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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.

Practicing what I preach

I’m happy to say that I’m nearing my 300th blog post on this site. With all of the content housed on the site, I often go back and read old posts to see what my frame of mind was at different points of this blogging journey.  By reading old posts, I get the chance to trace back to specific events that helped me develop as an instructor and helped to inform my practice in online and face-to-face learning environments.  It also provides me an opportunity to reflect on where I am as an instructor today and where I am heading.  While I’m blogging for a larger audience, the writing process forces a degree of self-reflection and self-evaluation, which is both instructive and humbling.

This morning I revisited a post from last year.  Titled Communicating Online, the post outlined an email exchange I had with a student.  In the post, I wrote about how important it was to use a compassionate tone in your communications with students, especially when the exchange is mediated online.  I told the story of a student who hadn’t participated in an online class for several days.  Rather than send a stern email demanding increased participation, I sent a general “are you having any technical issues?” email to the student. The student’s response outlined the medical issues she was having and how she had been hospitalized.  Through our communication, we were able to craft a more successful route for her completion of the class once she recovered.

While some may read the post and think I’m just being a pushover as an instructor, I like to position my work with research.  I shared work from Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry framework, which outlines the importance of developing social, cognitive and teaching presences in online classes.  In another post, I shared an article from the Journal of Interactive Online Learning about the need for instructors to be “VOCAL” (note, the C in the acronym stands for Compassionate).  In Garrison’s 2011 book E-Learning in the 21st Century, he expands the “teaching presence” construct further and discusses the different roles that instructors must play online.  To develop a strong teaching presence, instructors must provide design and organization in online classes so students can capably access course material and navigate requirements.  Instructors must also provide direct instruction to students and help them learn content through the creation and selection of course material.  Lastly, and most importantly, online instructors must facilitate discourse.  While this instructor-facilitated discourse helps students learn content through participation and interaction, it also helps to create the climate for learning by encouraging and reinforcing positive student behavior.  This last component is so critical because it helps to foster a larger social element in the class which has been shown to lead to increased student satisfaction in online classes (Shea, Frederickson, Picket, and Pelz, 2003).

I outline all of this because I messed up.  A few weeks ago, I received a plea from an online student for an extension.  The email went something like this:

I wanted to let you know, that I’m doing the best I can to complete module 2 but I am going to struggle to get it done by the 5 PM deadline.  Is there any way I can get a little more time without penalty?  I am going to do my best but I had final exams this week for classes I was taking at another institution.  I apologize but I promise I will get caught up.

Here was my response:

I understand your situation.  I would have appreciated an email earlier in the week rather than a few hours before the deadline.  I’ll give you an extension until 8 PM.  Through the remainder of the course, however, my hope is that I see sustained engagement from you.  This isn’t an independent study course.  The course will have the most value when you engage over a sustained period with the content and with the class community.

Reading it again, the email wasn’t horribly stern or mean.  I gave the student an extension (albeit, a VERY short one) and outlined my expectations for the remainder of the class. Then again, I definitely could have been more compassionate and supportive.  After sending that email, the student decided to drop the class without any additional communication with me.   In hindsight, my curt response was mostly influenced by the fact that the student was prioritizing her other classes over mine and she made that point known in her email.

I share all of this because sometimes emotions get in the way and even well intentioned instructors make decisions not grounded in good practice.  While I’m knowledgeable about the research that fosters positive learning environments in online and face-to-face settings, I didn’t practice what I preach and I missed a teachable opportunity with a student.  Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself.  Then again, maybe I just need another two or three hundred blog posts to get this teaching thing down.

Teach like TED

So, I’m tackling my summer reading list and I just finished Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo.  The book examines nine different public speaking principles that were derived close analysis of TED talks.  I’m reading the book to become a better presenter and to prepare for an upcoming keynote that I’m doing this fall.  As I was reading the book, I took notes and tried to come up with different strategies that I could implement into my presentations.  As I looked at my notes, however, I realized that the principles and strategies were closely aligned to teaching as well.  Now, I want to stress that being a didactic speaker and being a learner-centered teacher are vastly different.  I’m not advocating the “chalk and talk” mode of instruction.  But examined more widely, the Talk Like TED principles can help to foster student learning.  Here’s how:

1.  Master the Art of Storytelling.  This is Gallo’s second Talk Like TED principle and relates to fostering an emotional connection with the audience.  Teachers often forget that students are emotional and social beings.  Students need instructors to help them understand how content connects to their lives.  This is where the power of storytelling comes in.  Capture the big ideas of your content by telling the stories of discoveries and developments and relate it to students.  In the book, Gallo discusses how different parts of the brain are stimulated when individuals hear stories.  Instructors can tap into this increased stimulation by incorporating storytelling in their classes.

