Five ways to build a more engaging online class

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 October 2015.  Enjoy!

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

Ten Thousand Hours

It’s kind of surprising that after publishing over 400 blog posts during the last eight years that I’ve never written about a concept that has so significantly influenced my perspective on parenting, on teaching and on life.

10,000 hours.

That’s the amount of time a person needs to dedicate to develop expertise in an area. The concept comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In the book, Gladwell examined different studies across a variety of fields to determine what made some people excel and reach a level of expertise and become an “outlier” amongst their peers. Gladwell writes that he found “an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields … you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good” (2008).

Before we move on, it’s necessary to discuss a few things. First off, 10,000 hours isn’t the only ingredient for excellence and success. A person also needs to possess a natural affinity for success in that area. Standing at barely 5’6″ I am certain that after dedicating 10,000 hours practicing trying to dunk a basketball that I’d ever become an NBA star. Practice isn’t enough but it makes a difference. While I will become a better basketball player by practicing, becoming an “outlier” also depends on other factors.

Another caveat is that not all practice is created equal. Beginning musicians typically utilize repetitive practice when they learn to play a song. They’ll work through a song from start to finish over and over without examining which areas may be more difficult than others. While they’re dedicating a lot of time practicing, they spend equal time practicing easy parts and more difficult ones. More accomplished musicians will study a piece to find the hardest parts of song and focus their attention on these areas first. This deliberate practice helps them dedicated more time on improving their performance and growing their skill set. This deliberate practice factors more heavily in the growth attributed to the 10,000 hours concept than repetitive practice.

The last area that needs to be addressed is that deliberate practicing for 10,000 hours doesn’t yield the same effects across domains. In a meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald found that “deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.” Looking at the results, they write that “the effect of deliberate practice on performance tended to be larger for activities that are highly predictable than for activities that are less predictable.” They also surmised that “one possibility is that deliberate practice is less well defined in these domains.” Regardless of the causes, it is clear that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will have different yields depending on the domain in which you work.

With all of these qualifiers, why do I like the 10,000 hours concept so much? It really comes down to mindset. I’ve written about the growth mindset before and how I’ve tried to embrace this in my teaching role. I incorporate the growth mindset in my work with students and when parenting my children. While I don’t necessary agree with Gladwell when he writes that 10,000 hours “is the magic number of greatness,” in a way, the concept almost numerically represents the growth mindset. It acknowledges that people have to commit time and energy to improve their performance and grow.  As Macklemore raps in his song Ten Thousand Hours,

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot

Greatness is earned through hard work and focused practice. While it may take more than 10,000 hours in some fields, Gladwell’s position communicates that it’s a journey.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions a meta-analysis. Psychological science, 25(8), 1608-1618.

Poverty and Cognitive Function

It was another odd intersection of work and media for me last week. Let me start with some workplace observations. For the last five or six years, I have served on my university’s Academic Standards committee. The committee adjudicates dismissal hearings for students who have had academic difficulties. Typically, students who don’t perform well will go through a semester or two on academic probation before being suspended from the university. Depending on mitigating circumstances, the Academic Standards committee may rule that a student deserves a second chance and will reverse an academic suspension. While many of the students who are dismissed lack the maturity or self-discipline for collegiate work, it’s not always the case. During my tenure on the committee, I’ve heard all sorts of heart breaking stories involving illnesses, death, assault and so much more. It’s a difficult committee on which to serve.

We had academic hearings last week and it usually causes me to reflect on my work on campus and whether we as an institution are doing enough to support students who have encountered academic challenges. Looking back over the cases we adjudicated last week, I remember several students who were juggling jobs to pay for school and tuition and to maintain a decent quality of life. Although many of these students were probably receiving financial aid, it wasn’t enough to cover their schooling and life expenses. Throw in the academic challenges from their collegiate classes and these students had a lot on their plates. As our committee meets with these students and discusses their futures, we usually recommend that the students dedicate more time to schooling and reduce their work hours when they return to school. It has always seemed like a pretty reasonable recommendation, but now I’m not so sure.

My doubt comes from a study I heard on the Freakonomics podcast last Friday. The research studied 464 sugar cane farmers over a harvest season and the impacts that changing states of wealth had on the farmers’ “cognitive capacity.” Sugar cane farmers harvest their crops once a year and they’re usually the wealthiest immediately after their harvest. As the year progresses, however, the farmers gradually become poorer until they’re barely making ends meet as they ready to harvest their crops again.  The researchers wondered what impacts these financial changes would have on the farmers intellectual ability. To study this, the researchers administered several cognitive tests pre-harvest and post-harvest and surprisingly found statistically significant differences.  The authors write:

“We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress. Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.”

This study has forced me to re-evaluate my work on the Academic Standards committee and some of the recommendations we’ve made. I know that poverty is a complex issue and lots of smart people have dedicated their careers developing policies to combat it. I worry, however, whether colleges and universities (or ANY school, for that matter) has done enough to recognize and overcome the educational impacts that poverty can cause. While “reducing work hours” may sound like good advice, it’s difficult to defend if it may actually be causing economic hardships that further “diminishes cognitive performance” for students.

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.

What motivates you?

