A Rare Sighting

Collectors consider a Honus Wagner baseball card to be one of rarest.  A “near mint-mint” copy sold for $2.8 Million in 2007.

Action Comics #1 was released in 1938 and features the first appearance of Superman. While it originally sold for ten cents, collectors consider a near-perfect copy one of the rarest comic books.  A copy sold for $3 Million on eBay in 2014.

Reportedly, there are only six known copies of Shakespeare’s signature in existence, which is pretty surprising considering how much he’s written. Collectors consider his autograph to be one of the rarest.

This post isn’t about collecting things.  Or about Superman. Or Shakespeare. Or even about baseball.  It’s about rare stuff.  It’s about the things you don’t see everyday.

I started a new online class last week and the first assignment was due recently. One of the first activities I have my online students complete is recording an introductory video. The students share their majors, their hobbies and their goals for the class.  I usually pair this with some readings so the students have to make sense of course content at the same time. As I was watching the recorded introduction, one video stuck out.  While the class is a required course in several education programs, Mark (not his real name) isn’t pursuing a degree in the field. Although he’s a graduate student on campus, Mark is enrolled a program pretty far removed from education. I wondered whether he was misadvised or had accidentally signed up for the wrong class. As the add/drop period just ended, I worried that maybe Mark would be stuck in a class he hadn’t planned to take.  So, I emailed him.

My email went something like this.

“Mark, I’m wondering why you’re taking our Educational Technology class. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re in the class but I’m wondering about your future goals and how this class fits in with them. Did your advisor recommend taking this class? I’m trying to get a handle on your plans and how I can support them.”

Mark responded almost immediately. He shared a personal story about his journey to class. While I won’t go into a lot detail about that, his rationale for taking the class is what made this interaction (and him) really rare.  He wrote:

“I’m taking this class because I felt it would be a good fit for me. It’s not required for my program or anything but it will help me learn about some of the newer technologies that I’m unfamiliar with. This was a personal pick for the summer.  I felt it would be a positive addition to my existing knowledge.”

I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for the last decade. This is the first time that I can remember that a student took one of my classes just for the sake of learning. The class wasn’t going to satisfy a check box on his transcript, help him maintain state certification or reach some contractual requirement at his school district.  While those are common reasons that people enroll in my classes, Mark was motivated by something different. He recognized gaps in his own knowledge and expertise and wanted to fill them. He was here just to learn. And that makes him pretty rare.


Digging deeper into Social Presence

I’ve written several times about the Community of Inquiry framework and how it relates to online education. Developed initially by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), the framework examines the different “presences” that need to be cultivated to build an effective online learning community. As they design and facilitate an online class, instructors need to thoughtfully foster a teaching presence, a cognitive presence and a social presence with their students.communitylearning1

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on how instructors can do this, including:

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class
Online instructors, show yourself?
Online Instructors: Be VOCAL!

While these presences are often discussed as being discrete entities, it is clear that they relate to one another and impact one another. The presences are also pretty complex. There are loads of factors that impact whether a student feels a sense of social belonging in their online class and feel cognitively connected to the content being taught. To this end, I thought I’d dedicate some time this week unpacking social presence a little and discussing some of the research that details the factors that impact it.

In a 2012 issue of Learning and Leading with Technology, Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis present the Social Presence Model as a way for online instructors to “get present.” The model was developed from research that the authors conducted with students attending a virtual high school. By looking at the students social connection to the school, the authors found that online students’ sense of belonging related to five key elements.  These include:

Affective Association: This element relates to how emotionally connected students feel to the class and the community. This emerges from the use of language, humor, praise and reassurance. Instructors can support the development of affective association by providing opportunities for students to connect the content to their personal lives and by being supportive when they struggle.

Community Cohesion:  This element captures how much the class develops a cohesive group. Instructors can support this development by getting students to introduce themselves early in the course and to engage and interact with one another.

Instructor Involvement: This element details how interconnected the presences are. By being an active, invested partner in the class, instructors can build a sense of “instructor involvement” and foster a larger “teaching presence.”

Knowledge and Experience: When students have the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and knowledge base, they feel more connected to the class. Encouraging students to draw on the personal experiences with the content and make connections t can develop this social presence element.

Interaction Intensity: This element relates to students’ level of engagement in the class.  Instructors need to intentionally manage students’ interaction with their peers and the content to foster this element. By leveraging social tools like blogs, discussion forums and social media, instructors can build a greater sense of interaction intensity with their students.

