There is a great deal of research supporting the idea that ‘instructor presence’ in a course improves student engagement in online courses. Indeed, ‘instructor presence’ is a central concern when designing an online course. But what does that mean in a practical sense?

There is often a gulf between what the research is saying and measuring, and the application of this research in an actual course. This has created some misunderstanding by many instructors that I work with. “I show my face during the videos, that will create instructor presence in the course.” The thing is, these same instructors are doing much more than that to build their presence in the course – they simply may not be aware of how. This blog post is a response to this statement.

In order to design an intentional, and supportive learning environment, it is important to understand what presence means in terms of the research. I think the confusion here lies with the word ‘presence’. From my reading and research, it seems clear that a more active kind of presence is meant. Perhaps it would be more helpful to consider the concept of ‘Instructor Engagement’ with students individually and socially within the course.

I have observed three main domains where instructor engagement is being academically examined; personal presence, social presence and course design. Each of these offers insight into practical application of what the literature is finding.

Personal Presence

This is where the instructor’s teaching style and personality come into play. The above-mentioned statement regarding ‘video presence’ is a common understanding of instructor presence in the personal sense. The instructor is the content expert and guide for navigating the material. But there is another aspect to being a guide that you might consider. The instructor is framing an attitude on how to approach the content. Personality and style will go a long way towards setting this tone. This is also a great opportunity to build inclusivity into a course. Did you (the instructor) struggle with this material at one time? Did you face barriers to learning? How did you overcome these things? These kinds of personal revelations can humanize the content and model behavior that leads to success.

An Instructor video introduction and weekly overview videos will definitely help build instructor presence and set the tone for your teaching style. But video is only one means of building your personal presence. Consider how you write your text content, that is, think about how you phrase instructions for activities and assignments. What context are you setting your activity within? Is it possible to put it into a context students can relate to? Can you put a personal twist on these things that will make them more accessible to your students?

Social Presence

Social presence is important because it does more than provide a ‘sense’ of instructor presence. Social presence provides evidence of instructor presence and engagement. This is how the instructor connects with individual students, groups of students and the class as a whole. This is how the instructor reacts to what is happening in the course.

At a basic level, this would include your feedback to students on activities and assignments. It would also include office hours and other ways you might connect with students individually. The depth and tone of your feedback to students will have a strong impact on student engagement with the material. These are also a way to reach out to students who may be struggling and provide them a path forward.

Do you participate in the class discussion forum? Discussions are a great opportunity to engage with students on a larger social level and encourage participation. Discussions are an opportunity to facilitate critical thinking and analysis. They are also a way to step in on larger road-blocks and provide necessary guidance.

Consider posting weekly announcements or reviews. More than simply revealing your presence, use these as an opportunity to show that you are responding to students who are currently in the course. This is a way to show that you are aware of the roadblocks students are facing in this run of the course and are showing the way forward. You can use these postings to course-correct and re-frame student thinking on a topic.

Weekly postings of any sort can be a way for you to draw connections between course activities and content, connect the content with real world current events, or even connect the content with your own life experiences. What about connecting the content with one or more of your students currently enrolled in the course? Can you draw attention to something one of your students said that was particularly insightful? This can be done anonymously to avoid putting anyone ‘on the spot’. Can you put some of the content into the words that your students use?

Course Design

Put most simply, build a course structure that will allow you to do the things discussed here. The design of the course itself should reflect the instructor’s teaching style and tone. Intentionality of design will greatly benefit an instructor’s ability to improve engagement with students in a course, at the very least by providing the means, but also by demonstrating the instructor’s style and expectations. It is much more challenging to add the above-mentioned elements after the fact. When we consider the broader course design, we discover a less visible form of instructor engagement, the intentionality of the instructor.

Effective teaching and learning strategies provide elements that can be used to build supportive learning. But the instructor’s engagement with these strategies is the key to their success. Each of these strategies provides an opportunity for an instructor to engage with students individually or socially. How an instructor uses these to engage with students will determine the efficacy of instructor presence.

How do you like to provide and receive information? What circumstances allow you to express yourself best? Our students’ learning experiences center on the exchange of information, and since they don’t typically get to design their own courses, we implicitly ask students to adapt to our communicative norms. I’m not a student, and for 40 hours each week, I work with colleagues who speak a shared language of diagrams, file naming conventions, and annotated comments.

dense email with color-coded table
Would you like to receive this email? This is how I felt most comfortable communicating with an instructor when deciding between two ways to facilitate a 4-step peer review process.

But in my everyday interactions with people outside of work, when I enter other professional domains, I am keenly aware of my communicative disadvantage, not unlike what our students sometimes face. Paying attention to these interactions gives me humility and makes me curious about how I can give students the agency to express themselves in the ways that suit them best. Let me share an anecdote from outside the office.

Recently I had to visit the doctor for a routine health issue, and he showed me a diagram of test results while using some terms I wasn’t familiar with. When I left, I thought in frustration, I would have benefited from having been provided a glossary of key terms in advance, and a reading list afterward to learn more about the implications of the diagnosis. Surely this doctor could have tailored the visit better by assessing my introductory level of knowledge on the subject and then by expanding on what I already knew, while filling in on the gaps he’d discovered. That’s the confident critique from the instructional designer in me. But of course, I was at someone else’s office this time, operating outside of my professional identity, and my expertise wasn’t being solicited. And I was pretty uncomfortable. What did this medical professional think of me? I could barely follow along with the conversation! And, more importantly, what had I gained from the (quite expensive) interaction, for which I had just taken time off from work?

