All posts by Daniel Stanford

Daniel Stanford

About Daniel Stanford

Daniel Stanford holds an MFA in Computer Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a concentration in Interactive Design and Game Development. Since 1998, his interest in interactive media and education has led him to take on a variety of professional roles—from website designer and graphic artist to teacher and online-course developer. His work as an instructional designer has received multiple awards from the Instructional Technology Council and he has been both a course reviewer and finalist in Blackboard’s Exemplary Course competitions. Daniel is currently Director of Faculty Development for Faculty Instructional Technology Services at DePaul University where he oversees multiple faculty-development initiatives, including the DePaul Online Teaching Series, which won the 2012 Sloan-C Award for Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Learning.

Daniel Stanford

My Oversharing Adventure: Travel Notes from the Land of Millennials

I give you my word that by the end of this article, you won’t feel bad about yourself. You won’t feel behind the times because you refuse to tweet course announcements, or follow your students on Instagram, or friend them on some new app that tells you what they had for breakfast.

I care about your feelings because I understand your pain. I was born in one of those years that generation X and millennials have agreed to treat as a demilitarized buffer zone. Part of me feels a kinship with those who came before me. I share their concerns about online privacy. I’m a little worried about those NSA data bunkers and the fact that kids today don’t return phone calls. I even hesitated to list the year of my birth in this very public blog post, which is probably a sign I’m not a true millennial.

On the other hand, part of me longs to burn my gen-X passport and defect to the reckless frontier that is the Republic of gen-Y. To learn what I’ve been missing, I recently embraced my dual citizenship and spent a few weeks living as a native among the millennials. Within days, I went from shaking my fist at Miley Cyrus, with her twitpics and her twerking, to sharing artsy photos of melted ice cream and Vine videos like a true gen-Y artiste. I also created a profile on Vizify, which took my yawn-inducing data from LinkedIn and transformed it into a slick collage of photos and infographics. (For more on that, view the video below.)

I like that my Vizify profile peels back the professorly veil just a bit without leaving me overexposed. Continue reading

Daniel Stanford

Highlights from the 2013 NMC Conference

Every year, the New Media Consortium’s summer conference includes a plenary session known as “Five Minutes of Fame” in which a series of presenters have five minutes each to show off an innovative project or idea. To add a bit of levity and suspense, an official timekeeper shuts down any presentation that hits the five-minute mark by striking a large gong with a mallet. As a kid, I loved watching reruns of The Gong Show, so Five Minutes of Fame is easily my favorite part of any NMC conference. (For those of you too young to remember The Gong Show, picture America’s Got Talent, but with a lot more polyester.)

This year, the NMC conference also included another rapid-fire showcase known as the Emerging Leaders Competition. Continue reading

Daniel Stanford

How a Spreadsheet Helped 90 Percent of My Students Earn a Pulitzer

If you think keeping traditional students motivated is a challenge, try getting experienced, brilliant college professors to do their homework with nothing but passion and positive reinforcement at your disposal. That’s where I’ve found myself for the last few years as the lead designer and facilitator of the DePaul Online Teaching Series.

On the one hand, I love that I don’t have to evaluate the DOTS participants. The program is designed to introduce faculty to new tools and techniques and get them inspired about what’s possible as they make the transition to online teaching. As a result, the atmosphere of every workshop meeting is positive and supportive. On the other hand, this means I have to get creative when it comes to assignment design and maximizing participation.

Just before our December 2012 cohort began, I was desperately seeking a simple way to give faculty a big-picture view of everything they could accomplish during DOTS. For years, we’d been giving faculty clear assignment instructions and checklists to help them stay on track, but we lacked a single place in the course where they could see all of the assignments at a glance. This left many faculty feeling unclear on just how DOTS was going to help them get a jump start on essential course-building tasks. The pieces were all there, but with no way to see how everything fit together and track their progress, the assignments felt disconnected and faculty weren’t particularly motivated to share their latest triumphs.

To solve this problem, I wanted to tap into two commonly used elements of game design that increase player motivation: progress indicators and competition. Continue reading

Daniel Stanford

Lessons from Four Years of Faculty Development

For the last few years, one of my key job duties has been developing the curriculum and facilitating workshops for the DePaul Online Teaching Series. DOTS is a professional-development program that helps faculty make the transition to online teaching through thirty-six hours of workshops, trainings, and online-learning activities. Since the program’s inception in 2008, we’ve collected extensive feedback from our 239 graduates across all 14 cohorts to find out what they liked about the program and how it could be improved. In response, we’ve tweaked everything from the readings and assignments to the software we promote and the way we arrange the seating for face-to-face workshops. Today, faculty interest in DOTS continues to grow, and our most recent cohorts have set records for total applications and enrollment. 

