Lake Devo – Creation, Collaboration and Reflection through a Customizable Online Role-Play Environment

Award Winner: 
2014 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Naza Djafarova, Director, Digital Education Strategies, The Chang School, Ryerson University
Melissa Abramowitz, Instructor, Interdisciplinary Studies, The Chang School, Ryerson University
Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, Dean, The Chang School, Ryerson University
Maureen Glynn, Instructional Designer, The Chang School, Ryerson University
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Experiential learning activities, such as role-play, are just as beneficial to students in online courses as they are in face-to-face offerings. Online role-play is an important strategy to allow students to practice skills such as interpersonal communication, problem-solving and negotiation. A range of options exist to support online role-play activity including, text-based, asynchronous, discussion boards at one end of the spectrum and sophisticated, three-dimensional virtual worlds at the other. As a team supporting distance education, we recognized the need for a tool to support the key elements of role-play activity online, while providing ease of use for both instructors and students. In response to this need, the Digital Education Strategies team at The Chang School, Ryerson University, developed an online role-play environment called Lake Devo.

Lake Devo is a highly adaptable online role-play environment and presentation tool. Using any role-play scenario, instructors and students can create scenes and characters and interact in real-time. Role-play activity is captured, and published as a 2-D "movie" that a class may review, discuss, debate and analyze in Lake Devo's self-contained debrief area. Lake Devo’s chat tool allows users to check in with each other “out of role” while they are using the environment.

The environment has been used by students and instructors in a variety of different program areas at Ryerson University to support key learning objectives and evaluations.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The Lake Devo environment allows students to undertake real-time role-play interaction online. Ahead of the role-lay activity, individual students create their avatar or role-play character. Each Lake Devo role-play character may be customized using a variety of body types, facial features, clothing and accessories. As a group, students may also choose a realistic backdrop for their role-play activity from multiple settings and sounds relevant to many fields and subject areas, including healthcare, business, and education. Using text, sound effects and modifiable facial expressions for their avatars, students can exchange dialogue, while including non-verbal cues that may not be possible when using text-based tools, such as standard discussion boards, for role-play activity. Work on the environment may be combined with some pre-activities, such as ice breakers, away from Lake Devo, to ensure a strong group dynamic during the role-play activity.

All role-play activity is captured as a role-play “movie” which may be reviewed by the class in Lake Devo’s integrated debrief area. Once “out of role”, this allows students to identify lessons learned and to measure how effectively they have applied their skills. In the debrief area, viewable only by their specific Lake Devo Community members, students can post comments and questions and exchange feedback with their peers.

Because of its flexible and adaptable design, instructors may use Lake Devo in a number of ways to support learning objectives in their courses. For example:
If instructors wish to provide a specific foundation or to have students focus their skills in one particular area, they may create a scenario or scenarios ahead of time, complete with characters, for students to role-play. This is a useful strategy when instructors would like their students to consider multiple approaches or solutions to the same problem.

Additionally, instructors may teach through narrative by creating their own Lake Devo movie(s) for review by students. They may then pose questions for reflection and discussion in the Lake Devo debrief area, which allows students to review a movie as many times as they wish and post their comments in response. An instructor may consider creating multiple short movies with subtle differences, prompting students to distinguish important nuances that can affect the outcomes in a given scenario.

The Lake Devo environment is fully equipped to allow an instructor to set up his/her class as an online collaborative community. He/she may enter students’ information, configure working groups and have the system issue login information to all users.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Since the first version of the Lake Devo environment was designed and launched in 2009, it has been used to support assignments in the following program areas at Ryerson: Interdisciplinary Studies, Retail Management, Fundraising Management, Early Childhood Studies, and Food Security.

Student response to the Lake Devo role play environment has been extremely positive. Student comments include:

“I really enjoyed the Lake Devo group project it was fun and surprisingly simple to use." (The Chang School, Winter 2011, Distance Education Supplemental Survey)

“….. it was a great tool that made the group project most interactive. It allowed for a level of creativity that I had not used in the many online courses I have taken in the past. I would recommend it." (The Chang School, Winter 2013, Distance Education Supplemental Survey)

“The Lake Devo sessions brought out a lot of real life situations and demonstrated many aspects of mentoring.” (The Chang School, Spring 2014, Distance Education Supplemental Survey)

Awards and recognition include:

• National University Technology Network: Honourable Mention, Distance Education Innovation, 2010.
• Canadian Society for Training and Development: Canadian Award for Training Excellence in the “WOW” Category, 2010.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning Effectiveness – Lake Devo makes the most of the online learning environment to support the key elements of role-play activity. Since the debrief aspect of the activity is as important as the role-play itself, the easy capture and retrievable format of the Lake Devo movies help to maximize learning outcomes. Multiple modes of representation (text, visual, audio) provide students with a breadth of options to connect with and inhabit their role-play characters and settings. The collaborative features of the environment encourage the development of learning communities in the context of online course work.

Access – Instructors at Ryerson make use of the Lake Devo environment in a variety of courses at no additional expense to students. The current iteration of the Lake Devo environment is under active revision for compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. All Lake Devo movies have an exportable transcript which includes full text description of all visual and audio elements. The environment is equipped with thorough “Help” documentation as well as a video tutorial to support independent use of the features by students with a range of technical abilities.

Student Satisfaction – Students have been consulted through surveys specific to the Lake Devo environment as well as via course surveys for the offerings in which Lake Devo is implemented. Students have reported a high level of interactivity and creativity in using the environment and also identify a specific sense of pride in the products that result from their work in Lake Devo. While student satisfaction with the features of the environment has remained consistent, the Digital Education Strategies team has adopted a continuous improvement approach to the design of the environment and has fully revised the environment over the past 5 years, in keeping with student feedback.

Scale – Classes of any size and from any discipline can easily implement the use of the Lake Devo environment. It can also be implemented by Ryerson’s fellow institutions as the environment is not integrated into a single sign-on portal or Learning Management System.

Faculty Satisfaction – Instructors have demonstrated their satisfaction with the Lake Devo environment through repeated use of Lake Devo in their courses. Over the past five years, Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Instructors have also been involved in user testing for the environment, as well as in demonstrations of the environment for fellow faculty.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Students and instructors require no special software or equipment to make use of the Lake Devo environment. The only requirement is internet access and creative ideas for role-play scenarios.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Lake Devo is available for use by instructors and/or students at no cost.

For the Digital Education Strategies unit at The Chang School, the key area of cost for the Lake Devo environment was the original development by the project team. Ongoing costs have now been reduced to incremental resources for student and instructor support during “high traffic” times. Other than these expenses, the additional investments take the form of up-front instructor time to design their own Lake Devo learning activities.

References, supporting documents: 

Please visit the following links for more information about Lake Devo:

• Lake Devo Overview and Video :

• Lake Devo Gallery of Student Projects:

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Naza Djafarova
Email this contact:
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Melissa Abramovitz
Email contact 2:
Effective Practice Contact 3: 
Maureen Glynn
Email contact 3: