This is a case where I needed to invent a new method for making dense curriculum materials useful and usable. This task challenged me to work with subject matter experts to develop the actual curricula, build a new way to organize and present that information on our website, and then make that content usable in our web app. It utilized each part of my background – instructional design, user experience research, graphic design, front-end development, and back-end engineering. The result was a reusable genre and a useful feature for our app.
Backstory + Project Requirements
We needed to develop a method for delivering curriculum materials that instructors could either use as-is or repurpose as needed. Eli Review was designed to be discipline-agnostic and, as a result, the system did not overdetermine what or how teachers would teach by building in pre-packaged lessons. From a UX perspective, this also meant new instructors did not have models to follow of what the system *could* do, or how to build teaching material on their own.
Our team made the business decision not to sell the instructional content but to instead give it away using a Creative Commons license. From a sales perspective, the thought was that making the materials public and not behind a paywall would be a good way to both build our brand as a company advocating for peer learning and to demonstrate the validity of the pedagogy (“anyone can do it!”) while making a sales case for our product (“you get much better results when using our app!”).
Before beginning any design or organizational work, I reached out to several users to solicit their input on what they’d want out of such a resource. Everyone who responded agreed that such a resource would be useful, but they fell into two groups. Seasoned users who had extensive background with our product wanted convenient links from the content directly into the web app, making it easy to pick and choose from the materials, while newer users wanted to see how to design assignments and sequences.
Instructional Design Challenges
While Eli Review itself is built to embody pedagogical principles and is intended to persuade teachers to engage in more feedback and revision cycles, interface affordances alone cannot drive those changes. As in instructional designer, I had to consider the following when developing a new curriculum resource:
- Developing content – I needed to work with subject matter experts on two different levels to get content ready for a new resource:
- Getting content into parallel formats for consistency
- Creating scaffolding content for each activity and set of materials (especially learning outcomes, indicators, and how to watch for them)
- Demonstrate the pedagogy without Eli Review – since we meant to advocate for peer learning pedagogy beyond the use of our product, we needed to make sure each set of materials made it clear how they could be useful with no assistive technology like Eli.
- Demonstrate the pedagogy with Eli Review – on the other hand, the resources also needed to make clear where Eli enhanced the instructor’s ability to teach feedback more often and with greater fidelity. It also needed to offer specifics on how each instructor utilized it to demonstrate that instructor’s work.
- Make content easy to deploy – whether using Eli or modifying to use with paper, the materials in the curriculum resources needed to be usable in whatever format the instructor needed – that is, either in print form or usable inside the Eli app.
Technical Writing Challenges
Beyond developing effective curricula, I needed to figure out a way to deliver that content in an effective and usable way. The primary technical writing challenges in this project included:
- Large, difficult content – the original content provided by the instructors we recruited came in large Word files with no obvious organizational structures. In some cases, there was enough content for an entire semester (15 weeks) of content in one document.
- Responsive design – while we intended to make the content usable to anyone using any device, initial input from instructors told us that the content needed to be printable as well. To our surprise, they told us of a typical instructor use case there they would print out curriculum materials to make notes and draw and sketch, so our resources needed to support that work.
- Documentation – while one of the goals was to take the content and structure it in a way that would be usable and useful, it was still clear that instructors would need some scaffolding on how to use the resource, particularly when it came to using the content in Eli or printing it out.
Building the Curriculum Resource
I was the project leader for building this resource because of my experience not only with developing instructional material and technical writing, but because I could also do graphic design, content management, post-production video editing, front-end development, back-end engineering and graphic design. I also had working with me:
- Bill Hart-Davidson – Bill worked with me to develop the structure for the curriculum genre and to write the first major resource, The Essential Moves of Technical Communication.
- Peter Johnston – Peter is a videographer who recorded some critical in-class video of Bill using his curriculum and demonstrating how Eli worked.
- Melissa Graham Meeks and Michael Schanhals – Melissa and Michael both wrote their own set of materials using the new format and worked with me to make sure they would meet the criteria for the project
Inventing a New Genre
The biggest challenge from a design perspective was identifying common components amongst all of the material contributed by different instructors. I also needed to identify new material that needed to be created to sufficiently scaffold that content to help new instructors understand it and make use of it.
- Getting Started – this is the “cover page” view for instructors seeing the instructional material for the first time. It includes a summary, a “what’s inside” overview of all the material, a generic set of instructions on using the content, copyright details, and open-source resources for teaching feedback and revision.
- Curriculum Overview – this offers a more detailed look at the goals of the curriculum. It introduces the authors, identifies the learning goals, discusses how the authors use Eli Review with the materials, suggests methods for managing class time and assessing student work, as well as resources specific to the curriculum (particularly readings).