In the summer of 2012, DOTS won the Sloan Consortium Award for Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Learning. Before I received the news, I’d already committed to giving a presentation at the Sloan-C annual conference to share some of the “secrets” of DOTS’ success. While I was excited I’d be able to mention the award as part of my presentation, I also felt added pressure to include useful tips and lessons that the audience hadn’t heard before.

To prepare for the presentation, I reviewed four years worth of DOTS survey feedback, looking at trends in answers to multiple-choice questions and identifying common themes in the responses to open-ended questions. Because I’d read all of the survey results before as each cohort completed DOTS, I had several assumptions about which aspects of DOTS would be the most praised and which would be the most criticized. However, poring over all the data in a single day and quantifying the results revealed a few interesting and unexpected results.

While I’d like to save a few secrets for the Sloan-C attendees, I thought I’d share some of my favorite findings here.

  1. Faculty loved screencasting no matter which tool we used. Over the years, we’ve tested and trained faculty to use just about every screencasting tool imaginable. (Most of our faculty currently use We always knew faculty liked screencasting because it was an easy transition from traditional lecture delivery. What was a bit surprising was the fact that 14 percent of survey respondents mentioned screencasting training as one of the most useful elements of DOTS—more than any other tool or concept. In addition, negative comments were almost nonexistent regardless of which screencasting tool they tried.
  2. Self-pacing eliminated nearly all complaints about hands-on software trainings. For the first three years of DOTS, we ran hands-on software trainings with a traditional, follow-the-leader approach. A trainer would demonstrate each step on a projector while faculty followed along and completed the same task on their laptops. This approach led to many complaints that the trainer was either moving too quickly or too slowly, and less tech-savvy faculty would often hold up the class as they struggled to keep up. To resolve this, we shifted to a self-paced approach. The trainer now begins with a fast-paced demonstration that lasts roughly ten minutes. During this time, faculty observe without attempting to perform the task. Next, each participant is given a handout and asked to complete a basic task in the software while staff members mingle and provide one-on-one support as needed. This approach has been very well received and allowed us to better meet the needs of our participants regardless of their level of technology experience.
  3. Showing amazing examples can backfire. Ten percent of respondents mentioned feeling overwhelmed by some aspect of DOTS. While this isn’t surprising—DOTS has to introduce many new tools and course-design strategies, after all—I found it interesting that some faculty cited the high quality of the example courses as a contributing factor. When we only showed courses with very polished video lectures, interactive games, and multi-level content navigation, some faculty felt intimidated and assumed these courses represented a minimum standard they would have to follow. To address this, we began adding sample courses that provided high-quality instruction with fewer bells and whistles. We also made more of an effort to remind faculty that certain courses had already been through years of revisions after being taught several times.

Through careful evaluation of faculty feedback, we’ve been able to implement strategies like the ones above to ensure DOTS keeps getting better with each cohort. While I’m thrilled we received external recognition from an organization like Sloan-C, I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve always viewed DOTS as a work in progress with room for improvement. As a result, our 2012 spring and summer cohorts were among our largest ever, and received satisfaction ratings of 95 percent and 96 percent, respectively. In addition, a recent graduate of our first cohort in 2008 paid us an incredible compliment by “auditing” DOTS this summer. While she felt DOTS was invaluable as she began her online-teaching journey four years ago, she didn’t want to miss out on the new tools, techniques, and activities that her colleagues raved about after completing the program in 2011. This type of evangelism and passion for the program explains why one of our biggest challenges as we plan future DOTS cohorts is finding meeting spaces on campus big enough to hold all of our new participants and our repeat customers.

Daniel Stanford

The Case for Oversharing

“Don’t you think it’s unprofessional to share a photo of your cat with your online students? I wouldn’t start a face-to-face class meeting with a slideshow of personal photos, so why should I do that online?”

