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The power of hybrid

I bought a new car this week.  After a lot of research and some personal analysis, my wife and I decided to purchase a hybrid vehicle.  As I’ve been driving around in the car, I’ve been thinking about the motivation behind companies designing hybrid vehicles and consumers buying them.  Initially, my thoughts went to the financial aspects.  Hybrid vehicles are a way for companies to increase their car sales by offering consumers a way to save money.  I commute about 35 miles to work each day.  In my new hybrid, I averaged about 50 miles per gallon on my trip today, which is double the fuel efficiency of my old car.  Over the course of a year of commuting, I’m going to save a lot of money.

To be honest, however, that’s not the only reason I purchased the car.  I wanted to drive something more ecologically friendly and the economic benefits are a bonus.  I think car companies recognize this motivation from consumers.  The car is designed to give feedback to drivers to help them drive in a more environmentally friendly manner.  The car assesses how I brake, how I cruise and how I stop to help me drive more efficiently.  The feedback is instantaneous.  There’s a nifty gauge next to the speedometer that rates my driving and gives me a score.  From this data, I have started to tweak how I accelerate from stops and how I brake so I can improve my “performance.”

As often is the case with my brain, I have been drawing parallels between the innovations in car design and the innovations in teaching and learning.  Much like the car industry, the last decade has been a very innovative time in education.  Amongst the many innovations, we’ve seen the emergence of MOOCs, online classes, and a variety of “hybrid” classroom models.  Instead of utilizing gas and electric engines, however, the educational hybrid utilizes online and face-to-face modes of delivery and interaction. But what are the motivations for exploring hybrid models?  I’d like to say that the motivations are solely based on educational improvements but economics and convenience are strong driving forces here.  Students (and instructors) like the flexibility and convenience of hybrid and online classes and the market is demanding more of them.  But there are educational implications to moving to hybrid modes of instruction.  Research is starting to emerge to show that there are real educational benefits to utilizing hybrid models like blended learning and flipped classrooms.

In addition to the growing research base, I wish there was some method of providing instantaneous feedback like my hybrid vehicle offers.  It would be great to see a gauge showing the effectiveness instantaneously of a given method so I could respond appropriately.  Then again, maybe something like this is on the horizon.   In the July/August 2015 issue of EDUCAUSE review, Malcolm Brown writes about the Six Trajectories for Digital Technology in Higher Education.  Amongst the innovations Brown sees on the horizon is the increased used of “learning analytics” to drive instruction.  While I doubt we’ll see a nifty gauge in the corner of our classrooms that shows in real time how our instructional choices are benefiting students, I see an increase in data-driven decision making in the near future.  With the increased use of learning management systems and adaptive learning technologies, instructors will have loads of data on student performance.  Only time will tell whether these improvements will help to sell the educational hybrid.

Ten ways for online students to engage with content

Recently, I’ve been working with a few different colleges to help them develop online classes for their graduate programs.  In a conference call last week, one of the faculty members asked about ways that online students could interact and engage with content in her class.   With online classes, instructors can often fall into a cycle where students are reading text-based content then posting text-based responses to discussion forums.  This type of class can become really boring for students (and instructors).  I offered some ideas at the time but realized it would be a great topic for a blog post.  So, here are ten ways to get your online students to engage with content differently.

1.  Build a class glossary.  Dedicate a discussion forum where students are assigned different terms or topics to define for the class.  The student-built glossary will serve as study guide for students as they progress through the class and the change in focus of the discussion forum will give them a sense of ownership over the collaboratively created document.

2.  Jigsaw the content.  Online students often feel like that they’re jumping through hoops by participating in discussion forums, especially when the entire class is answering the same prompts.  By breaking the class up into different content groups, the students could be asked to read different material.  Each group would discuss their assigned content and then a selected group leader would present a synopsis to a whole class discussion forum.  This helps to build positive interdependence between members of the class and increases the value of the discussion forums.

3.  Ask different questions.  While there are a variety of ways to structure discussion forums, a few years ago I wrote about a four question strategy for building more critical thinking in online discussions.  While the questioning strategy can become monotonous if overused, it provides a good scaffolding system for discussing challenging content.

4.  Use case studies.  Students respond positively when they feel like they’re engaging with authentic problems.  While they can be a little challenging to create initially, case studies are an ideal way to incorporate problem-based learning in online classes.

5.  Post to Twitter.  Some instructors choose to move their class outside of the learning management system and have their students use Twitter to discuss content.  Instructors can create a unique hashtag for their class and then ask students to post reactions to content using the hashtag.

