Learning from Trolls

I’ve been thinking a lot about an article from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.  In How the Trolls Stole Washington, Amanda Hess discusses the political, historical and emotional sides to trolling.  While the term may be new to some readers, the activity is probably more common than anyone would care to admit. It often starts with an innocent post on social media, one that catches the eye of somebody who has an axe to grind or maybe some spare time on their hands.  The person posts some outlandishly negative remarks, maybe shares it with some friends, and then hijacks the initial post completely, changing the timbre of the conversation for their own purposes.

In her article, Hess describes trolling as “saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in the wake and feasting on attention, good or bad.” The chaos emerges from the emotional response from the commenters.  When we post to social media, we are personally connected to what we share.  We share our grief when we post about our loved ones who have died.  We share our joy when we post pictures of our pets and our children.  We share our pride when we post about an accomplishment from a loved one.  Those emotions can get hijacked by trolls and twisted into something else entirely.  Love can become anger.  Joy can become embarrassment.  Pride can become shame.

But that’s what motivates trolls.  As Hess writes, “trolling was always about the distance between people who care and people who don’t. The people who cared always lost.”  Hess also offers some advice to detach from trolls.  She writes that to detach from trolls we must learn “to withhold their outrage, to not ‘feed the trolls,’ to pretend there was a real distinction between doing horrible things and meaning them.”  It sounds like good advice.  Like most things, however, it’s easier to say than do.

At this point, you may be wondering what we could possibly learn from trolls.  I’m leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on campus centered on Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh.  We met for the first time yesterday and the group is really enjoying what we’ve read so far.  I read the book last fall in preparation for the FLC this semester and I even wrote a few blog posts on the text already. (See this and this.) One of the concepts we discussed in our FLC yesterday was the idea of “emotional contagion.” Emotional contagion is “the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.”  In the book, Cavanagh references a Facebook experiment where users were presented both negative and positives posts from peers. As you would expect, users who were presented with positive posts tended to share more positive things themselves.  Similarly, users who presented negative posts tended to share more negative content on their pages.  That’s the power of emotional contagion!

But how does this connect to learning?  Returning to the Spark of Learning text, Cavanagh also introduces the concept of “augmented cognitive load” and the positive impact the affective supports can have on learning.  It stands to reason that if positive emotions and supports can aid learning than negative emotions can impede it. To resist this impediment, we have to consciously set aside the negative emotions we experience so we can communicate and teach from a positive, supportive place.  This is important to the learning process, even when we’re faced with the urge to emotionally lash out against the “trolls” we face online or in our classrooms.

Cavanagh shares a quote from Ginott (1972) that sheds some additional light on the interplay between emotion and learning.  Ginott writes:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” (pp. 15-16)

Don’t let the trolls dictate how you feel or interact or teach today.  Your mood makes the weather.  I choose to make mine sunny.


Cavanagh, S. R..The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016.

Ginott, Haim G. Between teacher and child. Collier-Macmillan, 1972.

Educators’ Roles: A Wicked Problem

Each year, the New Media Consortium (NMC) publishes its Horizons Reports that predict key trends, significant challenges and important development in educational technology.  These reports attempt to outline some critical considerations for different learning environment including library, museums, K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. I have a habit of collecting these reports and examining their predictions over the years.  For instance, the 2008 Higher Education Edition predicted that “grassroots video” would have a significant impact on education.  Considering the number of online tutorials that faculty make and the growth in flipped and blended instruction, it’s pretty clear that their prediction was on the mark.

I came across the 2017 Higher Education Edition the other day.  While I tend to check out the educational technology predictions closely, in this edition, I was really interested in the “significant challenges” that they outlined.  The NMC groups these challenges into three categories: solvable, difficult and wicked.  Solvable problems are ones that the NMC says the systems “understand and know how to solve.”  By contrast, difficult challenges are ones that we may understand but for which solutions are more “elusive.”  Wicked challenges are those “that are complex to even define, much less address.”  In the 2017 Higher Education Horizons Report, the NMC identified “Rethinking the Roles of Educators” as a wicked problem.  Here’s their argument.

Educators are increasingly expected to employ a variety of technology-based tools, such as digital learning resources and courseware, and engage in online discussions and collaborative authoring. Further, they are tasked with leveraging active learning methodologies like project and problem-based learning. This shift to student-centered learning requires them to act as guides and facilitators.

While the problem seems pretty simply stated, it’s much more complex for a variety of reasons.  There are social, economic, cultural and political ramifications to this dramatic shift in educators’ roles.  As an individual faculty member at a public university, however, I don’t have much impact on these areas. It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the complexity and interplay of these dimensions.  Working in professional development on campus, however, I need to consider how to successfully build faculty capacity to prepare them to make this transition successfully. Which is a pretty wicked problem on its own.

