What about “Learning Presence?”

In science, researchers see theories and ideas as being tentative.  New information can be introduced that prompts reflection and re-examination.  For example, Copernicus’ work forced astronomers to re-evaluate whether the Earth was the center of the solar system and it helped to set up the work done by Kepler and Galileo. By looking at things a little differently and introducing research to back up his claims, Copernicus opened the scientific doorway for all of modern astronomy.

I thought about Copernicus this weekend as I read a study conducted by Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano. In an article that appeared in Computers and Education in 2010, Shea and Bidjerano examined whether online students’ self-efficacy impacted their perceptions of the quality of the virtual learning environments in which they participated. The researchers surveyed over 3000 students in 42 different institutions of higher education to see whether behavioral and motivational elements correlated with aspects of the Community of Inquiry framework (COI).   When Garrison, Archer and Anderson (2001) first introduced the COI framework, they presented it as model to describe a “worthwhile educational experience” for online students. The framework involves three intersecting “presences” which help to describe the overall learning activities with which students and instructors must engage. The framework includes: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence.  Describing COI holistically, successful online classes depend upon instructors fostering the development of a social environment where students interact cognitively with one another and with the teacher.  While thousands of research articles have validated the COI framework from a variety of perspectives, few have examined the role that a student’s beliefs in self play in online educational experiences.

In Shea and Bidjerano’s work, they concluded “that a positive relationship exists between elements of the COI framework and between elements of a nascent theoretical construct that we label “learning presence”. We suggest that learning presence represents elements such as self-efficacy as well as other cognitive, behavioral, and motivational constructs supportive of online learner self-regulation.”  For those new to the concept of self-efficacy, Bandura (1986) defined it as an individual’s beliefs in their “capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance.” Self-efficacy is a well-researched area that has been shown to have an impact on individuals’ job satisfaction, academic success, and so much more.  The surprising part about self-efficacy is that it focuses more on individuals’ beliefs in self rather than their actual abilities.  And that’s the important connection to Shea and Bidjerano’s work.  Students who feel that they are more able to be successful in an online class find the class worthwhile.  Shea and Bidjerano also found relationships between the elements of their proposed “learning presence” and the teaching, social and cognitive presences in the original COI framework.  This, I feel, is the most powerful part of the research and the most motivating for instructors.  The online environments that instructors construct and facilitate need to help students attend to their own learning.  While we can build learning environments that support social and cognitive development, we must also thoughtful construct spaces where students feel they can be successful and are motivated to learn.

As I read Shea and Bidjerano’s research, other studies kept coming to mind and making sense in a new light.  The one that stands out a study I wrote about earlier this year.  Titled The Magic Pill of Online Learning, the post described the importance of including orientation videos in online classes.  In classes with high dropout and failure rates, researchers added short videos that helped students understand how to navigate the online environment and complete important tasks like check grades, access content and participate in discussion forums.  By adding the orientation videos, students were more successful and dropout and failure rates decreased.  Viewed from Shea and Bidjerano’s work, the orientation videos helped to motivate students and foster confidence in their ability to be successful.

Hopefully, Shea and Bidjerano’s work will usher in a re-examination of the current COI framework.  Despite being almost six years old, the research hasn’t raised widespread awareness of the socio-cognitive aspects that students bring to online learning environments.  Navigating the Community of Inquiry website that is maintained by Garrison and others, however, I came across a blog post authored by Terry Anderson (one of the original COI researchers) that outlined the potential of a fourth presence.  The post references Shea and Bidjerano and other researchers who are examining the impact that students have on online learning environments.  While this research will not force a complete redesign of the Solar System (like Copernicus), it may prompt re-configuration of current models that describe online learning.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721-1731.


Beginning teaching? Some advice to help.

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from a few years ago.  This post was originally shared in August 2014.  Since I’m leading new faculty orientation on campus again this week, I thought it would be a good post to review.  Enjoy.

