Reflections on the 2017 SLATE Conference

by Daniel Murphy and Kristina Wilson


2017 marks the 15th anniversary of the SLATE (Supporting Learning and Technology in Education) Conference, held at the Northern Illinois University campus in Naperville, IL. SLATE was born as the Midwest Blackboard Users Group in 2002, and Northwestern University was among its founding members. Since then, with Executive Director Ken Sadowski at the helm, it has grown into an LMS-inclusive organization with the mission to “support learning and technology in education through communication, collaboration, and innovation, while developing and sustaining a community of practice.”

This year, two representatives from the Distance Learning department attended and one of them presented at the conference, enjoying interactive presentations and networking with diverse attendees. Over 100 schools, predominantly from the Midwest, were represented.

Dan Murphy, Director of Online Learning Technologies

This was the first time I attended SLATE. Although it is smaller in scale than other conferences I’ve attended, the quality of the sessions were a good as any I’ve seen elsewhere. Since I had no experience with the conference, I choose to attend only one day. In retrospect, I wish I had attended all three days.

In the session “Virtual Internships: Where the Gaming World Merges with the Corporate World.” Lisa Barth of Bellevue University presenting a gamified virtual internship for a public relations course.

Before I discuss this presentation, here is some background about me, games, and learning:

  • Playing board games was a big part of my childhood. By high school, my friends and I spent many hours during Chicago winters playing complex strategy and role-playing games. (If you’re old enough, and enough of a game enthusiast, then you’ll recognize the names “TSR” and “Avalon Hill”). Looking back; it’s clear these games taught me much about probability, critical thinking and history, among other things.
  • During my brief stint as an elementary school teacher one of my colleagues helped me to realize the educational value of classic tabletop games like Scrabble or Yahtzee. Children who were below grade level in math and reading were eager to play and benefited from these seemingly non-academic activities.
  • For my masters project in Northwestern’s Learning Sciences Program, I prototyped an educational multimedia application called “Inventor’s Workshop.” It was a “design goal-based scenario” in which high school science students could play the role of an 1870’s inventor trying to perfect a functioning, affordable, and practical lightbulb. By testing various designs that result in explosions, short circuits and other mishaps, the users could learn basic chemistry and physics.
  • In 2002, I went to work for an online university that structured the content of their MBA courses around a series of increasingly complex tasks. Each task was related to a common fictional project scenario (storyline) that evolved throughout the course. The scenarios usually included characters, memos, reports, spreadsheets, and a fictional company websites.

So, given my personal interest in games and my belief in their educational value, I was very interested to attend “Virtual Internships: Where the Gaming World Merges with the Corporate World.” presented by Lisa Barth of Bellevue University.

The Virtual Internship allow students in a public relations course to experience some of the tasks, interpersonal dynamics and corporate culture of a real-word internship — while at the same time providing students with immediate feedback and opportunities for discussion and reflection. There are three components to the virtual internship:

  • A Blackboard course site,
  • A fictional company website, and
  • A computer game.

The Blackboard course site is like any other, where students obtain learning resources, participate in discussions and submit assignments. Some of the assignments in the Blackboard coruse required students to complete in the game environment.

The fictional company website, which is designed to look like an authentic, small consumer products company website, provides basic facts about the organization. It also provides employee biographies and other incidental information that will provide students with insights to  interpersonal dynamics and corporate culture of the company. These factors, which are “outside the job description” of the intern, add authenticity and make for a more meaningful learning experience.

The computer game provides a 3D first-person rendering of the building where the virtual internship is set. The student can navigate the hallways to individual character’s offices or common areas like the kitchen. When a student encounters a character in the game environment, they can conduct a conversation by choosing from a list of statements. The characters’ responses are delivered via audio and on-screen text boxes. The students choose the characters to “speak with” and other actions they will pursue in the game.

