Developing Interactives for Online Courses

Chris Makler

Michigan Center for Academic Innovation


  • Introductions and Motivations
  • Show and Tell
  • Design Process
  • Technical Implementation


My Journey Here

  • Ph.D. in Economics (University of Pennsylvania, 2005)
  • 10 years in ed tech industry:
    • startup (Aplia)
    • publisher (Cengage)
    • research instute (SRI International)
  • Takeaways:
    • Interactives are extremely useful
    • Nobody is willing to pay for them
    • But, they're not that hard to make
  • I left the ed tech industry to return to teaching at Stanford,
    and created EconGraphs as a public good
    • Developed a framework, Kinetic Graphs JavaScript (KGJS), to create interactive graphs
    • Created 300+ graphs for my own courses; published them on EconGraphs
    • Developed interactives for other people using KGJS, taught others to use KGJS

Why I'm here

Why are you here?

Show and Tell

Challenges I Faced in
Teaching Economics

  1. Showing how a graph changes
  2. Showing multiple graphs simultaneously
  3. Showing causal relationships
  4. Staying focused on the econ (not the math)

Reason 1: Showing How a Graph Changes


The total revenue is the price times quantity (area of the rectangle)

\text{Demand curve facing the firm}

Classic Econ Example: Decomposing Marginal Revenue

\text{Demand curve facing the firm}

If the firm wants to sell more units, it needs to drop its price

Revenue loss from lowering the price

Revenue gain from additional sales

Classic Econ Example: Decomposing Marginal Revenue

The total revenue is the price times quantity (area of the rectangle)

Comparative statics question:
how do the relative sizes of the red and green rectangles change as the firm increases its output?

Reason 2: Show Simultaneous Changes in Multiple Graphs

Multiple graphs in a single interactive diagram can be useful for two reasons:

(1) show the relationship between two models

Multiple graphs in a single interactive diagram can be useful for two reasons:

(2) show multiple representations of the same phenomenon

Reason 3: Showing Cause and Effect

  • How do price-taking consumers and firms respond to changes in prices in the supply and demand model? How do the equilibrium price and quantity respond to changes in demand/supply shifters?

Reason 4: Staying focused on the econ, not just the math

How do I use EconGraphs?

Phase I: developed interactive diagrams for use in lecture

Phase II: incorporated diagrams into an online interactive textbook

Phase III: building exercises that use diagrams instead of math
(joint work with Doug McKee at Cornell and
Simon Halliday & Anastasia Papadolou at Bristol)




Ways to Incorporate Into Assessments

  • Provide a link to an interactive, and have students check a box saying they've done it ("check your understanding")
  • Ask a question within a CMS (Canvas, H5P, etc) with a link to an interactive tool that can be used to answer the question. (Can send randomized parameters...)
  • Embed the tool directly within the CMS
  • Students are graded on how they interact with the tool 

Difficulty/ Complexity

Design Process

  • Be clear on the problem you're trying to solve
    • What is the teaching/learning challenge?
    • How does interactivity help surmount that challenge?
  • Think from the perspective of the user, not the content itself.
    • Is it being "driven" by a teacher or a learner?
    • What do you want that person to do with it?
    • Should it be narrowly focused or a playground/sandbox?
  • You have a budget!
    • These are expensive to build and require a lot of cognitive investment
    • Focus on the highest "bang for your buck"

Fundamental Design Principles

(I doubt these are news to anyone in this room, but still...)

  • What do your students struggle most with in your classes?
    • Go broad here. Many challenges are ill-suited for interactives.
    • Search for things that are difficult, but in a way that an interactive approach might help with.
  • Walk me through how you think about that. What connections do you see that your students don't? What "a-ha" moment do they need to have?
    • Be thinking here about what actions a learner needs to take to get a deeper understanding of what's going on
  • What prevents students from achieving mastery?
    • Do they get hung up on math? Or do they just want to "plug and chug?"

Questions I Ask Instructors (and Myself!)

Brainstorming and Inspiration

Brainstorming Session

  • How might disciplinary knowledge and interactive media complement one another?

  • How might interactive media be used to their fullest potential within an online learning situation? (i.e., making the most of a potentially limited feature set)

  • What strategies do learning designers use when considering the placement of interactives in courses? When does it make sense? Where? Why? 

  • How might we abstract and apply what we know about interactive media design to new contexts (e.g., XR stage)?