A Visual Language and Method for Designing Successful Learning Experiences

Author Information
Bucky Dodd, PhD, University of Central Oklahoma
Stacy Southerland, PhD, University of Central Oklahoma
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Central Oklahoma, Center for eLearning and Connected Environments
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Unlike other design fields, instructional design lacks robust visual tools and a universally shared language for facilitating clear, concise communication during the learning environment design experience. This lack too often leads to poor decision making, miscommunication, frustration, and delays in the design process and, in turn, ineffectiveness and learning gaps in the resultant learning experience. Moreover, it impedes learning innovation and success.

Learning Environment Modeling (LEM), comprised of a shared, one-of-its-kind visual language and design technique, provides educators with a powerful solution for facilitating effective communication throughout processes and advancing and energizing learning environment design and learning. LEM is easy to learn and quickly implemented. Its minimal components render it widely accessible, highly affordable, and easily scalable. Developed at the Center for eLearning and Connected Environments (CeCE) at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), LEM has been successfully integrated into all facets of the Center’s daily operations. It lies at the core of CeCE initiatives for developing and sustaining high-quality elearning offerings and advancing innovation in learning across a spectrum of modalities. LEM has also been successfully adopted by users at other education and corporate organizations. Information and evidence presented throughout this document reflect how LEM supports the five pillars of learning effectiveness, scale, access, faculty satisfaction, and student satisfaction.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Note to the Selection Committee: Dr. Bucky Dodd is a member of the OLC Effective Practice Award Selection Committee. As the developer of the learning environment modeling tool that serves as the foundation of this effective practice, administrative leader of CeCE, and co-author of this award nomination, he recuses himself from the evaluation process.

If this Effective Practice nomination were to be recognized with an award, the nomination authors would like the recipient designation to be the organization that implements and is affiliated with the effective practice--Center of eLearning and Connected Environments, University of Central Oklahoma—rather than Dr. Dodd or the Effective Practice nomination authors.

The Center for eLearning and Connected Environments (CeCE) at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) uses Learning Environment Modeling Language (LEML) and Learning Environment Modeling (LEM), created by Dr. Bucky Dodd, Chief Learning Innovation Officer at UCO, to empower education and business organizations to develop transformative learning experiences. This revolutionary visual technique for reimagining and innovating learning environment design offers a one-of-its kind approach that provides educators with a powerful tool to advance and energize learning in any environment—online, traditional, or blended, academic or corporate. Not only is LEM unique and innovative, it’s engaging, enjoyable, and easy to learn.

CeCE is driven by its mission to “empower course design, teaching, and learning experiences that are learner-centered, high-quality, flexible, and affordable,” which also aligns with UCO’s mission of “helping students learn by providing transformative learning experiences so that they may become productive, creative, ethical and engaged citizens and leaders contributing to the intellectual, cultural, economic and social advancement of the communities they serve.” The team’s commitment to faculty and learners propelled its research and development of a better process for communicating design principles and for ensuring that designers, teachers, and students remain engaged, motivated, and inspired by their respective experiences. The result was LEM. CeCE developed LEML and LEM, collectively referred to as LEM, to enhance and simplify the course design experience. This system uses visualization methods to communicate key components in learning environment models, in the way architectural blueprints communicate building plans. It presents educators in schools, businesses, and communities with a solution to the everyday challenge of communicating effectively about learning design--a simple and easy-to-use, yet tremendously effective technique for envisioning, creating, and implementing successful learning experiences.

Need for the Effective Practice
Unlike other design fields, education lacks robust visual tools and a universally common language for facilitating clear, concise communication during the learning environment design experience. This lack too often leads to poor decision making, miscommunication, frustration, and delays in the design process and, in turn, ineffectiveness and gaps in the resulting learning experience. It impedes innovation and can be lethal to learners’ passion for acquiring knowledge as instructional experiences become stagnant and ineffective.

Learning environment design has become increasingly complex over time. Traditional design experiences have long been individual in nature, often involving a lone content expert. This certainly results in less complex communication scenarios to navigate. However, communication gaps still arise between facilitators and learners using the environment and are more likely to occur when the facilitator and designer are not one and the same. In addition, solitary design processes are focused on and constrained by the designer’s prior experiences and personal vision and goals for a project, thereby limiting opportunities for and the likelihood of design innovation that thrives on diverse perspectives.

