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Case Study: A Course Activity Using Rich Media


In the following example, the instructional challenge centered around a situation where students were having difficulty grasping an abstract concept: How is data collected in the process of navigating on the Internet that results in the formation of a data profile of the user?

A rich media resource was employed in the course that converted the hidden navigation data into an accessible and interactive graphical representation of the user’s Internet behavior. From this, students could review a visualization of their own Internet navigation so that they could discover how many trackers had been attached from each point of their navigation. This engagement was then used as a basis for discussion.

An instructional challenge with an abstract concept

COMM601 Trends in Digital & Social Media is an online upper-level undergraduate course at Granite State College (USNH).

One of the topics in the course is about Online Behavioral Targeting (OBT) – an online marketing technique based on using Internet tracking data (third-party cookies) saved in the user’s Web browser to predict what kinds of ads or content the user might respond to.

The technical underpinnings of OBT are mostly invisible. Most people do not know how or where browser cookie data is stored, where it comes from, how it is used by trackers, and how it causes a person to have a “personalized Internet experience”.  From an instructional standpoint, the concept of OBT feels like it operates entirely in the abstract.

To illustrate the concept of OBT more clearly, students are directed to install a Firefox browser plugin called Lightbeam. The plugin processes all of the browser’s saved tracking data and displays it in an interactive graphical format.

Figure 1, on the left, shows text-based cookies (tracking data) as it appears in the user’s browser while in Developer Mode. Figure 2, on the right, shows how the Lightbeam plugin presents the same data as an interactive graphical display.


cookies in text form lightbeam interactive
Figure 1: This is what cookies look like in the user’s browser data. Figure 2: This is the same data as it appears in the Lightbeam browser plugin.

Rich media within the pedagogical wrapper

From an instructional design perspective, the Lightbeam experiment was intended as an integrated activity. It was not just a link dumped in the Resources section of the module. It was placed within a larger pedagogical scheme – a so-called pedagogical wrapper. The wrapper is composed of three parts:

    1. Prior to the activity: An introduction to the resource to show relevance and credibility: The following text is included with the link to the Lightbeam resource (excerpt): “Have you ever wondered what entities are tracking your moves on the Internet? The Lightbeam Firefox plugin will show you, in graphic detail…. The plugin is funded by the Ford Foundation: ‘The work at the Ford Foundation focuses on building outreach campaigns to help people understand online data tracking — both the benefits and the issues.’”
    2. During the activity: Learners install the plugin around Week 2 of the course so that enough meaningful data can be gathered by Week 5. Learners are advised that the results of the plugin will be used in their participation in the Week 5 discussion forum and are encouraged to review and explore interim results.
    3. After the activity: Interactive engagement and reflection is drawn upon based on their observations and experiences:
      1. In Week 5 Discussion Forum #1, learners are directed to review their Lightbeam plugin results and comment on their discoveries against their expectations. This establishes learners’ personal positions about their discoveries and their interpretation of the results. (See selected student response posts below).
      2. In Week 5 Discussion Forum #2, learners are placed in a hypothetical “what if” situation where they must decide whether to use a new, very powerful (and ethically questionable) OBT algorithm to gain a competitive advantage for their fictitious business. The discussion forum prompt includes a statement, “How have the readings, media, and the Lightbeam experiment influenced your position?”.

In short, the pedagogical wrapper provides learners with a context for their engagement, guidance on what to be focused on while they are engaged with it in anticipation of using their experiences later, and a call to draw from those experiences in an instructional interaction. For more on how this technique operates in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy, please review the chapter “The Pedagogical Wrapper” for more details.

Below is a selection of actual student responses posted in Discussion Forum #1 for this activity:

At first I was kind of lost with exactly what tracking was, but then I went back, reread some stuff, finally installed Lightbeam, and boom, tracking explained.

Obviously I realize that, via metadata, those sites probably say a lot about me…. It’s one thing to realize, and another to see it spelled out in such detail.

I reviewed data for a period of [seven days] and the results are astounding. I have a total of 467 [tracking] sites listed, of this 467, I only visited 39 sites. 428 sites are third party sites.

As far as the websites I have visited… I did learn a lot more than I thought I would from this study. Mostly, I learned that Good Housekeeping is riddled with these third-party sites.

That being said, the Lightbeam plugin for Firefox is awesome.  The data it shows as far as what sites you went to and ones that are connected that you didn’t go to are is amazing.

After reviewing the data on Lightbeam, I was blown away.

Very surprised by this data. Since [one week] I have visited only 25 sites, however I have connected with over 370 third party sites!  I’m assuming this means all the third party sites now know I visited the site it is connected to….. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this.

I visited a total of 4 sites with Lightbeam and was connected with 247 3rd party sites.  Even I’m a bit surprised to find out so many trackers are being used.

What were some of the pedagogical effects of rich media in this activity?

  1. Streamlined cognitive effort or reduction of cognitive load: Even though the rich media component was not the primary resource for this instructional situation nor the focal point of the main topic, it enabled learners to more easily penetrate the abstract complexity of OBT so that their interaction can be more substantive.
  2. Promotion of sensemaking: When asked to reflect on the ethical ramifications of OBT tracking systems, learners are able to draw from a concrete hands-on perspective and from a personally emotional position since the data they interacted with was their own.
  3. Promotion of sensegiving **: The instructor was in a stronger position to challenge students’ positions on the “what if” discussion because of their responses to the Lightbeam experiment. For example, some students may express indifference to the tracking information seen in the Lightbeam experiment, but feel the “what if” situation crosses an ethical line. The contrast in these positions can be used as a basis for deeper discussion and elaboration.

**  Sensegiving is defined as “…a narrative process that is intended to persuade others towards certain understandings and actions.” (Dunford & Jones, 2000, p. 1209).

How was this form of rich media advantageous to learners?

Consider the following:

  • The OBT activity could have been presented by the instructor without a rich media component and learners would still have been able to understand how OBT operates.
  • Learners could still have responded to the primary “what if” discussion with authoritative resources to support their positions without drawing from their experiences with the Lightbeam plugin experiment.

However, with the Lightbeam experiment integrated into the instructional challenge, learners benefited from the following advantages:

  • The concept of OBT was visualized in a graphical representation that was analogous to the actual connected relationships between the user, trackers, and individual website destinations.
  • Learners were personally engaged with the factors that informed their position on the topic because of their interactive engagement experiences using their own Web browser and their own Internet behavior.
  • Instructors had the benefit of referring to learners’ concrete experiences as a basis for interrogating the topic.

The key phrase to remember in this case study is how rich media was advantageous to learners.


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Teaching With Rich Media by Steve Covello is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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