Our students are in a similar bind. Time spent in our courses is time they can’t spend with their families or in the workplace – and they’re paying for it! So how can we make students’ experiences more satisfying?

I return to the UDL Principle “Provide multiple means of Action & Expression” regularly, and I think it’s worth simply reading the original text:

Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.

This UDL principle reminds me to be open to ways of demonstrating and communicating knowledge that are outside my own comfort zone. So, when you create your course’s assessment plan, consider building variety and options into assignments. How will certain activities advantage some students and not others? Consider how can you draw on your students’ funds of knowledge. Like me, who brought along a specific communication toolkit, our students’ backgrounds have prepared them to communicate in unique ways. If your course relies entirely on one type of assessment (all exams, all essays), ask yourself whether the learning outcomes require it. What evidence of learning will be acceptable to prove students’ newly developed skills? What experiences will provide that evidence? For example, you might provide students with opportunities to:

These options can expand the range of actions and expression available to your students so that more of them can communicate to you, and to themselves, that they are successful learners.

By Susan Fein, Instructional Designer, OSU Ecampus

I recently volunteered to lead a book club at my institution for staff participating in a professional development program focused on leadership. The book we are using is The 9 Types of Leadership by Dr. Beatrice Chestnut. Using principles from the enneagram personality typing system, the book assesses nine behavioral styles and assesses them in the context of leadership.

At the same time, a colleague asked me to review a book chapter draft she is co-authoring that summarizes contemporary learning pedagogical approaches. These theories are derived from every conceivable arena, including psychology, philosophy, epistemology, neuroscience, and so on. In both of these situations, I found myself immersed in far-reaching and seemingly unlimited perspectives, principles, beliefs and approaches to explain the constructs of human behavior.

Was the universe trying to tell me something?

Here’s What Happened

To prepare for the book club, I completed five or six free online tests designed to identify my predominant enneagram style. Imagine my surprise when my results were all different! A few trends emerged, but the tests failed to consistently identify me as the same enneagram type. Does that mean the tests were flawed? Certainly that may be a partial contribution. After all, these were not the full-length battery that would be used if I were paying for an assessment administered by a certified enneagram practitioner.

But frankly, I think the variation had more to do with me. My mood, the time of day, my frame of mind; was I hungry, was I tired and a myriad of other factors likely affected my responses. The questions were subjective, scenario-based choices, so depending on my perspective in that instant, my selection varied, producing significantly different results. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t the same person from moment to moment!

Does that sound absurdly obvious? Was this a “duh” moment? At one level, yes, but for me, it was also an “ah-ha” moment. As educators, do we expect students to respond or react in a predictable and consistent way? Is that practical or realistic? I don’t think so.

Now I was intrigued! How could my role as an instructional designer be enhanced and improved through recognition of this changeability? How might I apply this new insight to support the design and development of effective online learning?

I didn’t have a clear-cut answer but I recognized a strong desire to communicate this new-found awareness to others. My first thought was to find research articles. Google Scholar to the rescue! After a nearly fruitless search, I found two loosely-related articles. I realized I was grasping at straws trying to cull out a relevant quote. I had to stop myself; why did I feel the need to cite evidence to validate my incident? I was struggling with how to cohesively convey my thoughts and connect them in a practicable, actionable way to my job as an instructional designer. My insight felt important and worth sharing via this blog post, but what could I write that would be meaningful to others? I was stumped!

I decided I should talk it over with a colleague, and that opened up a new inquiry into design thinking. Rushing back to my computer, I pulled up images of the design thinking process, trying to incorporate the phases into my experience. Was my insight empathy? Did it fit with ideation? Once again, I had to force myself to stop and just allow my experience to live on its own, without support from theories, models, or research.

In desperation, I sought advice from another trusted co-worker, explaining my difficulty unearthing some significant conclusion. We had a pleasant conversation and she related my experience to parenting. She said that sometimes she lets stuff roll right off when her teenager acts out, but at other times, under nearly identical circumstances, she struggles to hold it together and not scream. Then she mentioned a favorite educational tool, the grading rubric, and I was immediately relieved. Yes, that’s the ticket! I can relate my situation to a rubric. Hurray! This made sense. I rewrote my blog post draft explaining how rubrics allow us to more fairly and consistently assess student work, despite changes in mood, time of day, energy level, and all the other tiny things that affect us. Done!

Satisfied, I asked a third colleague to review my draft and offer comments. Surely she would be approving. After all, there were no facts, tips, tools, research or actionable conclusions to correct. What could she possibly find to negatively critique? She felt that the ending was rushed and artificially trying to solve a problem. Oh, my, how on target she was! I realized that I had no idea how to elegantly extricate myself from this perilous journey I’d started. My blog posts are usually research-based summaries of the benefits of active learning, blended learning and the like. Safe and secure ground. What was I doing writing a personal reflection with absolutely no solid academic foundation? This was new and scary territory.