I was caught somewhat off guard by this question during a recent faculty-development workshop that focused on building a sense of community in online courses. As part of a larger presentation and training session, I showed examples of videos and narrated slideshows that instructors had created to introduce themselves to their online students. While all of the presentations included information about the instructors’ professional backgrounds, there were also slides that showed them cuddling with beloved pets, building sandcastles with their children, or posing in front of monuments in exotic locales.

I’d always thought that sharing a bit of your personal interests and life outside of academia was a great way to find common ground and build rapport with students. Apparently, not everyone agrees. One workshop attendee went so far as to state that sharing personal details such as pet photos or baby pictures could call into question the credibility of an entire department or the university as a whole.

While I think some of the concerns raised during the workshop were taken to extremes because extremes are more fun to debate, the core questions were still valid. At the time, I was hard-pressed to come up with a response for the instructor who asked why we should begin an online course with a slideshow of personal details that we wouldn’t require students to sit through during our first meeting in a traditional course.  

Over the next few days, I thought about my relationships with my favorite professors from undergrad and grad school. When I thought about the experiences that brought us closer, I realized how many of them took place outside of a face-to-face class meeting. I remembered running into a professor at a coffee shop, hearing about her latest freelance project, and getting a bit of unexpected career advice that I’ve never forgotten. I remembered a study abroad adventure where I bonded with a French professor over our shared passion for architecture. These are the types of experiences that can be impossible to recreate with online students if we don’t take the initiative. If we don’t open the door to interaction that goes beyond revision notes and exam reminders, students won’t know they’re more to us than just submissions in a dropbox waiting to be graded. And if we don’t take the first step toward building an inviting, supportive online community, we can’t blame the technology when our courses feel cold and impersonal.

A few weeks after our workshop on community building, I met again with the same group of faculty for one of our final workshops. This time, we started our meeting with a discussion panel that featured three students who had taken online courses at DePaul. At one point during the discussion, I asked the students (in the most neutral way I could think of) how they felt about faculty sharing personal photos and information about their lives outside of work. Two of the students said they loved learning more about their professors and that this type of sharing helped foster a sense of connection. The third student said he found it mildly annoying, but didn’t feel it had a negative impact on the credibility of the instructor or the course. It wasn’t exactly journal-worthy proof of the merits of over-sharing, but I felt vindicated nevertheless.

Of course, we should avoid sharing information so deeply personal it could give students nightmares or cause them to file a lawsuit for emotional distress. And I will be the first to admit that sharing travel photos will be more meaningful if you’re teaching a course on global business and you explain what your trips to Saudi Arabia have taught you about cultural differences between American and Middle Eastern corporations. Similarly, sharing stories about your toddler’s penchant for asking surprising philosophical questions might be more beneficial in a course on child development. Yet, even sharing a video of your beloved Fluffy trying to remove her head from an empty tissue box—despite its complete irrelevance to the subject of your course and its potential to ruin your reputation as a serious educator—might have an upside. When done properly, oversharing tells students that your course is about more than just readings and thesis statements and online debates. It tells them that you care about connection and humanity and all the things that make great learning experiences more than just an exchange of money for information.

I can completely understand why faculty are eager to establish clear professional boundaries when teaching online. When every interaction is recorded, trying to connect with students in ways that feel authentic and spontaneous can be stressful. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and say (on this very public and semipermanent blog) that most online students would prefer that we take these risks and provide opportunities for the type of informal bonding that often occurs more effortlessly face-to-face. If that means we occasionally miss the mark and bore them with photos of our stamp collections or a story about Fluffy’s last trip to the vet, then so be it. After all, when we ask students what they love about their favorite teachers, how often does “professionalism” or “never shared cat photos” top the list?

Daniel Stanford

Making Online Courses More Accessible by Design

Many years ago, before I moved to Chicago and began working at DePaul, my supervisor at a previous job took me on a field trip to a nonprofit service organization for the blind. At that time, I had never seen someone with a serious visual impairment use a computer. I had no idea how a screen reader worked, and all my knowledge of accessibility best practices came from second-hand sources I’d found online.

At one point during our tour, we asked one of the volunteers to show us a website that was difficult for her to navigate. The site she chose contained a large navigation menu composed of at least fifteen tabs at the top of the screen. As she moved her cursor from the upper left corner across the links, each one was read aloud. She explained that, because this site had no link for keyboard users to skip the main navigation, she had to navigate through every link before she could access the more important main content below.

