Research & Reviews

My Instructional Design MicroMasters Journey

It’s been nine years since my last formal degree and I’ve decided it’s time to continue my education with a micro-credential from edX. University System of Maryland (USMx) has published a series of MOOCs called the Instructional Design and Technology MicroMasters program. I’m completing this program at my own pace and it’s giving me opportunities to engage with like-minded professionals and newcomers.

UMUC ID program

While on this journey I’ve completed activities and assignments to demonstrate understanding of course content and develop tools that I could use in my current work. The most valuable output will be posted here in my professional blog. In case you feel motivated to join me and react to what I’m working on, the comments are ON. Thanks!


My Digital Media Evaluation Checklist

In week one of Digital Media, New Tools, and Technology, we explored current trends in tech-enabled learning experiences. Social media and digital games were content highlights of the week, which weren’t exactly cutting edge but have evolved in recent years. With various Web 2.0 tools maturing and becoming ubiquitous, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate how they are impacting education.

As I skim through the list of 100 or so posts, I see a variety of platforms and tools being highlighted: Moodle, Edmodo, Khan Academy, Youtube, and Google Drive. Softchalk, Kahoot, Duolingo, Collabrify, TedEd, Mathalicious, Adobe Spark and many more.

I chose to evaluate a web-based tool called Quizlet, which contains millions of study sets of content on many subjects and topics. These study sets work like flashcards for self-study or self-quizzing. This tool is quite effective at providing an active learning experience, in which learners rapidly quiz themselves on topics they want to improve.

This checklist activity asked us to create a list of questions and evaluate the utility of the tool we chose. Take a peek at my updated checklist below:

Digital Media Evaluation Qs
“Does the tool/service…”
…facilitate active and engaging experiences?
…allow learners multiple modalities to consume/explore content?
…reward learners who have achieved intended levels of proficiency?
…allow designers flexibility when implementing it in an LMS?
(Google Classroom, iframe only)
…scale for massive learner audiences?
…have ongoing support by developers?
…makes it EASIER for learners with limited computer literacy?
…engage learners who may be prone to “social loafing”?

Quizlet highlights: My checklist is 8 items long and focuses on some important aspects of digital media for learning. I’ll call out a couple areas from this checklist that I find Quizlet excels in.

“…Make it easier for learners with limited computer literacy?’” I find that this tool is super intuitive. As soon as the module is displayed or opened on a smart device, a learner can navigate their study sets easily. This aspect of digital learning tools can be subtle, but is quite hard to do well.

I also find that this tool gives good hits of dopamine while completing study sets. Both your “number of rounds” or individual flashcards, and % progress toward mastery are positioned to the left. Any extraneous content, like the number of cards “new”,”seen”, “familiar”, or “mastered”, is hidden from view until you hover over your Progress.

Quizlet progress


Thank you for joining me on my MicroMasters Journey! Be sure to come back and see what’s new throughout the year. -Ben


How to Build Furniture by Yourself

Ikea logoOne of my favorite examples of learning from media comes from Ikea. Any owner of an Ikea product (that you assembled yourself) knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Over the years Ikea has built up a treasure trove of do-it-yourself assembly instructions for a wide variety of their products – from couches to cabinets, to bed frames, to kitchen tables.

If you haven’t experienced buying a couch or dresser from Ikea before then let me explain… Continue reading How to Build Furniture by Yourself

How Tronc’s Content Optimization Works

In a recent installment of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver diatribed on ill-fated newspaper companies of the modern day. Suggesting that you get what you pay for – free access to puppy videos – John spent a considerable amount of time exploring the financial demise of local newspapers and shining a spotlight on what is considered “journalism” today.

Specifically, he called out the graphic that was used to explain how Tribune Publishing was rebranding itself. Tronc, or Tribune Online Content, described its content optimization strategy by showing this graphic:

Tronc Content Optimization
Tronc HR video

Continue reading How Tronc’s Content Optimization Works

The Process of Making Whiskey

yamazaiki 12 yearOne of the benefits of publishing on my own site is the freedom to choose my own topics to review – so why not write about whiskey?

Making whiskey is not a simple process and there are about 5 or 6 stages, depending on the explainer, which contain numerous steps and sub-steps. Let’s look at a few attempts to explain graphically how whiskey is made.
Continue reading The Process of Making Whiskey

Explaining how the Electoral College works

Electoral College 2012Today we’re going to look at another topic that is often made more complex by well-intentioned graphics – the Electoral College. To be fair, there are a lot of great ideas out there that can help novices understand how the electoral college works. Let’s look at how a few graphics (and a video) attempt to educate a broad audience on this topic.
Continue reading Explaining how the Electoral College works

Explaining how Bitcoin works

For my first post in this Research & Reviews area, I’ll spend a little time explaining the methods I’m using to critique graphical overviews and other media being used to explain a topic. Today’s topic is Bitcoin. I’m not even close to being an expert on it but I find cryptocurrency to be incredibly fascinating. Nevertheless, applying principles of learning theory does not require one to be an expert on the subject matter – I’m merely finding ways to make a complex topic more accessible for novices through various techniques.


For today’s topic (and most that I’ll cover in this blog) I’m assuming the audience has limited or no knowledge of the topic. Most evidence-based guidelines, from multi-media learning and cognitive load theory especially, are applicable to novice learners in particular. Only in rare cases will I focus on high prior knowledge learners (advanced in a given subject) and comment on how they could be better supported. In order to avoid personal style and bias while evaluating content, I’ll reference guidelines or principles that are frequently cited in the field of instructional design.

Now, let’s get started with how Bitcoin works!
Continue reading Explaining how Bitcoin works