Who Cares? I Do

In the end, I had to let go of my need to cite valid research-based arguments. I gave up my desire to offer pithy words of wisdom or quotes from authorities. Ultimately, this was a personal reflection and, as my colleague gently reminded me, I had to be vulnerable.

So what, exactly, is my point? What is it about those chameleon-like outcomes that feels important to share? What do I want to say as a take-away? Honestly, I’m not sure. I only know that in recognizing the influence of human factors on my moment-to-moment reactions, I was unexpectedly expanded. I felt more empathy for the faculty I work with and the students they teach. (Maybe I can fit design thinking in here after all…kidding!) I sensed a stronger connection to my humanity. I deepened my compassion. But is any of this important? I mean, really, who cares?

I do. I care. I work with people and for people. I work to support student success. My job allows me to partner with instructors and bolster their confidence to have positive impact on their students’ futures. If I am more open, more inclusive, more humble, more willing to consider other people’s ideas or perspectives, that’s not such a bad thing. And I don’t need research to validate my experience. It’s okay for me to just be present to a new awareness. It’s okay for me to just be human.

red lightbulb

Photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

Last Time on SDT & Online Education…

This post is a continuation of my previous blog posts on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and Online Education and a companion post to Chris Lindberg’s series of posts, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement.

In my last post, I posed some difficult questions to consider as you start thinking about how you use grades and motivation in your courses. In case you missed that post, here are the questions—I invite you to spend a few minutes, hours, or days with these questions before moving on with the rest of this blog post:

  • Do you use grades to create external regulation of behavior in your course?
    • Are you grading a behavior or the demonstration of a skill?
  • Do you want to emphasize performance goals or mastery goals?
  • Are there ways to help students identify and integrate the activities and assessments in your course?
  • Do you need to grade this activity/assessment/task?

Why are you grading?

“The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much.” (Kohn, 1993, p. 50)

When I first started teaching, I remember asking a colleague if they would review my syllabus draft. They read the attendance policy and asked me something along the lines of, “Why are you grading this? Does it have anything to do with the outcomes of your course?” I probably spewed the usual talking points that students do better in class when they attend, I wanted them to come to class, etc. The reply: “So, do you want to grade learning, or behavior?” That question rocked my world as a young teacher. And made me question everything.

Why do we use grades? Numerous studies have shown that grades and rewards, especially for intrinsically motivating activities such as learning, have detrimental effects. And what do these grades communicate? In terms of SDT, “grading in educational contexts has two functions. One is providing competence-relevant feedback to students, presumably as an aid to enhancing subsequent performance … A second is gatekeeping. Grades can be used to make sure that only students who have mastered material and are thus qualified are eligible for higher training…” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 371). What does an A, B or F communicate to you? For Ryan & Deci, grades by themselves provide little in the way of relevant feedback. (For more on effective feedback, see Wiggins, 2012.)

So can a “grade” be useful? In the context of SDT, there needs to be important information communicated to students about how they’re doing and where they need to spend more attention and effort. In order for this to be autonomy-supportive, it should be informative for the learning process and not judgmental, pressure-inducing, or a social comparison, both in terms of being a reward or a punishment. For example, “Great work. You might consider adding an example in your third paragraph.” is not informative toward the learning process; “You do a great job of defining the problem in your third paragraph, which is an improvement from your first draft. Adding an example would do even more to help your readers relate to this problem.” is an example of feedback that informs a student about where they have come from and where they still need to go.

Performance vs. Mastery

“There do, indeed, seem to be few empirical or theoretical supports for the motivational or competence-building advantages of classical grading schemes. Yet, in most school settings, grades and evaluations are employed as if they were the key to motivation, when, in fact, especially for those who need competence supports, they are likely to be undermining influences.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 371)

Is it possible to see a letter grade of your work in a course outside the context of social comparison? How often is a B simply viewed as “better than average” or “in the top half of the class”? Focusing on performing a certain way relative to others is a performance goal, while focusing on increasing competence or learning is a mastery goal. (For more on this topic, see Elliot, 2005.) Additionally, each category of goal has an approach type (seeking to achieve something) and an avoidance type (seeking to avoid something). Multiple studies have found that the performance-avoidance combination has the most detrimental outcomes for both learning and student well being, and that this combination is adopted most when students have expectations of being graded (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 373).

Ungrading

“…the grading system that higher education in the United States has relied on for many decades has serious problems. It does not work in anyone’s interests, and it genuinely hurts those most directly associated with it: the faculty and the students. In fact, the system is broken.” (Nilson, 2015, p. 23)

At this point you might be asking, “what am I supposed to do?” There are numerous tools, resources, alternatives, and considerations when thinking about using or eliminating grades in a course, such as self-assessment, student-created rubrics, or specifications or criterion-based grading. (Several more are listed in the Reference & Resources section below). One option is to eliminate grading all together, which some institutions have done. If you aren’t ready to eliminate all your grades, try focusing on providing students with feedback in an autonomy-supportive way and empowering them to learn the valuable skill of self-assessment. Without rewards and punishments, students will feel a greater sense of competence; self-assessment and valuable and informative feedback will give students a greater sense of autonomy—that they’re in the driver’s seat for their own learning; with an increased focus on communication about learning, students will also gain a greater sense of relatedness.

