Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dialogic Learning Objects as Interactive Excel Modules

The last several days I've been revising an Excel module on Supply and Demand, an introduction to the topic, that I like a lot for how the underlying economics is presented, with an emphasis on intuition by developing an extremely simple approach to buyer and seller choice (unit demands and unit supplies) and then aggregating up from that.  The presentation is integrated with student response, at each juncture the student must answer a question before proceeding further.  Each of these questions has a right answer.  The student gets feedback for any response but only can go further after a correct response.  Many of the graphs have controls that the students can manipulate to get a feel for what is going on.  The student can do this just for practice or, if the instructor wants to assure that the student has done the work, a "tear sheet" of all the student responses can be readily generated for electronic submission.   The approach is meant to integrate presentation and assessment rather than have one follow the other.    I'll get back to that in a bit.

The main reason for my revision was to find alternatives to the Macros and Activex controls that were in the previous version.  When I taught with this last spring, some students had trouble with this, even on a PC, and even more so on a Mac.  So the revision was aimed at eliminating those issues and making the module cross platform.  In the process of doing this I learned how do use the Conditional Formatting tools in Excel 2010.  It was daunting at first, knowing how to do this in Excel 2003, but not understanding what was going on in the more recent version of Excel.

There is no "programming" by me to achieve these results.  It is all done with the built-in Excel functions - heavy use of the IF command - and then a strong reliance on Conditional Formatting - to make the feedback distinctive when it appears and to hide it before it is needed.  The hiding trick is done by making the font color the same as the background color, so the content of a cell can't be read by eyeballing the spreadsheet, and by Protecting the spreadsheet and most of the cells in it, so that the entries in those cells can't be read from the Formula Bar. 

Let me make a comment about this regarding accessibility, because I know that is a proper concern.  I did a little bit of research on Excel and Accessibility and without elaborating on what I found there, it became clear to me that there was no anticipation of this sort of use of Excel in the documents I found.  The issues are with use by visually impaired students, ones who use a screen reader to navigate.  Rather than finagle with the Excel itself, I believe a satisfactory solution would be to record an aloud working through of the entire workbook, and then making a transcript of that.   Other students might like to have that because surely it would include some of thinking in working things through and when they did it themselves they may have made progress but without producing that thinking.  I haven't made such a movie or transcript yet but I could see doing so if there were demand for more such objects, with the movies and transcripts becoming part of the package.

The issue with making these dialogic objects is the time it takes in their production.  Much of the effort is conceptual.  The theory needs to be re-thought in a way to make it more transparent to the students, and then a dialog must be produced to explicate the alternative approach.  With the Supply and Demand module, the novel conceptualizations begin to come in on the third worksheet, Trade, by introducing an ad hoc matching process to pair a buyer with a seller and then using split-the-difference exchange to predict the price that will emerge from the pairing.  This produces a range of transaction prices that are not stable.  This is then contrasted with efficient matching, that delivers competitive pricing. Students then get to see some of the benefits of competitive pricing, by first looking at the consequences of the ad hoc matching.  You won't find this in a textbook.  So this is not just a matter of taking the standard approach and converting it to Excel, though I should add that even after the conceptual work is done, there is substantial work in building the modules in Excel so it all functions smoothly.

It is much easier to make presentation content.  Last spring I did a fair amount of that, making Excelets (interactive graphs) and then YouTube videos of me exploring those, but without the dialogic content.  Because I was making some of these in real time, much of this content is far less a departure from the traditional approach than the Supply and Demand module.  There are, therefore, two different questions to consider with regard to the dialogic approach.
(1)  If you are going to use the traditional approach to the subject matter, does recasting the presentation content into a dialogic frame help students nonetheless?

(2)  If you do come up with an alternative approach can you explicate it with straight presentation a la micro-lecture and then assess what students have learned from the presentation?  
I don't have evidence on which to answer these questions.  So I'm simply going to guess at the answers.  A diligent student can benefit from the dialogic approach over straight presentation because the former emphasizes the the chain of reasoning, while the latter encourages focus on the "results" only.  Much of the subject matter students find non-intuitive and thus hard to learn.  Helping to make the content intuitive should also aid the diligent student. 

I have some more old stuff to revise.  After doing that I will try to produce some new dialogic stuff.  If anyone else wants to give it a try, please let me know and I can help you get started.

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