In his book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Lortie (1975) introduces the concept of apprenticeship of observation, which may be a huge factor that influences the “wickedness” of this problem.  As they navigate their education as students, Lortie argues, budding instructors are actually being apprenticed into the practice of teaching.  They observe how classrooms are used and how their content is taught.  When these students eventually enter they own classrooms as teachers, this apprenticeship informs how they use technology, how they engage students in the learning process and how they use classroom spaces.  Since many of us don’t have models of “student-centered instruction” in our personal learning histories, we can’t really envision educators’ roles in these types of learning environments.  Few of us have personal experiences with active learning as students.   Factor in the minority of faculty members who have direct experience with online, blended and flipped learning environments as students and the problem becomes even more complex.

Readers may be reaching this part of the post and hoping it will end with some solutions to this problem.  But that’s one of the challenges with these “wicked problems.” As we start to unravel them to identify possible solutions, we just end up seeing how complex and interwoven the problem really is.


Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago.


The Challenges with Teaching Online

Some colleagues and I have been surveying online teachers in K-12 and collegiate environments to determine the areas that they feel are critical to online teaching success and which areas are ones in which they often struggle.  After conducting some focus groups last year, we developed a comprehensive survey that we sent out to a few hundred online teachers earlier this year.  Our goal was to examine the most challenging areas that online teachers encounter with the hopes of informing our work with our online teaching colleagues and preservice teachers who may teach online in the future.  We’re pouring through the data now and trying to make sense of the responses.  While I won’t bore you with the analysis that we’re doing, I thought I’d share a few preliminary findings and discuss their importance.

Building rapport with online students can be challenging.  Looking at the data, this was one of the areas that immediately stood out.  While participating teachers identified this as an important aspect to online teaching success, they also reported that this was one of the more difficult things they had to do as online teachers.  This item saw the greatest standard deviation across all of the questions on the survey, showing that while some teachers feel pretty comfortable doing this in their online classes, others struggled with it. Understanding the importance of “social presence” in online classes, I was pretty surprised to see this aspect of online learning so well represented in the survey results.

Establishing routines and procedures in online classes is important. Across the surveyed online teachers, this area was rated as one of the most critical aspects to online teaching success.  Recalling a US News article I shared a few years ago on this blog, provided clear, structured experiences for students is really important for quality online instruction.  Here’s the surprising part, though.  While responding online teachers found this area important, they also rated their ability to do it as really high.  When assessing their own abilities, online teachers rated “establishing routines and procedures” as the area they felt most comfortable across all of the survey items.  The item also had one of the lowest standard deviations.  From the data, it’s pretty clear that while online teachers feel that establishing routines and procedures is important, they also feel pretty confident that they’re doing it well.

Providing feedback is critical to online students’ success.  As we examined the data, this was another surprising finding.  Online teachers working in both K-12 and collegiate settings reported this as one of the most important aspects to effective online instruction.  Looking back at a blog post from a few years ago, I wrote that online teachers needed to be VOCAL.  Building on an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, the post discussed how the VOCAL acronym identified that online teachers needed to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example.  In my post, I offered a revision where assessment and feedback replaced being analytical.  Looking at the data from the surveyed teachers, it’s clear they also see the importance of these areas.  The great part is that the online teachers rated their ability to provide feedback as being high.

Now, it’s important to remember that these findings are based on self-reported data from surveyed online teachers.  With the number of respondents and the ongoing data analysis, however, we’re hoping to more clearly define the challenging areas for online teachers.  Ultimately, we plan to use these data to inform professional development opportunities on campus and the courses in our online teacher preparation program.


Literacy and the Collegiate Student

When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice.  About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding.  While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations.  Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel.  Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area.  I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing at a local teaching and learning conference next week and at the Teaching Professor Conference this June.

Some readers may be wondering why we even need to examine reading strategies for collegiate students.  After all, our students are adults and they should have already developed advanced reading abilities.  That was one of the first areas that Jen tackled with me.  While we’d like to think that our students are prepared for the challenging content we assign, collegiate students are still developing as readers and we need to help them in this process.  To demonstrate her case, Jen shared Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development.  In this model, Chall identifies six different stages across a reader’s development and the different characteristics and abilities prominent at each.  Based on their age, we may expect that our students have reached the highest stage, Construction and Reconstruction.  At this stage, students should be able to construct their understanding based on text analysis and synthesis.  The reality, however, is that some of our students may be entering our classes without this ability.  Maybe some are still at Chall’s “Reading for Learning the New” stage or maybe others are just reaching the “Multiple Viewpoints” stage.  Realizing that our students are still developing as readers was pretty eye opening.