Once she made her way to the main content of the page, she moved from link to link, trying to find a specific document she needed to access. Each time she advanced to the next link on the page, the screen reader would read it aloud, and she would pause to listen to the first few syllables before deciding whether or not to move on. At one point, the screen reader simply said, “Click here,” and then read the URL of the link aloud, which was long and incomprehensible. Because the linked text didn’t describe what it linked to, our volunteer had to stop and listen to all of the text around the link to determine if the link would take her to the document she needed.

For some reason, this portion of the field trip stuck with me. Perhaps it was etched into my memory because it seemed like such an easy issue to fix. All the site’s author needed to do was link the actual title of the document or destination page instead of ambiguous terms like “Click here.” Or perhaps I remembered it because this small change provides two benefits. In addition to helping blind users navigate a page more quickly, clear link titles reassure all users that clicking a link should take them to a page or document with a title that matches the link. This might seem like a minor benefit, but considering how often links change and break in an online course, anything we can do to clarify where a given link should go is probably worth the extra minute it might take to reword it.

Ever since that day, I’ve tried to sing the praises of link titles that match the titles of their destinations. Of course, it’s always helpful to have a well-written piece of supporting evidence from a trusted source. So, you can imagine my joy when a friend recently sent a link to this excellent information graphic.

Source: “Web Accessibility for Designers,” Info Graphic from

What I love about this info graphic is it reminds me that accessible design isn’t just beneficial for the disabled. Much of what makes content more usable for the disabled also makes it more usable for everyone. To illustrate my point, here are a few guidelines from the graphic with examples of how each one can benefit all users.

Plan heading structure early. Clear headings help break up long blocks of content into more digestible chunks, making it easier for students to take a break and pick up where they left off. They also make text easier to scan for key information when students review something they’ve already read.

Provide good contrast.  Low-contrast text isn’t just a problem for users with visual impairments or color blindness. High contrast color combinations are easier for everyone to read, particularly when text runs more than just one or two lines.

Watch the use of CAPS. In addition to creating a problem for screen readers, text in all caps is difficult to read and implies the author is shouting.

Use adequate font size. No matter how good your vision, tiny font sizes lead to eye strain and frustrate all users.

Make sure links are recognizable. Cascading style sheets make it possible to spice up a course with all sorts of unique visual formatting. However, when it comes to links, the universal standard of blue, underlined text is usually best.

While this graphic was created to highlight accessibility issues that would be most relevant for designers, there are other best practices that instructional designers have to consider. In some cases, it can be difficult to justify designing online courses with complete accessibility because it’s more cost effective to address certain issues when accommodations are needed for a specific student. Audio transcription for the hearing impaired is a common example of an accessibility feature that can be difficult to justify if a course includes a large amount of audio content, such as PowerPoint narration, YouTube clips, full-length films, or podcasts.

In some cases, it’s just not feasible to transcribe everything in advance. However, there are advantages to including transcripts in the initial course-development process even if a disabled student never requests them. For example, ESL students might read the transcript as they listen to help them identify words that were difficult to understand through audio alone. In addition, students might prefer to review a transcript when preparing for an exam instead of trying to locate the portions of a video that they need to watch again.

While it can feel overwhelming to design a course that follows every accessibility best practice, keep in mind that many are easy to follow with little extra effort, assuming you’re aware of them early on. For guidelines that feel daunting, it might make sense to accommodate disabled students on a case-by-case basis. As you evaluate each challenge and determine what merits extra effort up front, keep your audience in mind. While it’s easy to feel that all accessibility accommodations are a big investment for a relatively small group of users, the impact of many accessibility improvements are seldom limited to students with disabilities. And if you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who has pushed a baby stroller down a sidewalk in the last few decades. They can tell you how helpful curb cuts are, even though they might not realize they first appeared in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1940s as an accommodation for wheelchair-bound veterans.[1] Now those helpful little ramps are a standard feature that you’ll find at either end of every crosswalk in America, and I’m grateful for them every time I take a heavy suitcase to the airport.

  1. “Curb cut.” Wikipedia
Daniel Stanford

+1 Intellect: Can Experience Points Improve Student Motivation?

When was the last time you felt a sense of accomplishment so gratifying that you threw your hands above your head and shook your fists with pride and elation? This gesture has been identified by psychologists as a universal expression made by people of all ages all around the world when they feel a sense of personal triumph. Italians call this feeling fiero, and the term has been adopted by game-designers to describe one of the most essential feelings a good game should provide.

In Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal proposes that most people’s everyday lives are shockingly fiero-deficient, and I have to agree. Most of us don’t complete our workdays with a fist-shaking gesture or spontaneous dance as we revel in our daily achievements, and much of our leisure time is spent on escapist forms of entertainment. If you can remember the last time you experienced a true fiero moment, chances are it was vicarious (e.g., watching a football player score a last-minute touchdown) or of no use to anyone in the real world (e.g., defeating a challenging level in Angry Birds).

McGonigal wants to change all that. To make the case for the ambitious assertion found in her book’s subtitle, she focuses on three key points.

  1. Reality is filled with tedious obligations and overwhelming problems that leave human beings feeling bored, powerless, and isolated.
  2. Games are humanity’s most effective tools for fostering engagement, empowerment, motivation, human connection, and a sense of accomplishment.
  3. The same principles that make games so rewarding and addictive can be used to change how we feel about and tackle unpleasant and daunting tasks in the real world—from cleaning our toilets to reducing global energy consumption.

To provide specific strategies for translating the best qualities of a good game to the real world, McGonigal proposes fourteen “fixes” for reality. Almost all of these fixes can be applied to education, and I hope to eventually assemble a group of DePaul faculty to read the book and discuss them further. For now, however, I’d like to focus on one of my favorites: “Meaningful Rewards When We Need Them Most.”

To introduce this fix, McGonigal describes a talk she gave at a conference in which she lamented,

‘If I have one regret in life, it’s that my undead priest is smarter than I am.’ Technically speaking, it’s true: if you were to add up every A I’ve gotten in my real life, from junior high through graduate school, the total still wouldn’t come close to my World of Warcraft character’s intellect stat. Never mind the fact that there’s no score at all for getting smarter once you’re out of school.

McGonigal frequently refers to the motivational power of “leveling up”—a concept commonly found in role-playing games that provides players with progress milestones and encourages them to keep striving for higher levels of expertise. When a player levels up, it means his or her character has accumulated enough experience points to get improved strength, stamina, weapons, or other tools to help the player complete increasingly challenging missions.

In some games, completely leveling up a character can take hundreds of hours of gameplay. Yet players are rarely daunted by these lofty requirements because they are provided with a steady stream of smaller victories and positive feedback as they move closer to their next goal. During her conference talk, McGonigal mentioned that she wished some of this positive reinforcement could be extended to reality, allowing friends and strangers to give her experience points in recognition of her latest achievements. As a result, an audience member at the conference created The site bills itself as “gold stars for grownups,” and it provides a simple online tool that allows users to quickly recognize each other whenever someone demonstrates an admirable trait.

Initially, I thought, “What a great idea! Who doesn’t love to be recognized for their efforts? And wouldn’t it be great in an online course? This could make students feel more valued and connected without a big fuss or hokey bonding activities.” I even signed up for an account on to try it out, but my blind adoration for the site was short-lived. Within a day or two, I opened my mailbox and pulled out the latest issue of The Atlantic. The headline, “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids,” practically leaped off the page.

The text and image on the cover were promoting an article by Lori Gottlieb titled, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Based on the headline and article title, it should come as no surprise that Gottlieb is one of many pundits blaming the indulgent parenting methods of the last few decades for creating a generation of entitled, neurotic, self-absorbed kids who are now entitled, neurotic, self-absorbed adults. It’s a backlash parade with Amy Chua serving as the Grand Marshal for 2011.

McGonigal seems to agree that most people born around 1980 or later are particularly frustrated and bored with reality. However, instead of blaming parenting trends, she points out that these younger generations have grown up with engaging, empowering games, and that these games have made the shortcomings of reality more obvious and stifling than they have ever felt before. Rather than try to put the genie back in the bottle through humiliation or forcing a toddler to play piano until her fingers bleed, scholars like McGonigal ask, “Is there a way to increase motivation, productivity, and fulfillment by turning the task at hand into a game?”

In McGonigal’s world, the answer is almost always yes. In one example, she notes that she and her husband have used the website Chore Wars to turn everyday household chores into competitive challenges. In the game, chores are assigned various point values, with the most unpleasant tasks receiving the highest number of points. By default, the points that players accumulate in Chore Wars have no material value. In McGonigal’s case, the current high-score holder has the right to choose the music whenever she and her husband drive somewhere together.