Teaching online can be a challenging endeavor. The important part to recognize is that instructors have to focus on more than supplying content for their students or using a variety of tools in a learning management system. There’s a lot at play in an online learning environment and instructors need to thoughtfully consider how individual technologies and activities foster a community of inquiry through the development of cognitive, social and teaching presences.

Dikkers, A. G., Whiteside, A., & Lewis, S. (2012). Get Present: Build Community and Connectedness Online. Learning & Leading with Technology, 40(2), 22-25.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

My summer reading list

This post has become somewhat of an annual ritual.  Each May, I make a list of books that I plan to read that will broaden my perspectives and recharge my pedagogical batteries.  These aren’t books that I’ll necessarily be bringing to the pool or the beach with me but they will help me prepare for the upcoming academic year.  I’m open to other suggestions so if you’ve read something interesting recently be sure to share it in the comments section below. I’ve ordered the books chronologically in the order I plan to read them.

  1. Raising Race Questions: Whiteness & Inquiry in Education:  While we’d like to think that our campuses are becoming more inclusive and supportive of diversity, recent events nationally and locally have proven otherwise. I’m reading this book by Ali Michael in preparation for a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) this fall.  I’m hoping that it will spark some conversations and promote some change on campus.
  2. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City: A colleague led a FLC on this book this semester.  While I wasn’t able to participate in the discussion, I was able to snag a copy for myself.  Written by Matthew Desmond, the book explores the lives of eight families living in the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee.  While it may not be the most uplifting book I’ll read this summer, it’s may be one of the most important.
  3. Advancing the Culture of Teaching on Campus: Shelve this book in the Teaching & Learning Nerd section of the bookstore. I’m entering my fifth year as the director of our university’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) and I’m looking for new ways to “make a difference” on campus.  Edited by Constance Cook and Matthew Kaplan, the book shares strategies and perspectives from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.  I’m hoping that the book will help me reflect on the professional development programs that the CAE offers and consider new ways to reach faculty.
  4. The New Faculty Member: No, I’m not leaving my job. After years of offering an informal mentoring program for new faculty, this fall, the CAE is going to offer a more formalized mentoring process. In a recent blog post, I wrote about some of my recent interactions with junior faculty on campus and the stress and anguish from navigating the tenure and promotion process. I’m hoping that the mentoring program will help.  While The New Faculty Member was written in 1992, I have always found Robert Boice’s words to transcend across eras.
  5. The Courage to Teach: It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since Parker Palmer released this inspiring examination of what makes a good teacher a good teacher. While I’ve read the Courage to Teach numerous times, I feel that it’s time to revisit it once again. After reading the Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh last fall and leading a FLC on the book this spring, I’m expecting to find new parallels between Palmer’s words and the cognitive research that Cavanagh shares.

My 2014 Reading List
My 2015 Reading List
My 2016 Reading List

Learning to See

I attended an interesting professional development session this afternoon.  Offered through the university’s teaching and learning center, the session involved two online teachers showcasing the design and organization of their virtual classroom spaces. One of the presenters who has been teaching online for years discussed how he organizes his class primarily to manage due dates and to communicate classroom expectations. Another presenter with an art and design background explained that he looks at his online classroom space from a very different perspective. When he builds his course, he systematically uses typography and hierarchy to communicate the importance of concepts and to help students focus on the course material and processes that he deems as being the most critical. Hearing the presenters discuss their instructional decision- making and their classroom design, it was clear that their backgrounds and expertise informed their choices.

A few attendees shared other perspectives, however. The session was attended by two of the instructional designers on campus. While both have worked individually with the presenters, their views of the course designs were very different. When they looked at the courses being shared, the instructional designers commented the courses’ ADA compliance and how organization of content helped to support student learning and participation. While these different viewpoints amicably collided in the session, they also offered a more complete picture of the way our students will navigate an online class.

These kinds of conversations are important and need to happen more regularly. Besides helping us improve our online courses by offering peer review, these discussions also help us recognize the “professional vision” shared by our colleagues and offer us new ways to see. The term “professional vision” may be new to some readers.  It comes from a 1994 research study in American Anthropologist, where Charles Goodwin examines how beginning archaeologists develop their ways of seeing.  Introducing the term “professional vision,” Goodwin writes that it is a “socially organized ways of seeing and understanding events that are answer to the distinctive interests of a particular social group” (p. 606). In his conceptualization, professional vision is a way of seeing that is unique to an individual profession or field.  It’s how a police officer can view a crime scene and see evidence that an average citizen would miss.  It’s how an archaeologist can look at a patch of discolored mud and see a decayed fence post.  It’s how a therapist can examine a patient and identify signs of stress, depression and anxiety.