As design experiences become increasingly more collaborative, involving teams of two or more, they become far more complex. Having multiple group members allows for the invaluable infusion of new and diverse ideas and perspectives and energizes design experiences, but it exponentially increases the possibility of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

This is no surprise given that participants in the design experience bring their own discipline-specific language to the team, one that may not be understood by those from other backgrounds. Moreover, the language of content does not necessarily translate well in contexts where learning environments are constructed, and vice versa. Compounding the matter further is the reality that ideas often remain enclosed in the mind of an individual. They remain invisible to others due to the absence of a shared design language and effective methods for rendering concepts visible to all collaborators by way of a language that allows thoughts to be expressed clearly and interpreted easily and accurately. These complexities are commonplace in the absence of a universally understood design language and can leave collaborators in the design experience feeling like they are operating in a veritable babel of design.

Innovative Solution
LEM offers a solution like no other to these challenges. It disrupts the flow of inefficient miscommunication and opens the door to effective idea sharing by way of a simplified language—LEML--and a visual, tangible, interactive, and engaging process for design--LEM. This design approach serves as a catalyst for effective communication, decision making, and collaboration, and fosters innovation. LEM is immensely effective for capturing the essence of instructional designs, bridging communication gaps, and eliminating innovation barriers. It allows designers to present thoughts on an idea canvas and welcome others to engage in the design experience by rearranging and adding to the model to capture ideas as they evolve, all the while inspiring creativity and innovation. This inclusivity and diversity in collaboration invites valuable insights that might otherwise be missed and enriches the design experience and outcome. It also enables efficient recording of learning environments and logical, clear presentation of an environment’s context and story. Once a learning environment is modeled, its LEM can be stored and shared, adapted, customized, and enhanced over time. Intentional, strategic, coordinated implementation of LEM can assist educators in advancing the overarching design goal of creating engaging learning experiences and improving learner success. This can only advance growth and innovation in distance learning.

LEML is the visual toolkit used in LEM. It consists of four primary features that can be assembled in limitless configurations to represent any learning environment imaginable:
1) Building Blocks: describe the what and how of elements in a learning environment--information, dialogue, feedback, practice, and evidence
2) Contexts: identify the time, space, and formality of learning spaces—physical, online asynchronous or synchronous, and experiential
3) Actions: depict three types of connective relationships and flow between building blocks and indicate learner, instructor, or system initiation of actions.
4) Notations: specify supplemental information as needed, such as learning objectives and prerequisites.

The system’s flexibility allows for adding, removing, or rearranging building blocks with ease—like Legos!—bringing an interactive element to the system that engages and energizes all participants in the design collaboration.
Learning occurs in every context and situation. As such, the applications of LEM are infinite. It can be applied to any environment where learning and planning takes place—from informal personal learning spaces to formal learning spaces like classrooms and workshops. Applied to new instructional designs, LEM facilitates planning for learning experiences that promote learning objectives. Applied to existing designs, it is ideal for analysis, diagnosis, revision, and innovation, helping teams see an environment holistically so as to readily identify problem areas and patterns. By enabling efficient recording of learning environments and logical, clear presentation of an environment’s context and story, LEMs can serve as templates that provide invaluable resources to new teachers or those teaching a topic for the first time.
LEM Practices at UCO
CeCE’s confidence in the effectiveness of this solution is evidenced by its having gone all-in with LEM, which is intentionally woven into every facet of CeCE operations. (Please see the organization’s strategic planning matrix in the accompanying evidence file). LEM has been integrated into all aspects of UCO elearning course development and quality assurance initiatives, online faculty certification and faculty development offerings, and solutions offered through the Institute for Learning Environment Design (ILED) at UCO. CeCE actively uses it to plan, assess, and promote alignment of initiatives with its strategic plan and to develop its programs and presentations.

CeCE continually innovates its operations and online faculty development offerings to ensure that they support excellent, engaging, effective, innovative learning environment design that leads to engaging and transformative student-centered learning experiences. The most recent example of this effort is the integration of LEM into online course design workshops, online course facilitation certification courses required to teach online at UCO, and online course quality evaluation processes.

All CeCE online course design workshop projects begin with an LEM-based design starter kit and LEM-based analysis phase guide. Both facilitate effective design experiences for faculty, promote online course alignment with the online course quality evaluation rubric, and advance CeCE’s short- and long-term online excellence objectives. The Analysis Phase Guide is a detailed document that faculty participants in CeCE’s online course design workshop complete at the beginning of the design cycle to help instructional designers understand a faculty member’s vision and expectations for the course and the design process. The framework for this guide ensures that its sections align with the five LEM building blocks of information, practice, dialogue, feedback, and evidence. The instructional designer then works with the faculty member to develop a blueprint for the course--activities, modules, and more--to help both collaborators in the design experience envision the course and confirm that they have a shared understanding about the faculty member’s vision for the course and the learning experience it will offer.