McGonigal claims this simple and free reward system has changed the way she and her husband view everyday housekeeping. She says the Chore Wars over-the-top fantasy world, in which users can collect experience points every time they “conjure clean clothes” or “rid the kingdom of toilet bowl stains,” has left her home cleaner than it has ever been. While I doubt that driving-music veto power would motivate me to clean my bathtub, McGonigal does provide more than her own household as a case study. Other users claim that Chore Wars’ has turned their children into an army of competitive cleaning machines, which I’m sure most parents would agree speaks volumes to the power of a little virtual encouragement.

That’s great for McGonigal, who could probably game her way through a root canal, and for kids, who aren’t embarrassed to think of a duster as a magic wand. But what about the rest of us? Can we really use game principles to make completing our grown-up, mundane obligations more gratifying?

At the risk of sounding like an over-indulged millennial, I wouldn¹t mind a little excitement and a virtual gold star once in a while for all my hard work. And I’m not ashamed if it takes a little imagination to get others to participate. After all, fiero is in short supply in these troubled times, particularly here in the land of Scholarshire, where the shadow of the evil Lord Profitus has cast a pall of terror across the land. If all it took was a kind word of praise in ye mystical comment box below for my blogger character to level up, wouldst thou aid me in my quest? Or wouldst thou side with the dark forces and leave me to rot in a cubicle, denied any reason to throw my hands above my head and shake my fists with pride and elation?

Let’s make a game of it and see.

Daniel Stanford

The Instructional Technology X-Files: Enchanted iPads, Magical Clickers, and Online Courses that Beat Face-to-Face

“Students performed 20 percent better in the hybrid version of this course compared to the face-to-face sections taught by other instructors.” When I heard this statement during a presentation at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting in February, I did something I rarely do: I closed my laptop, looked straight at the presenter, and stopped multitasking for a full twenty minutes.

I find most educational-technology conferences are a lot like an episode of the X-Files with a cast made up entirely of Fox Mulders. Everyone wants to believe. There are a lot of technology cheerleaders and a lot of iPad sightings, and no one seems to notice that Dana Scully—the skeptical, pragmatic agent designed to bring Mulder back down to Earth—has gone missing. So when someone offers up a bold promise backed by actual bar graphs, I take notice.

The presenter, Professor T. Warren Hardy from the University of Maryland–Baltimore County (UMBC), stated that his students performed significantly better on their final exam largely due to his use of online self-assessments. Upon hearing this, I immediately put on my Agent Scully trench coat and asked myself why his conclusions could be off.

  • Was his final exam easier than the one used in other sections? No, all sections take the same final exam.
  • Did he give his students an unfair advantage by using final exam questions in his self-assessments? No, the final exam is designed by other members of the department who are not currently teaching the course. To ensure a level playing field, the instructors have no knowledge of the specific questions that will appear on the final exam.
  • What if he’s just a better instructor than the faculty teaching the other sections? That might hold water if it wasn’t for the fact that Professor Hardy’s students scored considerably higher than his own past students after he converted the course to a hybrid format with online self-assessments.

Of course, I’m sure there are other variables that might impact the validity of Professor Hardy’s findings. Yet, after hearing the unique steps that UMBC’s economics department takes to ensure a rigorous and standardized final exam for the five-hundred students who take ECON 122 every year, I felt the 20 percent difference on Hardy’s final exam scores were hard to dismiss.

In addition to praising his students’ performance, Hardy’s co-presenters from UMBC noted that his course was a regular in the University’s list of most-active Blackboard courses. Hardy attributed his students’ extensive and frequent use of Blackboard largely to his course’s reliance on adaptive release. Adaptive release refers to a set of restrictions that can require students to view and interact with certain online content and/or assessments before new instructional materials are made available. In Hardy’s course, students were required to access learning materials and complete quizzes for each module before subsequent modules could be accessed. Hardy and his colleagues believe this approach helped students pace themselves and decreased the odds that they might skip vital content needed to succeed on the final exam.

Perhaps even more impressive than the student performance in Hardy’s initial hybrid offering was the fact that his hybrid students continued to score higher than their peers in subsequent course offerings. In addition, when the course was offered fully online in the summer of 2010, students scored even higher than those in previous hybrid sections.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of the improved student performance was due to the online self-assessments, adaptive release, or other unique aspects of Hardy’s online course design and teaching style. However, his findings clearly show that low-stakes knowledge checks and conditional release of content can have a significant impact on student performance. While I still consider myself a skeptic, even Agent Dana Scully had to admit once in a while that supernatural phenomena do exist. Whether it’s the wolf-man, alien abduction, or online courses that prove more effective than face-to-face, the truth is out there and we owe it to our students to keep digging.