In Goodwin’s view, one of the critical practices to professional vision is the ability to “articulate graphical representations,” to explicitly examine visual artifacts and apply the theories and ways of knowing that are unique to an individual profession.  These “ways of knowing” are learned through participation in communities of practice.  Veteran police officers train rookies.  Experienced counselors train beginners through practicum sessions.   Novice archaeologists study dirt alongside experts in the field who help them learn what to see. Each of our ways of seeing and knowing is distinct to the communities in which we’ve been enculturated and learned.

And that’s what played out in the professional development session today. With the variety of the backgrounds of the people involved, each offered a different professional vision, which informed how they built their own course and how they reviewed the course design of others. Considering these different perspectives, one may wonder, “whose professional vision is valid?” When designing an online course, I think it’s important that we consider multiple points of view and build our classroom spaces to coherently draw on as many as possible.  Developing different ways of seeing can help us recognize potential gaps with our design and better attend to the needs of more learners.

Reimagining Tech in Higher Ed

Earlier this year, the Office of Educational Technology released a sweeping report examining how technology can be used to foster student-centered learning in institutions of higher education in the United States. The report is a supplement to the National Educational Technology Plan released by the office in 2016 that offered a similar vision of educational technology in K12 schools. Titled Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education, this report clearly focuses on the challenges and opportunities that colleges and universities face.   For instance, the document starts 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 identifies 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 is really inclusive. Recognizing this student population, the report asserts that:

technology must serve the needs of a diverse group of students seeking access to high-quality postsecondary learning experiences, especially those students from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, first-generation students, and working learners at varying life stages— all with differing educational goals, but who all share the desire to obtain a postsecondary credential.” (p. 4)

To meet this end, the report offers several ways that technology can be used to “improve and enhance learning.”  These include:

  1. Technology enables students to access learning opportunities apart from the traditional barriers of time and place.
  2. Technology lets students access learning opportunities outside of formal higher
    education institutions, such as at their workplace or in community settings.
  3. Technology allows students to access high-quality learning resources, regardless of
    their institution’s geographical location or funding.
  4. Technology enables enhanced learning experiences through blended learning models.
  5. Technology supports students in their learning based on individual academic and
    non-academic needs through personalization.
  6. Technology can ensure that students with disabilities participate in and benefit from educational programs and activities.

In addition to this outline of technological benefits, the report provides case studies to show how these aspects are playing out at different institutions across the country. Despite these examples, I was left with the feeling that these were largely aspirations of a possible future for technology at colleges and universities rather than an actual representation of the larger landscape. Not to sound overly gloomy or negative, but I don’t see widespread, consistent use of technology to support students with disabilities.  I also don’t see many institutions offering “personalized” learning experiences for students. While there are some schools that are adopting high quality OERs to meet the needs of students, I don’t see this broadly across schools.

But that’s the point of the report.  Rather than capture the world as it is, the document is designed to show the possibilities and offer a vision of an educational future where technology is used to engender these aspects.  It doesn’t represent the world as it is, but as what it could be.  It’s a “reimagined” future, where the “new normal” students have greater access to educational opportunities through the use of technology.  While I appreciate this focus, I also wish that the report would have given readers a clear guide for how to get to this “reimagined” future.


U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Reimagining the Role of
Technology in Higher Education: A Supplement to the National Education Technology Plan, Washington, D.C., 2017.


Feedback and the Dunning-Kruger effect

I’m a podcast junkie. Since I spend over an hour commuting to and from campus each day, I choose to use that time to listen to smart people teach me about cool stuff. In a recent This American Life episode titled In Defense of Ignorance, I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect and its powerful impact on learning. While I’m not going to necessarily “defend ignorance” here, I am going to discuss how our students’ novice can impact their metacognitive abilities and how important it is to provide strong feedback for improvement.

The Dunning-Kruger effect was first introduced in a 1999 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The researchers (Justin Kruger and David Dunning) performed four studies to examine students’ abilities to self-evaluate their performance on different assessments.  After taking a test on logical reasoning, grammar or humor, participants were asked to assess their overall test score and to rate their performance against those of their peers.  Across the study, students who performed in the bottom quartile of the survey group consistently perceived their test score and performance relative to their peers as far greater than they actually performed.  As the authors write, “participants in general overestimated their ability with those in the bottom quartile demonstrating the greatest miscalibration” (p. 1125).