Online course facilitation certification workshops are structured around LEM and integrate its concepts into the workshop’s content design and delivery. This practice ensures a high-quality learning experience for future online faculty and faculty designers and models LEM practices that faculty might incorporate into their own teaching and design practices.

The Online Course Quality Principles Rubric that guides the online course design process also serves as the rubric for evaluating online courses for (re)authorization for delivery. Each criteria in the document aligns with an LEM building block. This practice effectively promotes CeCE's mission to empower effective design, teaching, and learning through engaging, interactive, and innovative learning experiences.

CeCE teaches LEM to faculty and staff who do not participate in online course design or facilitation workshops through various faculty development workshops offered to the UCO community so that they can also enjoy the benefit LEM offers for planning face-to-face instruction and training, meetings, projects, and processes. ILED, a CeCE endeavor, at UCO uses LEM as the foundation of its solutions for helping educators at external K-12, higher education, and corporate organizations locally and nationwide enhance their learning environment designs for learning and training experiences.

Integrating LEM into CeCE’s daily operations enables ongoing assessment of and refinements to the system and its instructional materials, continuing improvements to consulting interactions, and scaling LEM-based solutions.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The effectiveness of LEM has been quantitatively and qualitatively proven effective through its active application to elearning initiatives at UCO and solutions offered by ILED. Metrics indicating the number of people using LEM for course and program design initiatives and the number of LEM adopters both at UCO and externally provide a significant measure of its impact.
CeCE also looks to steady growth in elearning offerings and high online course completion rates as evidence-based indicators of learner success and effective elearning course facilitation, which in turn signal effective elearning course design and faculty development initiatives. CeCE’s Key Performance Indicator dashboard shows that UCO’s elearning enrollment has increased steadily and rapidly. UCO’s fully-online course offerings increased 69.57% over a three-year period and online, hybrid, and IVE offerings combined grew 56.65% during that time, even as overall UCO enrollment dipped slightly. eLearning completion rates have been consistently high, hovering around 92%. LEM’s instrumental role in online course development and evaluation materials positions those rates, by association, as indicators of its effectiveness. CeCE received the 2017 Oklahoma Online Excellence team award for its faculty development and online course facilitation and design initiatives, which were innovated in 2017 to integrate Learning Environment Modeling principles. Its excellence in online faculty development, grounded in LEM concepts, was also honored with a 2017 Online Learning Consortium Award for Excellence in Faculty Development, further attesting to the effectiveness of this innovative practice.
Metrics for the effectiveness of and satisfaction with LEM have been gathered since 2016 when CeCE began sharing LEM and LEML through faculty workshops and ILED staff began teaching it to external K-12 and higher education institutions and corporate partners. Surveys of participants in these opportunities have provided quantitative and qualitative indicators of user satisfaction with LEM. Participants are invited to rate LEM presentation methods, content, activities, and materials and to offer feedback on strengths and potential improvements.

Select examples of testimonials and survey results follow with additional examples provided in a more comprehensive evidence file that accompanies this Effective Practice nomination.

Faculty Satisfaction:
2017 UCO faculty new faculty orientation activities included an LEM workshop. When asked, “What did you like most about the workshop?”, faculty responses regarding LEM included:

•“The ability to visualize what is missing from lessons.”
• “This is so useful in different ways … in my courses--from assignment planning to daily lesson planning, to course development. ”
• “Laying out the cards (post-its) to visually see how much of each “building block” I have was a great way to see any potential[ly] ‘lopsided’ parts of my class. ”
• “Learning a new way to think and design courses.”
• “Excellent system to organize thought processes.”
• “The visualization of the course structure allows me to identify where I need to improve.”
• “Extremely knowledgeable, great methodology.”
• “Hands-on experience directly applied to my job.”

