the initial course, based on both the educational models that they’re familiar with, and student behavior that they’ve witnessed. They (often) attempt to create a learning environment where their students [model of student] will participate in their course [model of course] with an expected degree of participation such that the appropriate content will be learned.

MDA for Course Design

Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek’s (2004) MDA framework for game design can be adapted here. They propose that game designers can approach their craft through the lens of MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), where the Mechanics (what is possible — rules and resources) leads to Dynamics (what occurs — activity), which lead to players’ Aesthetic experience (components of engagement).

I apply the MDA lens to course design, where the instructor plays the role of game master — both a designer and a player, adjusting the Mechanics both before and during the actual game in order to affect the Dynamics in each class such that the desired Aesthetics are reached.



Mechanics include the rules and resources that allow Dynamics to happen. In game design, the mechanics include everything that can affect the play of the game: rules, pieces, cards, the game board or playing field, etc. In course design, mechanics include things like: policies and rules, classroom or class space (online or face-to-face or both), assignments, lectures, videos, etc.


Dynamics are what actually happens when players interact with the Mechanics. In games, the dynamics are what the players do. In baseball, they run and throw and hit and catch and steal and bunt and foul etc.; in Poker they shuffle and deal and fan cards and sort and draw and bluff, etc. In courses, Dynamics are what the instructor and students do. For example, students listen and watch and read and raise hands and talk and move seats and flirt and take tests and cheat and text and increase the typeface to stretch their papers, etc.; whereas instructors take attendance and lecture and assign homework and quiz and test and grade and hold office hours, etc.

In addition to the mundane Dynamics in a course listed above, perhaps the most sought after cognitive Dynamics are captured in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), or Anderson et al’s revision of them (2001)

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create

And Krathwohl & Bloom’s (1964) affective Dynamics (these are often ignored in course design — and instructional technology, in general)

  1. Receive: be open to accepting new information/ideas, etc. (e.g. I am aware of a rule)
  2. Respond: comply; change behavior accordingly (e.g. I will follow this rule — perhaps because I don’t want to suffer negative consequences)
  3. Value: assign intrinsic worth to new information (e.g. This rule makes sense to me)
  4. Organize: relate new information within existing systems (e.g. This rule helps other beneficial things happen)
  5. Characterize: relate new information with one’s identity (e.g. This rule is part of what makes me who I am)

Dynamics spring from models — based in theory and based on trial and error experience. Models help designers predict Dynamics, but as with most models they’re not as perfect or accurate (or chaotically messy) as real life. Dynamics provide Feedback to designers, who can use it to iterate and adjust mechanics, which in turn can affect Dynamics. Game designers typically do this a lot in playtests before they publish their games. As a sort of Game Master, instructors can adjust mechanics (to some degree) on the fly by modifying assignments, spending more or less time on a topic as needed, reviewing material, grading more or less rigorously, etc. Changing the Mechanics changes the Dynamics, which affects the Aesthetics. Exercising caution must be advised here — changing the course to be responsive to student needs is often a good thing, but changing the Mechanics of a course too much often results in students feeling ungrounded, and may result in backlash against an “unorganized” instructor.


Aesthetics are the tone or the experience. Hunicke et al shy away from describing Aesthetics as “what makes a game ‘fun’?” (2004, p2) and instead suggest a taxonomy of Aesthetic components that includes: 1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure), 2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe), 3. Narrative (Game as drama), 4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course), 5. Fellowship (Game as social framework), 6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory), 7. Expression (Game as self-discovery), and 8. Submission (Game as pastime).  The balance of each of these (and there are probably others) determines the aesthetics of the experience. I think of it as a sort of graphic equalizer. One adjusts the frequencies to try to get the sound one desires.


In course design, we can even match up the eight aesthetic components that Hunicke et al list with educational ones:

  1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure) = Embodiment
  2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe) = Epistemic Frames
  3. Narrative (Game as drama) = Course Schedule, pacing (help me out on this one)
  4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course) = Problems
  5. Fellowship (Game as social framework) = Sociocultural Learning
  6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory) = Research
  7. Expression (Game as self-discovery) = Personal Strengths Finding
  8. Submission (Game as pastime) = Time on Task

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to adjust the Aesthetics of the experience, whether in game design or course design, as simply moving a slider. For example, if one wants a game high in Sensation and Fellowship one must adjust the Mechanics to be more like Twister than Chess. In course design, a collaborative field research assignment might be high in the Embodiment and Sociocultural learning components, whereas reflective journaling might emphasize Personal Strengths Finding. Assigning plenty of worksheets might increase time-on-task; but not in a good way.

What This All Means…

So, can we use this framework for designing courses? Yes. With the following caveat. Courses are not publish-and-leave games, or books, or movies, that can be designed and left for consumption by students. Instructors and students continually interact with and affect course form long after the initial design. Recognizing that instructors are sort of Game Masters and students are active participants (and shapers) of the gameplay of courses, it’s important that we design them as evolvable and emergent systems that take into account human psyche and social interactions — much more complex mechanics than dice and cards. This is where a deeper understanding of experiential and sociocultural learning (discussed throughout the rest of my writing) begin to contribute.

At this point, however, it starts to get messy. The educational Aesthetic components can be achieved through a mix and match of educational Dynamics, which in turn are affected by course Mechanics. For example, a Fellowship/Sociocultural learning is hampered when there’s no forum for student-to-student interaction. Likewise, Discovery/Research may be more difficult when computer browsers are locked down. Without a compelling story, learners may not enter into the Epistemic Fantasy of deeply solving an authentic problem from the perspective of a person in the field or discipline being studied.

Next Steps

A good next step might be to begin to map out a number of these relationships, either through stories and examples or through educational research. Both have value in this conversation.




Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., … & Wittrock, M. C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, abridged edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bloom, B. S., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain.

Bloom, B. S. (1969). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; Handbook. Affective Domain. McKay.

Bloom, B. S. (1974). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1-2. Longmans: McKay.

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI.

Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook ii: affective domain. New York: David McKay Company.Inc. ISBN 0-679-30210-7, 0-582-32385-1.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.


Blending Active Learning with Twitter

As some of you know, I have been using Twitter the past 2 years in my CP125 (and have had several instructor consultations. Twitter shows some promise for blended and active learning (constructive) to crowd-source (student-source?) content application and knowledge construction.

student accountsgraphWHO TWEETS?

Although not everyone has a Twitter account, all of my Fall 2013 Freshmen students had a Twitter account, and 18 of 24 of my Fall 2014 Freshmen students had one. Everyone had Facebook, but using it for classes opens a myriad of problems that I won’t get into here (if you’ve heard my “Socializing D2L” presentation at Ignite or elsewhere, you’ll recall the issues. If not, I’m happy to share).


I’ve been using Twitter for two assignments in my Wisconsin Experience course, and embed a Twitter stream following the  #WIexp hashtag on the course WordPress page. The first week, to set up for the following week’s discussion on “why are we here?” the I ask them to find a university commencement speech and link it with the (short) excerpt that is most significant to them. I write about that assignment in more detail here.

ommencement tweet
The other, ongoing assignment is to share every week at least one thing that they think is cool and/or helpful to a Madison first year student on campus in the nearby community, again with the #WIexp hashtag. The idea behind this is to build a community where they construct/share information that they feel is important to build a culture of peer learning, and to give the more introverted (less likely to talk in class) a forum to showcase their participation at their own pace and place.


Once students start tweeting, they seem to enjoy it. I have no data on how many of them have begun following each other, or on the student-to-student effect of the tweeting outside of our class discussion (in class check-ins, several do comment on each others’ tweets), but the biggest complicating factor is grading. As with quizzing, assigning a grade (each week’s tweet is worth a minuscule amount of points) starts and keeps them tweeting. It’s an easy way for them to accumulate points, but only if I see their tweets to give them points. While I step into the hashtag search from time to time, I don’t spend all my time on Twitter, and I don’t stalk my students’ individual feeds to see if they’ve tweeted for class, which is why I use the course #WIexp hashtag to collect them and embed them on the course site. But this has problems as well.

Twitter only indexes their hashtags for 7-10 days, and not all the tweets show up in Twitter’s hashtag searches. So, I’ve had several (slightly embarrassing) situations where I didn’t see a student’s tweet, and contacted them to remind them to tweet, and they got flustered because they had tweeted, but it was their first one, and it had a URL in it, so Twitter assumed(?) it was spam.

My search for a solution to the “How do I collect and track class Tweets” led me down several roads. IFTTT (If This Then That) has a recipe that does a pretty good job, but Chris Limburg in Geography shared a much more effective Google Spreadsheet script that does much better job (Martin Hawksey Tags script This returns a spreadsheet that looks like this (for me):



Although this was a simple experiment to see what, if any, uses and challenges Twitter might offer as a teaching tool, the results, for me, make it worthwhile.

  • All students participate. 
  • Students engage with each other in topics beyond the course.
  • They think about the course, and course content throughout the week.
  • They connect course content to other aspects of their life.
  • They seems to appreciate glimpses into their peers’ lives (outside of their close social circles).
  • We discuss and work on internet identity management.
  • They work on writing concisely (Twitter’s 144 character constraint).
  • They practice multimodal digital media literacy by often including images, videos, or sites that support their tweets.

Other benefits that I’m missing? Thoughts? Comment away, please!