The Misconception of Kindness

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind.


Be the Light in the Clouds

Imagine you’re a Viking sailor and you’re trying to navigate uncharted waters. If the skies are clear, you can navigate using the position of the sun during the day or possibly the stars at night. But what about the cloudy or foggy times that a Viking sailor would confront in the icy Northern Atlantic? Norse legend has it that the Vikings used something called a sunstone. When the conditions were bad, these ancient mariners would look through a crystal that reveals distinct patterns of light in the cloudy sky. The sailors would use the patterns of light to traverse the ocean despite any clear view of the sun. Despite the clouds and fog, the sunstones helped guide the Vikings through the roughest of waters.

I read about the sunstone recently and how scientists are suggesting that the Vikings simply used pieces of translucent calcite, cordierite and tourmaline to guide their ships. These crystals filter light due to a process called “polarization” which enabled the Vikings to see concentric rings around the sun, even in the foggiest of conditions. Despite the visibility, if the Vikings navigated using the sunstone, they were more likely to reach their destination.

When I read the Viking article, I thought the sunstone was a good metaphor for instructors’ roles in online classes. To our online students, the learning management system can be a foggy and cloudy place to navigate. Instructors organize their courses differently and use different communication structures. Some instructors teach primarily through asynchronous means while others use synchronous avenues exclusively. Within a learning management system, content and assessment can be distributed across a multiple of links to click and pages to view. They’re not always easy waters to navigate.

But online teachers can serve as sunstones and show the way. At our institution, we conducted a survey of students enrolled in online classes in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. With over 700 undergraduate and graduate students participating in the study, we are starting to identify some clear way that instructors can help their students navigate online classes. Here are some takeaways for our research.  To help students navigate their online classes, instructors need to:

  • Provide clearly stated course learning objectives
  • Clearly identify course policies and expectations
  • Provide regular and clear communication with students
  • Link assessments to course learning objectives
  • Engage online students with their peers

In our study, each of these teacher actions was significantly correlated with students’ perceptions of the quality of their online experience (p < 0.05). We’re still analyzing the data and looking for other trends but one thing is clear, online instructors play a critical role in reducing the chaos of online classes. Like the sunstone that Vikings used to sail during foggy times, the instructor serves as the light in the clouds and can help students successfully navigate their online classes.

What about Learner 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.

Note: This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in August 2016.


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.

The Value of Blogging

Regular readers may know that I’ve been blogging every week since 2009. This blog came out of a conversation with a colleague who asked if I could regularly update them with cool technologies or research that I came across. Little by little, this blog has evolved into a space where I wrestle with ideas and work through my positions on topics related to teaching, learning, technology and education. Sitting down each week to think and write has been a real labor of love.

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled Why I blog. In the post, I outlined my main reasons for blogging and explained that:

I’m having a dialogue with and learning from the world. Blogging gives me the ability to have a larger discussion with people I’ve never met about subjects I find interesting. At the time I’m writing this, over 31,000 visitors have read the 8 Blog with over 125 people stopping by today. While I’ve submitted 154 posts so far (today’s post will be 155), I have gotten 180 comments on my posts from readers across the globe. People have visited the blog from almost every state in the US and from over 100 different countries. While I’ve been able to get a number of manuscripts published in national and international means, I have had very few people contact me or interact with me regarding those publications. Blogging opens my work to an international dialogue. As a learner, it’s been tremendously educational for me.

As a means of an update, this will be my 445th post. Over 90,000 people from 154 countries have visited this blog and more than 250 people subscribe to get these weekly musings sent to them. Despite doing this for almost nine years, I continue to be humbled by the response.

I’m only sharing these numbers in response to an article that was shared with me recently. Appearing in the Smithsonian magazine online, the article examined the overall impact of academic scholarship. Drawing on a few different studies, the article estimated that 1.8 million articles are published in about 28,000 journals each year. The author quotes a 2007 citation analysis study that claims that:

90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.
Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.
While this is a staggering claim (which has been challenged by other researchers), it does provide an interesting contrast to my experiences as a blogger. I’m not saying that my writing here qualifies as “scholarship” or that it meets the standard of blind peer review that academic scholarship upholds. But many of my colleagues have used these same standards to challenge blogging and question the value of this forum. While I recognize that it doesn’t meet the gold standards of scholarship, this forum does provide a voice to share ideas without barriers. Blogging is both democratizing and empowering. In a few moments, I’ll click “Publish” and the world will be able to read this post. And that’s the real value of blogging.

