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Interface design, 2002: University Briefs

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 51
Digital Citation

Washington State University


back to top  Philosophy of Design Education

The Department of Teaching and Learning uses the competencies endorsed by the International Board of Standards Training, Performance, and Instruction (Richey, Fields and Foxon 2001) to focus our Instructional Design program objectives. At their broadest level, the standards recommend that an instructional designer be able to implement and manage the development of instructional materials within one of four specializations: analyst, evaluator, e-learning specialist, or project manager. The majority of our students identify themselves as teachers in the traditional sense: think classrooms with desks and a chalkboard. Analysis and evaluation are intrinsic to students' lives as teachers. E-learning and project management, however, are all-too-often overlooked or undervalued in a program such as ours. In modern instructional settings, a variety of media, perhaps most important computer-based instructional tools, vie for the attention not only of students, but of teachers as well. Of course, anyone involved with education today needs to be able to do more than manage the chalkboard, and many of our students are beginning to recognize the need for opportunities to develop computer-based instructional tools. Wazzu Widgets are the kinds of tools we want all K–12 teachers to have access to—designed for "full-frontal classroom teaching" as well as one-to-one or one-to-a-few, depending on the students' needs. As Dick and Carey (2001) assert, all teachers are instructional designers, and as such they must be prepared to work with and manage e-learning tools. The question we wrestle with here is, what defines an appropriate instructional media production project?

For most of our students it is appropriate to offer digital instructional media production opportunities that are currently considered basic skills (e.g., familiarity with HTML, Web page editing software, and presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint®). A smaller, but significant group of students are interested in and capable of far more sophisticated instructional media production work. We therefore develop challenging projects that will allow these students to gain greater fluency with instructional media production. The Wazzu Widgets project is designed as an activity appropriate for students interested in and capable of advanced digital media production and interface design.

back to top  Preparing Students for User Interface Careers

For students interested in developing specialized skill as instructional media producers, the departmental goal has been to increase their fluency with computer-based media production tools. As Resnick points out, real fluency is the ability to "construct things of significance" (2001, p. 144). One of the goals of the Wazzu Widgets project is to offer opportunities for education students to create instructional activities that are genuinely useful. Given the goal of offering opportunities to produce meaningful, computer-based instructional materials, the Wazzu Widgets project strives to facilitate the production and distribution of computer-based learning objects.

Learning objects are currently a hot topic within the instructional design community (Beck 2001). According to the Wisconsin Online Resource Center (2001), learning objects (1) are self-contained instructional activities; (2) offer just-enough, just-in-time instruction; and (3) are well suited to the creation of customized instruction. Applying a learning object approach to the design and production of instructional media facilitates the development of genuinely useful and usable instructional media that can be successfully produced within a single semester.

In developing the project, we followed a modified Rapid Prototyping model (Tripp and Bichelmeyer, 1990). Three years ago, using Macromedia Director®, I created a proof-of-concept learning object, or "widget." (Our dean named them Wazzu Widgets for Wazzu, the nickname for WSU.)

Wazzu Widgets are learning objects that strive to make the best use of the animation and interactivity capabilities of the computer to create dynamic and engaging representations of abstract concepts that may otherwise be difficult to visualize.

The Wazzu Widgets group submitted the first widget to a small assembly of nationally recognized instructional design specialists in academic and business settings; they were asked to experiment with and comment on the proof-of-concept widget. The widget production teams received positive feedback on the initial widget. For the second prototype, a volunteer graduate student attempted to create a widget, working independently, with my support. The student successfully completed the second widget within a reasonable time period (approximately six weeks). At this point, the project directors determined that student production of learning objects using Director was feasible and we began advertising the opportunity to create widgets for program credit.

In creating each widget, we follow a user-centered design approach. Designers find themselves working closely with client/teachers who are interested in experimenting with innovative technologies and have expressed a need for a new way to approach a difficult concept. I work with students on issues of visual and interface design, sticking closely to Schneiderman's (1998) Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design and Williams's (1994) "unfortunate acronym" of visual design: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. On the basis of this type of activity, our students are rethinking traditional classroom instruction; some are becoming involved in professional instructional design and usability testing. As our department's lone professor of instructional design and technology, I look to collaborate with other institutions in the development of widgets (Wazzu or otherwise).

