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Where do we start?

I came across a study recently that sort of stopped me in my tracks.  The study made absolute sense but the presentation really made me think about how I offer professional development for faculty and how I teach my students on campus.  Here’s a synopsis.

In a study involving 13 different professors at a large university in Canada, researchers examined how participants visualized effective teaching and the types of learning strategies they used.  The researchers also examined the types of instructional objectives the participants had for their students and how they integrated technology into their classroom.  Through the interviews, the researchers were able to categorize the participating professors into three different categories based on their models of effective teaching:  teacher-centered, engagement-centered or learning-centered.  This categorization on its own isn’t that surprising.  We all work with colleagues who are teacher-centered and lecture through classes.  We have colleagues who work to provide engaging classes and others who focus heavily on their students’ development.  The interesting part, however, is how these categorizations matched with the professors’ instructional strategies, learning objectives and levels of technology integration.  Professors who were categorized as “teacher-centered” tended to use instructional strategies and technologies that supported didactic, lecture-based classrooms.  The professors who were categorized as being “engagement-centered” tended to use strategies and technologies that reflected this framework.  The ones who were categorized as being “learning-centered” used technologies and teaching strategies that supported this.

On first glance, this research shouldn’t be that surprising.  If instructors believe that students learn a certain way, it makes sense that their chosen strategies and technologies match those beliefs.  The challenge, however, is that the professors in the study were all placed in active learning classrooms where the tools, technologies and classroom layout were designed to support collaborative learning.  While the instructors had access to means to support engagement-centered or learning-centered teaching, they chose teaching-centered instruction.

So, why do I find this research article so powerful?  I think it comes down to how institutions drive innovation.  Many schools and colleges are investing in building new learning spaces and incorporating new technologies into their institutions.  The hope is that these new tools and spaces on their own will act as catalysts to spark innovative teaching practices.  But that’s not how it happens.  To really change practice, fundamental beliefs of teaching and learning have to be addressed.  Simply building new classrooms or purchasing new computers isn’t going to make an impact.  We have to start with learning.

But that’s also the disheartening part of the research.  We know that active learning works.  But the inertia of teacher-centered instruction is overpowering.  It’s the model that many instructors experienced as students and in which they were successful.  These lived histories inform their pedagogical beliefs and impact the instructional strategies they employ and the instructional technologies they use.  While we can provide access and training for different ways of teaching and integrating technology, the reality is unless we promote evidence-based conceptualizations of how students learn, our efforts won’t make much of an impact.


Gebre, E, Saroyan, A. & Aulls, M. (2015). Conceptions of effective teaching and perceived use of computer technologies in active learning classrooms.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27 (2), 204-220.

Two months with my Apple Watch

Regular readers may recall my excitement about receiving my Apple Watch several weeks ago.  At the time, I defended my purchase and my wife’s classification of me as a “gadget guy.” Two months into this journey, I’m ready to reflect on my interaction with the device and how I see the tool being used in education.  Wearables are hot stuff right now.  Most of my friends are wearing FitBits and the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was filled with wearable technology dedicated to all sorts of lifestyle improvements.  While the smartwatch industry is still lagging with widespread adoption, there’s no doubt that wearable tech of some sort will have a place in society.

So, what about the Apple Watch?  I purchased a Pebble Watch a few years ago and wore it regularly.  The transition to the Apple Watch wasn’t difficult and I found the added interactivity really inviting.  Like my Pebble, the Apple Watch provides alerts on emails, texts and other notifications that appear on your iPhone. But that’s where the similarities between the Apple Watch and the Pebble end.  With its touch sensitive screen, Apple Watch users can access their calendars, Facebook and Instagram accounts and several other apps directly from the watch.  The interface is pretty awesome.  With a few swipes, a user can navigate a host of different apps native to the watch.  For instance, I’ve been using the Lose it app to help manage my diet and the Apple Watch Lose it integration takes it to the next level.  It’s really great to see all of my dietary targets by simply gazing at my wrist.   The Activity functions are also great additions.  While the iPhone can track the number of steps a person walks in a day, the Apple Watch collects even more data through its Activity functions.  The watch will remind me to stand when I’ve sat at my computer too long and tracks how much exercise I’ve gotten during my daily activity.  While I wonder how realistic the results are, the way the Activity data is visually displayed is both visually stimulating and motivating.  The concentric circles show progress being made for the different measured activities.  Besides the health features, the Apple Watch also supports Apple Pay (so you can pay for purchases right from the watch) and has Bluetooth capability (so you can listen to music on your headphones without lugging around you phone at the gym).  Very cool stuff.