There is much more to the topic of grading and ungrading than can be covered in a single blog post, so I’d like to invite you to check out the references and resources below, add your comments, suggestions, and experiences in the comments, contact your instructional designer, or keep an eye out for other opportunities to continue the discussion at various upcoming Ecampus events!

References & Resources

Center for Self-Determination Theory (CSDT). (2019).

  • This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.

Elliot, A. J. (2005). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. In Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.) Handbook of competence and motivation (52–72). New York: Guilford Press.

Flaherty, C. (2019). When grading less is more. Inside Higher Ed.

Kohn, A. (2018). Rewards are still bad news (25 years later). New York Times.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Serling, VA: Stylus.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Stommel, J. (2018). How to ungrade.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership 70(1), 10–16.

Are you looking for something to “spice up” your online course? Connect with students? Show them what your lab looks like? Take a look at what Oregon State University Ecampus is including in courses in our Course Demo.

Media elements in courses help students to visualize sometimes difficult concepts, connect with their instructors, and hear from professionals in the field. The Ecampus media team along with the talented instructors and instructional designers, work together to create custom media ranging from videos to augmented sandbox experiences. Do you have something in your class that could benefit from adding in media?

Adding elements doesn’t have to be hard. Start with something small – interesting images with alt-text, something you can do on your own, or collaborate with someone who’s done media you saw and liked and ask for their guidance and benefit from their experience.

You can do this!

 

Open Pedagogy Part 1 – What is the value of going ‘open’?

By Ashlee M. C. Foster, Instructional Design Specialist Oregon State University Ecampus

Designing the "right" assignments
Figure 1: A list of challenges and strategies associated with designing the “right” assignments. This list is a result of a collaborative activity generated by the Critical Open Pedagogy cohort at the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2019. Photo courtesy of Ashlee Foster

Are you committed to broadening access to education and knowledge, acknowledging and mitigating barriers, fostering social justice, and designing authentic and renewable learning experiences that contribute to the greater good? Do you employ pedagogical approaches that focus on student agency, collaboration, community, and connection to the public and world at large? If so, you may be an open educator at heart!

This is a three-part blog which will introduce the potential value of open pedagogy (part 1), critically examine considerations and strategies for implementation (part 2), and explore current practitioner examples and design approaches (part 3), which I hope will help you envision open assessments for your courses.

You may be thinking those two little words encapsulate a great deal, and you would be right! I have learned that this is a complex question with various evolving answers among practitioners. Recent literature indicates that there is a shift occurring from Open Educational Resources (OER) centered pedagogy to pedagogy that is focused on the potential impact, collaboration, connection, democratization of education, and the critical inquiry of systems and technology. Both leaders in the field, Robin DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani define open pedagogy as, “access-oriented commitment to learner-driven education AND as a process of designing architectures and using tools for learning that enable students to shape the public knowledge commons of which they are a part.” It may help to contextualize this pedagogy by examining your perceived value of the approaches, consider what excites you most, and identify how you personally connect with the pedagogy. Let’s begin by exploring this together!

What values underpin open pedagogy?

What is open pedagogy?
Figure 2: A whiteboard with questions posed. The questions include “What is open pedagogy?”, “What is Open Educational Practices?”, and “What is Open Education?” Cohort members co-generated answers to these questions and posted them to the board. Photo courtesy of Ashlee Foster

I had an invaluable opportunity to attend the Digital Pedagogy Lab Critical Open Pedagogy track, facilitated by Rajiv Jhangiani. Throughout the intense week, our cohort engaged in meaningful discussions centered on what is it that makes someone an educator, open pedagogical approaches, public scholarship, educational technology, the democratization of education, and how open pedagogy can foster social justice. Rajiv asked participants to review his 5Rs for Open Pedagogy and then write a personal interpretation of the values. Specifically, he asked, “What brings you (or others) to this work?” In the spirit of openness, I have shared my initial perception of the values which continue to evolve as I learn more about the field.

Recent literature surveyed educators and asked them to describe how going open impacts their pedagogical approaches. Educators indicated that the open approaches prompted them to find innovative ways for students to obtain and share knowledge, use of new methods and platforms, diversify learning materials to include multi-perspectives, actively teach open literacies, move to a participatory model of teaching and learning from one that was top-down, and to engage in critical inquiry around entrenched knowledge structures.

Additionally, educators shared their perceived value for creating learning assessments that:

  • go beyond a single course (renewable),
  • are broadly relevant (inclusive),
  • allow for student choice when demonstrating learning (agency),
  • connect to the real world and the learner’s personal interests (relevancy),
  • amplify multi-perspectives from broad global voices (liberate),
  • empower students with the knowledge and skills to participate openly (freedom), and for educators and learners to collaborate (participate)!

What are students saying?

