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.

Long Live the Lecture?

It seems that every few months someone new steps forward to sing the praises of the lecture.  While research has promoted more active learning in classroom environments, there has been a lot of resistance to this shift. Initially, I totally understood this push back. Many people’s vision of the collegiate learning space is some brilliant orator standing behind a podium giving a rousing lecture that educates and inspires. As the lecturer passionately finishes his final argument, the class stands and applauds.  Through the tireless efforts of the lecturer, minds are changed and new information is obtained. It is clear that real learning has occurred through the attentive listening on part of the class.

But that’s not really how it happens.  Evidence shows that the lecture is not an effective method of learning.  You may recall the meta-study that examined the research on active learning vs. lecture-based classrooms.  In the study, the authors write that ““If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  The control group in question?  Lecture-based classrooms.

Despite this convincing study, there are always deniers.  Take this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  In the post, the author, Miya Tokumistsu, defends the process of lecturing and the “benefits of collective listening” on the part of students.  While Tokumitsu presents a thoughtful argument that draws on sociological, philosophical and political perspectives, I find the readers’ comments equally interesting.  When posts like this are shared, they always seem to draw other lecture supporters into the fray.  Examining their comments, I thought I’d gather a few of the common arguments made by my lecture-supporting colleagues.

It’s the students!
The argument goes something like this:  Lecturing used to be an effective means of instruction but students today have been changed so much due to (insert a chosen innovation or development) that they can’t learn that way anymore.  Maybe it’s smartphones.  Or YouTube.  Maybe it’s due to the evils of multitasking.  Regardless of the chosen scapegoat, lecture supporters see today’s population of students as being incapable of and uninterested in handling lecture-based instruction.  One commenter bemoaned “the Sesame Street generation” while another wrote “education is not an errand to be wedged between Uber shifts.”  Tokumistsu takes it further by blaming other educators, saying “(t)eaching methods like online modules and recorded lectures have become popular because they make it easier for students.”  Honestly, I don’t care if students have changed or not.  And I don’t care what instructional methods may have worked in the past.  My job is to help my students learn and I need to utilize the methods that work with these students.  I still hold my students to high expectations but I use active learning strategies because they help the students learn.  Criticizing today’s students as lazy, unmotivated or entitled isn’t supporting anyone.

The research on active learning isn’t convincing.
This argument is pretty interesting.  As scholars, we’re trained to challenge ideas and question beliefs.  We’re also taught to critically analyze research.  In a way, that’s exactly what’s at the heart of this argument.  Take one commenter who attacked the meta-study shared earlier.  The commenter writes, “research does not support active learning being superior. A recent flawed PNAS study of studies did not even define active learning except as anything-except-lecturing.” Here, the commenter is attacking the researchers’ ability to operationalize active learning and draw effective conclusions.  I appreciate this argument because it’s a real “inside-the-academy” attack.  While the argument is scholarly in nature, more than anything, I disagree with the conclusions.  All research is tentative to a degree.  But educators need to make evidence-based decisions and the evidence for active learning is pretty compelling.  Has active learning been proven to be more effective than lecturing?  Most of my colleagues would hesitate using such a positivist approach to describe any educational research.  Educational research will never prove that a certain instructional technique works in every context or environment.  But to hold any research to this standard demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the nature of science.

Listening is an active process.
I appreciate this argument because it turns active learning against itself.  Since there isn’t a single established definition of active learning, can’t lecturing and listening be included?  Tokumistsu writes that listening isn’t a passive process at all.  In a lecture, students “take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus.”  Another commenter writes, “If a student chooses to attend a lecture passively, that is the student’s shortcoming – not the mode of communication. The “active” in active learning is simply a matter of strategy on the learner’s part. In the matter of attending a lecture, being inactive is a matter of habit.” Although this spills into the “it’s about the students” argument a bit, there is a distinct difference here.  These authors put the onus of active learning on the students. While one active learning mantra is “whoever does the work does the learning,” the instructor should help to facilitate the learning by leveraging appropriate active learning strategies. Ultimately, we’re the experts of our content areas and we need to be the ones orchestrating the activities that support student learning in our classrooms.

Be More Stubborn

When my wife and I first became parents, we’d get lots of advice from experienced mothers and fathers on how best to raise kids.  Some would say things like “provide lots of structure” or “tired kids are happy kids” or “let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.”  As new parents, we waded through these pieces of wisdom, looking for the ones that best reflected the types of parents we hoped to become.  Across all of the advice we received, the one that my mother-in-law shared stands as the keystone to our roles as parents.

“Be more stubborn than your children.”

