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.


Checking off Checklists

A few months ago, I posted about how my online students have been requesting that I add checklists to allow them to self-monitor their progress. It was on my list of things to do to improve my classes and I’m happy to report that I was able to incorporate checklists in my online classes that started a few weeks ago. Before we get to how they’ve been used, let’s review.

Checklists help students to be more metacognitive and to self-regulate their learning. Well-defined checklists can make expectations clear for students and help them monitor their progress in completing the expectations. When completing complex assignments, checklists can help students better understand the individual tasks embedded within the complexity. This is especially helpful in my online classes. While I like to think I’ve organized my classes pretty linearly, there are lots of moving parts each week. Checklists can reduce this chaos for students and help them focus on the specific aspects they need to complete.

Besides the direct connections to learning, checklists are also one of the ways to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in your classes. One of the principles of UDL is “providing multiple means of action and expression.” This broad principle can be more easily understood when the supporting guidelines are considered. Checklists fall under the guideline for executive functioning and would help students “develop and act on plans to make the most out of learning” (CAST, 2018). Digging deeper into UDL, checklists help students set appropriate goals, strategically plan their work, manage course information and resources, and monitor their own progress. While checklists may seem like a simple strategy, they can have a huge impact on student learning.

As we enter the third week of my two online classes, I wanted to take a look to see whether students were using the checklists and whether there were any correlations with students’ academic performance. For each module overview, I included a checklist which I listed as a “self-assessment” and explained that students could us it to monitor their progress.  I also explained that using the checklists was completely optional but I stressed that students should use them to “stay on track” with course expectations.

Across the 35 students currently enrolled in my two online classes, 28 have consistently used the checklists for the first three modules. Only two students have chosen not to use the checklists at all. Looking at the performance of the students in the classes, the seven students who are either not using the checklists or using them inconsistently are on average performing 6-7% below the average in their classes. Definitely some interesting findings.

Before any reader gets too excited about the amazing powers of checklists, I think some restraint may be warranted. First off, this isn’t anywhere close to a well-designed research study. I basically looked into the statistics and saw that some students were using the checklists and others were not. The ones who were using them were doing well for the most part. The ones who were not using them weren’t doing as well. Just an anecdotal observation.

Expanding the lens, however, may allow for other observations. Overall, the students who were using the checklists were also the ones who logged in more often, read more of the posts from their peers and accessed course content more regularly. While I was hoping the checklists would be a way to support struggling students, it looks as if the highly motivated, Type A students were the ones who were actually using them. At least so far. I’ll revisit the data after the courses have ended and report back.

Be the Light in the Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Learner Presence?

In science, researchers see theories and ideas as being tentative.  New information can be introduced that prompts reflection and re-examination.  For example, Copernicus’ work forced astronomers to re-evaluate whether the Earth was the center of the solar system and it helped to set up the work done by Kepler and Galileo. By looking at things a little differently and introducing research to back up his claims, Copernicus opened the scientific doorway for all of modern astronomy.

I thought about Copernicus this weekend as I read a study conducted by Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano. In an article that appeared in Computers and Education in 2010, Shea and Bidjerano examined whether online students’ self-efficacy impacted their perceptions of the quality of the virtual learning environments in which they participated. The researchers surveyed over 3000 students in 42 different institutions of higher education to see whether behavioral and motivational elements correlated with aspects of the Community of Inquiry framework (COI).   When Garrison, Archer and Anderson (2001) first introduced the COI framework, they presented it as model to describe a “worthwhile educational experience” for online students. The framework involves three intersecting “presences” which help to describe the overall learning activities with which students and instructors must engage. The framework includes: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence.  Describing COI holistically, successful online classes depend upon instructors fostering the development of a social environment where students interact cognitively with one another and with the teacher.  While thousands of research articles have validated the COI framework from a variety of perspectives, few have examined the role that a student’s beliefs in self play in online educational experiences.

In Shea and Bidjerano’s work, they concluded “that a positive relationship exists between elements of the COI framework and between elements of a nascent theoretical construct that we label “learning presence”. We suggest that learning presence represents elements such as self-efficacy as well as other cognitive, behavioral, and motivational constructs supportive of online learner self-regulation.”  For those new to the concept of self-efficacy, Bandura (1986) defined it as an individual’s beliefs in their “capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance.” Self-efficacy is a well-researched area that has been shown to have an impact on individuals’ job satisfaction, academic success, and so much more.  The surprising part about self-efficacy is that it focuses more on individuals’ beliefs in self rather than their actual abilities.  And that’s the important connection to Shea and Bidjerano’s work.  Students who feel that they are more able to be successful in an online class find the class worthwhile.  Shea and Bidjerano also found relationships between the elements of their proposed “learning presence” and the teaching, social and cognitive presences in the original COI framework.  This, I feel, is the most powerful part of the research and the most motivating for instructors.  The online environments that instructors construct and facilitate need to help students attend to their own learning.  While we can build learning environments that support social and cognitive development, we must also thoughtful construct spaces where students feel they can be successful and are motivated to learn.

As I read Shea and Bidjerano’s research, other studies kept coming to mind and making sense in a new light.  The one that stands out a study I wrote about earlier this year.  Titled The Magic Pill of Online Learning, the post described the importance of including orientation videos in online classes.  In classes with high dropout and failure rates, researchers added short videos that helped students understand how to navigate the online environment and complete important tasks like check grades, access content and participate in discussion forums.  By adding the orientation videos, students were more successful and dropout and failure rates decreased.  Viewed from Shea and Bidjerano’s work, the orientation videos helped to motivate students and foster confidence in their ability to be successful.