This week, our campus kicks off its new faculty orientation.  With four and a half days of meetings and professional development sessions, the orientation is intended to be an entryway for faculty new to the university and, in some cases, new to teaching.  As I’ve been working to plan the orientation, I thought I’d use this week’s post to offer some advice to those educators who may be just starting out their career.

1.  Shoot for being effective.    Creating syllabi and planning lessons are daunting tasks.  They can also be humbling and a little scary.  When I first started teaching, I worried about creating perfect lessons and error-proof syllabi.  In practice, however, these are targets that may be unattainable for someone new to the profession.  Instead of focusing on perfection, start with being effective.  Create lessons that effectively help students learn and syllabi that effectively communicate class expectations.  After reaching that goal, you can start working becoming perfect.

2.  Expect to make mistakes.  While you’re developing those effective syllabi and lessons, you’re going to make mistakes.  Maybe you’ll be in the middle of some lesson and forget how to do long division.  Or maybe you’ll arrive at 10 AM for your 9 AM class.  Or maybe you’ll misgrade a whole set of exams.  The important thing is what you do next.  I’d suggest embracing your infallibility and discuss how important it is to learn from your mistakes.

3.  Teach students.  While you’ve probably been hired because of your content expertise, you also have to remember the other aspects of the job.  You don’t just teach your content.  You teach students and their learning requires more than a “stand and deliver” approach.  In his book “Naked Teaching,” Jose Antonio Bowen discusses the importance of face-to-face interaction in a highly technological world.  In an article in Liberal Education recently, Bowen writes:

As faculty, if we are primarily concerned with transmitting content, then our value will only decrease. The Internet contains a much broader selection of lectures, demonstrations, animations, and examples on more subjects, in more languages, and with a greater variety of approaches, methods, and pedagogies than any professor, department, or even entire university can provide. If, however, we are more concerned with faculty-student interaction; the design and sequence of learning experiences; the application, analysis, and synthesis of information; the motivation of students; and, especially, the increasing complexity of students’ mental models, then the value of what we do will increase.”

These processes require that we focus on students’ needs and interact with them on a personal level.  Our value as educators isn’t based solely on the amount of knowledge in our heads but on our ability to foster a positive learning environment in our classrooms.

4.  Take care of yourself.  I hate to break it to you, but you’ll have bad teaching days.  My hope is that you have more good ones than bad ones this year.  At the end of the day, however, it’s important that you remember to take care of yourself.  I have a colleague who identifies a point on his commute home where he drops the emotional and mental baggage of the day.  Other colleagues relax by exercising, gardening and cooking.   Whatever activity you choose, identify something that you do for your own well-being.  Teaching is hard work and requires dedication.  But it also requires that you attend to your mental health and spiritual well-being as much as you do to planning lessons and grading papers.

Teach Like Batman!

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from last year.  This post was originally shared in August 2015 and discussed some of the research on instructors use of flipped classrooms.  Enjoy.

I’m a huge comic book fan.  As a child, I remember distinctly stopping by the comic book store every Wednesday to pick up new releases and anxiously thumbing through the pages to see if my favorite super heroes survived their latest battles with some menacing villain.  As I read the issues, I often thought about the special powers the heroes had and which ones I wished I possessed.  It would be great to fly like Superman or have super speed like the Flash.  Maybe I could be super stretchy like Mr. Fantastic or turn into a muscular monster like the Hulk when I became angry.  With so many super powers available in the comic book universe, it’s hard to settle on a single one.

Growing up, my favorite hero was Batman.  I liked the costume and the Bat Mobile.  Batman was a brooding, complex character who fought in the shadows and used his mind to solve the crimes of Gotham City. I especially liked the fact that Batman didn’t have a super power.  He was just a guy who trained hard to become a crime fighter.  He wasn’t born on some other planet.  He didn’t get his powers by putting on a special ring or by being bombarded by cosmic radiation.  He just worked hard and was committed to his craft.  This mindset really resonates with me.  Looking at the numerous movies, books and television series that have been dedicated to the character, it seems that Batman’s mindset must resonate with others as well.