These are valuable insights from practicing educators, but what are students saying about open approaches in their classes? In a recent study, 173 students were asked to compare the educational value of open pedagogy to traditional approaches, to identify the types of learning outcomes associated with this approach, and if they preferred open pedagogical approaches to traditional. Out of 169 respondents, 53% of students preferred open pedagogical approaches to traditional classroom teaching practices. Students shared that the open approaches led to increased knowledge of the material, synthesis of information, consideration for the relevance of information, how to bring information together in a meaningful way for diverse audiences, application to real-world issues which they personally connect with, and they found the approaches to be more engaging. However, 20% of students preferred traditional pedagogy. This highlights that the integration of varied approaches may be optimal. I have learned that open pedagogy is not necessarily a silver bullet that can remedy all barriers and challenges associated with closed systems. Rather, it seems to be a tool that can be leveraged to foster social justice, engagement, participation, collaboration, co-construction of knowledge, the democratization of education, and to increase global access to education.

With all that said, let us circle back around to the question posed in the Critical Open Pedagogy workshop, what brings you to this work? I encourage you to reflect on this question. You may even find it helpful to write out your interpretation of the values of open pedagogy and share those with the community. If you feel comfortable to do so, please feel free to share in the comments of this blog. Do you find yourself inspired by this pedagogical approach? If so, I invite you to revisit this blog for Open Pedagogy Part 2 – Critical Considerations for Implementation and explore the resources below.

References

Resources

 

Who are our students?

Is there such a thing as a “typical” college student? The evidence suggests that no, there is no such a thing as a typical college student. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2015 Report, 74% of all undergraduates are “nontraditional” students. This means that they have at least one or more of the following characteristics: having one or more dependents, working full time, attending school part time, taking a gap between high school and college, and completing a GED instead of a high school diploma. It is simultaneously exciting and challenging that higher education has become more accessible to an increasingly diverse student body. The challenge for instructional designers and faculty, therefore, is to keep up with how to design courses that welcome and support all students.

Do we design for the majority or for the “extremes”?

If we design courses for the most common student situations, we end up serving students who already have advantages, who can already see, hear, and pay tuition with ease. When we design for the extreme situations, however, we support students who may have uncommon or specific strengths, as well as potential barriers such as disabilities or financial strain. Furthermore, when we design for the extremes, the outcome benefits all students, thus aligning our course with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The quintessential example of this is, of course, closed captioning: Closed captioning was designed to help people with hearing loss, but it was quickly discovered to be useful for all kinds of people for various reasons, including English language learners, for example. This same schema of the benefits of closed captioning can be applied to other solutions where we design for extreme situations. The result of designing for extremes is that the experiences for all users are enhanced.

Personas: What are they, and how are they used?

One approach to designing inclusive courses is to use personas in the course design stage. A persona is fictional representation of a user group and is intended to foster empathy for that particular user group whose needs resemble the fictional persona. A persona may include a photo of a fictional individual (provided by Unsplash, for example) as well as information related to the design challenge. In this case, my colleague Heather Garcia and I have developed a set of personas for use in designing online undergraduate and graduate courses. The student data that we included in each persona are based on quantitative and qualitative national and local demographic information. The personas that we created focus on students who may bring unique strengths to the course or find more barriers in their educational journey compared to “traditional” college students. With these diverse personas, we grow our empathy and can be efficiently guided into designing for nontraditional students who are based in reality.

Okay, I have a set of personas. What next?

Photo of fictional student and fictional bio
This persona is from “Personas for Course Design” CC BY NC SA, linked below, created by Elisabeth McBrien and Heather Garcia

Here is an exercise using personas for the purpose of designing inclusive courses:

  1. Choose a set of personas to work from:
  2. Select a few personas from the set. 
  3. Get to know your “students” represented in the personas.
  4. With your course in mind, ask yourself the following questions:
    • What strengths do these personas bring to the course?
    • What barriers do you anticipate these personas will face?
    • What design decisions would you make to support all personas as they work to meet the learning outcomes?
  5. The answers to the above questions can help you make design decisions that create an inclusive course, one in which all students are welcomed and supported.

How did it go?

One way to include this exercise in your design practice is to keep a deck of printed personas, like a deck of cards, nearby as part of your design toolbox. That way, instructional designers and instructional faculty can then do a personas design challenge during the design stage of each course. 

Have you used personas in your course design? Please leave a comment and let us know how it went!

References and resources:

As described in an earlier post, Use a Mix Map for Blended Learning, the blended learning mix map is a widely used tool to visualize and design hybrid (or “blended”) courses that integrate scheduled face-to-face meetings with online elements. The two overlapping circles in this planning template provide space to list online learning activities, face-to-face learning activities and possibly activities that occur in both learning environments.

Blended Learning Mix Map

Where Does Learning Actually Occur?

Oregon State University faculty have found utility in drafting mix maps while in the early phases of hybrid course development. Many of those faculty suggested that the traditional two-circle mix map needed one improvement, namely a third circle! In response, the Center for Teaching and Learning and Ecampus created the Three-Disc Hybrid Design Mix Map.

Three-Disc Hybrid Design Mix Map

Does your blended course have learning activities that extend beyond the online and classroom environments (for example, service-learning, field or clinical experiences)? If so, this three-disc mix map is an ideal course planning tool. The “Other” circle is the place to list learning activities that principally take place somewhere other than the classroom and the online course site.