Additional Resources

Daniel Stanford

Helping Digital Immigrants Feel at Home

If you’re an instructional designer or an educator with an interest in technology, you’ve probably heard someone use the term “digital native” to refer to young students who are innately tech savvy because they’ve been using the internet and digital technologies for as long as they can remember. You’ve probably also heard someone refer to today’s instructors—particularly older educators—as digital immigrants because they lack the same level of “fluency” in the technology skills, language, and culture that digital natives possess.

When Marc Prensky wrote “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” in 2001, he presented several spot-on observations about how some older instructors are unwilling or unable to embrace digital technology and culture in the same way that some immigrants never embrace the language and customs of a new country. While a few of his observations are lighthearted, he insists that the consequences of this trend are quite serious. To drive this point home, he claims that game-based learning can be used in all subject areas and implies that educators who reject this idea are dumb, lazy, and ineffective.

A frequent objection I hear from Digital Immigrant educators is “this approach is great for facts, but it wouldn’t work for my subject.” Nonsense. This is just rationalization and lack of imagination. In my talks I now include “thought experiments” where I invite professors and teachers to suggest a subject or topic, and I attempt—on the spot—to invent a game or other Digital Native method for learning it. Classical philosophy? Create a game in which the philosophers debate and the learners have to pick out what each would say. The Holocaust? Create a simulation where students role-play the meeting at Wannsee, or one where they can experience the true horror of the camps, as opposed to the films like Schindler’s List. It’s just dumb (and lazy) of educators—not to mention ineffective—to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to teach and that the Digital Natives’ “language” is not as capable as their own of encompassing any and every idea.

In his 2006 article “Listen to the Natives,” Prensky continues to emphasize that instructors must change their ways and place higher emphasis on engagement, stating, “As educators, we must take our cues from our students’ 21st-century innovations and behaviors, abandoning, in many cases, our own predigital instincts and comfort zones. Teachers must practice putting engagement before content when teaching.”

As someone who spent much of his childhood (and now a decent chunk of adulthood) playing video games, I love the idea of instructors integrating more games, simulations, and challenge-based learning activities into their courses. And there is mounting evidence that computer games can provide students with critical skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century job market.  A 2006 Wired article, “You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!” describes how management at Yahoo! considered a candidate’s achievements as a leader in the multiplayer game World of Warcraft to be an asset that set him apart from other applicants for a position as senior director of engineering operations.

Unfortunately, what educational-game-loving scholars fail to acknowledge is that even when we can prove that students have learned something more effectively and efficiently through game-based learning, we have to consider the return on investment. And by investment, I don’t mean the amount of time students have to spend playing the game in order to master a particular number of concepts or commit a certain number of facts to memory (although this should be evaluated as well). I’m referring to the amount of time and money it takes instructors, instructional designers, graphic artists, and programmers to develop educational games—or any multimedia learning resources for that matter.

Any game designer will tell you that even a high-budget, state-of-the-art video game will look dated within a few years of its release. Even the games featured on Prensky’s own company website, games2train, are showing their age. This isn’t necessarily an indicator that Prensky and his team are poor game designers. It just confirms that games often take a great deal of time and money to build and have a relatively short window of usefulness before they need to be updated or completely redesigned.

I think Prensky would argue that at the very least, instructors could do more to engage digital natives with low-tech games and simulations that increase learner engagement. His suggestions for games to teach philosophy or the Holocaust don’t necessarily require much more than a good set of role-playing instructions or a collection of powerful images from concentration camps and a provocative discussion prompt.

If the message was simply, “Let’s rethink the design of our assessments and learning activities so they’re more interactive and engaging,” I’d be all for it. However, what I often hear (and what I hear from the faculty I train) is that instructors feel pressured to make their course material as riveting and addictive as the bestselling video game du jour.  That’s a lot to live up to, especially for a faculty member who, until recently, was feeling quite proud of herself for finally learning how to resize and crop a photo in PowerPoint.