As the semester starts at my institution, I’m hoping to channel Batman’s mindset and work hard to be the best teacher I can be.  Good teaching is hard work and to be a good teacher requires that we adopt a Batman-like dedication to the craft.  While it would be great to have some teaching super power, the reality is that there are no short cuts to becoming a good instructor.  I’m reminded of this as I read a recent report on Flipped Classrooms that was compiled by Faculty Focus.  While many instructors have tried flipping their classrooms, many instructors report that it’s hard work and requires a lot of time to do it well.  As I’ve written before, I think flipping classrooms is a novel teaching strategy that utilizes classroom time differently.  It helps foster more collaboration in classroom and dedicates more time to group problem solving and authentic application of classroom content.  But it’s not a super power that instructors can develop overnight.  No instructor is going to suddenly become a better teacher by assigning some videos for students to watch outside of class.   Like Batman, instructors are going to need to work hard and dedicate time and energy to becoming better at flipping.  While flipping may be hard work, the Faculty Focus study also shows it’s benefits.  Instructors who utilized the flipped classroom model saw greater student engagement and increased student learning in their classes.  I’m sure even the Caped Crusader would be proud of those outcomes!

Getting Ready for School

As the last days of summer wind down in the United States, I thought I’d share a few blog posts that I’ve written over the years to help get the instructional juices flowing again. Enjoy!

Philosophy Meets Reality in Syllabus Design: This post examines some of the challenges with creating a good syllabus that both supports student learning and communicates course expectations. The post was the result of a thoughtful discussion with colleagues at my institution.

Resources for Refining Your Syllabus:  Wondering how to make your syllabus stronger? In this post, I share several ideas for improving syllabus design and link to research and a host of resources to help instructors across the experiential continuum.

It’s In The Syllabus: Want to reduce student who email about questions that are clearly outlined in the syllabus? This post outlines a host of instructional ideas to “teach the syllabus.”

Dear Students: As a new academic year begins, it’s important to review professional communication policies with students. This post outlines some helpful advice to students that can help them avoid email missteps with their instructors.

Ban That Laptop?  Written back in 2013, this post outlines some of the seminal research that examined the impact of laptops in lecture-based classrooms.  In 2014, I revisited the topic in another post by sharing some additional research on the issue. Coupled with the recent research on laptop use at West Point, it’s clear that the devices can be distractions in lecture-based classrooms and can negatively impact student learning. This is an important concept for instructors to remember as the new academic year begins.

The Magic Pill of Online Teaching? As instructors build new online classes for the academic year or revise their existing online courses, the power of online orientations should not be overlooked. The post shares research on the inclusion of online orientations in online courses with traditionally high failure rates. By including recording videos that covered basic processes students would need to know to navigate course content and participate in the discussion forums, failure rates dropped significantly.

Sharing our Private Parts

Imagine you’re at a dinner party with close friends and someone asks about your yearly salary. Or maybe they ask about your age. Or weight. Or pant size. Maybe they’re really forward and ask about your health history or private fears. Or your secret desires. Even though the party involves close friends, I think most people would see these types of conversations as invasions of our privacy.  We want to keep certain information private, even from our dearest friends and family. Many of us have been socialized to not even discuss these topics in public and have been taught from an early age that certain information should only be shared with caution.

Despite this socialization, many of us are sharing loads of private information with total strangers. Every time we use an Internet browser or an online service, we share some personal data. While the educational and health information collected by schools and hospitals cannot be shared without an individual’s consent (e.g. FERPA, HIPPA), the private information we share through Internet searching and online shopping is not as protected. As we travel around the Internet, tons of information is being collected and used for advertising, online promotions, solicitation emails and so much more. Take a look at Google. Valued as one of the top companies worldwide, Google primarily makes it money through online advertising through its AdWords and AdSense services. While Google offers a host of apps for free to users, these services are ultimately being used to collect more information on users that Google can use to drive further targeted advertising.  Just to be clear, this is big business.  Some experts have valued the “data industry” at nearly $1 trillion annually.  Our private data is the oil of the Internet age.