6.  Role play.  Assign your students different roles to adopt as they discuss content.  For instance, what would a historical figure think about an assigned reading?  How would a stakeholder react to a reading?  By changing the point of view, students would need to conduct additional outside research to fully examine and evaluate the content.

7.  Debate the issue.  Many issues in our classes are ripe with controversy.  These topics provide great opportunities for creating classroom debates.  This can be structured in many ways.  I’ve had individual students take both sides of an issue and create short videos and online cartoons outlining opposing position on a topic.  This could also be structured in a synchronous environment where students are assigned position teams and debate their positions on Skype, Google Hangouts or Blackboard Collaborate.

8.  Mix it up.  Rather than just assigning text-based content, have students feast on the multimedia available online.  Assign podcasts or simulations to help them build their understanding on content.   Check out the options for Open Educational Resources online.

9.  Present to the class.  Building on the jigsaw concept, students can be assigned different topics to research.  In a chemistry class, for instance, students could be assigned different elements to research.  In a human sexuality class, students could be assigned different diseases.  Students could present their research in synchronous environments or screencast short presentations to give to the group.  To close the assessment loop, the whole class would be assessed on the content shared in the individual presentations.

10.  Write exam questions.  A few years ago, I wrote about the research on a site called Peerwise where students participated in online communities to create exam questions for one another.  Participating in the site positively impacted student learning and their motivation to learn.

Preventing cheating?

As part of my summer book list, I’m reading Cheating Lessons by James Lang.  In the book, Lang discusses the contextual factors that exist in learning environments that promote student cheating.  While I know that ultimately students choose to cheat, Lang discusses different curricular features that can pressure individuals into cheating. Beyond introducing the classroom features, he discusses case studies and research to help ground his work.  While I’ll leave the classroom features for another blog post down the road, I wanted to discuss an interesting research study that Lang introduces early in the book.  Published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the study examined different factors that lead to elementary aged children cheating.  The children were given a difficult task (throwing balls at a target from behind their back with their non-dominant hand) and were offered prizes if they could hit the target a certain number of times.  In the study, the students were broken into three different groups.  One group was unsupervised.  Another was monitored by an adult.  The last group was told they were being monitored by an invisible princess named Alice.  An elaborate tale was constructed about the friendly princess and part of the study involved the children being asked whether they believed in her existence and ability.  This stated belief formed a major part of the research.

Most of the results from the study aren’t that surprising.  The unsupervised children cheated the most and the supervised children cheated the least.  The interesting part of the study comes from the “Princess Alice” group.  Those students who said they believed in Princess Alice were less likely to cheat than the group who didn’t believe in her.  The belief in the presence of an external monitor, even a supernatural one, influenced students’ cheating. While some of my more religion-minded friends may divine other aspects from this study, I want to take a look at this issue academically.

In an article published today on Inside Higher Education, researchers examined the use of Turnitin and other plagiarism detection software to identify student academic dishonesty.  In a few comprehensive studies, the researchers found that plagiarism detection software didn’t work that effectively.  When presented with sample plagiarized papers, the software missed many instances of plagiarized sections and detected others instances that were due more to clumsy writing.  Despite the costs of the plagiarism detection services, many universities rely on the systems as a way to prevent and detect cheating.  But what if the systems aren’t reliable?  Will this undermine the prevention?  Much like the presence of Princess Alice, are these services only valuable when students and faculty believe in them?  In some ways, the data reminds me of those traffic signs that say, “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”  With watchful Princess Alices flying overhead, drivers are expected to follow the rules of the road.  But I’ve never heard of anyone getting a ticket via aircraft or spotted a helicopter, airplane or blimp monitoring the roads.  I’m sure this undermines the effectiveness of the signs as a prevention system.

In some ways, the same can be said of plagiarism detection systems.  When students start to realize that Princess Alice isn’t real (or isn’t reliable), how will that impact their choices?  I’m sure Lang would argue that students’ academic honesty isn’t solely connected to their fear of getting caught and that larger academic factors are at play.  The juxtaposition of the Princess Alice study and the Turnitin article, however, provides some opportunities for reflection.

More evidence of Active Learning

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 May 2014 and discussed some of the research on the power of active learning.  Enjoy.

In a report discussed on Inside Higher Education, researchers from two major universities completed a meta-analysis of studies that examined the use of active learning in STEM related collegiate courses. The researchers, all professors of Biology and Ecology, were motivated to examine the “pipeline problem.”  Even though there’s an increasing demand for STEM prepared students in the United States, students who enter college planning to study a STEM-related field often do not complete the degree.  In fact, the researchers write, “less than 40% of US students who enter university with an interest in STEM, and just 20% of STEM-interested underrepresented minority students, finish with a STEM degree.”  In the US, universities are losing students in the STEM pipeline and the researchers wondered “why?”