As some regular readers may know, I’m the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center on my campus. Technically, the Center is called the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) but part of the mission is “to provide professional development across the teaching-learning scholarship spectrum.” With the busy lives that many faculty have, some of my colleagues find it difficult to participate in the professional development opportunities that the Center offers. As I prepared my year-end report, I could see that some faculty members engaged regularly in professional development offerings while others hardly participated at all. While I don’t pass judgement on my colleagues’ professional development choices, I often wonder what motivates some faculty to participate and engage while others do not.

I came across an article recently which may help to shed some light. Written by Jon Wergin in 2001, the article examines forty years of research on faculty motivation and found that four common factors emerged across different studies: autonomy, community, recognition and efficacy. While the factors are interdependent and intertwined, they also act independently to impact and guide faculty decision making. As I thought about the different factors, I reflected on how each played a role in my work, not only as professional developer but as a faculty member on campus.

“Professional autonomy,” Wergin writes, “is the freedom to experiment, to follow one’s own leads wherever they may go and to so without fear of the consequences.” While autonomy arises from our pursuit of new knowledge and understandings, it is also the foundation upon which academic freedom is built.  We can feel empowered when we have the flexibility to participate or shut down when we feel controlled or manipulated.

Despite our autonomy as faculty, we are also part of a larger community. Wergin writes that faculty possess a “desire to belong, to feel part of a nurturing community.” As we serve on committees and engage in activities in campus, we get to meet new colleagues and develop a sense of our roles in the larger collegiate environment.  When we lack a sense of community, we can feel isolated, uninspired and unmotivated.

I think everyone wants their work to be appreciated and recognized. Whether it’s receiving a thank you note from a student or receiving a compliment from a colleague, we all want “to feel valued and to know that others see (our) work as worthwhile.” The lack of recognition can also impact our work. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments when our contributions were forgotten or our efforts weren’t highlighted.

Efficacy, Wergin writes, “is a sense of having a tangible impact on our environment.” As we work to have our work be appreciated and recognized, we also want to know that our efforts made a difference and have contributed to some greater goal. Our lack of efficacy can also impact our work. I know I’ve participated on several committees and initiatives that I realized would have little impact on campus. In hindsight, the lack of efficacy was demotivating.

As I reflect on my own experiences as a college faculty member, I can see these four factors as playing a role in the high points and low points of my career over the last decade. While I plan to use Wergin’s work to inform programming and efforts in the CAE, I will also use it as a guide for interacting with colleagues and supporting their work.

Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50-53.

Are you being authentic?

Last week, Inside Higher Education highlighted a study that was published recently in Communication Education. The research conducted by Johnson and LaBelle examined instructor behaviors that influenced students’ views of teacher authenticity and (in)authenticity and how those behaviors manifested themselves in classroom contexts. Before I delve into the findings, I thought I’d set the stage a little.  The study was conducted by two researchers who work in the field of instructor communication where they examine “not only the way that messages are constructed and delivered to persuade and inform students (i.e., the rhetorical perspective), but also the way that teachers and students use messages to mutually create and develop relationships with one another (i.e., the relational perspective)” (p. 2). They argue that this dual purpose of instructor communication makes examining teacher authenticity important.  Johnson and LaBelle write, “the authenticity of the message delivery likely impacts student perceptions of teachers, and subsequently the teacher-student relationship” (p. 2).  By impacting student perceptions and relationships, the authors suggest, teacher authenticity can also impact student learning.

In their study, Johnson and LaBelle invited students to list qualities and behaviors from authentic and (in)authentic teachers.  Almost 300 students responded to the call and the researchers used a grounded theory approach to code the responses. Looking at the developed codes, the researchers found that students perceived authentic teachers to be approachable, passionate, attentive and capable. In contrast, (in)authentic teachers were viewed as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable and disrespectful.  Digging deeper into the indicators that related to each code, authentic teachers made themselves available to students, talked to them before and after class, got excited about the content they were teaching and were prompt and organized.  (In)authentic teachers ignored students outside of class, avoided questions, didn’t know students names and did not offer assistance when their students were struggling.  Surprisingly, the majority of the indicators provided by students had little to do with an instructor’s content knowledge or their expertise. The researchers write that “descriptions of a teacher’s lack of knowledge or incompetence regarding material were less recurrent and forceful within the data.”  In fact, across the list of indicators provided in the study, only one directly connected to these aspects; instructors who were “unfamiliar with material” were perceived as inauthentic because students viewed them as being “incapable.” Interestingly, students also viewed instructors who read directly from Powerpoint slides or from a book as being “incapable.”

Lately, it appears that more and more research is emerging that highlights the importance of the affective dimensions of teaching. While Johnson and LaBelle’s study contributes to this conversation, it also offers an additional perspective. While institutions of higher education value professors’ content knowledge and research acumen, students overwhelmingly see teacher immediacy, empathy, and helpfulness as being the more important indicators of an instructor’s authenticity and ability.  Just to be clear, Johnson and LaBelle are not suggesting that instructor competence isn’t an important factor for teaching and learning. In their study, however, participating students gravitated to the relational aspects of teaching over the rhetorical ones when examining an instructor’s authenticity or (in)authenticity.  From my point of view, this is an important finding.

We instructors like to identify ourselves as teaching organic chemistry or teaching anatomy and physiology or teaching philosophy. More importantly, we have to remember that we’re teaching students and their learning is dependent on the positive, supportive teacher/student relationships we foster.

A Rare Sighting

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

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

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

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

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

My email went something like this.

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

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

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

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


Digging deeper into Social Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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