So, what’s a consumer to do? Each of us is sharing information online, but should we really be worried? In some ways, it comes back to the dinner conversation. How do you feel about total strangers profiting from your personal data? If you’re disturbed by this thought, you should consider installing ad blocking software or examine ways to protect your online data. For instance, Lightbeam, a Firefox add-on, will visually display which sites are tracking you as you navigate different sites.  This can help you make better decisions about the sites you visit and the information you share online.

But there are other options as well.  Consider Our Data, a “data union” being started to assemble online consumers. Rather than just block ads, Our Data works by building a critical mass of consumers who wish to profit from the information that’s being collected. Initially, the service works like traditional ad blocking software. By installing the app on your mobile device, it blocks ads that appear on sites that you visit and limits the information that sites can collect. As more users sign up for the service, however, Our Data has the potential to change some of the power dynamics online.  If millions of users organize into Our Data’s “data union,” sites could negotiate for access to the information and individual users would profit.  It’s kind of a novel approach.  It’s your private information. Shouldn’t you profit from it?

Some of the big companies would argue that consumers’ private information is the cost of a free Internet. We’re able to search for information online freely because companies collect information.  They consider it the price of admission and see ad blocking as detrimental to the work and services they offer.  A recent Wall Street Journal article outlines how companies are even developing anti-ad blocking software to help recoup some of the estimated $25 billion in lost revenues from blocking applications. While the article is intended to showcase how companies are responding to ad blocking, it really demonstrates just how valuable our private data is.

Switching gears a little, I wonder where we’re teaching students these important lessons of digital citizenship and online privacy. I know that many K-12 schools discuss online privacy from social media and cyberbullying perspectives, but are we doing enough to help students understand how valuable their private data is? In collegiate settings, we discuss the professional aspects of students’ online presences but shouldn’t we also be discussing how they can keep their information private? Seems that we need to broaden how we socialize (and educate) about online privacy and the parts we choose to share.

Being there, just virtually

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Google announced it was releasing its full Expeditions app for free to educators.  While in its beta testing, the Expeditions app allowed over a million students in 11 different countries to take virtual field trips using Google Cardboard.  With the inexpensive virtual reality viewers, Expeditions offers some exciting opportunities for educators who may not have the ability geographically or financially to visit certain locations.  Take Lance Teeselink, who is a seventh grade student living in Iowa.  By using Google Expeditions and Google Cardboard, his class was able to visit Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Few American students get to visit Dubai and experience this architectural marvel but Lance’s class was able to visit the city virtually.  With the full release of the Expeditions app, students will be able to visit 200 different locations.

While virtual reality offers tremendous educational opportunities, I wondered a little about the research that was being conducted on virtual field trips (VFTs).  While the concept of VFTs has been around since the 1990s, most research has explored the use of synchronous classrooms and video to support student exploration of remote locations. Contrasting these methods, virtual reality has the ability to offer more immersive experiences for students.  By using smartphones with virtual reality headsets, students can explore locations independently and interact with the environment more directly.  Since the virtual reality aspect is relatively new, however, very few research studies have examined this in any empirical way.  As schools start offering more VFTs for their students, I thought I’d share a few areas that educational researchers should investigate.

Student autonomy: As the technology offers students some independence in exploring virtual environments, I wonder how much autonomy should students be afforded. For instance, what are the instructional benefits to allowing students to explore the Buckingham Palace on their own without a guide? Or the Great Barrier Reef? While the Expeditions app allows the instructor to guide and pause students as they navigate a virtual environment, I wonder whether independence and autonomy may be more motivating and educational for students.  Or are virtual docents needed to help students navigate virtual spaces?  Research can help to inform this.

Presence: While virtual reality offers a window into a remote world, the sensation of presence isn’t solely based on visuals. When we visit a location, our other senses (touch, scent, sound) help us fully experience the environment. Can these be incorporated into virtual reality experiences? Are they educationally beneficial? While this may sound somewhat silly, a recent article in Make magazine examined virtual conferences and how participants needed to see the virtual faces and hands of other participants to feel fully present in the conference. The article discussed how individuals don’t just communicate with words and facial expressions but with hand gestures as well. But what others aspects play a role in students’ sense of presence in virtual environments?  More research can help to shed some light on this.