To some, the presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect may be surprising or eye opening. For those of us who have been teaching for a while, however, we can probably recognize this phenomenon in practice.  We’ve all encountered students who thought they’ve done really well on exam before confronting the stark reality of a low grade being handed to them. Charles Darwin captures it best in The Descent of Man when he writes, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Students don’t always know what they don’t know.

That’s why using formative assessments and providing feedback is so important.  In the Kruger and Dunning’s study, they discuss that the negative feedback from grades as offering little support for participants’ growth. Kruger and Dunning write, “Although our analysis suggests that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves, one would have thought negative feedback would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career” (p. 1131).  But that’s not how teaching and learning should work.  As educators, we need to help our students develop the metacognitive abilities to self-assess their knowledge base and performance. We have to help students better recognize their areas of strength and weakness and provide feedback to close the gaps in their performance.  As novices in our content area, they will not have the ability to readily identify what they know from what they don’t know.  By offering ongoing formative assessment, however, we can provide those developmental markers that can help guide students and have them better overcome the gaps in their learning.  While the Dunning and Kruger article identifies individuals as “ignorant” or “incompetent,” I’d prefer to view them as “learners” and provide the necessary feedback and supports to help them be successful in my classroom.



Mentoring in the Professoriate

I’m going to off on a little bit of a tangent this week.  This blog usually discusses topics related to teaching and learning in all educational environments. I tend to focus on my experiences and thoughts on technology and innovation in higher education settings but sometimes I also dip into the K-12 realm. Since I direct our university’s teaching and learning center, I also talk a good bit about professional development to build capacity with evidence-based practices and student-centered pedagogy.  But this week, I’m going in a little different direction.  I want to talk about mentoring collegiate faculty.

A few months ago, I facilitated a promotion and tenure panel discussion for faculty at our institution. Like most institutions of higher education, promotion and tenure at our university is a challenging and emotional process. The panel discussion was intended to inform faculty about the different stages of the process and to address concerns and questions. While most of the conversation focused on the types of materials to include in the application packets and how best to organize the application, there was clearly a palpable level of anxiety flowing through the room. While there’s no doubt that the promotion and tenure process is stressful, I felt like this was something different.  Some attendees seemed particularly confused, stressed and uninformed.  In a way, it was like it was the night before the final exam and some had just realized they had studied the wrong material.

In education, some instructors use “backward design” when they’re planning units.  Wiggins and McTigh first introduce the “backward design” concept in their book Understanding by Design.  Backward design means teachers need to “start with the end in mind.”  Rather than figuring out the content we want to teach, planning lessons and then testing students on what we taught, backward design offers something different.  In this approach, teachers start by asking what they want students to be able to do at the end of the unit.  The teachers then plan intentional lessons to help their students get there by scaffolding their development to make sure they’ve acquired the necessary skills to be able to be successful on the final assessment.  To some readers, “backward design” probably sounds pretty simple. But the approach was considered radical when it was first introduced.

I’m going to argue that we need a “backward design” approach for mentoring new collegiate faculty.  Returning to the panel discussion and the shocked looks that some of my colleagues displayed, it was clear that even though they were nearing a promotion opportunity, they didn’t feel prepared for the process or even knowledgeable about what “the end” looked like. After several years of navigating our institution, some didn’t really know how they were going to be assessed for promotion.  Sure, the application materials are on the university website and we offer similar panel discussions each semester. I’m also betting a few asked their colleagues on which committees they should serve or in which journals they should publish.  While this information and advice can be helpful, it does not provide ongoing mentoring that is scaffolded or developmental in nature.  It also requires that new faculty members self-evaluate their areas of need and seek out advice without really knowing what “the end” even looks like.

If we started with the end in mind, however, faculty mentoring would look different. In higher education, faculty are assessed on three main aspects: teaching, service and scholarship.  Rather than just providing advice or information as a new faculty member needs it, mentoring should be more a systematic and systemic effort.  And that’s what I’m planning to start next academic year.  I’m assembling a team of colleagues to “begin with the end in mind” and intentionally mentor a class of new faculty members into the field this fall.  While I doubt that it will reduce the stress related to the promotion and tenure process, mentoring may help the new faculty better navigate their first years at the university and feel that their development is being supported.