Using Technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 4 – creating interactive content 4

One thing we experimented with on this summer school was creating interactive online content for students using a special software programme called Articulate Storyline 2.

Over the last year we’ve begun to develop a bank of materials that could be used either to integrate directly with classroom materials, supplement as extra practice for students or be used as material on online courses. At the moment, teachers tend to link out to websites or give them handouts to read, but we wanted to develop our own in-house materials that are more targeted or relevant to the programmes we run. We also wanted the materials be more interactive and less passive, so students could respond to questions or compare their written answers with models.

Now, it’s actually quite difficult to develop these materials, but there are various ways you can do it:

First off, you can use various web services that allow you to create interactive content. I’m thinking of sites such as Quizlet for creating vocabulary flashcards or EdPuzzle for creating interactive quizzes using YouTube video.

Quizlet is a great site for creating flashcards and autogenerated tests and games

Quizlet is a great site for creating flashcards and autogenerated tests and games

These can be great as they are normally really easy to use, even for less tech-minded teachers and the results are very professional-looking. It’s also easy to go back and edit or copy the content to reuse it with another group.

However, there are issues with such services, as we discovered recently. Over the last year, we’d been using a service called Zaption to create interactive video quizzes. A few weeks back the company sent out a statement saying they’d been bought up by a larger company and would be shutting down at the end of September. Bye bye all our lovely materials!

Apparently, we're meant to be excited about Zaption withdrawing all the content we created. Yay!

Apparently, we’re meant to be excited about Zaption withdrawing all the content we created. Yay!

There’s also the issue where these services will suddenly change the level of access you have to increase profits, so suddenly where it was free to create certain content, you now need to start paying a subscription service. Evernote, the well known note-taking web service, have started to withdraw features from their free plan and move them to their paid one, much to the annoyance of almost everyone!

There may also be problems when trying to embed this content within a VLE. You may want to put your created content within Moodle or Blackboard, but there may not be a clear and simple way to do that and you may need to end up just linking out to the content on the website (which isn’t always an issue, but it may give the feeling that it isn’t fully integrated within the course).

So, the second way to create interactive content is to use dedicated software to build these activities and then find ways to embed or share them.

There are various programmes that can be used to do this, from the completely free to the ridiculously expensive.

We were very keen to avoid just reproducing book activities online such as matching and cloze tests that the free stuff gives you so we looked into software that could create media-rich interactive content with pictures and video and various interactive activities.

The two big players in this area are Articulate Storyline 2 and Adobe Captivate 9. Now it’s a little bit difficult to describe how these programmes work but essentially they look like PowerPoint in that you create slides with pictures, videos and animations on. However, the big difference is that you can create interactive elements so that the students can add text to the page, answer questions and do a variety of other quiz-like activities.

the interface of Storyline is very similar to Powerpoint

the interface of Storyline is very similar to Powerpoint

We took a look at both of these and weighed up various factors such as price and ease of use. After trialling them, we decided to go for Articulate Storyline 2 as it’s considerably easier to start using and there’s a great online community that supports it with tips, tricks and useful downloads. It’s slightly more expensive than Captivate (about £500 for two licenses compared to £330 for the Adobe product) but we felt that we were likely to get much more out of Storyline over time as there’s less of a learning curve for teachers.

Even with a minimal amount of instruction, you can start to build interactive content with Storyline. It’s often easier to start with a PowerPoint presentation you’ve already used in class, import it into the programme and then intersperse quiz questions between the pre-existing slides. This gives you a good idea of how it might work and gets you producing content without having to expend too much time and energy.

The software is well designed in that you get a lot of templates to draw upon to create the interactive content, so you can make some very slick looking slides with not too much technical knowledge.

this is an ordering quiz template built into Storyline

this is an ordering quiz template built into Storyline

As you get more confident with it, you can begin to bring in other elements such as video to simulate something closer to a presentation or lecture. These can then be broken up with quiz questions along the way to check understanding.

This is something we did in the summer to create an interactive guide to Turnitin. Students were required to upload their essays to the service during the course but there wasn’t time during the lessons for teachers to explain the function of this service and how to use it exactly. So we embedded an interactive guide within Blackboard that students could access

in this content, we integrated both video and interactive elements

in this content, we integrated both video and interactive elements

You can also incorporate branching into the quiz questions to make the content adaptive to the student who’s engaging with it. So, if they get a question wrong, you can direct them towards easier questions or to a review slide rather than continuing on the same track as someone who got it right. You can also set pass/fail marks for any series of quiz questions in the content.

here is an example of a basic multiple select quiz in Storyline

here is an example of a basic multiple select quiz in Storyline

Once you’ve created your content, you can then choose how/where to deploy it. You’re given quite a few options here, the most common to publish it to an LMS (VLE) such as Blackboard or Moodle. One really useful thing about this is that when you upload it to your VLE, it’s set up so that students’ scores/attempts can tracked, so if this is an integral part of the course, you can see whether a student has done it or reached the pass standard.

There are hurdles to overcome with this software. While creating the interactive content is not that complicated, the process of publishing it to a particular place such as a VLE or the web takes a bit more technical knowledge. To put it into a VLE such as Blackboard or Moodle, you need to understand a little bit about SCORM packages – the format it needs to be published in to make it work – and the settings can be confusing when you are uploading.

making sense of the upload settings in Blackboard is not easy

making sense of the upload settings in Blackboard is not easy

Publishing it to the web can also be confusing. It took me quite a bit of Googling to work out how to upload it to an online storage option such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and then create a link to it. You might certainly need some technical help if you plan to do this. An additional downside of publishing to the web is that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to track students responses and answers unless it’s embedded on a website where they have registered and so can capture their data.

Programmes such as Storyline and Captivate solve a problem that I think we all face as content creators or material developers, that of transportability. We don’t want our material locked into a particular programme, VLE or web service, because if that stops working or goes away, all our hard work is for nothing. The publishing options on these programmes allow you to put the material anywhere (VLE, web link, CD) and as new potential spaces open up – such as mobile – they upgrade the product so that it can adapt and your material can be republished to make it fit on a touch-enabled screen.

Now of course none of this is particularly cheap, and I can appreciate how some centres might baulk at shelling out £400-500 on software. But I think there are genuine long-term benefits here. First off, you can start to develop materials that are directly related to your courses and goals rather than relying on published materials that might only be tangentially connected.

Secondly, and as I mentioned above, you can adapt that material to meet the needs of different classes or programmes. You can always go back in and change the content to reflect changes in the course or changes in the students’ needs. They may not be as slick as commercially-produced materials but they do actually address the needs of your students.

This content obviously fits very well into the concept of the ‘flipped classroom’, the idea of providing some of the lesson content online before or after a class to give the teacher more time to focus on practice during the lesson. And this is certainly something we intend to explore this year. A few of our courses are heavily reliant on PowerPoint to deliver content and while this in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to a focus on coverage rather than learning in the lesson. We hope to take a lot of that PowerPoint content and repurpose it into interactive material for students to complete before and after the lesson. The hope is that it will free up the teacher to spend more time addressing students’ needs in class and also make the course more varied and interesting for the students. An additional advantage is that because all of these interactions are tracked, it’s easy to see whether students have engaged with the material or not.

What’s going to take time with all this is going to be training up teachers to use the technology comfortably and then actually building the content. However, we are lucky in that we have several teachers who have a real interest in developing online materials for students to access and that should help us produce some useful content over the next six months.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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