UCO faculty and staff participants in other LEM workshops offered by CeCE have observed:
• “The LEM process helped me to visualize my course as we were designing. This gave me an opportunity to organize content, fill gaps, plan activities, and more. Ideas that would normally only happen during the first class run can be exposed during the design phase instead. It was a wonderful, enlightening process.”
• “I was asked to incorporate a video game into a faculty member’s face-to-face class. LEM helped me describe the flow of the course and provide the faculty member with several options for integrating the game. This would have been far more difficult without LEM.”
• “This intuitive, logical and enjoyable process helped me to think more deeply and clearly about the outcomes I desired from the course, and … we identified a workable path to achieve those outcomes.
• “LEM is a valuable innovation in course design for first-time and veteran course designers alike, whether they’re developing a new course or redesigning an existing one. Its visual approach to guiding decision-making brings course designers a practical, easy-to-understand method for creating a framework for high-quality, interactive, learner-centered experiences.”

When participants in LEM workshops for corporate and external higher education organizations were asked what they liked most and found most valuable about their LEM training, responses included:

• “Practical information that we can use immediately.”
• “The worksheets to help us implement the tools. How [Facilitator] was so willing to share everything.”
• “I found the content interesting and love the idea of a visual language to demonstrate the concepts.”
• ”Model elements were very easy to learn and to apply.”
• ”Using the LEML system was the best part of this workshop. It allowed me to condense my online course into 5 groups of items and then easily visualize what my students see in terms of how the course is laid out. Also, the universal language made it so easy to look at other courses that were not in my discipline and still understand how [they] worked!”
• ”The modeling/planning exercise was an excellent way to see my whole course in a snapshot, the balance therein, as well as areas that need improvement/clarification.”
• “The approach and simplicity of the design.”
• “All the pieces of instructional design in visual form help present the whole picture (of a course)
in a much more complete form than words.”
• “Walked away with new knowledge for mapping programs, modules, etc.”
• “Pictures! Appeals to all learning styles.”
• “Great way to communicate to stakeholders…Very interactive. Great job!”
• “It was hands-on.”
• “Being able to think in a new way.
• “A new approach to solving problems.”

Student Satisfaction:
A survey of 2017 online Elementary Spanish students whose instructors used LEM to create study support materials for preparing key course assignments experienced a 100% response rate. Results indicated that a majority of students strongly agreed or agreed that the visual model for how to prepare for the assignments increased their confidence in their ability to do well on them. A majority also strongly agreed or agreed that the video of LEM with an accompanying narration was helpful and increased their confidence in their ability to do well on the assignments.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

LEM effectively supports all five pillars.

Learning Effectiveness
Research in the initial stages of LEM development and implementation focused on the perceptions and satisfaction of faculty learning the technique and using it to design lessons and courses. However, anecdotal evidence provided by faculty using LEM to diagnose and revise existing lessons and courses or design new offerings indicates that they perceive that learners in courses that leverage LEM benefit greatly from increased engagement and interaction, which in turn increased faculty members’ positive perceptions of LEM.

Scale (Cost Effectiveness and Commitment) and Access
LEM is immensely accessible and scalable. Its concepts are almost instantly understood and its use is intuitive. New users have a firm grasp of LEM within a few minutes and can begin using it just as quickly. The technique is easily scaled to planning at the micro level for a single activity, lesson, chapter, or course or at the macro level as with curriculum development. It is also ideal for planning meetings, workshops, training, papers, presentations, and conferences.

Designed with easy, affordable access in mind, materials needed to implement LEM are ubiquitous and highly accessible. Users can get started with paper and pencil and more sophisticated materials such as whiteboards, markers, and sticky notes are likely within the reach even of those with limited budgets. Digital LEM tools are also available for free or for a minimal investment. Adopters who elect more advance training gain access to LEM toolkits for the cost of the initial training. The low cost, easy access, and easy-to learn and easy-to-use nature of LEM render it a highly sustainable initiative that can be replicated by users everywhere and at the individual, team, or organizational level.

Faculty Satisfaction
Surveys of faculty learners--participants in LEM workshops and conference sessions--indicate a high level of satisfaction with the ease of learning LEM and applying it to their instructional needs. Specific examples of measures are presented in the preceding evidence section and accompanying evidence file.

