About the National Institute for Online Learning

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Last week MindEdge Online added two courses on online learning from the National Institute of Online Learning (NIOL). It was a milestone for the Institute, which seeks to improve the quality and effectiveness of online learning, especially for adult learners, by promoting best practices and innovation in the field.

We founded NIOL last year for several reasons. First, we thought that MindEdge Learning had knowledge and expertise of value that we believed would be helpful for those involved in online education. MindEdge has developed effective online courses and simulations used by hundreds of thousands of students in higher education and the private sector. The Institute seemed to be an appropriate vehicle in that transfer of learning.

Second, in working with partners and new entrants to the field, we encountered somewhat of a gap between theory and practice—some of those tasked with designing and creating online courses did not have prior grounding in learning theory or much exposure to the technology involved. We think the Institute can help in educating those who want a deeper background in online learning.

Third, we wanted a place where those interested in educating adults would be able to find resources. While the recent emphasis on MOOCs and undergraduate online education is promising, we thought that the challenges of designing and creating online courses and simulations for adults continues to deserve focused attention.

For those reasons, and others, we decided it was time for NIOL. What can you expect from the Institute in the near future? NIOL will be focused on training, education, consulting, and advocacy.

The Institute will offer additional courses focused on various aspects of online learning, including instructional design, course development, and key technologies. By the end of 2013, learners will have the opportunity to earn NIOL’s Online Learning Fundamentals Certificate, awarded for the successful completion of the Institute’s twelve introductory courses.

NIOL will also release occasional white papers focused on relevant learning topics (including narrative and adaptive learning) and will host webinars on best practices in course and simulation design and on technology issues.

The Institute will also be establishing an advisory board of academics, practitioners, educators, and others interested in online learning to help us keep NIOL abreast of the latest developments in the field.

You can learn more about the Institute at the NIOL website, or you can contact me directly at MindEdge Learning (info@mindedge.com) with any questions or suggestions.


Jefferson Flanders, an author and educator, is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders

Anchored instruction and narrative learning

When we develop self-paced online learning we try to look at how people actually learn in their work environment and model our pedagogical approach based on that reality.
A large amount of learning occurs just-in-time. Many of us wait until we actually need the skill or technique before we learn it and apply it to solving a specific problem. For example, a marketing analyst may not master Excel macros until he or she needs them for a particularly complex spreadsheet. Or a computer programmer may not take a formal course in a new programming language (such as jquery) but instead learn it piecemeal from books or online tutorials on an as-needed basis. This makes sense, after all: it often represents an efficient use of the most valuable resource we have—time.
When we emulate this pattern of learning it leads us naturally to embedding instruction in our narrative learning—what academics call anchored instruction.
How does this work in practice? When we develop an online learning resource we review the learning outcomes first and consider where specific skills or concepts can be integrated into the narrative environment. This is better illustrated through a real-life example.
Example: Anchored Instruction in a Simulation
When we developed a management simulation focused on sustainable management, we knew that we wanted learners to use some techniques for calculating return-on-investment (ROI) on competing projects that would improve sustainability.
In our “Taking the Helm at Coastal Industries Simulation” this meant anchored instruction in a decision point where Coastal Industries, a company that manufactures transformers, is considering three competing levels of energy conservation retrofits for its manufacturing plants. Learners are asked to figure out which of the three investments (Options A, B, and C) in retrofitting will yield the highest return-on-investment (ROI). To prepare the learners to conduct this analysis, we provide the background on ROI techniques and give an example of how ROI works.
screenshot of simulation
Then learners are given the raw data in the format they are likely to encounter it in the real-world. The next step is for learners to employ a prepared worksheet (using the web-based Zoho tool) and calculate the various ROIs.
screenshot of Zoho sheets
Then learners choose one of three options based on this analysis. The simulation then reveals the correct ROI calculations, allowing learners to check their work and understand why a given decision is optimal based on the ROI results.
So learners have been asked to:

  • learn what ROI means and how it is calculated;
  • apply this knowledge to a real-world problem and calculate ROI for three competing projects;
  • make a decision based on their analysis and immediately see whether they have calculated ROI correctly and, consequently, made the optimal choice.

What makes this more than a stand-alone problem set is that this decision-making process is part of an ongoing narrative. Learners can see that making the correct “just-in-time” decision about ROI (as they would in the workplace) influences their aggregate score in the simulation, reflecting its impact on the company. They also see how a series of decisions over time (compressed in the simulation) can move an organization in a given direction.
We’ve found anchored instruction in narrative learning to be a powerful way to show learners the importance of applying tools and techniques in a real-world setting. They are more likely to grasp the significance of a given analytical approach or skill if they can envision its use in context and see how it is integrated into actual business circumstances.


Copyright © 2012 MindEdge, Inc.
More information on MindEdge’s Taking the Helm at Coastal Industries Simulation.

Simulations and “what if?” learning

Simulation and gaming expert Clark Aldrich has argued that both “big skills” (leadership, negotiation, etc.) and “middle skills” (managing people or processes) are best learned through the “learning by doing” of simulations. At the heart of every simulation lies a series of “what if?” questions. The process of answering those questions drives simulation participants to engage, explore, and learn.
When pilots in flight simulators practice responding to the unexpected, they are engaged in this question-and-answer process. What if the right engine suddenly dies? What if the landing gear gets stuck? What are my options? What should I do? A successful training experience in this environment prepares the pilot not only to respond that specific challenge, but also develops the skills to handle unforeseen, perhaps even “unthinkable” events.
On a less dramatic basis, online simulations can mimic the common scenarios that learners may encounter in business, the professions, and other fields. What if the software project falls behind schedule? What if team members aren’t working together? What if the new product launch runs into softer demand? All of these scenarios can be modeled and presented to the learner with a series of options to choose, that, over time, have consequences for the organization.

At the heart of every simulation lies a series of “what if?” questions. The process of answering those questions drives simulation participants to engage, explore, and learn.

As a type of narrative learning, online simulations draw on the power of the story to spark engagement and interest. Effective simulations are grounded in the day-to-day reality of the workplace; learners shouldn’t feel that they have to suspend disbelief when immersed in the simulation.
MindEdge’s coached online simulations include video commentary from subject matter experts who relate what they might have done when faced with a given “what if?” At numerous points in our simulations, we let participants compare their thinking with that of experienced practitioners. This highlights not only the “what” of decision-making (the problem-solving involved in tackling difficult decisions), but also the “why,” the context and reasons for choosing a given course of action.
An effective simulation prepares the learner for “what if?” situations in the future; it teaches different ways of finding answers and of responding to uncertainty. When the time comes that the challenge is real, the learner should have enough familiarity with thinking through the issues to make more informed decisions.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders