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Teaching the Zoo Some New Tech Tricks

The SDSU educational technology graduate program helps the San Diego Zoo enhance online learning.
San Diego Zoo entrance, photo by Jim Moore
San Diego Zoo entrance, photo by Jim Moore

Imagine needing to teach thousands of volunteers the difference between a phylum and a genus, or the varied theories of extinction, or just how to interact with guests. Not an easy task, even if you’re the San Diego Zoo.

While the zoo has trained volunteers in person for years, Debra Erickson, San Diego Zoo director of communications and interpretation, presented Jim Marshall’s educational technology graduate students with a unique challenge last school year: create an interactive online training program for the zoo's unpaid work force.

“You cannot take what you do in the classroom, convert it and call that online training and be successful,” said Erickson, an alumnus of the College of Education.

Good e-learning

Since students were creating a curriculum for volunteers, it had to be interesting enough to keep their attention, Marshall said.

“They’re volunteers — it has to be good because even the most extreme incentive — cutting their pay for not doing the training — isn't an option,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s like an extra ornery case. The e-learning has to be compelling; it has to be more that great.

“It was the most extreme case I could think of — a volunteer audience — and the content matter really is about interacting with each other,” Marshall said.

Students were tasked with thinking about what goes online and what stays face-to-face, he said.

It felt good to see we designed something that was going to make a positive impact.

Challenging material

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there was also a lack of familiarity with the material the students were supposed to teach.

“I think the greatest challenge for our team was the fact that none of us knew anything about taxonomy,” said Ladan Moshiri, referring to the biological classification of plants and animals. “However, we treated this challenge not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to learn about a new topic. Once we educated ourselves about taxonomy, we actually found it quite fascinating.”

Thankfully, the students persevered and showed the zoo what could be done using solid instructional design principles.

“These students did such an awesome job,” Marshall said. “They produced some pretty incredible work. The whole point of it wasn’t to give the zoo something that they can start training people with, but rather, demonstrate to all the stakeholders at the zoo what good online learning looks like.”

Erickson agreed.

“Both groups were able to take a variety of components — compelling visuals, cool video, questioning strategies and thought questions — and use these different techniques to change it up so that it was a very compelling learning environment,” Erickson said.

Leading a change in training

After presenting their work to various zoo personnel, Erickson said that there is interest across the organization to standardize online training and use the students’ projects as a jumping-off point for future training. In fact, the zoo is now developing technology-delivered courses for animal care personnel and its 1,000-plus volunteers.

“By sitting down and really looking at all the traditional training we have, and by taking half of it and giving it an online delivery experience, that just saves a lot of time, money and labor,” Erickson said.

“We’ve cut our time in training in half, but by moving forward and using the strategies developed by the two student teams, volunteers actually have as good, or even better experience, in the learning environment.”

The assignment also left a lasting impact on students.

“It felt good to see we designed something that was going to make a positive impact,” said educational technology graduate student Kristin Koeleman. “I learned so much and the experience I gained working with an actual client was invaluable. This ‘added value’ allowed me a deeper understanding for instructional design and a greater appreciation of the clients’ needs.”

Learn more

The SDSU Department of Educational Technology will host a free forum on careers in instructional design and technology from 6-8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at the International Student Center.  

The program will feature an interactive, technology-driven exploration of the profession.  Alumni from a range of organizations will be on hand to talk about their work and experiences doing instructional design, including representatives from:

  • Jack in the Box
  • San Diego Zoo Global
  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • San Diego Unified School District
  • Sony Entertainment America
  • Qualcomm

The San Diego State University Department of Educational Technology offers an undergraduate minor, master’s degree, graduate certificates and seminars in instructional technology, instructional software design and distance education. Available on campus and online, the internationally recognized and accredited programs are leading the revolution in learning with problem-based strategies, new technologies that go where the work is, on-demand information systems, and novel roles for instructors that take them out of the classroom and closer to where and when they are needed.

For more information, visit coe.sdsu.edu/edtec.

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