In our conversations, I inquired whether any large-scale studies had been done to examine college students’ reading abilities.  After searching around a bit, Jen and I found a 2006 study conducted by the American Institutes for Research titled The Literacy of America’s College StudentsThe study looked comprehensively at college students’ literacy levels from a variety of different perspectives.  If Chall’s work was eye opening, this study was even more so.  In the study, the authors identify four literacy levels (below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient) across three different a literacy types (prose, document and quantitative).  Looking at the average literacy levels for students enrolled in two and four year institutions, the authors report that while college students on average score significantly higher than the general adult population in all three literacy types, the average score would be characterized at the intermediate literacy level.  Expanding the lens to examine the collegiate student population closer, the authors uncover some important findings for those institutions of higher education whose missions include working with first generation college students or with international students.  Students whose parents are college graduates score significantly higher across all literacy types than those students whose parents did not attend any post-secondary education.  Foreign-born students score significantly lower across every literacy type than their US-born peers.

I know some readers may see these findings and think that our schools just need to be more selective.  Maybe other readers dismiss this study entirely because they work at an elite school with a (presumed) higher caliber of student. It’s important to note that the researchers did not find significantly different literacy levels when comparing students at public vs. private institutions or at selective vs. nonselective institutions. While the findings may be a little disheartening, the report shows that ALL institutions of higher education need to be aware of their students’ literacy levels.

And that’s the big takeaway from this post.  Considering our students’ literacy development and ability, we need to assist them with interacting with the readings we assign.  We need to help them access our disciplinary texts and support them in their growth as readers.  And that’s the main goal with the session that Jen and I are developing.  We hope you’ll join us.


Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The Literacy of America’s College Students. American Institutes for Research.

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill. pp.10-24

Risk, vulnerability and change

Last week, as I stood on the perilous edge of a metaphorical cliff, I wondered whether I should take the jump.  Should I hit “Publish” and expose my poor teaching evaluations to the world?  Sure, I had written an in-depth reflection and reaction to my fall evaluations and outlined my plan for improvement. But, was I really ready to have the world know that my teaching didn’t cut it?  Moments before publishing that post, I can remember consciously worrying about people’s reactions and decided that I needed to put my thoughts out there. I wanted to hold myself accountable for my evaluations and to make sure that I’d live up to a plan of action for improvement. As I clicked to publish the post, I figured that I’d deal with the criticisms later.

Here’s the surprising part.  I didn’t receive a single criticism. Not one.  Instead, I received emails from former students, texts from colleagues and a phone call from a former professor. While many were reaching out to make sure I was okay, most were contacting me to thank me for putting it out there. They admired me for taking the risk, showing my vulnerability and tackling my emotions so openly.  It was not the reaction I expected.

I also wasn’t expecting the post to be viewed by hundreds of readers or be retweeted on Twitter as much as it was.  In my moment of vulnerability, I took a risk and it resonated with loads of other teacher.  One new faculty member even emailed me to ask if she could meet with me to discuss her Fall teaching evaluations so we could come up with a plan for improvement for her classes.  The reactions were honestly pretty inspiring.

As I’ve been reflecting on last week’s post, I decided to reread a post I wrote on August 2013.  Titled “the birthplace of innovation?” the post examines Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability and shame.  In her presentation, Dr. Brown says:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

While I definitely felt vulnerable as I wrote and shared my post, I also saw it as a route for improving my teaching and fostering personal change.  While I worried about criticism, I should have kept in mind President Theodore Roosevelt and his moving words from Citizen in a Republic.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Strive valiantly, my friends.  Be willing to enthusiastically put yourself out there and to fail while daring greatly.  I’m sure you’ll be as inspired by the reactions as I was.

Thanks to all.

A bitter pill

It’s been a rough twenty-four hours for me.  Yesterday morning, I received my student evaluations from last semester and one section rated me really low. Although my usual course evaluations are on par with departmental and university means, this section rated me a full point lower than I usually receive.  Particularly troubling was the areas in which they rated me the lowest.  The two lowest sections were “the instructor treated the class fairly and with respect” and “the instructor demonstrated concern and interest in students.”  In these two areas, I received ratings drastically lower than my average and my other sections from the semester.  Seeing these low scores in print was definitely a bitter pill to swallow.

I have to admit that the scores weren’t completely unexpected.  I had several difficult moments with this particular section.  The course is built around a semester-long group project that pairs students with a local elementary school.  My students create instructional materials for use with the elementary classes and evaluate how they’ve impacted learning.  While it’s a realistic application of instructional technology, the project is at times chaotic and messy.  I’m trying to teach soft skills like problem solving, flexibility and creativity and the project creates an authentic environment for these skills to develop.  But students have mixed reactions to this approach. As one student wrote on RateMyProfessors at the end of last semester,

“Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging.”

