Seeing through my students’ eyes

I’m teaching a winter graduate course called Online Learning Environments where students examine the different features and strategies that support effective online instruction. After examining different rubrics for quality online design, I have the students select one of the rubrics and use it to assess an online class they have created or taken. Since many of these students have taken a handful of online classes with me, many choose to assess one of the classes I’ve created. To complete the assignment, the students have to create a short video showing the areas that meet their chosen rubric’s standard for quality (and which areas could be improved). While this process can be humbling, I also find it to be tremendously instructive. Seeing how students view my online classes provides a wealth of information for me to improve my classes.  Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  1. Students value organization and structure. While this is a standard in many rubrics for effective online course design, the students commented about how they really enjoy seeing courses that are predictable and easy to follow. I’ve worked to develop standardized templates for content pages and to organize the learning materials the same way each week.  In their video reviews, it was clear that students value this and find it critical to their success as online learners.
  2. Some courses have a shelf life. Some students asked to review courses that they took with me two or three years ago. Our learning management system went through a major upgrade last summer that changed how pages would be formatted and displayed. While these upgrades forced me to retool and redesign the courses I’ve taught since then, the older courses that the students reviewed didn’t reflect these changes. Although the content and modes of interaction would still be effective, the upgrade changed how the learning objects were displayed and where they could be found. This impacted how students reviewed these older courses. In my comments to student reviews, I explained that online courses evolved with time and were impacted by outside factors (like LMS upgrades).
  3. Students enjoy variety. As students completed their reviews, many commented on the variety of learning objects and assessments that are incorporated into my online classes. Since I’m a firm believer of Universal Design for Learning, I try to provide multiple means of representation; action and expression; and engagement into my online classes. While this is an area represented on the different rubrics that students could use to evaluate the online courses, it was clear that students enjoy when online instructors vary the instructional methods and assessment techniques they use.
  4. I still need to work on online course accessibility. Across students’ reviews of my online classes, it was clear that accessibility is still an area for growth for me. While I structure my content pages to make them friendlier for screen readers and I supply captioning for the videos I create or assign, there are still areas that need to be improved. For instance, students found a few PDFs that I had assigned where the text hadn’t been extracted. This meant that a student with a visual impairment wouldn’t have been able to access the scanned document at all. Hearing my students comment about the need to include these elements in online classes has motivated me to take a more critical eye for the online classes I design for the spring.

All-Time Top Ten Posts

In the spirit of the season, I’m posting the most visited posts from the 8 Blog.  Last week, I focused on the posts from 2017.  This week, I’m reviewing the most viewed posts since the 8 Blog started back in 2009.  Enjoy!

1. Nine Copyright Friendly Sites for Student Multimedia Projects Written in October 2010, this post still gets a lot of shares and visits. While many of these sites still offer access to copyright-friendly media, ISTE published this post earlier this year on four sites for free and fair use photos.

2. Designing Infographics on your iPad From June 2013, this post outlines a few apps for creating graphical representations of data with an iPad. The infographic landscape has expanded since this post was written.  To check out some additional tools for creating infographics, check out: 8 free tools for creating infographics

3. Presenting to Colleagues I wrote this post in July 2013 after attending a conference session where the presenters just read their slides to the attendees. In the post, I offer six ways to make your presentation more effective.

4. Sites for Students to Create their own Comics Seeing this post from March 2011 make it among the top 10 brings me great joy. As a self-professed comic book nerd, I love that readers see value in having students create their own comics.

5. What’s your Teaching Metaphor? In this post from August 2016, I discuss the different metaphors we use to describe our instructional roles and what research says about the way we use language to describe our teaching.

6. Being a Worm in Horseradish You can categorize this post as one of more philosophical tomes. In this post from May 2013, I discuss how different customs and traditions can develop on a campus but they may be hard to recognize. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his TED Talk, “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”

7. Applying Multimedia Principles to Screencasting This post, written in July 2012, draws on work from Richard Mayer that examined how multimedia can support learning. Mayer offers different “multimedia principles” to guide the selection and creation of learning objects. I discuss how these apply to screencasting.

8. Innovation Involves Risk Taking From February 2012, this post tells the story of Michael Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University and his efforts with integrating technology in his collegiate classroom.

9. Applying Google’s 80/20 to your Class From January 2012, this post outlines the Google policy where workers can use 20% of their time focused on projects of their own choosing. I discuss how educators can leverage this policy to foster more student ownership over their learning.

