Teaching & Learning

Games, Interactive Modules & Learning Objects

different color lego blocks

A lot of material are better experienced and absorbed when your students can interact with the concepts and play around with their multi-faceted components.  Being online gives you the advantage of embedding these interactive learning objects into your courses to help your students..

Publishers offer interactive games and activities. There are also online repository such as MERLOT, Connexions, and the Maricopa Learning eXchange to search for free and open access learning objects.  You could also build something that is customized to your content. However, that may take a longer time to build, so talk to your support team and plan ahead.


A narrow way to think of interactivity is to focus on the physical action being taken. This usually means clicking a mouse or typing on a computer, and sometimes even speech or gesture inputs. In contrast to the uni-directional approach of lecturing, interactive activities require feedback and actions from the students, thus focusing their attention and encouraging them to think and work through a problem. Far more important than the mechanics of interaction is the experience and motivation of interacting. What action is the learner intending to take when they interact? What action is the learner is thinking in their mind as they click and type? How do those actions enhance learning? Is the learner motivated because the interaction will affect their grade (extrinsic motivation)? Is the learner motivated because they are trying to win a fun game? Or because they want to learn (both intrinsic motivations)?

There are various interactive styles, from a time-limited challenge requiring quick-trigger clicking and typing to more reflective and experimental explorations. The key learning goals of your topics will help decide which interactive activities to use to enhance these goals. Interaction can be between the learner and the software, between the learner and other learners, between the learner and the professor, or between the learner and a virtual actor.

Just as writing exams and quizzes, each outcome of a complex interactive activity must be carefully planned and programmed. Anticipating what might go wrong consumes more energy than just saying what is correct. So plan for these contingencies.

On a cursory glance, building an interactive activity on the computer might sound daunting -- requiring the help of an army of programmers and designers. But, there are many very simple interactive activities such as short question-and-answer sessions and quick re-cap of key points which can be very effective.

MSU Example

Cindy Arvidson uses 10 interactive virtual laboratories to familiarize medical students to the fundamental techniques of diagnostic microbiology laboratory procedures. Students practise these diagnostic procedures at their convenience, while the wet lab resources are deployed more efficiently.

MSU Example

Biomedical Laboratories professor John Gerlach uses a custom-made drawing tool to help students diagram a family tree. Later in the course he uses an interactive laboratory floor plan and custom drawing tool for students to design a laboratory.

MSU Example

GEO204 professor Antoinette WinklerPrins embeds questions within content. When students click to answer the questions, they are given immediate feedback.

MSU Example

Music History and Music Theory professor Leigh VanHandel uses a highly customisable interactive Music Fundamentals Platform to drill her students on the reading of musical notations, getting her students from a varied to an equal level of competency on their own time.

MSU Example

Passive Solar Greenhouses for Protected Cultivation has a wiring exercise which trains the students through the process of wiring an electrical circuit. The students have immediate visual feedback and explanation as they connect live and ground wires over several arrangement of electircal junction boxes.


Simulations are constructed exercises and imitations based on models. They can be computer-based or real-life. Simulations need not be complete reproductions of realism, e.g. time may be sped up, unnatural views may be presented. Their chief function is to re-create key components of situations so that the users can experiment in order to learn about the various outcomes of their decisions.

To make a simulation a good learning experience, provide explanations and frame the problem in advance. It will prepare the students as to where they should pay attention and where they can suspend their disbelief.

MSU Example

A professor of nursing uses a video in her gerontology course to simulate what it is like to be old. The video is blurry to simulate poor eyesight. Audio is distorted to simulate poor hearing. The scenario is shot from the point of view of a grandmother sitting at a family dinner, surrounded by her adult children and grandchildren. The video simulation lasts about 10 minutes as the family eats dinner, talks, and passes food. It is difficult for the grandmother to see and hear what is going on. The value of this simulation is to let the students partially experience something much more vividly than just reading about poor eyesight and hearing.

MSU Example

In a Special Education course, students learn to use a simulated brailler to type braille with 6-finger combinations. They also have a simulated abacus.

MSU Example

Intercultural Relations professor Adan Quan uses a set of humourous videos of cultural faux pas and misconceptions, to have students experience different cultures in order to help them learn acceptable behaviors in certain situations.

MSU Example

First Year Online Biology students use a Hardy-Weinberg simulator to run through 100 generations in order to see the effects of particular genetic influences.

MSU Example

In Organic Farming Principles and Practices, the instructor John Biernbaum demonstrates the interactions between two main types of bacteria during a compost cycle using a simulation which tracks the bacteria's consumption, movement and population over time.

MSU Example

Instructor Ryan Kimbirauskas in entomology developed a crime scene investigation simulation to walk students through the process of choosing the right tools for collecting insects from a crime scene.

MSU Example

Nursing Professor Sharon King created a role play by putting students into the role of an elderly person whose grandchild has convinced her to participate in a study at Michigan State University on aging and cognition. The scenario shows how difficult the circumstance is for the elderly participant, culminating in a timed test tailored to be particularly stressful.

