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Developing Goal-Based Scenarios for Web Education

David T. Schaller, Steven Allison-Bunnell and Susan Nagel, eduweb

Developing effective public education sites for the World Wide Web requires an understanding of both learning theories and what appeals to leisure learners. Research indicates that active learning modes are most effective, but leisure learners prefer passive entertainment experiences instead of more demanding interactive experiences. This paper explores ways to possibly bridge this gap using goal-based scenarios, which engage learners by providing a structured environment with a clear and appealing goal.

World Wide Web, education, learning theory, leisure learning, interactive multimedia, goal-based scenario, inquiry learning

As developers of educational Web sites, we try to create entertaining and educationally sound Web sites and activities. Although we have the same goals as interpreters at science, history and art museums, the Web medium imposes particular limitations on our work. It also offers new opportunities for leisure learning. We will explore several ways that educators can draw on educational theory and what people want from a Web experience to use the Web for effective leisure learning.

A brief review of learning theory

“That education is not an affair of "telling" and being told, but an active construction process is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory.”
-John Dewey

Museum theorist George Hein (1996) has developed a useful diagram that maps theories of knowledge and learning in a common space. The vertical axis places two theories of knowledge (epistemologies) at its poles. Museums, schools, and other educational institutions have traditionally taken the Realist view. They have designed exhibits and other experiences around taxonomies of nature and culture assumed to exist outside of the individual or social group. But recent scholarship in Science Studies, Art History, and Critical Theory has led many of us closer to the Idealist perspective. It is clear that much of what we learn and know is highly contextualized and is not solely determined by external reality. Loving (1997) points out that these two positions need not conflict with each other as much as they often do.

Matrix of learning theories
From Hein 1996

The horizontal axis places two theories of learning at its ends. As Hein points out, our educational system has for over a century adhered to a theory of learning as pouring knowledge into an empty vessel. The last thirty years have seen a dramatic shift (at least in theory) to a concept of active learning directed by the learner and not by the teacher.

Within this diagram, many of us involved in informal education feel most comfortable in the Discovery quadrant, and have even named rooms and programs after it. Discovery can refer to the entire right side of the diagram, but is specifically the upper-right quadrant—active learning to discover the way the world actually is. There are some serious problems with this approach, however: it postulates that “learners can learn by actively constructing, but should come to conclusions determined by others.” (Hein 1998) Anyone who has led a group discussion can probably sympathize. Attempts to control the situation so the learner cannot fail to reach the correct conclusion are also flawed. “Can an ‘experiment’ be an experiment if there is no chance of getting any but the correct responses?” (Ibid)

A growing body of research indicates that “all knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge, irrespective of how one is taught.” (National Research Council 2000) Not all learning environments must be constructivist in nature, but learning is enhanced when teachers pay attention to learners’ pre-existing knowledge and use it as a starting point for new instruction. Constructivist learning environments should also offer many entries to engagement, allow learners to create their own paths through the content, and validate their personal conclusions against those of their peers or experts. (Hein) We do not take constructivism (either as an epistemology or a learning theory) to mean that all knowledge is equally useful, or that learners should merely be left to their own devices. Education is presumably the process by which learners first enter into a community of existing knowledge and then are equipped to make their own original contributions to that community.

Leisure Learning on the Web
Classroom teachers face many challenges, but they also have captive bodies (and ideally minds) in a structured educational setting. Organizations offering leisure learning must develop appealing programs to attract an audience. Thus we need to look at what people want as well as how they might learn. A recent project by IBM made a surprising and unsettling discovery. The formative research revealed that “most participants did not express interest in web sites that involved active interaction with the content or other people.” They strongly preferred being “guided through an experience or discovery process.” (Karat et al 2001) Based on such preferences, IBM developed a site featuring online tours, hosted by curators and other experts, and delivered via streaming video—essentially, a TV-like experience with links to additional information. The summative evaluation found that “users interacted relatively infrequently with the [online] tours, and the less they interacted, the more they reported feeling engaged and entertained by the experience.” (Ibid)

If people learn best in active modes but prefer passive leisure experiences, how can we develop sound educational activities that draw a broad audience? One part of the answer lies in not promoting a single pedagogical approach as the only appropriate method, even if we are trying to take constructivist epistemologies and learning theories seriously. It should be noted that Hein’s diagram is not a pedagogical theory— it does not tell us how we should teach. Teachers with very different theories of learning and knowledge can apply the same teaching methods. Many students have “Aha!” discovery experiences under very passive learning conditions. Still others fail to discern patterns and construct knowledge for themselves even in a richly open-ended setting. Furthermore, different pedagogical methods can complement one another if sequenced properly. The rote activity of memorizing foreign language vocabulary or the periodic table of the elements can indeed be useful if it is immediately followed by more open-ended learning experiences such as an immersion-type foreign exchange trip or an inquiry-based science fair project. Without adequate preparation for active learning, the student will flounder; without an active experience to give it meaning, information gained in passive learning will not be retained. And sometimes tried and true stimulus response learning (such as positive feedback that the task has been completed successfully or the encouragement to try again) is both appropriate and simply expedient.

Bridging the Gap with Goal-Based Scenarios
In practical terms, what does the Web offer that might help resolve the tension between active learning and passive entertainment? As a fairly new medium, the Web has not seen as much scrutiny from educational researchers as its slightly older sibling, Interactive Multimedia (IMM). Since the Web’s multimedia capabilities are still growing, research into active learning with IMM can help map the strengths and weaknesses of the Web.
Many researchers, even those advocating development of IMM learning software, express concern that the medium provokes a superficial response:

“Students might seem engaged but understand little because their response reflects more an attraction to the medium than an understanding of the [subject].” (Veenema and Gardner 1996)

“[Students] seemed reluctant to sit back and reflect on the task they were engaged in and thus lacked overall strategies for dealing with a task because they preferred to try out different possibilities fairly arbitrarily at the computer, usually by a few simple keyboard entries.” (Plowman 1996)

Despite these concerns, there is great interest in IMM among educational researchers and practitioners. Some praise IMM’s use of audio, video, text, and immersive environments to appeal to multiple intelligences (Veenema and Gardner1996). Others see in IMM the chance to move beyond passive learning modes and engage students with more active learning experiences (Prensky 2001, Crawford 1982, Viadero 1996, Tipping and Graesser, Bearman 1997, Plowman 1996b).

Actual evaluation of IMM products has not fully borne out these hopes, however. Many novice learners have found the navigational choices offered in IMM programs to be bewildering. In studies of classroom use of IMM, students have needed considerable teacher assistance to make real use of the programs. (Veenema and Gardner1996, Plowman 1996b, Bearman 1997). The problem lies in the very freedom afforded by IMM’s non-linear structure. “Being a user-controlled medium, the learner expects to have control, and yet a learner does not know enough to be given full control.” (Laurillard 1996) Novice learners need more guidance and structure to ensure that they find content that is both engaging and appropriate to their knowledge level.

Roger Shank, director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, sees goals as the foundation of learning: “If goals underlie human behavior to the extent that we cannot understand a story or what someone says, or what someone wants, without a clear assessment of the underlying goals and the interaction of those goals, then it follows that goals are at the root of human learning. Why would anyone learn anything if not to help in the pursuit of a goal?” (Schank 1992) He proposes “Goal-Based Scenarios” (GBS) as a solution. GBSs are structured learning programs that can be successful in both physical and virtual environments. They “emphasize the development of skills and understanding rather than the memorization of facts. [They] provide motivation, a sense of accomplishment, a support system, and a focus on skills rather than facts.” (Ibid)

But will goal-based scenarios appeal to leisure learners? Some of the participants in the IBM study “viewed the more interactive design concepts and existing web sites as work, not entertainment.” (Karat et al 2001) Furthermore, “Subjects that liked the subject matter of the tours tended to watch more while subjects with less interest in the subject interact more, perhaps looking for more appealing content.” (Karat et al 2001c) Indeed, Web sites where users can manipulate a database of images and information, chat with strangers, or keep a journal may thrill the devotee or a student doing a research report, but can easily bewilder and bore those who lack an interest in the subject and intrinsic motivation to explore it. To lure in these uninterested but potential learners, we need Web activities that provide extrinsic motivation. Goal-based scenarios can do just that, especially when their appeal is enhanced with such strategies and formats as the following:

Narrative: Plowman (1996b) emphasizes “the importance of narrative for children learning to make sense of the world and themselves. The role of narrative is not therefore simply aesthetic, it is central to our cognition from earliest childhood.” She recommends “narrative as a way of providing continuity and coherence within the context of the possibilities offered by the technology and to explore ways of enabling children to supplement their learned sense of narrative in a way which eases navigation, comprehension and accessibility.” (Ibid) Interactive narratives can easily expand upon the core goals in a scenario, creating a more active learning experience within the comforting support of an entertaining story.

Games: Games are a natural fit with goal-based scenarios. “Games are the most ancient and time-honored vehicle for education….We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for posterity. In light of this, the question, "Can games have educational value?" becomes absurd….Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning.” (Crawford 1982) Games provide motivation, structure, and a goal, creating a supportive environment for learning. This follows a learning theory called “cognitive apprenticeship” which calls for a beneficial environment that offers learners ‘modeling’, ‘coaching, ‘scaffolding’ and eventually ‘fading’ from an expert. (Spectre and Prensky ND) While many computer games are not purposefully educational, the format is suitable for learning, if developed under the tenets of goal-based scenarios.

Simulations: Simulations are the “art and science of creating a representation of a process or system for the purpose of experimentation and evaluation.” (Gogg, Mott, [1994]). They are especially well-suited for inquiry-based activities, in which learners pose a question and then seek answers in the context of a virtual environment. There are two types of simulations:

  • Experiential. The learner assumes a functional role within the simulated reality. The student therefore becomes a functional component of an evolving situation. “Experiential simulations allow students to learn and sharpen role-based problem-solving skills.” (Weatherford)
  • Symbolic. From an external vantage point, the learner manipulates variables to affect the functioning of some population, system, or set of processes. “Symbolic simulations allow students to discover and explain scientific relationships, predict events, and learn procedural skills.” (Ibid)

Creative Play Activities. These are open-ended activities that permit and encourage learners "to explore and test ideas through the process of making." (Sumption 2001) These activities may involve writing, drawing or painting, making music, or other creative endeavors. And if designed as goal-based scenarios, they can provide guidance and structure to help learners develop new skills and talents.

While Web-based materials are significantly different from localized IMM in their technology and capabilities, many, if not all, of the types of Goal Based Scenarios characterized for IMM can be applied to networked multimedia on the Web. What the Web lacks in high-quality graphics and video, it makes up for in its access to large real-time datasets and the connections it can create to other people.

Examples of Goal-Based Scenarios
How can goal-based scenarios incorporate narrative, games, simulations, and open-ended creativity activities? Here are some examples:

Narrative: The Web can do more than tell stories. It can put people in the stories—in an engaging scenario (even one reminiscent of popular entertainment) and give them a challenge, a task, or a mission. The content populates the story as well as providing the means to succeed. For example, “In Search of the Ways of Knowing Trail” (In the Go Wild section of Brookfield Zoo’s Web site: takes players to Africa, where they meet several local children and must learn about the ecology and cultures of the rainforest to reach their destination. The “work” required is minimal, placing this activity toward the passive entertainment end of our continuum, but users must read and evaluate the children's advice and make decisions in a variety of situations. Such interactive stories clearly fall on the Discovery learning quadrant, since they gently, playfully, but inevitably guide players to a pre-determined “correct” conclusion.

Simulations: Another approach is to create an inquiry-based learning experience, which itself is based on constructivism. Inquiry can range from guided to open inquiry. Open inquiry requires a skilled and attentive leader to help students formulate their own questions and support their pursuit of the answer. On the Web as well as in person, in requires a high degree of staff time and involvement. Guided inquiry, however, is more feasible for Web-based activities. It provides an initial question as well as a structure and goal for the learner while creating an environment for experimentation, analysis and inference. An example is the JASON Project’s “Frozen Features Digital Lab” (contact eduweb to view this content). Students can choose from several questions to explore using data provided within the activity, but they draw their own conclusions, which they can share with other students online. Although not as profound a learning experience as open inquiry, this type of Web activity can model the inquiry process and prepare learners for more independent inquiry experiences.

Creative Play. Further along toward a true constructivist approach (and requiring more work on the part of the user), the Web can provide the means and structure for learners to create their own stories or artworks, or even multimedia productions. In the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s “Art Tales: Telling Stories with Wildlife Art” (, learners write an original story or essay using museum artworks for inspiration and illustration. They can examine the artworks and read about the artists, but in writing their story they create their own personal interpretation of the works. As the project developers, we knew that the effort required to write something original would discourage many visitors, so we added a role-playing element to help draw them into the activity. Learners can assume a persona (frontier explorer, curator, or field guide writer) and review, choose, and write about artworks within the context of that role. Although the personal engagement required by the activity undoubtedly turns many people away, it likely increases the satisfaction and sense of achievement for those who complete it.

Designing Goal-Based Scenarios for the Web
When designing a goal-based scenario, we match the genre and format with the subject, the audience, the institution, and the learning objectives of the project. A purely constructivist approach may not be appropriate for every project, but it is important to recognize which theory of learning informs the content design, and which pedagogical practices are most appropriate for the situation.

This paper was the basis of a research and evaluation project conducted by eduweb and museum evaluator Minda Borun.)


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