An Empty Seat

I came across a Wall Street Journal article about the rise and fall of Sears this weekend. Titled How Sears Lost the American Shopper, the article includes interviews with a bunch of different people who once served as CEOs of the company and discussed the decisions and missteps that led to the company’s downfall.

To be honest, I’m fascinated by the whole Sears story. I’m not a big investor or anything so I’m not interested in the business side of things. But I enjoy seeing how innovation and time impacts different industries and how those industries react to stay current. Or don’t.

Looking at the state of the company now, it’s hard to believe that Sears was once the Amazon of its day. With the introduction of catalogs and credit, the company globalized sales at time when most people shopped locally. Through their catalogs, the company sold houses, firearms, appliances, and clothing to people across the world. But times changed and shoppers became more mobile. And as stores like Target and Walmart grew and websites like Amazon emerged, Sears went into a downward spiral.

Buried in the article was a quote from Lynn Walsh. Walsh served in different executive positions within Sears from 1992 through 2017 and had a front row seat for Sears downfall. Recalling the beginning of the end for the company, Walsh remarked,

There was a new policy where in every conference room, one of the chairs had this cloth label on it that said, ‘The Customer.’ The point was that in every conversation you needed to be aware of what does the customer want.

I have to admit that my first reaction to that quote was, “Wow, that’s a great practice.” The empty chair makes you aware that there’s another perspective to consider in your decision making. Initially, I thought that the empty chair would be a great thing to consider when we’re planning for students. I could almost visualize faculty and administrators having meetings where an empty chair was dedicated for “The Student” so we could make more student-centered decisions. But then I began to think differently.

The challenge with this practice, however, is the same one that Sears faced. To consider “The Student” or “The Customer,” you have to really know them and recognize that their needs are constantly changing. Sure, Sears was trying to consider “The Customer” as they planned, but their customer profile (and needs) changed significantly over the years. The customer they served in the early days of its business weren’t the same ones they needed to consider later in its history. When their fall started to happen, they were planning for a customer that almost didn’t exist anymore.

And that’s really how this empty chair metaphor breaks down in education, too. To some faculty and administrators, that empty chair may represent a student profile that just doesn’t exist on many campuses anymore. I’m reminded of the National Educational Technology Plan released by the Office of Educational Technology in 2016. Titled Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education, the report focused on the challenges and opportunities that colleges and universities face.   The document started with an overview of the “new normal” students currently enrolled in higher education.  Drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the report identified that 74% of undergraduate students have at least on “nontraditional characteristic.”  Maybe they have transfer from another institution (66%).  Or maybe they work a part-time or full-time job (62%). They may also have a dependent (26%) or be a first-generation college student (63%). Factor in those students who are attending part time (43%) and those who are enrolled in two-year colleges (35%) and you can see that the “nontraditional” umbrella covers a great number of our undergraduate students.

That’s the real problem with the empty chair metaphor for collegiate students. I’m sure many faculty would envision “The Student” as being a full-time college student who didn’t work, didn’t have dependents and wasn’t first generation. And the data shows clearly shows that that student isn’t “The Student” anymore. And much like Sears, planning for a student who almost doesn’t exist anymore could lead to our downfall.


Submergence in the Habitual

I’m teaching a graduate action research course this semester that stands as the capstone course in our Master of Education in Assessment, Curriculum and Teaching program. While it’s a research-based class, the course isn’t intended to create generalizable knowledge or any publishable research. Instead, the course is designed to equip the students (who are all practicing teachers) with a methodological approach to examine their pedagogy by collecting and analyzing data.

While the research process stresses some of the students out, I explain that the course is really designed to foster “reflective practice.” As the students are working on their research plans and developing good research questions, I mix in readings from John Dewey, Stephen Brookfield and Kenneth Zeichner to feed their reflective souls. My goal is to help them approach their action research not as a project to finish but as a methodological, reflective stance to embrace and to adopt. There’s that old adage that says, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Through this class, I’m hoping to develop a similar teaching corollary with my students. “Unexamined teaching…”

Of all of these authors, I think Kenneth Zeichner is the one who best resonates with my own reflective soul. In the class last week, I assigned a chapter from Zeichner’s 1984 co-authored book titled Preparing for Reflective Teaching. In full disclosure, in my 25+ years of teaching, I’ve read this chapter probably two dozen times and I find something new and inspiring every time. Looking at the conversations that the chapter sparked with my students, it seems that Zeichner’s work resonated with them as well.

