Deploying Customizable Learning Pathways in Online University Courses: A Case Study from History Courses at a Public University

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session Research

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Brief Abstract

Educators know that all learners are different, but building systems to empower individuality is difficult. This session will examine the results of utilizing one design structure called Self-Mapped Learning Pathways (which encourages learners to self-determine their educational experience) in online History courses at a Texas public university.


Matt Crosslin, Ph.D. is currently an Instructional Designer II at Orbis Education, where he works with faculty to create student-centered, active learning-based courses. He is also part-time faculty at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, where he teaches Masters and Doctoral courses in Educational Technology and Instructional Design. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include learning pathways, sociocultural theory, learner agency, heutagogy, learning theory, and open educational practices. Prior to working at Orbis, he spent nearly 15 years at the University of Texas at Arlington as both a Learning Innovation Researcher and an Instructional Designer. He also blogs occasionally at EduGeek Journal, watches or reads a lot of SciFi and Fantasy, and occasionally paints or draws something.
Justin T. Dellinger is Learning Analytics Program Coordinator at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is also the project lead for the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) and member of Every Learner Everywhere. His primary research investigates the complexities of learning analytics adoption. He currently leads the development of the Learning Analytics MOOC Series in edX and serves as a course instructor in the program. In addition, he has facilitated the Professional Learning Community program at his university with the aim of building community to support the innovation of teaching practice through the use of digital technology, such as implementing open educational resources, using online course tools, and improving course outcomes through the use of learning analytics.
Kimberly Breuer is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Arlington and is the coordinator of online instruction and unit assessment for the department. Her primary research focuses on student engagement and success, including use of a teamwork/workshop model of instruction in blended classrooms, self-determined learning pathways, and application of game theory in student assignment/assessment choices.

Extended Abstract

Each learner is unique. However, providing a unique solution for each learner proves expensive and overwhelming for instructors that are increasingly asked to do more with less each year. One solution is to have students learn how to create their own learning pathway, but so many are afraid to step outside of the instructor-focused systems that have shaped the vast majority of their educational experience.

Our recent work at the University of Texas at Arlington has focused on how to address this issue. One idea we have been piloting is a design methodology called Self-Mapped Learning Pathways (SMLP) ( This heutagogical approach to designing courses is one that creates two modalities for learners: one that is a typical instructor-led pathway through the course, and another that is a learner-centered open option for adapting the content and outcomes according to personal interests, unique contexts, and professional goals. Learners are allowed to move back and forth between modalities, as they need, in a process that basically creates a map of their own unique learning pathway through the course. In many ways, this design methodology draws upon game theory concepts that involve players making their own way through open-ended game designs.

While this approach might sound like a good idea in theory, the question remains: how would students in traditional online courses react to the agency that SMLP affords?

Over the course of three academic years, History of Civilization courses incorporated SMLP in various ways. Initially, all course materials were in Blackboard with three pathways to choose from (instructor suggested, geographic, and thematic). Students accessed materials through direct links in whichever pathway they chose. As the study progressed, one course utilized ProSolo for distribution of course content. Students in the ProSolo course had access to all materials in the instructor-suggested order but were provided with written instructions on other paths (such as geographic and thematic) they could pursue. Students were asked to set goals for their own pathway through course units, and then reflect on the process after completion for a total of three times in the course. In the final year of research, all materials were in Blackboard with provided written instructions on pathway options available. In all versions of the courses, students also had the opportunity to choose their own assessments to show content mastery according to their own strengths, interests, and professional goals. Choices of assessment varied across the time period of the study.

We have been conducting various research projects about the results of these courses over the past year. Since the courses have produced a large volume of data, we have had a team out of Serbia conducting data process mining on the activities of learners to determine patterns (or lack thereof) in students activities. We have also asked learners to fill out response surveys to give us qualitative insights beyond the learning analytics. Finally, we are also currently conducting correlational analyses of activities and grades to see if there are any course level effects of SMLP. While this is not a research session, we will explore the various results (preliminary and final) of these analyses during the session.

The session will also cover examples of other courses that have implemented pathways as well as tools that can be utilized to create a SMLP course. These tools include ProSolo, WordPress, H5P, Twine,, Wakelet, and SAP chatbots. Various theories and ideas like gamification, heutagogy, and competency-based education will also be covered.

For the individual reflection sessions, participants will be a given a self-contained pathways micro-lesson to go through. Their experience in that lesson will be the basis for the discussion time. However, in following the topic of the session, participants will be given the choice of discussing our discussion questions, asking their own discussion questions, or having a mixture of both.