Sketch a Three-Disc Mix Map in Three Steps

You could create one mix map for your entire course, but many instructors prefer to focus on a single representative week of the course. There are three steps to sketching out your blended course vision on the three-disc mix map:

1 – List each learning activity in the appropriate circle. Consider these activities from the student perspective. For instance, collaborating on a group poster project, taking a quiz or making a presentation. Be sure to include “other” learning that occurs beyond the online and in-class environments. Consider the balance between learning activities in the three circles.

As to which learning activities fit where, that’s a topic to carefully consider and to converse about with your teaching colleagues as well as an instructional designer. For instance, think about the positioning of weekly discussions in your course. In terms of student learning outcomes, do discussions work best for you and your students in the classroom, online or possibly in both places? Can discussions be structured to bridge the gap between learning environments? Remember to consider how the timing of discussions will be woven into the broader, ongoing flow of blended learning in your course. And remember that classroom meeting time is finite and measured to the nearest minute in a hybrid course, so be judicious in using that time strategically!

2 – Use arrows to draw functional connections between the learning activities. For example, a weekly quiz is based on narrated online lectures, or an in-class discussion applies information from online readings. Aim to link every activity to at least one other activity. Be especially attentive to linkages between the online and face-to-face activities.

3 – List the average amount of time per week that you expect students will spend on each learning activity. For instance, two hours of reading or 90 minutes of problem solving. Check to see if the weekly total make sense in light of the Oregon State University credit hour policy, which states, “One credit is generally given for three hours per week of work in and out of class.”

Speaking of time expectations, 15 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for you to create a first draft of a mix map.

Mixing and Remixing

I recommend that you periodically revisit—and possibly redraw—your mix map, perhaps a week later, then a month later, to see how your blended course vision has evolved. A mix map is a malleable vision of a blended course at a given moment in the course design and development process; it’s not an end point. As the design and development process moves forward, remixing the map comes naturally.

In working with mix maps and more broadly with blended course design and teaching, focus on deeply interweaving the various course elements. Hybrid courses can truly be “the best of both worlds” of online and on-the-ground teaching and learning, by building on the strengths of each of these educational modalities, but only with intentional design that explicitly, and seamlessly, meshes the online, in-class and “other” elements of the course!

Resources

The OSU Hybrid Learning website provides downloadable mix map templates and sample mix maps. For more about blended learning, refer to these earlier blog posts: Blended Learning: What Do the Faculty Say? – Part 1 and Part 2, and Susan Fein’s excellent Blended Learning: What Does the Research Show?

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into blended learning, see the Blended Learning Toolkit and Kathryn Linder’s superb guide, The Blended Course Design Workbook.

The other day, my six-year-old asked me what the word “industrious” means, and I was overcome with pride and, moments later, mild panic as I tried to answer his question and couldn’t clearly articulate the meaning of the word.

This experience ended well (thanks, Alexa), but prompted me to think about how often we use words without fully understanding what they mean. We don’t question the meaning of these words when they are used in our work or daily interactions. We may use these words ourselves on occasion–or with regularity–but when we stop and try to define these words, the proper associations and descriptions don’t come immediately to mind.

In my work as an instructional designer, it’s common to talk about universal design or inclusive design, and in many cases, to use these descriptors interchangeably, when talking about design that is usable by a wide range of people. To a lesser extent, accessibility is used in a similar way, but, I think, our shared understanding of this term is more reliable.

For this blog post, I would like to spend some time defining and distinguishing these terms and grounding them in a historical context to more fully convey the nuances and layers of meaning ascribed to each term. I’ll wrap up with some strategies for designing courses to better meet the needs of all learners.

Accessibility

According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), “Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” It’s clear from this definition that accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities, so let’s consider disability. 

Prior to 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined disability as a personal health condition. This definition placed emphasis on the individual. However, in 2001, the WHO redefined disability as a mismatched interaction between a person and their environment. This new definition places emphasis on the environment, rather than the individual. As a result, the onus is no longer only on the disabled individual to manage their health condition; rather, those who have influence over the environment need to make changes to the environment to better accommodate everyone who is interacting with it. In our case, the learning environment is the web, or more specifically, online courses. 

Unlike the other two design approaches we’ll consider, accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities. Another distinguishing feature of accessibility is that it describes an end goal. Our web content should be presented in such a way that the end result is an accessible website or technology. While this post will not go into the how of making web content accessible, here are some elements you may be familiar with: alternative text (alt tags), headings (H1, H2, H3, etc.), color contrast, captions and/or transcripts, reading order, keyboard navigation, and descriptive URLs are all examples of accessibility elements. All of these elements define what our design should look like, not how to get there.

Another distinguishing feature is that accessibility is required by law. We won’t delve into the specifics here, but it’s important to recognize that accessibility is a legal compliance issue.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

While accessibility addresses specific features of a website or online learning environment, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes a broader approach. UDL guidelines still emphasize accessibility, but the emphasis is not solely on making disability accommodations or complying with the law. The goal of UDL is to provide the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest range of individuals.

UDL includes a framework with three general principles, each of which includes multiple guidelines and checkpoints for actual practice. A UDL approach is structured and practical and, similar to accessibility, UDL defines an end goal: a product that is usable by the widest range of individuals possible. The framework, however, emphasizes the design, which is only one aspect of creating an online course.