Flipped Learning Incorporated

I’m probably not going to make many friends with this post. I know that. Last fall, when I wrote about The Branded Teacher, some colleagues in the educational technology community were unhappy. In the post, I raised my concerns about how some educators lose their objectivity when they become affiliated with technologies, applications, and websites. The promise of perks, stipends and special titles can cloud teachers’ judgment and influence their instructional decision-making. The branding of teachers is a worrisome trend.

An article published today in Inside Higher Education (IHE) raised some additional concerns. It appears that a group of flipped learning researchers and professional developers have created a for-profit organization called the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. The FLGI group is working to establish standards for flipped classrooms and for training related to flipped classrooms. At first glance, the group is impressive. The FLGI includes such notable flipped learning pioneers as Eric Mazur and Jonathan Bergmann, which help to build some credibility for the organization. It’s only when I dug a little deeper in the FLGI website that I started to wonder about the group’s overall goal. FLGI’s stated mission is:

“to coordinate, orchestrate and scale the key elements required to successfully expand flipped learning internationally. FLGI’s primary focus is building bridges between the silos of robust flipped learning activity occurring worldwide.

This all sounds pretty inviting and inspiring. The group is coordinating. And orchestrating. And building bridges.

As I moved from page to page across the FLGI website, I looked specifically for something that the IHE article offered as a goal for the organization. FLGI seeks to define flipped learning in a coherent way to increase communication, cross-pollination and collaboration. Traditionally, flipping meant that students watched videos before attending class and then educators would have students apply the pre-class content in some active, interactive way. From the IHE article, it seems that FLGI was promoting an updated definition.

But I couldn’t find this unified flipped learning definition anywhere on the FLGI website. At least not for free. To read about “Flipped Learning 3.0,” I could buy the book or pay for training or purchase a podcast. If I was really motivated, I could pay the $99 a year for Flipped Learning 3.0 Level I Certification or $129 a year for Level II Certification. While the site lists many international educators who were certified by FLGI, I decided to pass. But I found something that could lead me to the underlying principles of their definition of Flipped Learning 3.0.  On a page labeled The Manifesto, FLGI identifies three critical elements for flipped learning environments.  They include:

  • immediately transform classrooms into active learning spaces
  • encourage students to own their learning
  • lay the foundation to nurture self-directed, life-long learners

So, that’s flipping 3.0. Active learning. Motivation. Self-regulation.

Before anybody infers that I don’t think these are important, let me diverge a bit. A few years ago, my doctor recommended that I lose some weight. With my family’s medical history, my doctor felt that by losing ten or fifteen pounds, I would reduce my risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. When I inquired about different diets he would suggest, he said, “While there are a bunch of fads out there, the trick to losing weight has been known for generations. Eat less. Exercise more. It’s that easy.” He didn’t recommend that I get a nutritionist. Or tell me to get a personal trainer. He also didn’t suggest some fancy new diet. His weight loss suggestion was simple and didn’t cost me a cent. And I ended up losing over 30 pounds.

Returning to the Flipped Learning 3.0 definition that I’ve inferred from the FLGI website. We’ve known for a long time that active learning works. It’s also well documented that students need to be motivated to learn and to self-direct their own learning. I know that some educators can struggle with how to implement these concepts in their educational environments and content areas and that professional development can help close these gaps. But that’s not the real motivation behind the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. It’s not just about advancing education or improving student learning. By packaging these practices together under a single catchy title, FLGI members have created a marketable brand that can be monetized and sold.

I’ll just stick with calling it “evidence-based teaching.”

Seeing what others see

I have a confession. I have deuteranopia. Before you worry about my mental state or my health, let me explain. Deuteranopia is the scientific term for red-green color blindness. While it’s not really a health issue, it does create some challenges for me as I select outfits in the morning or select paint colors for the house.

My children are fascinated by my color 6or9blindness. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that I don’t see red or green at all. I just don’t see them the same as they do. I can’t distinguish between different reds and different greens and I see a lot of things other people would characterize as browns and greys. Despite my explanations, they still enjoy watching me fail every one of the color blindness exams. I can’t find that hidden number among the colored dots and they find it hilarious.

Despite my explanations, they can never really understand that I see things differently than they do. The real truth, however, is that we ALL see things differently from one another. While I have troubles seeing reds and greens, we also see shades of blue differently than each other. You may remember the huge Internet controversy of 2015. What was the color of the dress?  Was it black? What it blue? Was it white? As the conversation waged across social media, one thing was clear. We see things differently.