Early in the chapter, Zeichner shares a quote from author Maxine Green, who writes

(Teachers) have to break with the mechanical life, to overcome their own submergence in the habitual, even in what they conceive to be virtuous, and to ask the “why” with which all moral reasoning begins.

That concept, the “submergence in the habitual,” became the week’s mantra. How do we as teachers break from our “mechanical lives” and fight submerging in the routine and the habitual? I’m sure it’s a challenge that every teacher faces at some point of their career and the class brainstormed ways to avoid it. I shared one of my favorite stories about a colleague who fought the routine and the habitual in dramatic fashion.

Joe was a thirty year veteran and was the math teacher that every student wanted to have. He was challenging and funny and students knew he was on their side. As he entered his 31st year of teaching, Joe threw out his lesson plans and his exams and decided to start fresh. As I remember him explaining it, he said, “I wanted to remember what it was like to be a first-year teacher again.”

Joe had a “flair for the dramatic.” To him, it wasn’t enough to just toss the notes in a dumpster or shred his exams. He wanted to break from his mechanical teaching life dramatically. As he explained, “One Saturday night, I built a bonfire and threw all of my teaching notes on it. I sat and drank a beer as I watched all of my lesson plans, quizzes and exams go up in flames. Thirty years of teaching going up in smoke.”

When I shared this story with my students, I was reminded of how Joe came back in his 31st year re-energized and re-focused. From that bonfire, Joe’s teaching spirit re-emerged like a phoenix. He was no longer submerged by the habitual. He was a thirty year veteran who was flying high in what Zeichner describes as the open-mindedness, responsibility and wholeheartedness of reflective teaching.

Motivating for Open Education

Yesterday morning, two colleagues and I led an online presentation as part of our institution’s celebration of Open Education Week. The presentation was designed to describe our university’s efforts at developing an Open Textbook Initiative (OTI). We reviewed two years of work that laid the foundation for the initiative and discussed how each informed the overall development process. While I wrote about the beginnings of these efforts last summer, we organized our presentation around “critical incidents” and discussed the factors that led to the critical incident and how it foster the next stage of the OTI evolution. If you’re interested, the full presentation can be viewed here.

As I reflected more on our presentation today, I thought about how each of the critical incidents ultimately tied into faculty motivation. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post that reviewed Wergin’s 2001 article in Liberal Education titled Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. In the article, Wergin identifies four common factors that motivate faculty on collegiate campuses. The article reviewed forty years of research and identified community, autonomy, recognition, and efficacy as the dominant factors influencing faculty motivation. Let me detail how each played a role in the development process.

Wergin writes that faculty possess a “desire to belong, to feel part of a nurturing community.” This is especially true with our Open Education group on campus. When we first started working together, we finally felt like we had “found our tribe.” We were no longer single innovators trying to work against the inertia of educational history. Finding a community of collaborators is so critical in any effort on campus.

While community is important, having the autonomy and independence to work alone is also vital in our faculty roles. “Professional autonomy,” Wergin writes, “is the freedom to experiment, to follow one’s own leads wherever they may go and do so without fear of the consequences.” The great thing about our Open Education group is that faculty have taken on leadership roles with different facets of our work. We have a grant writing team, a conference team, an education team, and so on. Each team allows for some autonomy while working for the collaborative objectives of the group.

Wergin writes that faculty want “to feel valued and to know that others see (our) work as worthwhile.” Through our Open Education efforts, we’ve worked to recognize those faculty who are taking risks. For example, I’ve used the website for the teaching and learning center I direct to feature faculty who are using OERs on campus. Check out my awesome colleagues Dr. Chris Stieha, Dr. Dan Albert and Dr. Alex Redcay. Each deserves recognition for their innovative efforts.