To broaden our understanding of UDL, it’s important to understand that UDL emerged from universal design, which is an architectural concept. Architecture, unlike the web, is physically fixed, and as such, the emphasis is on a single design that works for everyone. 

Inclusive Design

While UDL emerged from architecture, inclusive design was “born out of digital environments,” and, while architecture is fixed, the web is flexible and ever-changing. As such, inclusive design emphasizes flexibility and process. Inclusive design is iterative. With an emphasis on iteration and process, inclusive design cannot be separated from the lived experience of actual users. In other words, if the users (in our case, students) are contributing to and evaluating the design, then we can no longer separate the design and delivery–the creation and facilitation activities.

With a focus on process, inclusive design emphasizes co-creation and frequent feedback from multiple developers as well as end users. In particular, seeking contributions from excluded communities during the entire design and evaluation process is critical to an inclusive process.

Unlike accessibility and UDL, inclusive design is focused on process and iteration. To help illustrate how we see these three design approaches working together, my colleague, Elisabeth McBrien and I created the figure below (figure 1).

Three circles. The outer circle represents inclusive design. The middle circle represents UDL. And the smallest circle represents accessibility.
Figure 1. An inclusive design process will always include UDL and accessibility as end goals.

We see accessibility compliance as core to any design. UDL goes beyond the requirements of accessibility to meet the needs of all users. In an inclusive design process, UDL and accessibility are always the end goal, but inclusive design emphasizes the importance of feedback and iteration. We can always improve and we always have more work to do.

In Practice

Now that we have a better understanding how accessibility, UDL, and inclusive design work together to contribute to a learning environment that meets the needs of all learners, how do we apply them and improve? Ecampus has many guidelines and templates that help us to meet the goals of accessibility and UDL, but how can we be more inclusive throughout this process? 

Here are some inclusive approaches that you might consider integrating into your course facilitation and teaching:

  • Build rapport with students. This is accomplished by infusing instructor presence whenever possible. Respond to Q&A questions and emails within 24-48 hours. Share resources. Deliver feedback promptly. An important element of rapport and presence is showing your personality, so consider using video to welcome students and to encourage them throughout the course.
  • Solicit feedback. One of the easiest ways to solicit feedback from your students is to use a survey. Keep surveys short and consider asking students to share in a few words how the course is going or what they find most challenging.
  • Establish clear criteria and structure. Rubrics, templates, examples, and consistent naming and organization of course materials are just a few ways to provide clarity and structure.
  • Acknowledge student contributions. Praise is an instant confidence booster. Do you have a student–particularly, an underrepresented student–who did an exceptional job on one of your assignments? Let them know. Consider sharing their work as an example–with their permission, of course.
  • Feature counter-stereotypical examples of people in your field. One common barrier to success for underrepresented students is that they don’t see themselves reflected in a particular discipline. Make sure your readings, examples, and other course materials represent a variety of identities. If there’s a lack of diversity in your field, find a way to acknowledge this to your students.
  • Promote student agency and autonomy by giving them choice, whenever possible. Providing choice and promoting agency allow students to connect your course to their own experiences and values.
  • Emphasize real world applications of course work. Often, we assume that our students understand the purpose of course activities, but this is not always the case. Sharing real world applications will help students to see the value and greater purpose of their studies.

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot in this post, and I hope that we’ve come away with a better understanding of disability, accessibility, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive design. One of the most important takeaways is that inclusive design is an ongoing process of feedback and iteration. As our student body changes, so do their needs. In an upcoming blog post, Elisabeth McBrien will share more details about student needs and how you might use student personas to design more inclusively.  

As we continue the challenging–yet meaningful–work of creating welcoming online learning environments, it’s important that we have a shared understanding of what that work entails, what work we have done, and what work we have yet to do.

Resources

  1. Appert, L. et al. (2018) Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia. Columbia University: Center for Teaching and Learning.
  2. Gannon, Kevin. (2018) The case for inclusive teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education.
  3. Hogan, Kelly A. and Sathy, Viji. (2019, July 22) “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide.” Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. The inclusive design guide. Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. CC-BY 3.0.
  5. Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom. EdX course from Columbia University.

About halfway through earning a master’s in education, I took a summer session class on digital storytelling. It ran over the course of three half-day sessions during which we were required to complete two digital stories. I had no great academic ambitions in my approach to these assignments. I was trying to satisfy a degree requirement in a way that worked with my schedule as a single mother of two teenagers working full time while earning a graduate degree.

My first story was a self-introduction. I loved this assignment. Even though I had one evening to complete it, I spent hours tweaking it. I enjoyed learning the tools. I enjoyed sharing my story with my classmates. Even after it was graded, I kept finding ways to improve it.

After completing the course, I began to study the use of digital stories in education. My personal experience had shown me that in completing my assignment I had to become comfortable with technology as well as practiced my writing, speaking and presentation skills. I also felt a stronger connection to my classmates after sharing my video and watching their videos.