2.  Have a Conversation.  Gallo says that good TED speakers discuss topics with their audience.  Imagine that.  These speakers are on the world’s largest stage and they appear like they’re having a conversation.  We have greater flexibility in this area since we can ACTUALLY have a conversation with our students.  This is a great active learning strategy that can help students build understanding of content by socially interacting with their peers.

3.  Teach Me Something New.  Good TED speakers, Gallo says, introduce novelty into their presentations.  They introduce new data and new ideas and bring together seemingly unconnected content.  In classes, instructors can do the same thing.  But how do we know whether the topics we introduce are new to students?  That’s where the power of assessment comes in.  In their book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose and Bridges discuss the importance of prior knowledge.  For instructors to teach their students “something new,” they need to assess students early in the course to examine what students already know.

4.  Paint a Mental Picture with Multisensory Experiences.  In the book, Gallo outlines how TED speakers create memorable moments by tapping into the audience’s senses.  Even viewers who watch the TED Talks online experience these moments.  How many instructors can say they do the same?  The brain has multiple routes of stimulation that can be leveraged for learning.  In our classes, it is important for us to consider how we can draw on a student’s multiple senses and paint a mental picture that makes the learning experience more memorable.

Five ways to build a more engaging online class

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

What have you lost?

I heard a report on the radio the other day about the many venues and recreation centers that were banning the infamous “selfie stick.”  If you haven’t yet been introduced to the device, the selfie stick (or photo arm) helps a person take a better-framed picture of herself.  Amusement parks have banned them on rides for safety reasons.  Several music festivals have banned their use completely because they obstructed the view of the musicians on stage.  Jason Gilbert, a technology editor for Yahoo Tech, has compiled a comprehensive list of places that have banned the selfie stick.  Gilbert promises to update the list regularly.  If you’re an avid selfie stick user, you may want to check out the list before planning your summer vacation.

In the radio report, the announcer proposed a suggestion for people to avoid selfie stick withdrawal.  “When you want to take a selfie and you can’t use your selfie stick, ask a passerby to lend you a hand.”  The suggestion may seem incredulous to some but that’s the way people used to take photos at monuments or state parks or museums.  We would ask someone nearby to give a hand.  Now with photo arms, remotes and built-in countdown timers, we’re trying to be independent.  It’s kind of funny that in the new “sharing culture,” we’re sharing a lot less.  Sure, we’re sharing photos of the celebrities we see or the places we visit.  But this is a different kind of sharing.  I’m talking about the sharing of time and talent instead of the sharing for self-promotion or envy.

Along the way, we’ve lost some of the sharing.  I hope I don’t sound like a crotchety old guy.  It’s not really my intention.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the aspects of our culture and society that we lose through the incorporation of technology.  Every time a new tool or technology is introduced, loads of people focus on the features and functionality we gain.  Routines become more efficient and streamlined.  We gain new powers and new routes to communication.  But we also lose some things in return.

A friend of mine completed three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan over a seven or eight year period.  After his last tour, we were discussing how much he was able to use Skype while he was stationed overseas.  He said that it provided comfort to his family to see his face and hear his voice regularly.  “But,” he said, “I don’t have a single letter from this tour.  After the other tours, my wife and I made a scrapbook of all of our letters to each other.  This tour, I don’t have a single one.”  With technology, we gain.  And we lose.

I don’t have a solution to avoid the losses we experience from the incorporation and evolution of new technologies.  Maybe those losses are things we can’t fight even if we try.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the loss and help us do better at recognizing the changes that are happening around us.  We don’t need to mourn the loss.  But maybe we can do a better job of accounting for it.


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