To date, five widgets have been produced (six students were involved in their production), and two more are currently in production. Widget #4, Multiplication with Sets, is a typical example. It was designed to teach elementary students with special needs the concept of using sets to solve multiplication problems (Figures 1 and 2). The classroom teacher/client wanted a flexible and responsive computer-based tool, in addition to his traditional manipulatives and semiconcrete materials. In the past, when the teacher asked his students to represent the algorithm 3x4 by coloring in parts of a sheet of graph paper, the students often colored in three squares across and four squares down, missing the concept of "sets" or "groups" and incorrectly reinforcing a misunderstanding. A team of graduate students designed a widget that would provide a visual and interactive method of understanding the concept of multiplication as a number of objects contained within a number of sets.

The teacher or student can move objects and set holders within a designated workspace. Object manipulation is flexible and actions can be reversed. In addition, an automatic check of the student's response is provided, the student's workspace can be checked for accuracy; a separate check can be conducted to determined whether the correct number of sets and objects is present. Field use and testing revealed that students did indeed improve their understanding of the principle of multiplication. Of equal instructional importance was the enthusiasm for further study of interface design among the graduate student team (one student has made learning object development the subject of a doctoral dissertation).

The Wazzu Widget project Web site is http://education.wsu.edu/widgets/.

back to top  References

1. Beck, R.J. CIE Occasional Page: Learning Objects, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Center for International Education (www.uwm.edu/Dept/CIE/AOP/learningobjects.html, retrieved May 21, 2001).

2. Dick, W. and Carey, L. The systematic design of instruction: Origins of systematically designed instruction. In D.P. Ely and T. Plomp., eds., Classic Writings on Instructional Technology, Volume 2, Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, CO, 2001.

3. Green, T., and Brown, A. Multimedia Projects in the Classroom: A Guide to Development and Evaluation. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2002 (forthcoming).

4. Resnick, M. Closing the fluency Gap. Communications of the ACM 44, 3 (March 2001). pp. 144–145.

5. Richey, R., Fields, D., and Foxon, M. Instructional Design Competencies: The Standards. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, Syracuse, NY, 2001.

6. Schneiderman, B. Designing the User Interface. Third ed. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1998.

7. Tripp, S., and Bichelmeyer, B. Rapid prototyping: An alternative instructional design strategy. Educational Technology Research and Development 38, 1 (1990), pp. 31–44.

8. Wisconsin Online Resource Center. What are Learning Objects? (www.wisc-online.com/what_are_learning_objects.htm, retrieved May 30, 2001).

back to top  Author

Abbie Brown, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Instructional Design/Technology
Department of Teaching and Learning
Washington State University
Phone: (509) 335-1631

Abbie Brown coordinates and teaches undergraduate and graduate programs in instructional design and instructional media production. He also conducts research on the acquisition and development of design and media production skills among educators. Abbie is coauthor of Multimedia Production in the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide to Developing, Producing and Evaluating Multimedia Projects in K-12 Settings (2002) and spends the better part of his professional day working with practicing teachers and aspiring instructional designers on understanding interface design issues. Abbie holds a Ph.D. in instructional systems technology from Indiana University.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Abbie Brown, Ph.D.

F1Figure 1. Multiplication with sets learning object.

F2Figure 2. Solving the problem of "3 times 1."

back to top  Sidebar: About the Organization


WSU's Department of Teaching and Learning offers bachelor's, master's. and doctoral degrees in education; graduate-level specialty areas are negotiated through the individual's course of study. WSU also supports an interdisciplinary doctoral program of study.

Course descriptions are available at www.wsu.edu/

Number of students per year

Typically between 50 and 80 part- and full-time graduate students

Students career paths & goals

Instructional designers, technology specialists

History of the program

Within the last three years, the department has taken a more direct interest in instructional design and technology.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench


1. Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things. Currency/Doubleday, New York, 1990.

2. Schniederman, B. Designing the User Interface. Third ed. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1998.


Adobe Illustrator®, Adobe Photoshop®, Inspiration®, Macromedia Director®, Macromedia Dreamweaver®, Macromedia Flash®, Macromedia SoundEdit 16®.


"Think of the computer not as a tool, but as a medium." (Brenda Laurel)

Source of inspiration

Buffy the Vampire SlayerTM, a well-designed product delivered weekly.

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