Literature

The research on digital storytelling echoes my own experience. Dr. Bernard Robin, an Associate Professor of Learning, Design, & Technology at the University of Houston, discussed the pedagogical benefits of digital storytelling assignments in a 2016 article,  The Power of Digital Storytelling to Support Teaching and Learning. His research found that both student engagement and creativity increased in higher education courses when students were given the opportunity to use multimedia tools to communicate their ideas. Students “develop enhanced communication skills by learning to organize their ideas, ask questions, express opinions, and construct narratives” (Robin, 2016). Bernard’s experience also finds that by sharing their work with peers, students learn to give and accept critique, fostering social learning and emotional intelligence.

Digital Storytelling as Educators

Digital Storytelling in online education shouldn’t be thought of as only a means of creating an engaging student assignment. Educators who are adept at telling stories have a tremendous advantage in capturing their student’s attention. In the following short video, Sir Ian McKellen shares why stories have so much power. Illustrated in the form of a story, he shares that stories are powerful for four reasons. They are a vessel for information, create an emotional connection, display cultural identity, and gives us happiness.

The Power of Storytelling, with Sir Ian McKellen

McKellen is a compelling narrator with a great voice. This story is beautifully illustrated. It reminds me of how I want my learners to feel when they are consuming the content I create. Even if for a moment, so engrossed, that they forget that they are learning. Learning becomes effortless. As he points out, a good storyteller can make the listener feel as if they are also living the story.

Digital Storytelling Assignments

There are lots of ways to integrate digital stories across a broad set of academic subjects. Creating personal narratives, historical documentaries, informational and instructional videos or a combination of these styles all have educational benefits. One of the simplest ways to introduce this form of assessment to your course is to start with a single image digital story assignment.

Here’s an example I created using a trial version of one of many digital story making tools available online:

Single Image Digital Story Example

 

Digital Story Making Process

The process of creating a digital story lends itself well for staged student projects. Here’s an example of some story making stages:

  1. Select a topic
  2. Conduct research
  3. Find resources and content
  4. Create a storyboard
  5. Script the video
  6. Narrate the video
  7. Edit the final project

I created an animated digital story to illustrate the process of creating a digital story using another freely available tool online.

Digital Storytelling Process Movie link

Recommended Resources & Tools

You will find hundreds of tools available for recording media with a simple search. Any recommended tool should be considered for privacy policies, accessibility and cost to students.

Adobe Spark

Adobe offers a free online video editor which provides easy ways to add text, embed videos, add background music and narration. The resulting videos can be easily shared online via a link or by downloading and reposting somewhere else. While the tool doesn’t offer tremendous flexibility in design, the user interface is very friendly.

Canvas

Canvas has built-in tools to allow students to record and share media within a Canvas course. Instructions are documented in the OSU Ecampus student-facing quick reference guide.

Audacity

Audacity is a free, open-source cross-platform software for recording and editing audio. It has a steeper learning curve than some of the other tools used for multimedia content creation. It will allow you to export your audio file in a format that you can easily add to a digital story.

Padlet

Padlet allows you to create collaborative web pages. It supports lots of content types. It is a great place to have students submit their video stories. You have a lot of control during setup. You can keep a board private, you can enable comments, and you can choose to moderate content prior to posting. Padlet allows for embedding in other sites – and the free version at the time of writing allows users to create three padlets the site will retain.

Storyboarding Tools

A note first about storyboarding. Storyboarding is an essential step in creating a digital story. It is a visual blueprint of how a video will look and feel. It is time to think about mood, flow and gather feedback.
Students and teachers alike benefit from visualizing how they want a final project to look. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It is much easier to think about how you want a shot to look at this stage than while you are shooting and producing your video. A storyboard is also a good step in a staged, longer-term project in a course to gauge if students are on the right track.

Storyboard That

This is a storyboard creation tool. The free account allows for three and six frame stories. In each frame, you can choose from a wide selection of scenes, characters, and props. Each element allows you to customize color, position, and size. Here’s a sample I created:

The Boords

This site has several free to use templates in multiple formats to support this process. Here is one that I have used before:

A4-landscape-6-storyboard-template

Looking for Inspiration?

Start with Matthew Dicks. Dicks is the author of Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling. He is a teacher. He is a five-time winner of the Moth GrandSlam championship.
His book is wonderful, but to just get a taste, start with the podcast he cohosts with his wife. Each week they include a well-vetted and rehearsed story told during a competition. They then highlight the strengths and areas for improvement. You will walk away with ideas and the motivation to become a better storyteller. Here’s the first episode, and one of my favorites.

Conclusion

When pressed for time to develop course content, we tend to over-rely on text-based assignments such as essays and written discussion posts. Students, when working on Digital Storytelling assignments, get the opportunity to experiment, think creatively and practice communication and presentation skills.

For educators, moving away from presenting learning materials in narrated bulleted slides is likely to make classes more engaging and exciting for their students leading to better learning outcomes. Teachers work every day to connect with students and capture their attention. A good story can inspire your students and help them engage with the content.

I was uncomfortable when I received my first digital storytelling assignment. I didn’t really know how to use the tools, wasn’t confident I knew how or what to capture. I was sure it would feel awkward to narrate a video. But These assignments turned out to be engaging, meaningful, and the process is pretty straight forward. Introduce digital storytelling into your courses, even by starting small, and you are sure to feel the same way.