Over the years, I’ve often heard faculty bemoan the lack of student interest in their syllabi. Students seem to ignore or easily forget key information presented in the syllabus, and many faculty feel obligated to treat the document like a contract, which only exacerbates the lack of student engagement. While many instructors have offered up helpful tips and examples online, it can be daunting to take on a syllabus makeover in isolation.
In 2016 I learned about a conference hosted by Ashoka U, an organization that supports universities in fostering “social innovation” and “changemaking” on their campuses. It sounded fascinating despite the fact that I had no idea what these terms meant. After reading a bit further, I learned that these are relatively new umbrella terms that include elements of social justice and social entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, social innovation in higher education can include any initiative that exposes students to social justice, intercultural collaboration, and concepts like design thinking and business/nonprofit management.
I wasn’t quite sure how all of this might relate to instructional technology, but I had a feeling it could be relevant to the type of online international collaborations we’re establishing at DePaul through our Global Learning Experience (GLE) program. In GLE projects, our students collaborate online with faculty and students at foreign universities, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to help our students collaborate more effectively with peers from different cultural backgrounds. While I can’t fit everything I learned at the conference in a single blog post, I’ve included a few of my favorite lessons below.
Blue Apron is a meal delivery service that provides all the pre-measured, raw ingredients and instructions customers need to quickly prepare home-cooked meals. When I signed up for the service last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the concise, well-designed recipes that come with each set of ingredients. The folks at Blue Apron must have known their target demographic would include a lot of anxious, inexperienced cooks like me, and they clearly invested in a top-notch team of graphic designers, photographers, and writers to create their recipes. Continue reading
I’ve been working on a side project recently to help young people improve their financial literacy and job skills, and I needed to create a quiz that would be accessible to anyone with the link. I’d heard from a colleague that Google recently rolled out a feature allowing Google forms to be turned into quizzes, so I decided to give it a try. The process was easier than I expected and, in less than 30 minutes, my “ultimate credit score quiz” was live for the world to see.
If you’re accustomed to having students access your learning materials within a learning management system like Canvas, Blackboard, or D2L/Brightspace, you might wonder why you’d ever want to create quizzes outside your LMS. I had a similar perspective until I began working on projects that included students outside of my institution. For instance, through DePaul’s Global Learning Initiative, I frequently work with faculty who are collaborating with foreign instructors and students.
Before the rollout of Google quizzes, the only way we could provide our non-DePaul collaborators with access to quizzes was to add them to our LMS. This process is time-consuming and tends to reinforce the feeling that, as an American institution, we’re requiring our partners to learn our systems and do things our way. Because Google quizzes can be accessed by simply clicking a link (no login required), and because many Google products are widely used in many countries, we now have an option for online, auto-graded assessments that feels more open and familiar to students outside of our institution.
A professor told me recently that he’s taken nearly a dozen online courses (as a student) and has never felt a strong sense of community in any of those courses. He asked what practical suggestions I had for building community online, and I found myself struggling to offer him any tips that were truly revolutionary.
When I began my career in distance learning back in 2003, it was a given that every online course should begin with an ice-breaker activity. These ice-breakers typically consisted of a plain text discussion forum where students would answer questions like, “What do you hope to gain from this course?” and, “What hobbies or interests do you have outside of school?” Fast-forward to 2016 and we’re still approaching ice-breakers in much the same way, creating text-based discussion boards full of the same job-interview questions.
Community building is challenging enough when we have the luxury of frequent face-to-face meetings. With that in mind, is it realistic to believe we can foster meaningful connections in online courses? A friend who teaches in our Modern Languages department likes to answer this by saying, “People are falling in love online—or at least feeling enough of a connection online that they know they want to meet and invest more in the relationship.”
For years, faculty have asked me to recommend a tool that would make it easy for them to conduct online video conferences with students. Every time I tried to answer this question, I felt like one of those announcers selling an experimental drug with dangerous side effects. “Do not use Connexium™ if your students are unable to install Java 10.2.9.3 on their computers. Do not operate on low-bandwidth connections or enable video sharing with more than two participants while using Connexium. Connexium is not a virtual whiteboard replacement and cannot be used to record meetings. Ask your instructional designer if Connexium is right for you.”
That all changed when I started using Zoom. Zoom provides the key features most faculty ask for with almost none of the unpleasant side effects that come with other tools I’ve tried. Here are a few examples.