I’m overjoyed when faculty come to me with grand visions for a multimedia game or simulation, but I know they often feel daunted when I tell them what they’ll need to contribute to the project. That’s why I typically brainstorm with them to find the most low-tech solution that meets their needs, then we build on that as time allows. I also like to look at their learning materials and ask a few questions to make sure we’re not putting the cart before the horse. Some of these questions include:

  • Are the course materials broken down into manageable segments?
  • Can students easily stop reading, listening, or watching and pick up where they left off later?
  • Is it clear to students why they should read or watch each resource?
  • Are resources prioritized? Is it clear which resources are the most important and which resources are optional?
  • Will students know what terms to watch for or what questions to ask themselves as they go through the material?
  • Are there ungraded knowledge checks to ensure students know if they’ve missed something?
  • Do some assessments require application of the concepts? Are students asked to think critically about what they’ve learned?
  • Do discussions encourage an exchange of diverse ideas and opinions? Or are students simply asked to regurgitate content from the resources and provide answers that will be repetitive and unoriginal?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a good place to start. It might not generate the same buzz as turning a Holocaust lesson into a video game and accusing veteran professors of being lazy and behind the times, but at least we can rest assured that our priorities are in order and our courses are built on strong foundations. In addition, addressing fundamental course-design questions first and encouraging digital immigrants’ efforts does more than improve course quality. It provides digital immigrants with a starting point that feels welcoming and manageable—an Ellis Island of instructional design, if you will. It builds their confidence and encourages them to try new things. It replaces shame and guilt with pride and optimism.

We might not be able to completely transform an academic environment that can be hostile to digital immigrants, but we can strive to be better ambassadors of the digital culture we love. In the process, we can foster a melting pot of ideas and approaches to teaching that draws strength from diversity. And that’s the kind of immigration reform that benefits digital immigrants and digital natives alike.

Daniel Stanford

Foreclosing on Face Time: Online Learning and the Housing Crisis

Richard Florida is perhaps best known for his 2003 book The Rise of the Creative Class in which he proposed that the future fortunes of modern cities would depend on their ability to attract innovative, white-collar professionals. He labeled this group of workers the “creative class” but noted that this group extends far beyond artists and designers to include scientists, engineers, and other problem solvers who use outside-the-box thinking to overcome challenges in their fields. 

This spring, Florida published The Great Reset, which focuses on the current recession and its impact on urban development. Florida claims that the recession presents a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to scrap failed policies and move in a new direction to meet the demands of a changing economy. One of the key theories he presents is that the government subsidizing of home ownership (through tax deductions and low interest rates) has severely limited the mobility of the American workforce at a time when workers desperately need to move to find work. Florida believes that rather than continue to encourage Americans to buy homes and put down roots in one city for the long haul, our post-recession economy should encourage renting and mobility and embrace the natural cycle of boom and bust that allows some cities and regions to thrive while others wither and die.

While I don’t believe that we’re going to become a nation of renters overnight, I know firsthand that the housing crisis has left many members of generations X and Y questioning the value of owning a home. For the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who are unable to sell their homes and unable to find fulfilling jobs close to those homes, the carefree and unattached life of a renter certainly has a renewed appeal.

All of this is good news for online learning for obvious reasons. Distance education is designed for people who want to learn without being bound to a particular place. If the recession is forcing Americans to appreciate the value of being mobile, many people might also reevaluate their views on the value of spending years stuck in one place just to get an education.

But what if Florida is wrong? Surely many people put down roots in one place for a host of reasons that outweigh their desire to go wherever jobs are plentiful. With that in mind, it seems likely that employers will be forced to make some compromises in order to attract the best talent. One compromise that seems likely to continue to gain traction is telecommuting—allowing workers scattered across a city, region, or country to work wherever they please.

A friend of mine in Seattle runs a consulting firm that helps companies manage geographically isolated employees. In talking with him about his business during a recent visit, I kept thinking about how valuable the experience of being an online student is for anyone who ever needs to work from a distance. Online courses teach students much more than just how to be good accountants or nurses or programmers or teachers. Online learning also teaches students how to communicate, collaborate, build relationships, and solve problems without being in the same place at the same time. The future of the housing market might be difficult to predict, but it seems clear that technology continues to make working remotely a more viable option for more workers. With that in mind, I can’t think of a better way to prepare today’s students to be flexible, mobile workers than through coursework that transcends geographic boundaries and even the occasional upside-down mortgage.