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Linear vs Modular

(as posted at Why Games Matter)

I finished my EDTECH 533: YouTube for Educators course, and I had a great time.  The course really opened my eyes to the potential of YouTube.  There’s often a big difference between knowing the way a system should work and actually understanding how it does work.  Though I learned nothing new about the theory of YouTube’s functionality, the experience of using that functionality on focused projects opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.

In addition, this course helped me see the analogy between the modular/linear models of game design and instructional design.  By taking a more modular approach to my training, I am able to increase the overall utility of a given video.

As I worked through the interactive video project, one of my goals was to make the individual videos as modular as possible. That is, while I wanted the videos to work together to show the overarching point, I also wanted them to work when viewed alone.

While planning my project, I was reminded of an article written years ago by the Magic: the Gathering CCG Lead Designer, Mark Rosewater. It discussed the distinction between modular and linear design in games. Based on my experience in this course, I now see the connection between this theory about Magic card design and instructional design.

Rosewater: The first extreme is linear design. In a linear design, cards are designed to clump together in obvious groups. They have a very narrow but focused synergy. When you look at the set, it becomes quickly apparent what cards belong together.

One could easily replace the word “cards” with “videos” in that quote. Linear Design forces interdependency between parts. In the game of Magic, cards with linear design must be combined with other linear design cards to get the bonus. So, using the game example, a card that says “Elf cards can’t be destroyed” is very linear; it’s worthless if your game deck contains no elf cards, but fantastic if nearly all of your cards are elf cards.

A linear YouTube video is one that makes no sense without the context of another video. Without sufficient background, it forces the viewer to return to the previous video to understand what is going on. Many of the clips in the anti-knife violence video posted by professor Snelson fit that description.

Rosewater: Modular designs are open ended. The best metaphor for a modular design is bunch of Legos. Each individual piece can fit with many other individual pieces. The idea is “here’s a box of Legos, what can you build with it?”

Modular design is a design approach built around general utility. There can be synergy between components, but the exclusivity is removed. Either the unit can stand alone, or its benefits are so universal that it can work with anything.

A great example of modular design in education is the driver’s education class that I attended back in the 1990′s. The class was built around 6 lessons, each with a duration of about 4 hours. Each lesson was self contained; though there was a building (linear design) theme within a given lesson, none of the lessons required prior knowledge from a previous lesson. The modularity of their course design made it possible for students to start at any point in the 6 week program. One student might start on week 1 and end on week 6, while another might start on week 3 and end on week 2. Even though the course was 6 weeks long, new students could start and finish every week.

In branching YouTube videos like those created for this project, it is very easy to fall into a completely linear design mode. We want one video to flow into the next, and this will often lead us to design into our later videos the assumption that someone actually watched the earlier videos. If we make our videos modular, however, we can discover several benefits:

1) Ease of continuity: If our videos are linear, then a change or update in one video may create a continuity error in a later video. We see this in films all of the time. The more modular your design, the less likely you will face this problem from video to video.

2) Ease of entry for new material: By minimizing dependency from one video to the next, we make it much easier to add new material to a video lesson without the new material feeling “tacked on.” In my interactive troubleshooting video, for example, I list “proficiency with a multimeter” as a pre-requisite. If, in the future, I decide to produce a multimeter instructional video, I can include a link to the instructional video during the prerequisite slide. Since the tone of the whole interactive lesson is modular, the new video won’t seem out of place.

3) Transferability of old videos: In linear design, each video presupposes information from the previous video. This makes it very difficult to use (what would otherwise be) a good video in more than one lesson. On the other hand, if every video in a branching video lesson is modular enough to stand alone, then it will be much easier to integrate that video into future lessons. It might be perfectly reasonable to have a single video included in 4-6 lessons, where it applied.

After posting a discussion thread about Linear vs Modular design on the discussion forums in class, I learned from my professor that pieces of content that I call “modular” actually have a name: Learning Objects.  Putting a proper name to it helped a lot; a Wikipedia search of “Learning Objects” brought up a wealth of information on the subject.

My professor also pointed out that the content of a learning object usually needs to be generalized. The more specific the training, the greater the dependence on prior knowledge. Specificity seems to breed linearity.  From the article, when Mark Rosewater was defining linear and modular, he was defining two extremes. Usually in the game of Magic, cards fall within the continuum between the two extremes. Likewise, most of our training falls between the two extremes.

From the moment I started planning that branching video assignment, I saw what Mark Rosewater meant about linear vs modular design.  More important, I understood why he used those specific words (the “modular” part made sense, but the term “linear” didn’t. I would have been more inclined to call them independent and dependent).  Remembering his background as a writer for a sit-com, I can now partially  see it through his eyes.

It seems like a more natural thing to make linear content.  It’s certainly easier, when making content, to make all “downstream” material dependent on “upstream” material.  With proper planning, though, modular design can be much more cost effecting in the long run.  For example, consider a 30 minute training video that works through a steady, linear progression. If we inspect the content carefully, we may find 3 or 4 learning objects (modular concepts) within the lesson. It seems like it would be better to isolate those learning objects from the main video as “branches,” so that they could be used later for other projects.

Of course, they may never be used. But I think if we get into the habit making those small investments now in our lesson designs (and, for that matter, in our game designs), we may find that our jobs – and the jobs of our successors – are a lot easier in the years that follow.

Thank you,  Dr. Snelson, for providing this course.  Also, thank you, Mr. Rosewater, for helping me through my design project, and for making me a better teacher.

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