Building Rapport Online

Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) conference in Madison, WI. I have to admit that even though I’ve been working in online education as a teacher and a researcher for over a decade, this was the first time I’ve attended the DT&L conference. It was great. I personally enjoy going to conferences that offer a balance of research and practice. While I want to pick up instructional strategies that I can include in my online classes, I also want to learn about the growing research base for online education. With the variety of sessions and presenters at the DT&L conference, my expectations were met and exceeded.

One of the best sessions I attended was led by Christine DeCarolis from Rutgers University-Camden. In the presentation, DeCarolis discussed the research behind building student rapport and outlined specific ways that she addressed these aspects in her online classes. While I’ve focused on ways to build teacher presence in my online classes, I’ve never really thought about specific strategies that could help build rapport. DeCarolis’s presentation motivated me to do a little more digging into the concept of rapport and to consider ways to foster rapport with my online students.

In a Faculty Focus article a few years ago, Maryellen Weimer outlined five factors that build student rapport. These include:

  1. Respect. Teachers and students must show respect for each other, for the learning process, and for the institution where it is occurring.
  2. Approachability. Students have to feel comfortable coming to faculty and faculty must be willing to speak with students, after class, during office hours, via email, on campus.
  3. Open communication. Faculty must be honest. There needs to be consistency between what faculty say and what they do.
  4. Caring. Faculty must care about students; they must see and respond to them as individuals. They also need to care about learning and show that they want students to learn the material.
  5. Positive attitude. Faculty should have a sense of humor and be open to points of view other than their own. (Weimer, 2010)

So, how do we address these factors in our online classes? Here are some ideas.

  1. Record faculty introductions. Video can be a powerful way for instructors communicate with students. Beyond communicating instructional content, videos can help instructors convey a positive attitude and share their personalities.
  2. Be available. In some online classes, students can feel isolated and confused. Instructors who offer regular online office hours communicate to students that they’re approachable. In some of my online classes, I schedule individual one-on-one meetings with students so that each student has the opportunity to meet with me.
  3. Provide regular feedback. In my online classes, I work to provide timely feedback on submitted material. As I provide due dates for students so they complete work on a regular schedule, I also have to respectfully model an attention to timeliness. When students go weeks and weeks without receiving feedback, they don’t feel that instructors are respecting their work or their commitment to learning.
  4. Address students by name. When you’re providing feedback to students, use their name. This sounds like a simple strategy but it helps to build a respectful and caring environment with students.

The Ostrich and Student Evaluations

A few months ago, I shared a post promoting the practice of administering student evaluations every semester. For many faculty, this is one of the most humbling (and angering) experiences of their professional careers. Weeks or months after the semester has ended, faculty receive a print out of numbers and comments that detail how students viewed their teaching. We all know how flawed the evaluation process can be but it doesn’t change the emotional toll that negative student evaluations can create.

At some institutions (like mine), faculty who have obtained tenure can opt to administer student evaluation intermittently.  I know many of my colleagues who simply stop collecting student evaluations regularly after they receive tenure.  In my post, I argued that this wasn’t a practice to embrace. By administering student evaluations every semester, faculty can see the fluctuations in their teaching and address disconnects that may arise in their work with students. I compared the student evaluation process to dieting and losing weight. One common suggestion for people struggling to lose weight is that they should weigh themselves daily. By standing on the scale every day, they can see the fluctuations in their weight and use it as a motivation to do better that day.

But standing on the scale doesn’t always bring good news. Just like our student evaluations, sometimes we look down and see numbers that we don’t like. And maybe that’s one of the reasons many people avoid standing on the scale or avoid administering student evaluations. It’s like that old adage that “no news is better than bad news.”

I was reminded of this recently while listening to the Hidden Brain podcast. In the podcast, the host outlined something called the Ostrich Effect. Technically, it’s called “information aversion” and it emerges from the field of economics. Researchers find that people check their stock portfolios less when the stock market is down. Researchers explain that people would rather avoid receiving news about their finances than confront the potential of receiving bad news. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to our interactions with financial information. People also avoid hearing information about their health. I’m sure we all know somebody who’s struggled with some ailment for a while without going to see a doctor. That’s the Ostrich Effect in action! People would rather avoid going to see a doctor completely than run the risk of hearing that something is really wrong.

And maybe that is what’s at play with faculty who avoid collecting student evaluations. They’d rather avoid hearing any information about their teaching than confront the potential of receiving negative evaluations. They stick their heads in the proverbial sand and pretend that everything is okay.

To confront the Ostrich Effect, Joshua Tasoff, an associate professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University shared some simple advice in the podcast.

A person should never avoid information because information can never hurt a decision.