Obviously, the challenging nature of the class (and my teaching) caused the negative evaluations I received.  So, after “licking my wounds” for the last 24 hours, I decided to use this space to work through these emotions. Since I’m the director for my institution’s teaching and learning center, the evaluation scores are humbling (to say the least).  But they also present an opportunity for reflection and growth.  In the remainder of this post, I want to share some of thoughts and emotions that I’m working through.

  1.  I own these scores.  While I’d like to chalk the scores up to a bad group of students or to student immaturity, the reality is these scores represent how this group of students saw my teaching.  I don’t control student maturity and I don’t control the students who take my class but I do control my teaching and how I interact with my students.  While I consider myself to be a student-centered instructor who works on behalf of his students, clearly my approach was off the mark and needs some revision.
  2. The scores don’t mean I’m a bad teacher.  Despite a few hours of self-doubt and self-pity, I’ve decided to embrace the “growth mindset” and see these scores as opportunities for improvement.  I find that some instructors who embrace the growth mindset when working with students won’t necessarily apply that same mindset to their own instructional or scholarly lives.  Just like a single bad grade wouldn’t mean that a student didn’t possess the ability to succeed, a section of bad evaluations doesn’t mean that I’m a bad instructor.  With hard work and dedication, I’m confident my evaluation scores will improve.
  3. I will need to make some changes.  I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché “insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”  This certainly applies here.  A new section of the class meets tomorrow for the first time and this evaluation data shows that changes need to be made.  So, what am I going to do differently?  First, I’m going to try to scaffold the chaos a little more so students don’t feel as stressed by the project.  I’m also going to directly explain my overall objectives and how the students’ learning (and futures) will benefit.  Another change I plan to implement is to more regularly take “the temperature” of the class.  While I include lots of active learning strategies in the class, I don’t often attend the affective dimensions of learning and how my students are feeling and reacting to the class.

Our phones may be smarter…

Look across any college campus and you’ll see large number of students walking around with their faces glued to their smartphones.  Some times, you’ll see three or four students walking together and staring at their smartphone rather than talking to one another.  You’ll also see students using their smartphones to capture the minutiae of their days.  They post images of their lunches or their outfits or the squirrels playing in the park. The smartphone has become a ubiquitous device in students’ lives.

If you’ve wondering whether there’s been a growth in smartphone ownership over the years, there has been. Last year, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) reported that smartphone ownership outpaced laptop for the first time in its decade of research on technology ownership among undergraduate students.  In the 2016 study, ECAR reported that 96% of undergrads report owning smartphones while only 93% report owning a laptop.  Considering that the iPhone just had its 10th birthday, it’s amazing to see how rapid this mass adoption has occurred.

Many of us who work with instructional technology think of the educational opportunities that these tools present.  Compared to the computers that many students used decades ago, the computing power of a smartphone is orders of magnitude more powerful.  And our students have these devices on them all the time.  The devices offer limitless educational opportunities for students.  But there is another side to recognize.

In a New York Times article titled Hooked on our Smartphones, Jane Brody writes about the negative impact that widespread smartphone use causes.  The article begins with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the award winning musical “Hamilton.”  Smartphones, Miranda argues, has stolen our downtime and made us less creative and innovative.  “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower.” Miranda says. “It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.” When smartphones are used to fill every down second of our days, we’re losing these moments of inspiration.

Is Miranda exaggerating? Consider research that Nancy Colier shares in her book, The Power of Off.  On average, people check their smartphones 150 times a day, or roughly every six minutes.  Young adults, Colier writes, send “an average of 110 texts per day” and are increasingly overexposed to online media.  Returning to the Times article, Brody shares a study conducted by the University of Maryland that showed that “a clear majority” of students experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for a day.  And this isn’t just a phenomenon experienced in the U.S.  Students from across the globe report similar emotional reactions.  As a student from Mexico reported “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”

So, what’s the big take-away? Often, with technological advances and innovations, we focus on the gains and improvements that occur.  With smartphones, we can communicate and interact with a larger population.  We have unlimited information at our fingertips. We can document our lives through text, images and video. But what have we lost with our smartphone usage?  While we think we’re filling a void by entertaining ourselves during “downtime, if Miranda and Colier are correct, we’re actually robbing ourselves of a powerful creative catalyst and becoming dependent on the flood of media that these devices supply.  While the phones have become smarter, can we say the same for ourselves?