Student Satisfaction
Surveys of 2017 online Elementary Spanish students in approximately 10 sections whose instructors used LEM models to support learner efforts to prepare key course assignments indicated a high level of student satisfaction and perception of effectiveness of LEM. These student perceptions were accompanied by improved performance on the assignments, further signaling the effectiveness of LEM for increasing learner success. Additional anecdotal evidence received through informal student feedback about the effectiveness of the models also indicates a great sense of satisfaction that leveraging the models as a study strategy improved academic performance on corresponding assignments.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The equipment necessary to implement LEM can be as minimal as a pencil and a paper for drawing its building blocks, actions, contexts, and notations. A white board for a drawing canvas and markers also work well for mapping out LEML components. Sticky notes pre-printed with LEM building blocks can be used in place of drawing the symbols whether using a paper canvas, whiteboard, or even a table top to map out a blueprint for a learning environment. These analog tools are the fastest way to get started with using LEM and users report that the tactile nature of LEM tools add to the fun of using the technique. Moreover, many individuals who have the opportunity to collaborate on designs in-person prefer to use analog LEM tools for the early stages of planning a learning environment model due to the added ease provided when multiple collaborators are experimenting with ideas and moving the building blocks around in various configurations. They can then transfer the design to a digital platform in the final design stages.

Those who need to collaborate electronically or who simply prefer to go green by using digital tools will find digital platforms such as Draw.io and LucidCharts to be excellent vehicles for mapping and sharing their design ideas from the outset. These digital modeling options also allow for easy manipulation and reconfiguration of buildings blocks and notations for action and context.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

UCO faculty and staff can implement LEM at no cost. CeCE offers LEM workshops as brief as 50 minutes as part of UCO professional development opportunities and LEM analog and digital materials and tools are free to members of the UCO community. The time investment for learning LEM is minimal given that it takes only a few minutes to understand and begin implementing.

The fundamental components needed for using LEM are accessible to anyone at no cost given that LEM toolkits can be as minimal as paper and pencil or a white board and markers for drawing models. Those foundational elements and associated costs will remain constant as LEM evolves. More refined, yet still do-it-yourself analog toolkits may be assembled by using post-it notes to represent building blocks, a drawing canvas such as paper or a whiteboard, and colored pens or markers to indicate contexts, connections, and descriptors. Individuals who prefer to work with LEM in digital formats or create digital models to share electronically or in the final stages of design have various free and low-cost options such as Draw.io, PowerPoint, and LucidCharts, depending on their preferred platform. Those who use digital LEM tools may experience some shifts as the related technology advances, but free and low-cost solutions such as web software by Google is predicated to continue to provide affordable, even free technology for LEM.

Learning Environment Modeling was designed with access in mind. As such, external adopters enjoy low-cost options for learning it and obtaining LEM toolkit items. UCO staff present LEM workshops and sessions frequently at local, statewide, national, and global conference venues that individuals may attend as part of their conference experience. LEM sessions are also presented during Oklahoma’s Learning Innovations Summit that is free to all participants and features virtual sessions. Conference presentations for teaching LEM equip participants with the knowledge they need to apply it for their individual needs using analog materials. Those who want to purchase LEM materials and the Learning Architect System that teaches LEM may do so at http://iled.uco.edu

Materials available for purchase range from a set of “Sticky Notes” pre-printed with LEM building blocks that sell for a few dollars to foundational, mid-range, and premiere LEM products and services selling for a few hundred dollars that equip users with a proven set of tools and techniques for planning, designing, and implementing successful learning experiences and programs. Product options include LEM guidebooks, a template for using LEM with Draw.io, a LEM Legacy Video Series, and LEM planning documents such as Envision Guides, Focus Boards, and Innovate Boards.

While LEM may be implemented with limited instruction, individuals, teams, and organizations with interest in attaining more personalized, advanced training for applying this modeling technique beyond what is available to non-UCO audiences through conference sessions may pursue workshop opportunities with ILED. While reasonable in comparison to market rates for comparable customized training services, the costs of such specialized consulting may present a burden to institutions with limited resources. Organizations may seek grant opportunities to assist with funding such interests.

The University of Central Oklahoma is a non-profit, public university dedicated to its mission of contributing “to the intellectual, cultural, economic and social advancement of the communities and individuals it serves.” In this pursuit, it engages in ongoing endeavors to create new resources for the local campus and metropolitan community to support excellence and innovation in creating transformative learning experiences for citizens and future leaders locally and globally. CeCE reinvests financial gains generated from LEM-related products and ILED at UCO services to support the development of new tools and opportunities for designing innovative and transformative learning environments.

References, supporting documents: 

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Botturi, L. & Stubbs, S. (2008). The Handbook of Visual Languages for Instructional Design: Theories and Practices

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Lombardozzi, C. (2015). Learning Environments by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASTD DBA the Association for Talent Development.

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Wilson, B. G. (1996). Constructivist Learning Environments: Case Studies in Instructional Design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, Inc.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Stacy Southerland, PhD
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Bucky Dodd, PhD
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