While Tasoff directs this advice to people who want avoid hearing news about the financial or medical status, I think it also applies to administering student evaluations. Information is just information. We’re the ones who add the emotional context to the evaluation scores and student comments. We have to remember that information is needed to help guide our decision-making. Whether it’s with our health, our financial success, our weight or our teaching evaluations, we can’t avoid information just because it may not be pleasant. Information guides our actions and decision-making. While student evaluations are just one piece of data, they can inform our instructional practices and foster changes in our teaching. While avoiding the process may spare us some negative emotions, we’d be missing out on some important information.

Device distraction? Something old. Something new.

Inside Higher Education recently shared research conducted by Arthur Glass and Mengkue Kang that was published in Educational Psychology. Glass and Kang examined the impacts that devices (cell phones, laptops and tablets) can have on student learning.  Two sections of an upper level cognitive science course were studied as students’ used electronic devices during lectures. Students were given in-class quizzes, unit exams and final exams and their performance was examined. While students’ performance on in-class exams wasn’t negatively impacted by the use of devices during lectures, their performance on unit exams and the final exams was. Summarizing their study, Glass and Kang write:

“Dividing attention between an electronic device and the classroom lecture did not reduce comprehension of the lecture, as measured by within-class quiz questions. Instead, divided attention reduced long-term retention of the classroom lecture, which impaired subsequent unit exam and final exam performance.”

While these findings are definitely interesting, they aren’t really new. I’ve written about similar research numerous times on this blog. (Check out Ban that student laptop? Banning the laptop? Revisiting the issue. and Encouraging cellphone silence? for a sampling.) Overall, the research is pretty clear that using digital devices during lectures can negatively impact student learning. At first glance, Glass and Kang’s work may seem to simply reinforce the existing research, but I think it deserves additional attention because of two novel perspectives that the research shares.

First, Glass and Kang’s research differentiates between comprehension and retention. Many previous studies simply compared test scores and reported the negative impacts. Glass and Kang, however, showed that the devices didn’t impact students’ initial comprehension of material after a lecture. Long-term retention, however, was impacted. This is significant because students can leave a lecture with a false feeling that they had effectively divided their attention between their devices and the lesson presented by the instructor. The real impact isn’t clear until much later in the semester when students try to recall the information from their long-term memory. It’s only then that the true impacts of the devices are revealed. This is a critical new finding that needs to be shared with students.

The second novel aspect is for educators interested in exploring the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) in their classrooms. Glass and Kang’s research offers a unique research design that could be replicated in many classrooms. Rather than conducting a quasi-experimental study where one section uses devices and another does not, Glass and Kang chose to use a “within-student, within-item counterbalanced experimental design.” While this might sound complicated, it’s actually pretty simple. In the two sections, students were allowed to use devices on odd (or even) lecture days (depending on the section) and banned from using them on the other lecture days. In this format, all students were learning half the time in device-free modes and half the time with their devices at their disposal. Teaching assistants enforced the rules on device-free days and students self-reported their device use on days when laptops, cell phones and tablets were allowed.

The design itself is novel since it controls for all sorts of variability (content, students, motivation, etc.). Essentially, student performance was compared against their own ability to learn in both settings. This provides a unique research design that could be replicated in multiple settings with other instructional interventions. I’ve been trying to jump start more SOTL projects on my campus and this study provides an excellent example of how to do this without necessarily negatively impacting a control group or class. The research design can also be easily replicated for all sorts of instructional interventions. While Glass and Kang’s study contributes to the existing research base on the negative impacts of device use during lectures, their work also offers something distinctly new.

Online education: bias, hope and reality

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in December 2016.  Enjoy!

A post on Inside Higher Education today discusses faculty’s continued reservations to teaching online.  The author, Robert Ubell, shares several studies that examine professors’ resistance to online education and how they view virtual learning environments as being inferior.  As the vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School for Engineering, Ubell is a proponent of online learning.  In his role, however, he also recognizes some challenges that faculty face when teaching online.  For instance, he explains how many professors have very little experience with online education and therefore have very little personal experience with how to teach well online.  Ubell writes “going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.” To him, teaching online isn’t just about navigating the technical aspects of learning management systems or attempting to “migrate the campus experience online.”  Instead, Ubell challenges educators to visualize online learning as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

The challenge is that many professors see face-to-face instruction as the gold standard and create a false dichotomy between physical classroom spaces and online ones.  The reality, however, is that we often compare our best face-to-face classroom experiences with our worst online ones.  Also, since many of us don’t have online experiences upon which to draw, we visualize a confusing, highly technical environment where students independently work through low level content in isolation from their classmates.  But these beliefs largely do not reflect reality.  Ubell cites a research study from the US Department of Education which found “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (Means, et al, 2009).  Despite this evidence, some educators like to pit online and face-to-face education against one another, as if they’re battling for dominance in some instructional arena.  Rather than focus on whether “physical nor virtual education will triumph,” Ubell writes, we must shift our attention to “the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning” in whatever learning environment students are enrolled.