As most parents know, kids can be pretty stubborn.  Children can get fixated on a toy or an activity and scream and yell until they get their way.  And they can be resolved in their emotion and steadfast in their desire.  They want their way and they’re prepared to fight it out and create a fuss until their parents give in. But that’s when the “be more stubborn” parenting mantra needs to kick in.  If a parent gives in to every demand a child makes, long term, the child can become selfish or lack respect for their parents or become undisciplined.  Being “more stubborn” means having faith in your choice as a parent and waiting it out.  While the child is focused on the short game, as a parent, you need to focus on the long game.  It’s not always easy to wade through the cries, screams and temper tantrums but, in most cases, the resolve pays off.

I was reminded about this parenting mantra recently after a meeting with some colleagues.  We were discussing a class that one of us was teaching and how the students were resisting the teaching strategies that my colleague was employing.  As she explained the goals with her assignment and the strategies she was using, I tried to alleviate her self-doubt and explain that what she was doing was pedagogically sound.  Despite her students’ resistance, my colleague was trying foster an active learning environment in her class which would ultimately lead to more student engagement and increased student learning.   I also shared the research on how active learning was a little like broccoli; students know that it’s good for them but they don’t always enjoy it.  I blogged about this research a few years ago in a response to our campus newspaper’s attack on faculty who “weren’t doing their job.”  Despite our best intentions, many students want us to lecture to them so they can passively receive information.

But that’s when we need to be more stubborn than our students.  If we know that the instructional choices we’re making are in the students’ academic interests, we need to face the resistance and be resolved in our expertise and decisions.  While I doubt that many of us will face temper tantrums from our students, we may face some individuals who don’t readily see the value in the assignments we’ve developed or the instructional techniques we’re using.  In these instances, we may need to patiently explain some of our overall goals to help build buy-in from students.  In the end, however, like the parent facing the cries and screams of a difficult child, we may need to be more stubborn than our students and remember that what we’re doing is in the students’ be interests, whether they recognize it or not.

More Research on Online Learning

I recently came across an article that appears in the January 2017 issue of Educational Researcher.  The article shares research that was conducted by June Ahn and Andrew McEachin on the enrollment patterns and achievement in online charter schools in Ohio.  While the research focused entirely on preK-12 environments, I think the findings and commentary transcend academic settings and communicate some important messages to all of us working in education.

In Ahn and McEachin’s study, they examined which students opted into online or face-to-face charter schools across the state.  They disaggregated this data to look at various demographics (race, socioeconomic status, geography, etc.) to identify trends across populations.  They found that while more poor White students choose to enroll in online charter schools, poor minority students typically choose “brick and mortar” charter schools.  While the authors don’t specifically discuss their interpretations of these findings, when I shared the research with an African-American doctoral student recently, she proposed that minority families see schools as a critical center of the community, especially in urban areas.  Without a physical location, she explained, online charter schools didn’t offer that same sense of community to families.  While there’s no data in the study to support this interpretation, the explanation made sense considering the geographical map that the authors share.

Digging a little deeper, I found that my student’s explanation also helped to shed some light on the findings that the authors share regarding the achievement levels of online students.  The authors write:

Our results show that students in (online charter schools) are performing worse on standardized assessments that their peers in traditional charter and traditional public schools.” (p. 44)

This is a horrible testament to online charter schools.  Online students are not demonstrating the same academic growth when compared to students in other educational environments.  The knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss online schooling outright and to create regulations to ban online schooling as an option.  To their credit, Ahn and McEachin discuss this in the concluding remarks:

One potential and simplistic implication is that online schools are unequivocally negative for K12 learners and policy should deter these school forms.  A more nuanced understanding is that online schools – in its current form as a largely independent learning experience- are not effective for K12 students. Instead, learners still need the presence of teachers, mentors, or peers to help them through the learning process.  This interpretation instead suggests different policy implications. In addition, online curriculum might be designed and employed to efficiently deliver content but combined with new ways of distributing human support (e.g. different teaching or mentoring practices) that could serve students more effectively.

While the research provides some damning evidence for the academic impacts on online education, it also provides an important message for those of us who teach online and prepare teachers to work online.  Like my doctoral student said, it’s really about community.  Online classes that are designed so that students interact with content alone are isolating and have damaging impact on students.  Online classes that offer a supportive community including peers, counselors, mentors and teachers provide a different experience for students.  Learning is a social process and we need to design our online classes and online schools to reflect this.  Rather than focus solely on content delivery, we need to create online schools where community is built and design classes where the social and human elements of learning take center stage.


Ahn, J., & McEachin, A. (2017). Student enrollment patterns and achievement in Ohio’s online charter schools. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 44-57