Efficacy, Wergin writes, “is a sense of having a tangible impact on our environment.” As we work to have our work be appreciated and recognized, we also want to know that our efforts made a difference and have contributed to some greater goal. This is the part that our group is currently working on. As we move forward with our Open Textbook Initiative, we plan to collect data to chart the impact of our efforts and to showcase how using Open Educational Resources can impact student learning.

Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50-53.

Always use the mic.

This weekend, I attended an international teacher education conference. Because of the nature of the conference, one could assume that the presenters and attendees were ones that should be knowledgeable about learning theories and evidence-based pedagogical practices. As people who teach teachers, one could reason, the presenters should model effective and inclusive practices. One would be wrong.

Maybe it’s just the nature of professional conferences but I often see the worst possible engagement and interaction at the majority of the sessions I attend. At the conference this weekend, one presenter muscled through almost 75 slides in 60 minutes. She stopped once or twice for questions but didn’t provide enough “wait time” for the attendees to muster a question. After catching her breath, she returned to clicking through her slides at an almost blinding pace. At the end of the allocated sixty minutes, she left out a huge sigh and declared that she “almost made it” through her whole presentation. By that point, many attendees had already left. I politely stayed but had checked out almost thirty minutes earlier.

I get it. Presenters are passionate about their topics and they often have way more information to share than time allows. While I gave up the “slog through slides” years ago (see this post), I can almost forgive presenters who resort to this. But one presenter committed one of the most presentation egregious sins. She didn’t use the mic.

To be completely honest, the presenter started her presentation by introducing herself with the microphone. Midway through the first slide, however, she exclaimed, “I don’t need this. I can project my voice.” She then proceeded to set down the microphone and take a step or two towards the audience and gave the rest of the presentation without the aid of the mic.

And that’s the egregious mistake she made. Maybe SHE didn’t need the microphone, but some of her attendees might have. I’m sure if I would have stopped the presenter later in the day and asked about the importance of “student-centered instruction,” the presenter would have explained that teachers need to consider their students’ needs. She may even have explained that teachers need to incorporate UDL principles to reach all of their students. But given the opportunity to easily implement a student-centered practice like using a microphone, she chose not to.

Since I’m on my “microphone soapbox,” it might be good to review some other “best practices” (which could also be read as things presenters do that drive me bananas). If a presenter is leading a question & answer session, they need to share the microphone with the people asking the question. If that’s impossible (which is often the case), the presenter needs to restate any questions so the entire audience can hear the questions being asked. I think some presenters assume that because they can hear a question that the whole room can, too. And that’s not very student (or attendee) centered.

Maybe that’s the intersection between the presenter who muscled through her slides and the one who didn’t use the microphone. Both were focused on their actions as the ones leading the presentation. They were both “presenter centered.”

As presenters, we can do better.

As teachers, we must do better.

Illusion of Expertise?

I’m helping to facilitate a Campus Learning Community (CLC) focused on the book How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler (2018). The book aims to examine the “science and stories” behind learning. The book is broken up into five broad concepts that impact student learning at the collegiate level: curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity and failure. In each of these five areas, Eyler discusses the evidence base behind the concept and the pedagogical applications at play. While I’m only midway through the book, it’s been an entertaining and educational read so far.

Our CLC met for the first time last week. In this first session, our group discussed the curiosity concept and how we as teachers work to foster curiosity with our students. We discussed how children are naturally curious (one of Eyler’s main premises) and the impacts that the environment (media, education, parenting, etc.) can have on our students’ curiosity. One of the CLC participants argued that a lot of students come to his class with “self-perceived expertise” and this undermines their curiosity. They feel like they already know the content so why bother attending class or reading the book or studying for tests. The challenging part, he explained, was that so much of what they believed they knew was actually wrong from a scientific perspective. But the students’ beliefs in their own expertise kept them from learning. It undermined their curiosity.

I left the meeting wondering where these feelings of misplaced expertise may originate. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m an avid podcast listener. I found a possible explanation in last week’s episode of Hidden Brain which was titled Close Enough: The Lure of Living through Others. The episode examines several stories about people who live through YouTube videos. While the whole podcast is interesting, I think the middle section most applies to our discussion here.