So, what are the best pedagogical practices online? One of the things that is becoming abundantly clear is that online learning is more than just accessing content.  Many educators like to think that content is the currency of their courses.  Sure, students enroll in our classes to learn English, physics and mathematics.  More than content, student learning and success is dependent to a large degree on their ability to interact with their classmates and with their instructors.  That’s one of the critical shifts that educators need to make when teaching online.  Interaction is the currency of online learning.  In many ways, this statement is true in almost every learning environment. But interactions happen naturally in face-to-face classes. They don’t have to be intentionally designed. In our physical classes, we don’t have to plan for students to see each other or hear other.  By sharing the same physical space, the interactions occur without educators planning for it.

Online learning environments, however, require that educators plan for interaction.  To be successful, online educators have to build opportunities for students to interact with their peers.  This interaction has to be intentional and purposeful.  In past posts, I’ve written about the Community of Inquiry framework and the importance of building social presence in online classes.  By focusing on these aspects and increasing interaction and engagement in our virtual classes, online teachers can better rise to Ubell’s challenge of making “digital education transformative” for students.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.

An Online Potluck Dinner

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in February 2017.  Enjoy!

Online learning environments can be pretty confusing places to new online students and educators. To help reduce this confusion, I like to use metaphors to describe the functions, activities and components of teaching and learning online.  For instance, when I lead professional development sessions, I’m often asked about the planning process for creating and teaching a new online class.  While the process involves the traditional phases that are captured in most instructional design models, I find it’s better to describe my online course development as party planning.  When someone hosts a party, they have to consider how people are going to interact, what types of music they’re going to listen to, what they’re going to eat and so on.  Good hosts do a lot of this planning before a single person arrives.  This allows the host to attend to the needs of their guests and to enjoy the party themselves.

While I understand this is a simplistic metaphor, I find it best captures my role as an instructional designer and as an online teacher. I’ll spend weeks developing a class, selecting content and planning interactions and assessments so that I can focus on the day-to-day business of meeting students’ needs and fostering engagement once the class starts.  I plan my “online party” before the class begins so I can be a better host once the party starts.

I’m teaching two online classes this semester and they are starkly different.  I’ve taught both classes several times and the classes are usually quite interactive, especially in the discussion forums.  It’s my stated goal in both classes that I’m attempting to foster a larger learning community where ideas and resources are exchanged and critiqued.  In one class, the students are sharing links to websites, uploading articles they’ve found online, embedding videos from different sources and really taking the discussions in new directions.  The other class, however, isn’t as active or as collaborative.  Students contribute posts and respond to each other but there doesn’t seem to be any real online learning community being formed.

As I’ve been thinking about the differences, I wondered whether the students had a clear understanding of what online discussion should look like.  We’ve all participated in face-to-face classroom discussions but a discussion forum is something entirely different.  In a face-to-face class, we’d never expect everyone to answer a prompt and then to respond the posts from two peers.  Yet, those expectations permeate online discussion forums.  Although they are used in many online classes, these expectations alone will reduce discussions to “bean counting” and won’t necessarily promote the type of engagement and exchange of ideas that I’m trying to foster.

Maybe a better metaphor is needed for online discussions.  To carry on with the party theme, I offer the “pot luck dinner” as a means of describing the rich and thoughtful discussions that I’m trying to build.  The “pot luck dinner” is a communal experience where everyone brings a dish to share.  The host usually offers a main course and asks the attendees to bring complementary items.  One person may bring a salad.  Another might bring a dessert.  Someone else may bring beverages.  With everyone contributing to the party, the overall meal becomes more complex and appetizing.  And people always leave satiated.

That’s what I’m trying to promote when I “host” a discussion forum.  I’m not interested in my students just submitting a requisite numbers of posts.  I want them to feed the group.  I want them to bring in complementary content and make the discussions more complex and appetizing for all of us.  While I’m contributing the “main course,” I’m hoping that the class will bring in resources and ideas to extend the meal.  Through this “potluck” experience, we’re all satiated.

Impacts of Open Educational Resources

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been trumpeting the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs) for years. For the most part, I promote OERs because they’re free for students and faculty to use. I work at a public institution that prides itself on being a pathway for first-generation college students and underserved students to get their undergraduate degree. Some of these students may have financial constraints that limit their ability to buy textbooks or other curricular materials that they need to be successful academically. When faculty adopt OERs in their classroom, they can provide some financial relief for these students.