Like any good game, the student’s choices in the virtual internship result in interesting and challenging consequences. In one example, the student chooses to skip lunch with coworkers in order to exercise with the company CEO — a seemingly minor decision. While getting to know the CEO looks like an ambitious move politically, this choice backfires when the student’s coworkers are forced to return from lunch early to address a crisis. In the meantime, the student is oblivious to the situation and away from his desk. As in life, decisions in the virtual internship represent trade-offs between conflicting goals and may result in unintended consequences. The game does not offer easy choices, only instructive ones.

At first, the idea of developing a computer game seems technically and financially intimidating

However, one of the most impressive things about this project is that it was created by a small project team with limited funds and limited experience developing computer games. Because of these limitations, the project evolved slowly; the company website was developed first and the game environment came later. The team was lead by an individual, Lisa Barth, with a clear vision of what the virtual internship should be. One challenge with any learning game or simulation is to provide the most instructive experiences, not necessarily the most common ones and certainly not all possible situations. Authenticity of the game must give way to effective instruction.

Krissy Wilson, Learning Designer

At this year’s SLATE Conference, I got the best of both worlds by both attending and presenting.


Early in the afternoon, I enjoyed “Have It Your Way: A Choice-Driven, Asynchronous, Discipline-Specific Online Writing Course.” That’s a mouthful! I was drawn by the idea that a general education class could be developed to meet the needs of a diverse student population. The presenters were from National Louis University and included: Dr. Sheila Yarbrough, Department Chair of Applied Communications and General Education; Tara Bryant-Edwards, Assistant Professor and Chair of the BA in Human Services Program; and Ying Liu, Instructional Designer.

They identified less-than-ideal writing proficiency among incoming students, and wanted to develop a course to bolster communication skills and improve retention. The course they designed, HSM 204: Writing in Human Services, contained the following features:

  • A focus on “profession-related artifacts.” Students could choose personal projects to work on, including current workplace writing projects, assignments in other classes, and job-seeking genres such as cover letters and personal statements. There was a clear interest in making the class pragmatic for students.
  • Pre- and post-course surveys on metacognitive skills. Administered as quizzes in the LMS, these surveys ask students to reflect on their writing history, process, genres, and strengths and weaknesses. The first orients students to the course. What do they need to work on? The second affords students an opportunity to laud their progress. How far have you come?
  • Opportunities for students to support each other. The course contains discussion boards where students share writing goals, progress, challenges and fears. Then, their peers and instructor respond publicly, to create a community of shared strategies and resources.

Although the first offering ran with only two students, the course developers hope to offer it in the future and to continue make changes based on student feedback. In addition to the novel course design elements, I also loved the peek behind the scenes into a successful instructor-administrator-designer team. They described the development process, relationship building, knowledge sharing, and negotiation in the spirit of peer collaboration.


I was inspired to submit a proposal to SLATE this year in reaction to a discussion called “The Dark Side of Instructional Design” at the 2016 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Participants–all instructional designers–wrote down their horror stories about working with faculty members on sticky notes. There was a lot of blaming and assumptions being made about intentions. The session resulted in an inventory of problems, but didn’t delve into solutions. That really rubbed me the wrong way.

I wanted my presentation to be more of a constructive activity. Called “A Working Relationship: Faculty and Instructional Designer Collaboration,” I provided a little context and the ground rules (among them, no flaming and a focus on interpersonal conflict) and we worked together in small teams to build a shared document of development challenges and potential solutions.

Although most of the attendees were instructional designers, some faculty members joined as well and we were able to keep the conversation democratic. Since it was the last concurrent sessions of the day, I was pleased to find the participants active and engaged. They came up with funny team nicknames like “Boiled” (both Purdue alums) and “Strangers at a Conference” and generated more than 4 pages of current challenges and potential solutions to their peers’ challenges. Afterward, a few participants thanked me for the upbeat and hopeful tone of the session and the tangible takeaway. I hope that participants came away feeling empowered to approach these relationships creatively. I’m looking forward to next year’s conference!


Next year’s SLATE Conference will be held from October 3-5, 2018. Consider partnering with your Learning Designer and Instructional Technologist to put in a proposal together next spring!

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