MSU Example
Participants in a space camp had a role play simulation of a space shuttle mission. Everyone had to read from a timed scripted going from T -15 through 2 hours into the mission. Everyone had to read the correct lines at exactly the right time. This very tense and challenging simulation, conveyed the the significance of timeliness and the importance of team work.

As seen from the last example, simulations do not necessarily involve technology.

Once you have decided to use simulations as learning tools, focus on the content and learning experience by highlighting only the important details. Contact LearnDAT and GEL lab to work with you to construct these simulations.


Games can be designed to teach facts, skills, processes and behaviors as well as problem solving, reasoning and creativity. They can come in the form of single player or multiplayer games, involving complex role-play or simulation. The attractiveness of complex games is their "hard fun" -- because serious learning is required in order to master the games, they generate a higher level of satisfaction.

Educational game expert Mark Prensky identified six elements of games which make them engaging, providing intrinsic motivations for the players to persist with the game:

  • Interaction: The ability to influence the environment is one of the basic requirements of all interactive activities, including games.
  • Rules: Games set down limitations and draw lines on how the players may interact with the elements in the game. Players learn the rules and their options very quickly.
  • Goals and objectives: Games use well-placed incremental goals and challenges to step the players through the games, rewarding them with the satisfaction of accomplishment.
  • Conflict/opposition/challenger: Providing a conflict or an opposition ties in with the objectives of overcoming this hurdle. Very few people can resist a fun challenge and its rewards!
  • Outcomes and feedback: The above are supported and strengthened by providing clear and immediate feedback on the players' behaviors./li>
  • Story: A gripping and interesting story provides the needed reward to encourage the players to accomplish the goals.

While games do not fit into a standard model of teaching, they provide deeper levels of processing, thus learning, through their immersive experiences.

Campus units such as the GEL Lab and LearnDAT will be able to work with you to develop educational games.

MSU Example
Advertising Professor Hairong Li developed a Jeopardy-like computer game for students to answer advertising questions.
MSU Example

MSU Writing Center and the Writing In Digital Environment Research Center created "Ink", an imaginary world designed to train players' writing skills. The players earn and spend ink currency through writing and related activities.

Game design professor Carrie Heeter has compiled a great list of educational games at the MSU Serious Game Design Program website.

Learning objects

"Learning objects are content modules that are (1) digital, (2) small, (3) self-contained, and (4) re-usable in different contexts," defined Steve Acker, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning, Ohio State University.

National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII) goes on to explain, "Learning objects are digital resources, modular in nature, that are used to support learning. They include, but are not limited to, simulations, electronic calculators, animations, tutorials, text entries, Web sites, bibliographies, audio and video clips, quizzes, photographs, illustrations, diagrams, graphs, maps, charts, and assessments. They vary in size, scope, and level of granularity ranging from a small chunk of instruction to a series of resources combined to provide a more complex learning experience."

Since the ideal learning objects are designed to be reused in multiple courses across multiple disciplines, they cannot be tied down to particular class data, but only to their subject matter. They can even be mechanisms in which the instructors can plug in their own content. Standard topics like the functions of a respiratory system or the water cycle can be packaged as learning objects, ready to be plugged into different courses.

MSU Example

Geography Professor Antoinette WinklerPrins uses flash animation to explain the formation of a tsunami.

MSU Example

Microbiology professor Elroy Klacviter has a virtual simulation of a Streak Plate method to allow students to perform the steps involved in isolating bacteria. This module has also been adopted by other courses as the procedure is widely used among biomedical sciences.

Learning objects range from simple stand-alone Flash applications to complex interactive modules communicating with multiple functions of LMSes. To be able to reuse these learning objects across different systems, certain conventions may be followed. The Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM) is one framework developed to define and access learning objects such that they may be easily shared among different LMSs. SCORM tries to ensure that learning objects are reusable (over time and by different organizations or teachers), interoperable (connect with different learning management systems including links to the gradebook), durable (survive thousands of users), and accessible (for visual and auditory impaired users).

The wikipedia entry on Learning Object highlights some other conventions and lists major repositories such as MERLOT: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching.

Following are learning objects for various subject matter used in higher education.

  • The National Cancer Institute provides a set of interactive Cancer mortality charts and graphs comparing various cancers, demographic groups and locations.
  • Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction has a Research Methods Lab for users to learn and practice five different Research Methods in social and natural sciences.
  • The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art offers a multimedia guide in >a href="http://www.sfmoma.org/multimedia/interactive_features/3">Making Sense of Modern Art.
  • An extensive explanation of the function and organization of the Periodic Table.
  • Virtual Courseware for Earth and Environmental Sciences has an Earthquake activity to help users learn about the fundamentals of how seismic waves are used to locate an earthquake's epicenter and to determine its Richter magnitude.
  • The Particle Adventure is an award-winning compendium of the concepts of what makes up our physical world.
  • The Auscultation Assistant helps medical students learn the different audio characteristics of heart murmurs and breath sounds.