On campus, I’ve been working with a group of faculty who are trying to raise awareness of OERs and promote more widespread use of OERs. Our efforts have mostly focused on the financial benefits of using OERs and how these can help students. For the most part, our efforts have not made much impact. Some of our faculty colleagues see OERs as being lower quality than the materials available from a publisher and worry of the academic impacts these may have on students in their classes. I try to explain that requiring a high quality, $200 book (or more) only benefits those students who can afford to purchase it. The others are probably trying to manage without it.

But I think I now have a new argument to make. In a recent issue of International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Colvard and Watson completed a large-scale study of 21,822 students enrolled in eight different courses over 13 semesters at the University of Georgia. In these classes, instructors chose to use OERs during some semester and non-OERs in others. The researchers examined student performance in the courses that used OERs and compared them to student performance in courses that used more traditional materials. Across the boards, students performed better in courses that used OERs. The researchers also disaggregated the data to examine how sub-groups of students performed in the classes. Summarizing their findings, Colvard and Watson write:

OER improve end-of-course grades and decrease DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) rates for all students. They also improve course grades at greater rates and decrease DFW rates at greater rates for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education(pg. 262).

The conclusion of the paper, however, is the critical part that I plan to share with my colleagues.

“This research suggests OER is an equity strategy for higher education: providing all students with access to course materials on the first day of class serves to level the academic playing field in course settings. While additional disaggregated research is needed in a variety of postsecondary contexts such as community college, HBCU, and other higher education settings to increase the generalizability of this notion, this study provides an empirical foundation on which to begin to change the advocacy narrative supporting OER. A new opportunity appears to be present for institutions in higher education to consider how to leverage OER to address completion, quality, and affordability challenges, especially those institutions that have higher percentages of Pell eligible, underserved, and/or part-time students than the institution presented in this study” (pg. 273).

I’m fortunate to work at an institution where the vast majority of my colleagues are motivated to “do right” by their students. This research clearly shows that using OERs can benefit students, not only financially but academically as well.

Colvard, N.B & Watston, C.E. (2018) The impact of open educational resources on various student success metrics. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2), 262-275.

A Litmus Test?

The Annual ISTE Conference and Expo was held recently in Chicago. For those of you who may not know, ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education, which describes itself as a “home to a passionate community of global educators who believe in the power of technology to transform teaching and learning, accelerate innovation and solve tough problems in education.” Over the last twenty-five years, ISTE has been one of the largest advocates for integrating technology into learning environments and been an active change agent for promoting student-centered practices. Their technology standards has helped to drive how technology is used by students, teachers and school leaders and they literally published the book on flipped classrooms. ISTE is a big deal.

If you haven’t attended an ISTE Conference before, it’s something to behold. Over 15,000 educators, librarians, technology coordinators, administrators and thought leaders gather together to share ideas and learn from one another. With thousands of sessions and workshops to attend, it’s professional development heaven for educators who want to learn how to leverage technologies to support student learning. Besides the formal professional development opportunities, the ISTE conference also has a vendor area where companies can exhibit their products. For those educators looking to purchase new technologies, equipment or curricular materials, the vendor area is a one-stop location for exploring all that the educational technology community has to offer.

Due to some family commitments, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s ISTE conference. To stay on top of the happenings at the conference, however, I regularly tracked the #ISTE18 hashtag on Twitter to see what others were posting. In these posts, I found one written by Will Richardson (@willrich45) that really resonated with me.  On June 23, Richardson wrote:

Won’t be at #iste18, but here’s my annual request to attendees: When you’re on the vendor floor, ask all those reps to do one simple thing: Define learning. Their response will tell you if it’s #learntech instead of #edtech. Have fun!

If you haven’t heard of him, Will Richardson is an educational leader who has written a bunch of great books including Why School, Learning on the Blog and Personal Learning Networks. He’s a smart guy and a really engaging presenter. In this Twitter post, Richardson also provides a great “litmus test” for those of us working at the crossroads of technology and education.

Define learning.

While it sounds like an easy task, it can be a little challenging if one hasn’t thought about it in advance. I’m sure some experienced educators would stumble through their first pass at defining learning. They’d probably discuss processes of learning (instruction, inquiry, etc.) rather than the outcomes of learning. Using the prompt as Richardson suggests can help to discern those vendors who focus more heavily on technology rather than on student learning. Navigating the landscape of technology available to educators can be challenging and troubling. For every tool that supports student-centered learning, there is another app or device that doesn’t. Richardson’s “litmus test” can help to differentiate these.

But maybe the “litmus test” can be rewritten to make it a little more introspective for us as educators. Rather than asking technology vendors to define learning, maybe the better question to ask ourselves is “What do the technologies and techniques we use say about how we define learning?” Rather than act as a “litmus test,” this question can help us to see our technologies and instructional practices for what they are: Rorschach tests that reveal to us how we view learning, not in theory but in practice.