10. What’s your Teacher Perspective? This post from May 2016 discusses the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI). Developed by Daniel Pratt in 1998, the TPI is a tool that instructors can use to self-assess where among the five discrete teaching perspectives their teaching lies. In the post, I also share my assessment results from an online TPI survey.




Top Ten Posts from 2017

It’s the time of the year when blogs and websites post their “Top Ten Lists.” Following suit, over the next two weeks, I’ll share the top blog posts from the 8 Blog.  This week, we’re going to focus on the posts that were authored this year.  Next week, we’ll look back at the top ten posts since the start of the 8 Blog Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 3.54.26 PMback in 2009.  Enjoy!

1. A Bitter Pill This post was one of the hardest posts for me to write. After receiving some negative student evaluations in Fall 2016, I reflected on the experience in January and discussed how I was going to use the scores as feedback for growth.

2. Digging Deeper Into Social Presence When I design or facilitate online classes, I focus a lot on the Community of Inquiry framework and how I can cultivate social, cognitive and teaching presences to create a worthwhile educational experience for my students. This post, from May, examines ways to foster social presence online.

3. Teaching: Transmission, Transaction or Transformation From August, this post originated from a conversation with a colleague.  She asked, “How would you describe your teaching role with your students? Is it a transmission, a transaction or a transformation?” That philosophical and pedagogical question led to me examining my own teaching and the interactions I have with my students.

4. Resources for Teaching Larger Classes At the start of the Fall semester, a new faculty member emailed me for help with the large classes she was scheduled to teach. The email served as the creative spark for this August post.

5. My Biggest Mistake From a series of  musings on my “epic failures,” this post (from October) shares the story of the time I tried to use assessment as a punishment with a group of high school students and the lessons I learned from the encounter.

6. Our Phones May Be Smarter This post from January examines the use of smartphones on campus and the potential impacts to creativity and socialization.

7. Poverty and Cognitive Function Posted in June, this post outlines research that shows the impact of poverty on students’ cognitive ability.

8. Teaching for Growth From August, this post examines three practices that James Lang (2016) shares in his book Small Teaching and how instructors can embed these practices into their daily teaching.

9. Feedback and the Dunning-Kruger Effect Written in April, this post discusses how some students think they know more than they actually do and how that can impact their study habits and learning. The post examines the foundational research on the effect and outlines some strategies to help students being more aware of their actual knowledge base.

10. The Branded Teacher From September, this post examines the growing practice of teachers becoming affiliated with technology companies and acting as ambassadors for their products. I discuss the challenges with this practice and the potential impacts on students and learning.

Specks of Fish Spawn

I’ve been blogging for the last seven years and I’m always on the lookout for ideas for posts. Not to go too far down the blogging rabbit hole, but when I find inspiration for a potential post, I add it to a note on my phone that is titled Blog Ideas. Since I never really know when inspiration will strike me, Blog Ideas often collects all sorts of half-baked thoughts. When I look back at the notes later, I’ll see a remnant of some quote that I quickly typed at the gym or some phrase or statement that I added while sitting at a red light. Sometimes when I look back at my notes, they’ll make complete sense. Other times, they don’t.  I’ll encounter some hastily written, cryptic sentence and wonder “What in the world was I thinking when I wrote this?” The seeds of inspiration!

One of the ideas that’s been in the notes page for a while is a quote from Alvar Aalto.  Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect who was featured in a podcast on skateboarding in empty swimming pools. Aalto originally designed the pea-shaped pools that became popular on the West Coast as makeshift skate parks. Discussing his ideas and inspirations, Aalto writes:

“Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon or trout. They are not born fully grown; they are not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully-grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas.

In the spirit of Alvar Aalto and the fish that are not fully matured, this week, I’m going to deviate a bit.  Rather than present “big salmon,” I’m just going to pull a few “specks of fish spawn” from my notes page and share them in their half-baked state. If I can recall, I’ll share the point of inspiration and what I was thinking at the time. Maybe some of my adventurous readers can help these ideas mature into more “fully-grown fish.”

“The Reasonable Man”
I heard this phrase in a podcast. It’s a legal standard used in court cases to decide what a reasonable person would do in a situation. At the time, I thought about what a parallel standard called “The Reasonable Educator” would look like. What practices, responsibilities and beliefs could we expect from the Reasonable Educator? What about a Reasonable Student? That’s about as far as I got with the concept.

“The T-shaped Professional”
This a recent addition to my notes page but I thought I’d share it. This comes from a recent report from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education that discussed the need for developing “T-shaped professionals” who have a broad liberal arts background and a knowledge of soft skills (the T-top) and a deep knowledge of a specialty area (the T-stem).  I still may develop this idea into a post but I found the “T” reference interesting and novel.