Midway through the episode, the host (Shankar Vedantam) shares research that examined the impact that watching instructional videos had on people’s beliefs of their abilities. In the research, psychologists have participants watch instructional videos on how to perform a skill (doing a dance move, throwing a dart or playing an online game). Some participants watched the video once while others watched the video twenty times. Participants who watched the videos multiple times felt they were skilled at the task despite never actually doing the task. Simply watching the videos, the authors write, fostered “an illusion of skill acquisition” (Kardas & O’Brien, 2018).

In our era of YouTube, flipped classrooms and social media influencers, our students are interacting with instructional videos more than ever before. Extrapolating from the Kardas & O’Brien study, maybe these instructional videos are to blame (at least in part) for the students’ illusion of expertise. And maybe that’s at heart for the diminished curiosity that my colleagues observe. I say “maybe” a lot here because it’s hard to take a study that was performed in an isolated setting and apply it to some (possibly) unrelated condition. But I’ll throw one more “maybe” in here for good measures. According to the research study, there may be a solution to this “illusion of expertise.”

In the last experiment the researchers ran, participants watched instructional videos where the learned how to juggle bowling pins and asked to assess their level of proficiency with juggling. After the self-assessment, the participants were then divided into three groups. One group was asked to reflect on the process of juggling bowling pins. The second group was given technical information about the bowling pin (its height, weight, etc.). The last group was asked to physically hold three bowling pins for one minute. The participants were then asked to re-assess their juggling proficiency.  The group that held the bowling pins were the only group that rated themselves significantly different in the second assessment. The researchers attributed this reduction to the “feeling of doing.” The authors write, “experiencing a ‘taste’ of performing attenuates the illusion.”

From my perspective, that’s the actionable part for us as teachers. We need to create safe opportunities for students to challenge their “illusions of expertise.” We need to put them into situations where they obtain the “feeling of doing” to help them recognize their true abilities. It is from this dissonance that curiosity can hopefully grow.

Like Wildfire?

This past week, I was reminded of the old adage: “A lie goes around the world, before the truth can get its boots on.” But this post isn’t about lies and truth, it’s about how the academic community responds to research that supports their world view. And how they respond to research that doesn’t. Let me explain.

A few years ago, researchers were actively studying the impacts of student laptop use in classroom settings. Across the studies, the evidence appeared to be clear. Educators need to ban laptops from our classrooms for the good of our students. In a study published in a 2013 issue of Computers & Education, researchers found that laptops distracted students from lectures and negatively impacted student performance. In another study that appeared in 2014 in Psychological Science, researchers reported that the “pen was mightier than the laptop” and that students who took notes with paper and pencil performed better on cognitive tasks than students who took notes with their laptops.

These studies were widely shared on the Chronicle of Higher Education and on Inside Higher Education which resulted in tons of shares and retweets across social media. My colleagues’ Facebook feeds were filled with shares when the research was initially published. The news spread like wildfire. For every educator who had a policy that banned laptops or cellphones from their classroom, the studies provided an evidence-based foundation for their decision. And they seemed happy to share that with their friends and colleagues. At the time, I wrote two posts (this one and this one) attempting to frame the research in a broader perspective. My efforts were largely dismissed. It was hard to argue against the research…

Let’s jump ahead a few years. Last week, new research emerged that seemed to refute some of the previously published work. In a study that was published in Educational Psychology Review, researchers tried to replicate the note-taking research and were unable to find similar results. Summarizing their work, the researchers write, “based on the present outcomes and other available evidence, concluding which method is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature” (Morehead, Dunlosky & Rawson, 2019). While the previous study offered conclusive support for handwritten notes, the replication study did not.

With the wildfire social media sharing of the previous studies, I was expecting similar response after the publication of the replication study. Sure, Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about it, but the work hasn’t caused the same furor that the previous articles did. While a few colleagues have emailed me the new study, I haven’t seen any major conversations on Facebook. I also haven’t seen anyone comment that they need to revisit their technology banning policies. While the previous studies ran quickly around the world, this one is still working “to get its boots on.”