Maybe, the researcher wondered, it had something to do with how STEM instructors taught.  While many educational theorists push for more constructivist pedagogy, the STEM community hasn’t necessarily adopted active learning strategies over more traditional, lecture-based instruction.  Understanding that “scientists are committed to teaching based on evidence rather than tradition,” the researchers set out to examine the evidence on active learning in STEM collegiate courses.

Compiling data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses, the researchers found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning.  Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments.   How compelling was the analysis to the researchers?  Since they were traditionally trained scientists, they communicated their findings in language that other scientists would understand.  “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Taking it one step further, the researchers estimated the financial cost of the failures in lecture-based courses.  Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.”  Based on the analysis they conducted, the researchers were convinced; active learning works.

While the research seems compelling, it’s clear that the tradition of lecturing is not easily set aside.  Looking at the comments on the Inside Higher Education article, several people have questioned the research, undermined the comparisons or attacked constructivism entirely.  Or look at the article written on the Guardian last fall.  Titled “In praise of the university lecture,” the author, a professor of sociology, discusses the importance of lecturing and how it helps faculty demonstrate “scholarship in action.”  Lost, however, is a focus on student learning and achievement.  But that’s the most important part of what we do.  Education isn’t just a performance that faculty conduct for students.  It’s an active pursuit that should involve all members of a classroom community, faculty and students alike.  And data shows that incorporating active learning strategies can positively impact student learning.  I find it surprising, however, that a profession that values evidence-based arguments so readily dismisses research that challenges tradition.

Lending your voice

When I’m training instructors to teach online, I often recommend using a variety of tools to expand the ways that students participate in classes.  Too often, I fear, online students encounter text-based content where they participate through text-based discussions and are assessed with text-based quizzes and exams.  That’s a lot of text.  I’ve typically based my recommendations on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which recommends offering multiple means of representing content, allowing students multiple means of expressing what they know and motivating students through multiple means of engagement.  In practice, this means providing content in many different ways and allowing students different ways of demonstrating what they’ve learned.  For example, besides assigning a reading, an instructor could record short videos where they explain content to students.  Besides writing a paper to show what they’ve learned, students could record short presentations using sites like MyBrainShark or Powtoon.  There are a multitude of possibilities of expanding beyond text-centric online learning environments.  While UDL provides a strong rationale for doing this, I wonder whether additional evidence may strengthen my case.   Here goes.

Take a recent article in the New York Times.  Titled “The Mouth is Mightier than the Pen,” the article examined research on sales pitches conducted at a graduate business school.  In the study, the researchers examined whether hearing a person’s voice impacted how a sales pitch was received.  In numerous trials, researchers found that people who heard pitches, whether through recorded audio or video, rated the “candidates’ intellect more highly” than the pitches they read via text.  Voice, one of the researchers contends, is “the closest you ever get to the mind of another person.”  Text-based systems, like email, “is really good at sending a spreadsheet but it strips some of the humanity” out of the communication.

In asynchronous environments, online instructors rely heavily on text-based communications.  We ask students to participate in discussions by contributing written posts and comments to their peers.  Hrastinksi examined asynchronous and synchronous environments and found that they support different types of learning.  While asynchronous activities support higher order reflection, synchronous ones increase personal participation and motivation.  Asynchronous activities, however, are often misconstrued as being solely text-based.  I wonder whether the inclusion of recorded voice in asynchronous spaces would foster more personal connections in online classes.  By having instructors and students sharing their voices instead of text, could it bring some “humanity” to online classes?  While I’ve been focusing on pedagogical reasons for expanding the tools we use online, there could be sociological ones as well.   Sharing your voice might make online students rate your “intellect more highly” but it also may make them feel more connected to the class.

Becoming agnostic

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 June 2014 and discussed the need to adopt agnostic policies with the technologies we use with our students.  In an age of “bring your own device” policies, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for teachers to break free of platform dependency.  Enjoy.


I’ve decided to entertain “agnosticism.”  I’m setting aside some long held beliefs and attempting to become unaffiliated.  It’s going to be challenging and I’ll probably go through a great deal of soul searching, but I believe my students will be better off with me as an agnostic.