So, what about the educational opportunities for the Apple Watch?  With the apps and functionality currently available, the watch would be a great support for individual students who are working to become better students and manage their time more effectively.  For instance, the Apple Watch can help a student who is working on deadlines or needs motivation to keep up with tasks.  By using the Momentum app, students can set a series of individual targets that they receive badges for completing.  Paired with an Apple Watch, the app would be a great way to keep a busy musician or athlete on a regular practice schedule.  The Apple Watch would also be great tool to help students self-regulate their learning.  Research studies are currently underway at Penn State to explore how wearables like the Apple Watch can support student learning more directly.

And that’s the real lesson I’ve learned from my two months with the Apple Watch.  The watch helped be easily receive information discretely and track some health information through the day.  It also helped me stay on track and on schedule.  But the technology is still in its infancy.  Although the Apple Watch was released last year amid some fanfare, it will probably take a little more time and revising before it takes off socially and educationally, which may not be too far away.  A major update is scheduled for later in 2016.

The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or foe?

A colleague recently shared an article from the New York Times that featured a collaborative effort out of Columbia University titled The Open Syllabus Project (OSP). Over a million syllabi have been collected and analyzed since the project’s inception and some of the data is now available on its OSP Explorer site.  By navigating the OSP Explorer site, instructors can examine which texts are being taught in which courses to get a better sense of what colleagues at other institutions are doing.  The site also ranks the texts based on a complex “Teaching Score” which attempts to capture the frequency with which an individual text is used based on syllabi and assignments.  While the OSP is an interesting and innovative initiative, the data being shared is at times educational, inspiring and worrisome.  For instance, if an instructor wanted to revise their syllabus and wanted to see what colleagues at a particular institution was using to teach a class, the OSP Explorer provides rankings for certain universities.  This could be helpful information, especially for someone who was assigned to teach a course for the first time. By the navigating the site, an instructor could see what faculty at a similar institution was using for certain content areas.  Definitely an educational opportunity.

The inspiring part is seeing the diversity of journal articles and texts being used.  Across the million of syllabi that the project has analyzed, the OSP Explorer identifies over 900,000 different texts across different disciplines.  It also connects directly to citation catalogs like JStor and the Harvard Library Open Metadata.  The site allows instructors to see which texts were taught together to give a sense of the landscape of a discipline.  As I dug deep into my areas of expertise, I found it interesting to see certain text pairings.  It’s like a chef seeing a certain ingredient combination and being inspired to try something new.  “Maybe those texts would provide students with a novel way of looking at an issue.  Hmmmm…”

The worrisome part, however, is how the information was acquired.  The OSP mined publicly available sites and downloaded available syllabi for analysis.  Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America, started a similar project several years ago.  The difference, however, is that Cohen offered the database without any analysis.  Cohen also offered instructors the ability to remove their syllabi from the database if they wanted.  I didn’t see that option available in the Open Syllabus Project information.  As a technologically minded person, I fully understand that information available on the Internet is accessible to anyone for any reason.  I try to explain this to my students as they post all sorts of personal information on their social networking sites.  The difference, however, is that I know many of my colleagues view their syllabi as intellectual property.  And recent court decisions agree with this view.   “Crawling and scraping of publicly-accessible university websites,” as OSP describes its acquisition processes, sounds more like a system designed to secretly undermine intellectual property than one created to support it.

Recently, I was contacted by a student at another university asking for copies of syllabi for a certain program.  Initially, the student claimed to be interested in the graduate program because of its uniqueness.   I won’t get into the specifics but something didn’t seem right.  I responded with our standard application materials and offered to assist the student with any registration questions she had.  The student was persistent, however.  In a follow-up email, she again asked for the syllabi and claimed to want to know the course expectations before she started the program.  When I followed up with additional questions, she admitted that she was actually working with a researcher who was analyzing syllabi for certain programs.  I haven’t replied to her last email yet and I’m still figuring out the next course of action.  I feel deceived and a little violated.  But the reality is that OSP may have already collected that information and I wouldn’t even know it.  That troubles me.

While I find the overall data that OSP has collected to be very interesting, I have concerns about its collection processes and the larger impacts of the project.  Will it cause certain publishers to advertise books differently?  Will it cause certain texts to disappear due to underuse?  Will it reduce intellectual open-mindedness?  Will it cause faculty to be more suspicious of each other?  I don’t know.  I guess only time will tell whether this initiative is a friend or foe.

The magic pill of online teaching?

As a regular online instructor, I know how powerful online orientations can be.  In every one of my classes, I include a short video that walks students through the basic elements and features of my online classes.  I try to make the organization transparent for students and make it clear for them how to access course content, find their grades and participate in discussions.  To make sure students watch the video, I assign it as one of the first activities in the class and release the rest of the content only after I know students have accessed the video.