Again, I’m not saying that any of the research discussed here is being truthful or dishonest. I just think the adage applies to this situation. If education is going to be a field that draws on an existing evidence base, we can’t just promote the research that reflects our perspectives of teaching and learning and dismiss (or ignore) those that don’t. Instead, I envision a future where ground-breaking educational research spreads like wildfire whether it fits in one’s worldview or does not.

What fosters engagement online?

If you’ve taught online, you may have heard of Moore’s interaction framework. First published in the American Journal of Distance Education in 1989, Michael Moore conceptualized that effective distance education is supported through the management and thoughtful cultivation of different interaction pathways. These pathways include:

  • Learner-to-learner interaction
  • Learner-to-instructor interaction
  • Learner-to-content interaction

Interestingly, despite being authored well before learning management systems and robust synchronous tools like Zoom, Skype and Collaborate Ultra, Moore’s framework is still used as conceptual and pedagogical framework to support research and online teaching.

Take an article written by Martin & Bolliger in a recent issue of the Online Learning Journal. The researchers surveyed 155 students in online courses to see which types of engagement strategies they felt were most effective at supporting the different types of interactions. After analyzing the data, the researchers report the top ten engagement strategies based on student perceptions. While you can read the full article here, I wanted to share the top five for each category.

Learner-to-learner interaction:
1. Students introduce themselves using an icebreaker discussion.
2. Students work collaboratively using online communication tools to complete case studies, projects, reports, etc.
3. Students interact with peers through student presentations (asynchronously or synchronously).
4. Students have choices in the selection of readings (articles, books) that drive discussion group formation.
5. Students peer-review classmates’ work.

Learner-to-instructor interaction:
1. The instructor sends/posts regular announcements or email reminders.
2. The instructor posts grading rubrics for all assignments.
3. The instructor creates a forum for students to contact the instructor with questions about the course.
4. The instructor posts a “due date checklist” at the end of each instructional unit.
5. The instructor refers to students by name in discussion forums.

Learner-to-content interaction:
1. Students work on realistic scenarios to apply content (e.g., case studies, reports, research papers, presentations, client projects).
2. Discussions are structured with guiding questions and/or prompts to deepen their understanding of the content.
3. Students interact with content in more than one format (e.g., text, video, audio,
interactive games, or simulations).
4. Students use optional online resources to explore topics in more depth.
5. Students research an approved topic and present their findings in a delivery method of their choice (e.g., discussions forum, chat, web conference, multimedia presentation).

Interestingly, when the researchers looked at which types of interactions the students felt were the most important, the respondents rated “learner-to-instructor interactions” as being more important than “learner-to-content” and “learner-to-learner.” In the conclusion, the authors write:

“It is important to note that engagement strategies that support interactions with instructors were valued more than strategies that aimed at interactions with learning material and other learners. Instructor presence is very important to online learners. They want to know that someone “on the other end” is paying attention. Online learners want instructors who support, listen to, and communicate with them. As some of the participants mentioned, they appreciate frequent updates from their instructors and want to have an instructor who is not only responsive but supportive. Not surprisingly, students who participated in this study expected instructors to assist them in their learning and create meaningful leaning experiences, as evidenced by their assigning relatively high ratings for items pertaining to grading rubrics, checklists, forums, and student orientations” (Martin & Bolliger, 2018, p. 219).

This quote really resonates with me. Not only because it is evidence-based but because it is highlights the significant roles we play as facilitators of students’ learning online. When I’m leading professional development for online teachers on campus, I explain that teaching online is like planning a party. Good party planners know that there’s two important facets to a successful party: preparing before the party and hosting during the party. Good hosts do tons of preparation before the party so when their guests arrive, they can focus on interacting with them. That’s how online learning works, too. Good online teaching relies on good design and good facilitation. I worry that sometimes we focus too heavily on the design elements of online learning and downplay the importance that teachers play in student success. In their surveys of online students, Martin & Bolliger clearly demonstrate how important we really are. If you’re wondering what fosters student engagement online, the answer is clear.

We do.


Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment. Online Learning Journal, 22(1).