Hopefully, Shea and Bidjerano’s work will usher in a re-examination of the current COI framework.  Despite being almost six years old, the research hasn’t raised widespread awareness of the socio-cognitive aspects that students bring to online learning environments.  Navigating the Community of Inquiry website that is maintained by Garrison and others, however, I came across a blog post authored by Terry Anderson (one of the original COI researchers) that outlined the potential of a fourth presence.  The post references Shea and Bidjerano and other researchers who are examining the impact that students have on online learning environments.  While this research will not force a complete redesign of the Solar System (like Copernicus), it may prompt re-configuration of current models that describe online learning.

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


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721-1731.

Bias in Your Online Class?

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

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

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

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

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

Improving my online classes with checklists

At some point in my online and face-to-face classes, I’ll ask my students to reflect on the journey so far and to provide feedback on ways that I can improve things. Since I’m almost entirely teaching online this academic year, I’m getting some real solid feedback from my students on ways that my online classes can be improved. Across all of the feedback, one suggestion stands out as the most requested improvement lately. Checklists.

From a learning science perspective, my students’ request for checklists absolutely makes sense. Checklists help students to be more metacognitive and to self-regulate their learning. Well-defined checklists can make expectations clear for students and help them monitor their progress in completing the expectations. When completing complex assignments, checklists can help students better understand the individual tasks embedded within the complexity.

Besides the direct connections to learning, checklists are also one of the ways to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in your classes. One of the principles of UDL is “providing multiple means of action and expression.” This broad principle can be more easily understood when the supporting guidelines are considered. Checklists fall under the guideline for executive functioning and would help students “develop and act on plans to make the most out of learning” (CAST, 2018). Digger deeper into UDL, checklists help students set appropriate goals, strategically plan their work, manage course information and resources, and monitor their own progress. While checklists may seem like a simple strategy, it’s clear that they can have a huge impact on student learning.

The application of checklists to online learning environments is also pretty clear. Since so much of the instruction, interaction and assessment in an online class are mediated through technology, it’s easy for a student to miss things. A student could misread a due date or misunderstand an expectation. A checklist helps to reduce these missteps and provides supports for students to navigate the online space and do their best work.

I also think a lot about cognitive load when I create my online classes. Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort required to process information and learn something. While we talk about cognitive load as being a single entity, researchers actually identify three different types of cognitive load: germane, intrinsic, and extraneous. Germane cognitive load refers to the metal processes required to acquiring, automating and associating concepts in long-term memory. By contrast, intrinsic load describes the difficulty based on the concept being learned. Learning to add or subtract is much easier than learning differential equations. The processes have different intrinsic loads associated with them. Since we don’t typically control the cognitive difficulty of the content or the mental processes required to learn them, instructors don’t really have much control over germane or intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous load is a different story, though. Extraneous load describes the difficulty to learn something based on how it is presented. I’m sure we’ve all sat through lessons where our ability to concentrate was challenged. Maybe the teacher spoke with a monotone voice. Or maybe the presentation slides were so visually disorganized that they were hard to follow. Or maybe the lesson itself was poorly organized and disjointed. These examples showcase the power of extraneous load.

In a way, checklists can be considered as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load. Checklists can clear up any disorganization and help to focus students’ attention on the critical activities they need to complete. After detailing the instructional impacts of checklists, it looks like I’m going to have to find the time to build them into my online classes.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from

Five Stages of Online Learning?

As an online educator (and someone who researches online education), I’m always coming across new model to describe the online learning process. Personally, I gravitate to the Community of Inquiry framework because I see the need to foster social presence in online learning environments. A colleague shared another framework recently and I’m still working through its applicability.

In her 2013 book E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, Gilly Salmon offers a five-stage model of e-moderation that scaffolds students through increasingly complex technological ability and interactivity. Salmon’s stage model is relatively new to me but I can see that, in many ways, it reflects how I create my online courses. To dig deeper into the model, I thought I’d outline each stage and discuss a little about the ways I meet (or don’t meet) each stage in my online classes.

Stage 1: Access and Motivation
This stage focuses on helping students understand the learning environment and how to technically engage with the different tools. In all of my online classes, I offer short online orientation that help students develop basic proficiency with the learning management system and understand how I plan to use.

Stage 2: On-line Socialization
Stage 2 targets developing a social space for students to interact with their peers and with the course instructor. In my online classes, I always include some sort of icebreaker to get the students sharing short introductions with one another.

Stage 3: Information Exchange
This stage has students interacting with course content and reflecting on what they’ve learned. To make this process a little more transparent in my online classes, I have students post short reading summaries before they begin discussing what they’ve learned with their peers (Stage 4).

Stage 4: Knowledge Construction
If Stage 3 is about accessing information, Stage 4 focuses on building knowledge through social collaboration. This stage is highly interactive with students sharing their ideas with one another. In my online classes, I usually post a few open-ended discussion board questions to foster conversations with the hopes that the class will use the content as a springboard for sharing additional ideas and content.

Stage 5: Development
If there’s a stage that I haven’t done a great job meeting, it’s Stage 5. This stage focuses on the students’ reflecting on and evaluating their own learning. The goal with this stage is to foster more independent learning and increased self-regulation. In a way, Stage 5 reminds me a little of Level 6 of Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning. In Fink’s taxonomy, Level 6 has students focus on the metacognitive process of “learning how to learn.” Across my online and face-to-face classes, I don’t feel like I offer enough opportunities for students to do this.  It definitely provides some opportunities for growth.

Regular readers know that I subscribe to the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework when I build and facilitate my online classes.  While I don’t necessarily see Salmon’s stage model replacing my use of the COI, I do see its applicability. I really like how the model focuses on students learning to navigate the technical aspects of their online classes before they gradually engage in more interactive processes in the class. This scaffolded approach is critical to online student success and reflects research I shared a few years ago about online orientations. For this reason alone, I feel like the Salmon’s stage model deserves a little more attention.