Identity and Diversity: Our view of self is socially constructed. We develop our identities by interacting with our environment and with one another. How can virtual reality play a role in students’ identity? I wonder whether STEM-related VFTs can help students see themselves as potential scientists or mathematicians and maybe help motivate them into STEM-related careers. I also wonder how VFTs can help to broaden students’ perceptions of diversity.  Could VFTs be a tool to foster understanding of other religions or cultures? Again, these are areas that deserve some research.

While these are just a few of my VR musings, I see great potential for virtual field trips. As we start to broaden the focus to include places that are impossible to visit, I think the educational opportunities continue to multiply. Students can visit the nucleus of an atom. Or the surface of Mars. Or experience a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Or participate in the Moon landing. While each of these undoubtedly has educational benefits, we need more research to determine the best ways to leverage these experiences for students.


Falling into a Niche

My neighbor and I were debating the differences between Spotify and Pandora recently. I explained how I loved Pandora and its ability to introduce me to new music. When I create a channel based on specific artist or genre on Pandora, the service plays other musicians who have similar sounds. While I try to stay on top of new music, I find that without listening to Pandora or satellite radio, I’m rarely exposed to new artists. “That’s exactly why I love Spotify,” my neighbor explained. “I know the bands I like and that’s all I want to listen to. I don’t want Pandora playing all this stuff I don’t know or like.”

As I talked with my neighbor, I realized his position of Spotify vs. Pandora is actually representative of a much larger trend online and in society: the niche. When it was originally developed, the great promise of the Internet was its unlimited access to information. It was going to be a democratizing force. It was going to foster greater conversations and expand learning opportunities to more populations.  While these positives are undoubtedly happening, there is also a counter effect that is far less positive.  I worry that with the growing expansion of the Internet and other online services, we’re all falling into knowledge niches that limits our worldviews and development. Here’s my reasoning. When I go onto Facebook, Amazon or Netflix, the magical algorithms working behind the scenes are processing my likes, views, searches and creating a “filter bubble” that only shows me more things that they think I’ll like. Since I read an article about a Marvel movie in development on Facebook, my feed is now populated with other articles about superhero movies. Since I bought a book on Online Teaching on Amazon, I’m shown similar titles. Since I watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, I’m shown similar series. The goal of these services is to make it easier for me to find other things I like.  While I appreciate the assistance, in a lot of ways, it’s narrowing my field of vision.

While some of this narrowing is a result of the filter bubbles created by algorithms, applications and services that run behind the scenes, our “knowledge niches” can also be directly attributed to our own overt choices and actions. Take recent political discussions on social media. In Twitter and Facebook, I can choose to which people I’ll listen and which ones I won’t. With the growing negativity regarding some issues and events, I’ve chose to hide certain people from my Facebook feed and unfollow others on Twitter.  While this my lower my blood pressure in the short term, it also narrows my access to the larger political discourse and creates an “echo chamber” where my views and opinions are constantly being reinforced.

Before anyone thinks my opinions are just the musing of some curmudgeon, consider this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Looking at the spread of information on social media, the researchers found that online users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.” While the researchers primarily focused on the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation, the findings are similar to discussions occurring in other venues.  Take this blog post that discussed an “un-conference” session on echo chambers in science communication communities last fall. The author writes about her worries that she’s “preaching to the choir” and that we’re all becoming “more exposed predominantly to opinions like our own versus information that might challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Growing up, many of us were advised by our parents to “find our niche.” The reality, however, is that through filter bubbles and echo chambers, the niches we’re finding aren’t helping us gain access to information that can help us grow or develop. So, what’s the solution? How do we avoid falling into a “knowledge niche?” I welcome your comments and solutions.


Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., et al. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 554–559.