Initially, my rationale for including orientation videos was purely selfish.  I wanted to reduce the onslaught of emails I received at the start of online classes.  Many students wouldn’t know how to navigate the online learning environments and I’d get bombarded with questions about how to access materials.  But then I started becoming more knowledgeable about the best practices that are promoted by organizations like Quality Matters.  By including an orientation video, I found I could tackle several of the QM standards at once, which ultimately would help make my online classes stronger and more pedagogically sound.

I came across some research recently that adds more evidence for including orientations in online classes.  In research conducted at Excelsior College, several instructional designers targeted some of the worst performing online classes.  These classes had the highest withdrawal rates and some of the lowest overall grade distributions on campus.  While a variety of techniques could have been implemented to change the students’ performance in the classes, the instructional designers chose to include short orientation videos to target “common technology frustrations of beginning students.”  In the videos, instructors “covered basic navigation, such as posting to a discussion board, submitting an assignment to a drop box, reviewing a grading rubric in the grade book, and opening a graded copy of an assignment to view instructor feedback.”  The orientation videos also included interactive components so students could check their learning of the skills covered in the videos.  To promote rewatching and remediation when needed, the videos were accessible by students throughout the whole semester.

While it seems like a pretty simple strategy, the results were really compelling.  The researchers found the withdrawal rate dropped measurably in the online classes after orientation videos were included.  They also found that the overall grades in classes increased.  Although no other changes were made to the online classes, more students chose to remain enrolled in the courses and students were more successful.  With the ease of creating orientation videos with tools like Jing, Camtasia and Screencastomatic, this practice needs to be promoted as a “low investment, high reward” strategy that all teachers should incorporate in their face-to-face, online and blended classes.  In a lot of ways, orientation videos offer a “magic pill” that can cure a lot of the ills that students encounter when navigating online spaces.


Taylor, J. M. (2015). Innovative Orientation leads to Improved Success in Online Courses. Online Learning Journal, 19(4).

Online instructors, show yourself?

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.

Top Posts from 2015 – Part 2

Even though we’re in the beginning stages of 2016, we’re still reviewing the top viewed posts from 2015 on The 8 Blog.  To loyal 8 Blog readers, I appreciate your support and interaction over the last year.  I’m looking forward to an exciting year where we can grow and learn together.

1. Engage and Assess with Plickers:  In this post from March 2015, I introduce a cool interactive tool that promotes student engagement in face-to-face classes.  Besides being easy to use, this low tech tool is completely free.

2. Dear Students:  Last October, I shared a detailed advice for students who were planning to email their instructors.  The post became one of the most shared 8 Blog posts ever.  As the semester begins, I plan to share this with my students so they have a clearer understanding of email expectations and professional communication.

3. It’s in the Syllabus: Written just before the start of the Fall semester, this post outlined ways to encourage student interaction with syllabi so they could better learn the expectations, activities and assessments of our courses.

4. The Problem with Passive: Shared in January 2015, this post outlines the challenges with students who want to play passive roles in their classes.  Learning is not a spectator sport.  It requires active engagement and participation.  This post explains why.

5. On my Reading List:  From last May, this post outlines the books that I had planned to tackle over the summer.

Top Posts from 2015 – Part 1

As the year comes to an end, it’s always good to look back and review the concepts and conversations we’ve had during the last twelve months. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be outlining the top posts from 2015 and taking a look at the big discussions that have been happening in higher education, instructional technology and teaching & learning.  Here are five of the top ten posts from 2015.  I’ll share the top five posts next week.  Enjoy.

6. Encouraging Cellphone Silence?:  Posted on November 10, 2015, this post examined cellphone usage in classroom environments and how different instructors approached restricting cellphone usage in class.

7. Reflecting on the Top Tools for Learning: This post, shared on September 22, 2015, reorganized the Center for Learning and Performance Technologies top 100 list of instructional technologies based on classroom activities with students.

8. The Most Important Question: Written at the end of the spring semester, this post grounds our work with students and provides a guiding question that can help to inform our decision-making, especially as we interact with the most challenging students.

9.  Ten Ways for Online Students to Interact with Content: One of the challenges with teaching online classes is building diverse and varied experiences for students as the engage with content in the class.  This post, shared on July 21, 2015, provides ten different way for online instructors to inject variety into their classes.

10. Teach like Batman:   Yep.  I’m a comic book nerd.  But this post examines how many instructors viewed flipped classrooms as if the instructional strategy was a magical super power.  The reality is that is that the instructional technique requires Batman-like hard work and dedication to be successful.


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