“Tyranny of the Urgent”
I actually don’t remember where I heard this phrase but I think it would be a good mantra for new educators. The phrase was coined by Charles E. Hummel and he is quoted as saying “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” Good stuff to consider as we move into the holiday season.

“GPS Mapping/Christopher Columbus/online teaching”
Really, that’s exactly what the note says. Despite my efforts to remember where it came from or what I meant at the time, I still have no idea. I do remember reading an article about people who blindly follow their GPS directions and end up driving into lakes and buildings. Maybe I wanted to draw a comparison to the way Christopher Columbus was able to cross the Atlantic without those tools because of his ability to navigate. There could be some parallels to online educators who ignore pedagogy and rely on their LMS too heavily. I know it’s a bit of a reach but that’s the best I could come up with.

“Chasing signal vs. Chasing noise”
This phrase came from a podcast on stereotype threat. Without digging too deeply into the research, stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The podcast took a critical look at the evidence for stereotype and I thought the phrases “chasing signal” and “chasing noise” could be interesting lenses to use when viewing classroom environments. I still need time to develop this further but what are the “signals” and “noise” of learning? How can we learn to focus on the important stuff (the signal) and ignore the stuff that isn’t (the noise)?

Returning to Alvar Aalto, you may see some of the ideas return in the weeks or months ahead. This post simply showcases the specks of fish spawn that may eventually grow and mature and crystallize into a world of ideas.  Only time can tell.

Glows and Grows

It’s nearing the end of the semester and I’m knee-deep in grading papers and projects. I’m also preparing for a faculty learning community (FLC) that I’m leading on the book Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016). I know I’ve mentioned the book a bunch of times over the last year or so on this blog but I’m rereading it again in preparation for our FLC meeting later this week. It’s funny how different things about a text resonate upon rereading. Since I’m so focused on grading right now, a section on feedback really stood out to me.

Cavanagh discusses two types of feedback that are important to enhance student competence: progress feedback and discrepancy feedback. Progress feedback involves “giving feedback to students about what they’ve done right, particularly if it is a skill that they were previously lacking” (p. 132). Discrepancy feedback involves “providing information to students about what they’ve done wrong and areas performance that are lacking” (p. 131). To keep students engaged and motivated, Cavanagh suggests using both progress and discrepancy feedback when assessing student work. Surprisingly, however, educators tend to focus more on discrepancy feedback. Cavanagh cites work by Voerman, Korthagen, Meijer and Simons (2014) that studied seventy-eight secondary teachers and found that only 6.4% provided progress feedback when assessing student work. Cavanagh argues that by providing the balance between progress and discrepancy feedback will support students’ feeling of competency and the overall emotional tone of the classroom.

After reading this section, I thought about a system that I use when assessing students work. I wish I could take credit for developing it but it’s one of those processes that one acquires from working with so many smart and creative colleagues. It’s called Glows and Grows. For many assignments, I’ll focus my attention on what the student has done well (the Glows) and the areas of which student still needs to work (Grows). Since it’s so simple to understand and implement, it can be used with a variety of assignments. I’ve used it with student presentations, performances and papers. The strategy is also really easy to use with peer-assessments when paired with explicit assignment expectations. By focusing on just the glows and grows, students can provide informal feedback to their peers without worrying scoring rubrics or letter grades.

Returning to Cavanagh’s discussion of progress and discrepancy feedback, it’s clear that a strategy like Glows and Grows provides a more balanced approach to providing feedback. While it’s a simplistic strategy, Glows and Grows offers students a clear picture of what they’ve done right while still identifying areas that they need to improve. I have to admit that I shared this strategy with a colleague yesterday and was playfully admonished for the way that “education people” talk. Sure, the rhyming and alliteration in the Glows and Grows name makes it seem elementary, but that’s part of its charm (from my perspective). The simplistic title makes it more accessible to students and helps them let their guard down and be more open and responsive to feedback.


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

Voerman, L., Korthagen, F. A., Meijer, P. C., & Simons, R. J. (2014). Feedback revisited: Adding perspectives based on positive psychology. Implications for theory and classroom practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 43, 91-98.


Going Synchronous

On our campus recently, there has been a lot of discussion about synchronous interactions online. Some of our general education classes require that students engage in oral interactions where they are placed in active speaking and listening roles with an audience of their peers.  In face-to-face classes, this is usually accomplished through presentations, debates or oral exams. But what do these oral interactions look like in an online class, especially when curricular policies require that interactions be reciprocal? The conversation has led to promoting more synchronous modes of interactions in our online classes. Since some online teachers have more experience with asynchronous interactions then synchronous ones, I thought I’d offer some advice for people venturing into the synchronous world.