- Minimal setup and installation – So far, we’ve found that students can join a meeting even if they’re in one of our computer labs or using a computer that doesn’t allow them to install desktop software. (Some of our students connect from locked-down computers at their workplaces, so this is an important feature.)
- Up to 50 participants per meeting – This is true even for free accounts. For larger meetings, it’s $54.99/month to upgrade to a limit of 100 participants.
- Android and iOS mobile apps – In my experience, these apps work very well and include the most important features available in the desktop version of Zoom.
- Screen sharing and remote control – All participants can share their screens and hosts can even take control of a participant’s machine if needed.
I recently signed up for a subscription to News In Slow French, a weekly news program for French students. Each episode features two announcers who discuss current events at a slow pace, making it easier for non-native speakers to understand. I’ve listened to several hours of old episodes over the last few weeks and there are several things I like about the way the lessons are designed. Here are four practices I’ve observed that I believe have relevance for anyone producing online lectures.
1. Provide Interactive, Just-in-Time Remediation
News in Slow French does a great job providing supplemental information for terms that might be unfamiliar. (See the screenshot of an interactive transcript shown below.) This strategy can be replicated in a variety of formats by linking unfamiliar terms and concepts to supplemental readings and/or videos.
Earlier this year, I made a resolution to see a MOOC through to the end and earn a verified certificate of completion. I hoped the experience would provide an opportunity to study something completely new while answering a few burning questions I had about MOOCs. Questions like:
- How hard is it to earn a verified certificate?
- How will Coursera know that I did the work myself?
- Will I have to wear a Clockwork-Orange-style eyeball opener to stay awake through the video lectures?
- How many ideas can I steal and use when designing my own courses?
Here’s what I learned.
How hard is it to earn a verified certificate?
Not hard. So far, I’ve been able to meet the minimum requirements for the verified certificate by putting in one to two hours per week. As long as I get a perfect score on all the quizzes, I can earn a certificate “with distinction” and never participate in a single discussion or peer-reviewed activity. If I could bear the shame of a distinction-free certificate, I’d only need to maintain a B average on the quizzes. It’s also worth noting that all of the quizzes in my MOOC could be retaken once with no grade penalty, and only a minor penalty on the third and final attempt. Continue reading
I took my first online course in 2004 while pursuing my MFA. It seemed like a novel idea at the time, and I had no clue I’d be spending the next ten years up to my eyeballs in online courses. Since then, I’ve helped faculty design dozens of online and hybrid courses, taught several of my own, and evaluated online courses and professional development programs from a variety institutions.
Over the years, I’ve seen certain design issues surface again and again. I had hoped to stockpile 95 of these “course design sins,” then nail them to a door in a Martin Luther-esque call for reform. That vision was later revised as I realized (A) 95 is a lot of sins to identify and (B) Martin Luther didn’t have to compete with the latest Buzzfeed list of 15 dogs wearing tiny hats.
In light of those realizations, I’d like to share with you my top seven course design sins, along with practical tips for atonement. Continue reading
One of the best things about the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) annual meeting is the broad spectrum of institutions represented, from the Ivy League to large public and private universities to community colleges and small liberal arts schools. If you’re looking for colleagues who are grappling with the same challenges you’re experiencing at your institution, chances are you’ll find them at ELI.
The ELI audience is as diverse as the institutions they represent and includes instructional designers, faculty with a passion for technology, and IT professionals working in higher education. Unlike conferences that focus primarily on distance learning, ELI attracts a large proportion of CIOs and people passionate about the intersection of technology and physical learning spaces. As a result, the conference typically includes ample hands-on time with new gadgets and hardware. On Tuesday, I learned more about Arduinos during a hands-on “maker-space” session that left me missing my old Capsela set. At breakfast on Wednesday, I had a chance to chat with remote conference participants who roamed the venue using a device designed by Double Robotics. And just before heading to the airport, Jeremy Littau, an Assistant Professor at Lehigh University, let me test-drive Google Glass.
Of course, you don’t have to be on a first name basis with the staff of your local Radio Shack to get something useful out of ELI. The annual meeting agenda is brimming with presentations on everything from faculty development for online learning to predictions on the future of open-source textbooks and MOOCs. Here are a few highlights from some of the sessions I attended.