The weebly, the wiki and the webquest: an experiment in rapid, collaborative e-learning authoring

One way to create e-learning courses is to appoint armies of instructional designers, Flash scripters, Java programmers, graphic designers, audio-visual experts and quality testers, and have them monitored and chivvied along by Gantt-chart-wielding project managers as they churn out high-level specs, low-level specs , scripts, storyboards, prototypes and so on. In many cases, this is the way to go. Sometimes, however, something a bit simpler, faster and cheaper is needed. As Thiagi (my favourite rapid-instructional-design guru) points out: ‘There is a built-in bias toward overkill in the conventional [instructional design] process. The obsession – for doing it right the first time through painstaking analysis and planning, for pleasing all the people all the time through incorporating everyone’s inputs and feedback, and for attempting perfection through several rounds of testing, revision, and retesting – violates the Pareto principle. Much time (and other resources) can be saved by focusing on critical content and key steps and producing a lean instructional package. Improvements to this core package can be added gradually after it is implemented.’

Last weekend, with my student hat on, I stumbled upon the simplest, fastest, cheapest way I know to do collaborative e-learning authoring. In the context of a course on creating educational web environments which I am doing through USQ, a motley team of three of us (in Fiji, Kuwait and England) produced a very useable, 40-hour online course in the space of a week, with most of the work being done over the period of a single weekend. A process model emerged, which can be summarised as: get a couple of writers (maybe an instructional designer and a subject matter expert), have them go straight to the Web with the first draft, and then have them collaboratively build the learning programme ‘live’. That’s it. Simple. Fast. Cheap. Effective if your writers know what they’re doing. Several Web 2.0 tools make this scenario possible now – even desirable… but more about that in a moment.

First, a bit of background on how the model arose: Our task was to collaboratively create a WebQuest, which is ‘an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web’. (See The concept of the WebQuest was popularised by Bernie Dodge from San Diego State University in the mid-90’s, and is even more relevant today in view of the increasing availability of open educational resources on the Web, allowing course designers to focus on designing the learning process rather than creating the content. It can be used at all levels of education and training – our focus was on work-based training.

My WebQuest team started the assignment late and so we were forced by necessity to come up with a process for rapid design and development of our WebQuest site. This is how we did it:

1. Through our initial discussions on USQ’s Moodle discussion forum, we agreed on the basic parameters for our WebQuest – the target audience (health and safety officers in a company), the topic (instructional design – how to create a health and safety induction course for employees) and the task (learners were to produce a report for the Board of Directors outlining how they proposed to develop the health and safety course). We also agreed on the stages and steps that the WebQuest would be divided into.

2. Having recently discovered the wondrous, WYSIWYG, free weebly programme for website building, I decided to create a weebly site for our WebQuest, with page headings reflecting the learning stages and steps we had agreed on. By going straight to the Web with only the most tenuous outline of the course we were developing, we were implementing the notion of rapid instructional design in the extreme. If there are any Gantt-chart wielding project managers out there, they might be throwing up their hands in horror at this scenario, arguing that you can’t build the house before you’ve built the foundation. But Web 2.0 tools such as the weebly are so sophisticated now that you can add and remove web pages or completely alter the navigational structure of the site with just a few clicks and no knowledge of html at all (although you can view and tweak the html if you want to) – almost like modifying the foundation of your house after you’ve started building it, if you decide to move a wall or change the angle of your roof.

3. To organise the work of the WebQuest design team, we set up a work-allocation-wiki in the USQ Moodle forum, with a table indicating all the pages that needed to be developed for the WebQuest site, and who was planning to do which ones, along with a short ‘status report’ for each page. We updated this frequently – sometimes several times a day.

4. All three of us in the WebQuest design team had the password to access the weebly, so we could take turns to go in and add content to the sections we had committed ourselves to completing. This worked particularly well with the person in Fiji being in a different time zone – it was always exciting to see what she had added while I was sleeping!

5. We used the blog within the weebly to summarise the changes we had made, keeping this updated on a regular basis, so that the rest of the authoring team was continuously informed of developments. (Bearing in mind that the weebly can go into the public domain from day one, and can be viewed by anyone who has the URL, this has significant implications for participation and collaboration by stakeholders. The blog could also be used for commentators to add their feedback as the work progresses.) The blog would probably be deleted or hidden when the WebQuest was piloted with learners, although the transparency of the authors’ process might be of interest to some learners – especially as in our case, the subject of the WebQuest was instructional design.

6. In addition to the weebly, we created a wiki using the free pbwiki, to enable our WebQuest learners to summarise key points as they worked through the WebQuest. The wiki was also to be the main point of reference and collaboration for learners in the final stage of their WebQuest, when they were required to jointly produce a report to the Board of Directors, reflecting how they would apply their knowledge of instructional design in an authentic context.

The final product was a website containing a very structured process for learners to learn about instructional design by exploring selected resources that are freely available on the Web, with the help of some carefully scaffolded questions. Trainers’ notes were also provided. It’s not perfect and there are plenty of ways in which it could be improved with the addition of more time and resources, but in the hands of a capable online facilitator/ trainer, it could provide a stimulating and useful learning experience for the learners. Much more so, I suspect, than some of those content-heavy, ‘electronic page-turner’ type courses that some commercial companies spend fortunes, and many months, on producing.

By Gabi Witthaus

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