  1. Recognize the strengths. Asynchronous and synchronous online interactions are different but it’s important to remember than neither is better than the other. Hrastinski (2008) writes that synchronous online interactions afford more personal participation through “increased arousal, motivation and convergence on meaning” while asynchronous interactions support more cognitive participation through “increased reflection and ability to process information” (p. 54). Used together, they can provide a more comprehensive online experience for students where cognitive and personal aspects are supported.
  2. Don’t get hung up on tools. There are a lot of synchronous tools to use. Adobe Connect. Blackboard Collaborate. Zoom. Google Hangouts. Skype. Each of the tools has their limitations but are becoming increasingly easier to use. Rather than focus on the tool, think about how you plan to engage the students and what features can support your teaching style. For instance, I’m a big fan of using breakout rooms in my synchronous lessons mainly because it’s a teaching strategy I would use in my face-to-face classes, too. As I support teachers who move online, I work with them to consider how they can design their online classes to reflect their teaching style. Most synchronous tools have enough features to support a wide variety of teaching styles.
  3. Examine your learning objectives. Before you jump into a synchronous environment, think about what you want students to learn from the interaction. Whether you want students to debate an issue or give a formal presentation on a topic, you’ll need to figure out the pedagogical and technological supports to scaffold students to your goals. For example, I’ve recorded short online tutorials for students when I’ve wanted them to lead their own synchronous discussion with their peers.
  4. Provide clear expectations. Since many students may have different experiences in online environments, it’s important that you outline your expectations for students. You should detail what types of interaction you’re expecting and what aspects will be graded and how. You should also spell out the norms of interaction and your classroom “netiquette.”
  5. Consider the artifacts of learning! I have a colleague who says, “learning leaves a trail.” Regardless of whether it’s the written notes from a lecture or the poster paper stuck to classroom walls, the process of learning usually leaves behind some product. In online spaces, the “trail” includes asynchronous discussion forums or the recordings from a synchronous lesson. These artifacts are great for assessing the interactions and can also provide exemplars for future classes.
  6. Put the students in charge. I think some instructors’ resistance with synchronous learning involves scheduling sessions with online students. While there are certainly greater time constraints involved with synchronous interactions than asynchronous ones, they’re not insurmountable. In some activities, I’ve asked students to schedule their own sessions with classmates. Setting up a discussion board where people can share times they’re available or using a site like SignUpGenius or Doodle can help make the process run more smoothly. You can even let them choose the synchronous tools with which they’re most comfortable and just require that they submit some recording of their interaction.

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Educause quarterly, 31(4), 51-55.

Giving Thanks

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us in the United States, it’s traditional for people to give thanks for their blessings.  Rather than outline my gratitude for the joys I’ve experienced, I thought I’d use this week’s post to give thanks for some of the lessons I’ve learned recently.

1.  Never underestimate the power of smart people working together.  As 2017 winds to a close, I’m reminded of the numerous opportunities I’ve had to work with brilliant, dedicated colleagues this year.  I want to celebrate those magical, productive moments when everyone involved left their egos at the door, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  Thank you for your hard work, your motivation, and your creative spirits.  And thank you for teaching me once more about the power of collaboration.

2.  Listen.  You’ll learn a lot.  While I’ve been involved with a number of collaborative efforts this year, a recent meeting with a diverse group of stakeholders still resonates with me.  While we assembled the group to get feedback on a program we’re developing, we left with something very different.  In the words of the great philosophers Jagger and Richards, “you can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need.”  While I’m sure that the Rolling Stones weren’t specifically singing about the power of listening more and talking less, the lesson still applies. To quote a lesser known proverb, “He who speaks, sows.  He who listens, reaps.”

3.  Credit the air in between.  When working with innovative, collaborative people, great ideas are bound to emerge.  For some, the natural tendency is trying to determine exactly from whom the idea emerged and assigning credit.  Most times, however, these ideas don’t belong to a single person but have emerged from the air in between the assembled.  Celebrate the magical energy that allowed the idea to emerge and get to work on making the idea happen.  Move past assigning credit and rejoice in the collaborative electricity that served as the catalyst for innovation to be born.

While this post has mostly focused on the lessons I’ve learned this year from working in collaborative communities, I also want to specifically thank those colleagues who have shared their expertise, their creativity and their time.   Each one of you has taught me lessons too numerous to mention here and your willingness to collaborate (and teach) is appreciated.  Thank you.