Before anyone becomes concerned about my spiritual or religious well-being, let me clarify.  I’m embracing agnosticism in my teaching career, especially as it relates to technology.  Most of my close colleagues know that I’m a Mac user in my personal and professional life.  As a teacher, however, I’m supporting a BYOD classroom.  If I want my students to bring their own devices to my classroom, I have to start exploring applications that don’t just target a single platform or ecosystem.  Apps like iMovie are amazing tools for iOS devices, but they’re only available on iOS devices.  Students won’t be able to run iMovie on their Droid device, on their Netbook or on their Kindle Fire.  To truly foster a BYOD classroom, I have to work to become more “device agnostic” and start supporting all the devices they may enter the classroom.  So what does “device agnostic” mean?   In a blog post, Margaret Rouse offers a great definition.

“A device-agnostic mobile application (app), for example, is compatible with most operating systems and may also work on different types of devices, including notebooks, tablet PCs and smartphones.”

So how does an instructor become device agnostic?  First, I’ll have to start to examine the assignments and applications that I use in my classroom.  Luckily, there are a ton of resources that can help.  Searching around the web, I found a bunch of blog posts and articles that can help.  Here are a few I’ve found:

Five Tools for the Agnostic Classroom

The Epic BYOD Toolchest

Tool Comparison for the BYOD Classroom

Educational iPad Apps that are also on Android

Apps and Sites that Work For All Devices

Device Neutral Assignment Applications

The last resource uses the term “device neutral assignments.”  Device neutrality means that instructors allow students to choose whatever tools that can successfully complete an assignment.  For instance, instead of saying “use Powerpoint to make a presentation,” an instructor would just ask students to select whatever tool they could access to successfully create a presentation.  As schools and institutions start to explore BYOD initiatives, it’s important to provide students with options to complete the assignments.  Students already face numerous challenges when they come to campus.  Unless its absolutely necessary, I don’t believe that we should place additional financial stress by expecting students to purchase and use specific applications or devices.  The landscape of technology is too fertile to restrict student choice and ownership.

Exploring Tradition and Change

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 three years ago.  This post was originally shared in June 2012 and discussed the need to examine tradition and evaluate change in education.  Enjoy.


Last week, Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick in England, wrote a compelling article for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  In the article, Thrift presents a radical change in how undergraduate teaching will be done in the future.  Thrift writes:  “most teaching in the early years of an undergraduate degree will gradually cease to be via lectures and will instead take the form of online presentations produced by professionally trained presenters backed up by teams of academics.”   To support these online presentations, students would participate in “peer questioning” activities that would help them build understanding of the material.  Thrift’s vision of the future also includes instructors engaging with students in peer-to-peer social networks and physical learning spaces evolving to include more adaptable, fluid structures that can be easily changed depending on need.

Since Thrift presents a radical departure from today’s undergraduate experience, his article garnered quite a few comments from Chronicle readers.  Some comments commended Thrift’s vision and his willingness to present a possible model for discussion.  Others, however, examined the online presentations that Thrift proposes which began a thread on traditional lecturing and their perceived effectiveness.  As one commenter wrote in defense of traditional lectures, “Odd that lectures have promoted ‘deep learning’ for hundreds of years–have they suddenly stopped working?”  Another commenter posted that s/he “grieves” the change in education and that “we are so busy changing that we rarely pause to acknowledge our feelings about what we have lost.

These comments brought to mind a video I watched recently.  Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, gave the keynote at the Education Innovation Summit held in Scottsdale in April 2012.  In his keynote, Crow presents the need for “massive change” in education but also outlines some of the potential hurdles to change.  Education, Crow argues, suffers from filiopietism, which is the “excessive veneration for tradition.”  It’s why instructors “grieve” the coming changes in Education or hold onto lessons that they say have worked “for hundreds of years.

Crow’s position calls to mind a story I heard a few years ago.  A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey.  In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and repositioned them in the pan.  The daughter asked why she needed to do this.  Did it help the turkey cook faster?  Did it make the turkey tenderer?  “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother.  We should ask her.”  The mother calls the grandmother and asks why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting.  The grandmother laughs and explains “The turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.”  And so, the family tradition began.

By sharing this story, I don’t mean to suggest that instructors blindly make educational decisions without thought or reason.  The challenge, however, is that many of us who work in higher education are the successful products of the tradition of higher education.  We’ve navigated coursework, lectures, and thesis defenses and been successful.  Yet, we’re the ones that need to bring about the change that is needed for higher education to survive.  To do this, we have to fight the urge to hold onto century old methods and overcome “our veneration of tradition.”  But we need not change just for the sake of change.  We need to strongly examine everything we’re doing and analyze how it supports our larger mission of student learning.


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