Our differences in sight aren’t limited to colors, however. It is also impacted by other factors, too. Take this story I heard about Google Maps. Say you wanted to find the Arunachal Pradesh region near India with Google Maps on your smartphone. Did you know that the way that region would be projected would differ based upon where you were doing the search? In China, the region’s borders would look slightly different than if you searched for it in India. Over the years, there have been some geographical disputes about the borders of different regions near India and Google is required to show those regions differently based on if the smartphone user is in India, in China or someplace else.  That’s right. Someone in another part of the world would actually see the region completely differently than both the Indian and Chinese users. While this is a pretty extreme case, the Google Maps example demonstrates that how we see is based on a lot of factors. It could be huge geopolitical or technological factors. Maybe it’s a physical factor, like my deuteranopia. It could also be due to our backgrounds and lived experiences. Each of these informs how we see.

I learned a great word this week on the Radiolab podcast. Umwelt. The Radiolab hosts were discussing the visual range of the rainbow shrimp and how, despite its amazing cones and rods, it could not distinguish between colors well. In explaining that we shouldn’t pity the poor rainbow shrimp, the one host, Rod Krulwich, chalked it up to “umwelt” and explained that we all experience it. “You are limited by what you can feel, touch, see, and know,” Krulwich said, because of who you are. That’s umwelt.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bunch of reasons this week.  Nature has a funny way of connecting dots across different media. I guess it started with thinking about last week’s post on Bias in Your Online Class? While I’ve been digging into the statistics for my online class and trying to better understand my biases, I’ve also been wondering how my students are experiencing the classes themselves. How are THEY seeing the learning environment? How are THEY seeing my interactions with them? Even if I explicitly asked them about their experiences, it would be hard for me to know how they saw something.

And that brings me back to the Radiolab podcast. At the end, the other host, Jad Abumrad, says that because of umwelt, we can never really see what other people see. We just see things differently. “That’s the lonely part,” Abumrad explains. “The unlonely part is you can try.”

Here’s to trying to see what others see.

Bias in Your Online Class?

A few years ago, I came across an article in the New York Times Magazine that examined the avatars that individuals select when playing online games. Across the series of photos included with the article, different players are shown alongside their digital selves. For some, the likeness is amazingly similar. A man has digitally recreated himself down to his black suit and sunglasses. One woman has created an almost identical digital copy of herself down to the flowered pattern of her dress. For others, however, there’s a stark contrast. A middle-aged man portrays himself as teenage girl. Another represents himself as a robot. When I initially read the article, I thought about the power of the digital world and how we could craft our online identities. We could choose to be seen as we were or as we hoped to be. The online world could be a powerful equalizing and democratizing arena, allowing new voices to be heard and new people to participate. But I also worried how others interact to these digital representations. Does discrimination translate to a world of avatars and digital identities?

I was reminded of this article last week as I read a new study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Looking across 124 different online classes, researchers examined the student and instructor responses to discussion board posts based on the gender and race of the student initially posting. To conduct the study, the researchers created eight student profiles with names that were “connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Chinese and Indian by gender).” In each of the online classes, researchers used each student profile to contribute a single discussion board post and monitored the responses from instructors and other students. Across all of the 992 posts that the researchers contributed (8 posts across 124 courses), instructors responded 7.0% of the time. Examining the instructor responses based on the racial and gender profiles of the students showed that instructors were more likely to respond to the “White male” students than others. Across the 124 classes, instructors responded to “White males” 12% of the time. Instructor responses were far lower for every other gender/race combination. Compared to the other student profiles, White males were 94% more likely to receive an instructor response than other students.

While these findings are troubling, the study also includes some promising signs too. Looking at the student responses, at least one student replied to 69.8% of the researchers’ posts and each post received an average of 3.2 student replies. While white female students were more likely to receive replies from other white female students, no other statistically significant findings could be made. Regardless of the gender and race of the student profile contributing the post, their online peers responded at similar rates.

As an online instructor, the research provides an important lens for me to view my own practice. Am I interacting with students in unbiased manners? Am I responding to my students’ posts in similar fashion? I spent a couple hours a few days ago looking at some recent online classes to see if I could find some trends in how I interacted with students and responded to their posts. Casually looking across the discussion forums, I didn’t see any clear trends but I’ve been devising a few ways to dig a little deeper into the data. Regardless of what I find, this research study has opened my eyes a great deal to the biases that can happen online. And maybe being aware of these biases is the first step to intentionally overcoming them.

Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment.