eLearning that Goes Beyond Text and Graphics


Minnesota educators use lodeStar to bring Cyber Village Academy into thehomes and hospitals of ill and injured home-schooled children.

In Minnesota, the eLearning explosiontranslates into many new opportunitiesfor students. High school students takeboth core and elective courses online,making up missing credits and advancingtheir studies; three charter schools providevirtual high schools; seven district schoolshave formed an eLearning collaboration.Nearly every state college and university,and every private college offers onlinecourses to its students. In 1998, however,things were quite different. That’s whenanother teacher and I started an onlinelearning school. And in that year, in ourcommunity, we were all alone.

In 1997, I taught computer programmingat the Saint Paul College. By then Ihad a range of experiences in instructionaltechnology: I had earned my MEd incurriculum and instructional systemsthrough the University of Minnesota. Ihad built the college’s InstructionalTechnology Center, helped to launchMinnesota Satellite and Technology, andtaught technology-mediated instructionto college teachers and developers throughoutthe state.

Then the call came from GaryWarrington, executive director of SpecialEducation for Minneapolis PublicSchools, inviting me to build the firstonline learning charter school to serveseriously ill children and homeschoolers.The district had a roster of hundreds ofchildren battling leukemia and differentforms of disease. Two kids were homeboundbecause of gunshot wounds.Minneapolis Public Schools and surroundingcommunities also had theirshare of homeschooled children whoweren’t being served by the district. At thattime, Minnesota parents taught 12,000children at home.

In response, I invited Cherie Neima tohelp me. Cherie Neima had been both aclassroom teacher and a softwaredesigner/content specialist for theMinnesota Educational ComputingConsortium (MECC). Her creditsinclude the CD-ROM Africa Trail, andMayaQuest, the online expedition led byadventurist Dan Buettner. So, togetherwith Neima and an administrative assistant,I started Cyber Village Academy(www.cva.k12.mn.us), a Minnesotaonline/on-campus charter school. Ourgoal was to choose the right blend ofteachers, technology, curriculum, andservices to bring the “larger than life”school to the homes and hospitals ofthese children.

But spring 2001 brought a decisiveturning point, and we had to face up toseveral serious shortcomings:

  • The learning management system thatwe had chosen in 1997 was designed forpostsecondary education and corporatetraining; it wasn’t working for us.Thus, we needed a system that wasstudent-centric and not course-centric.
  • The integrated learning systems thatwe had subscribed to had their ownproprietary gradebook and didn’treport to our eLearning platform. Also,lessons couldn’t be edited and supplemented,and many were boring andunengaging.
  • We were tired of text, graphics, andquizzes. We needed variety. We neededa tool that could create fun, engaging,educational activities that could liveinside our learning managementsystem.

The decisions we made that spring toovercome our challenges changed ourschool entirely—and for the better.Several innovations emerged. First,Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com)released a learning management systemthat was initially designed for K-12. Theycalled it Encarta Class Server, but laterchanged the name to Microsoft ClassServer to avoid brand confusion. CyberVillage Academy would soon become thefirst application service provider (ASP)for Class Server, its students, and for otherschool districts. The application service iscurrently marketed by Broad EducationInc.(www.broadeducation.com).

With Class Server, parents andstudents could log in and see in one placeall of their assignments from every subjectarea. Students were no longer floundering,drilling into this course or that,opening a resource folder or an assignmentfolder. Their first screen greetedthem with what they needed to do.

Additionally, assignments remainedaccessible to parents and students for theentire year or beyond, together withstudent responses, teacher evaluations,and rubrics.

“Today, CyberVillage Academy is at the top of its game. CVAteachers can choose activities from a library of thousands ofresources, or they can create their own, no longer restricted totext, graphics, and quizzes.”

Suddenly, with Class Server, CyberVillage Academy didn’t need to subscribe todifferent integrated learning systems fordifferent curricula. Companies like Ancept,Absorb Learning, Adventure Online,Interact, and many others were developingresources that would behave nicely in our“playground” —our learning managementsystem. Students could access activitiesfrom a variety of developers in onecoherent environment. Results would bereported to one central gradebook.

Today, Cyber Village Academy is at thetop of its game. CVA teachers can chooseactivities from a library of thousands ofresources or create their own. ThroughClass Server, and with the help of lodestar(see below), an eLearning content developmenttool, teachers are no longerrestricted to text, graphics, and quizzes.They engage students in wonderful,meaningful activities that precisely meetthe students’ needs.

Robert Bilyk is the director of CyberVillageAcademy, and co-director of lodeStarLearning Corp. (www.lodeStarLearning.com) He holds an MEd in curriculum andinstructional systems, and has been engagedin computer-assisted instruction at theelementary, secondary, and postsecondarylevels for the past 20 years. E-mail:[email protected].

Matching Learning Objectives with lodeStar

In the summer of 2001, a small team of instructional designers and programmers,led by Mark Burrs and Robert Bilyk, launched an alpha version of a new tool thatwould finally realize their career-long dream in instructional technology. Their goalwas for teachers to use one simple tool called lodeStar (www.lodeStarLearning.com)to create WebQuests, flash cards, games, timelines, slide shows, quizzes, presentations,and more—all by filling out a form. With a click of a button, teachers couldpublish to Class Server, or with several clicks, publish to Blackboard, Desire2Learn,WebCT, and other learning management systems (LMS). With lodeStar (not anotherauthoring system or LMS), teachers can quickly create activities that closely matchtheir learning objectives. LodeStar is a simple step-by-step program that letsteachers create activities quickly; there are no features that make the productconfusing or impractical for teachers to use.

Today, lodeStar is used by US and Canadian teachers in elementary, secondary,and postsecondary schools. To date, lodeStar has been translated into two Europeanlanguages and meets both the IMS content packaging specification and theShareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM).

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.