- Units or Projects – the large container we decided on was called a “unit” or a “project” and it was intended to contain related “assignments”, each of which might contain multiple tasks. Each project would be introduced with a description of its purpose and goals, and each assignment would have the following information:
- Description – details about the particular assignment
- Illustration of sequence – demonstrating how a particular assignment fit into a larger assignment and a larger project
- Full text of each task type (writing, review, or revision) as students would see it
- Option to “click to use” each task (the “Big Blue Button”)
- Option to print each assignment or each task individually
Once we agreed upon this as the basic structure of each set of materials, it was easier to work with SMEs to develop the scaffolding content necessary to help new instructors understand the sequences. It also proved to be immensely reusable and served as the structure for six sets of materials (see the full list below).
Integration with the App
The biggest technical challenge was getting our static marketing and support website (elireview.com) to communicate with the application (app.elireview.com). Normally the two are complete separate, but if instructors were going to actually “click to use” our content, that needed to change.
- Preparing content – because the two platforms did not communicate the content of the curriculum materials could not be single-sourced. This means that all of the content needed to prepared in two formats:
- HTML for plain-text display inside the marketing site
- Granular objects (e.g. rating scales, instructions, titles) for the app as required by the database
- Content management inside the app – organizing content had been left more or less to preferences of individual instructors, but making content findable and usable by others necessitated some changes:
- We created a centralized, read-only course from which each instructor could draw the content they wanted to use
- We developed a consistent naming scheme for tasks to make each one distinct
- We devised a hashtag pattern for each set of materials so that individual tasks could easily be found by searching the repository
- “Big Blue Button” – we needed a distinct call to action in the static materials in the marketing site
- Each task has a type and an ID inside Eli, both of which get passed to it from users clicking a BBB
- New function, checking for course: when users click a BBB and is directed to Eli, Eli checks 1) to make sure they’re signed in, 2) to make sure they have a course they can use that task with, and 3) if they have multiple courses, prompts them to choose which one they want to use that task with.
The Scaffolding Site
Once we knew the structure of the genre and how we could make the marketing site talk to the app, I was able to build a markup scheme to support that structure. It needed to fit within the framework of the existing marketing website, but the material itself would be structured in a new way:
- Responsive – *most* of our instructors use desktop browsers but enough are on tablets and mobile to justify the effort to make the content responsive for those devices.
- Printable – because many of our instructors told us these materials needed to be printable, we worked to make that as manageable as possible. I first developed a custom print stylesheet to make the materials look more attractive on paper, but then developed a method to let instructors either print the whole thing in one go, print just a section of material, or print only an individual task.
- Navigation – again, because the material is so dense there needed to be a way to help instructors easily navigate between its components. I came up with the following methods to make the dense material usable:
- A consistent toolbar at the top of the display
- Multiple “Back to Top” options throughout the text to easily return them
- A floating navigation menu that provides easy access to each section
- A collapsable menu for each section to expose the individual sections
- Documentation – to help new instructors orient themselves to the structure and the options for using the content, we created a “tour” script that highlights each section of the site (to help them find their way around) and then a video as well that demonstrates both the BBB and how to use that content in Eli.
Outcomes / Takeaways
Our curriculum materials remain one of our most utilized instructor resources (along with our instructional modules), as observed both in our Google Analytics and in the app database where we can track task reuse (meaning that instructors re-used the original tasks from the repository). I added prominent links to the material throughout the marketing site and inside the app that drive significant traffic.
As of this writing, I’ve worked with five different instructors to create distinct curricular content for a variety of disciplines and of varying sizes, but all of them using the same genre framework I developed for this project:
- High Art Evaluative Essay – 3 tasks, any experience level
- ACT Writing Coach Curriculum – 6 writing tasks, 7 reviews
- Science Writing Curriculum – complete 16-week course
- The Essential Moves of Technical Communication – 3 writing tasks, 6 reviews
- Framing Feedback and Revision – 2 writing, review, and revision tasks
- Too much text – analytics show us that people use the tasks, but also show us that the time on these pages is relatively low. We wanted to be thorough with the scaffolding material, and the information works well when presented in person, but people don’t seem interested in reading it.
- Print feature not used – we also know from the analytics that the custom print stylesheet is rarely requested, so despite the fact that many users asked for the materials to be printable, almost none of them followed through and used the feature once it was built.
- Content is overwhelming – instructors have told us anecdotally that a semester’s worth of lesson plans presented in this format can be overwhelming, especially for new instructors. This genre may work for smaller bits of content, but 15-weeks worth may be too much.
- More import options – instructors have requested additional options for importing content; the big blue button only works for individual tasks, but they’d like to import a full project without having to click so many times.
- Visualizing projects – as of this writing, the dashboard in the app lists individual tasks in sequence without representing their relationship to each other. A project-based organization would make the curriculum materials easier to communicate and utilize. We can also continue to refine the visual design so that sequences are easy to understand (e.g. color coding).