If you’ve ever needed an excessive amount of photographs or diagrams to accurately describe a physical object for your class, you may benefit from a 3D model.

Standard media types, including text, photographs, illustrations, audio, video, and animation, are crucial to the online learning experience. A 3D model is essentially another media type with a lot of unique qualities.

What is a 3D model?

3D models, in this case, are digital representations of physical objects. 3D models generally consist of a polygon mesh and a surface texture. The polygon mesh is a “shell” comprised of the different surfaces of a 3-dimensional object. There are three main components that make up this shell: vertices (points), edges (lines), and faces (planes). For what should be clear from the previous sentence, polygon meshes are often referred to as simply “geometry.” There are a lot of other technical terms associated with polygon meshes, but in practical application, you may never need to learn them.

The surface texture, at its most basic, is an image, mapped onto the surface of the polygon mesh.

A texture can be as simple as a solid color, or as complex as a high-resolution photograph. The texture will be wrapped onto the surface of the geometry with the help of a set of instructions called UVs. UVs are a complex topic in and of themselves, so it’s good enough that you just know they exist conceptually.

These textures can have physics-based properties that interact with light to produce effects such as transparency, reflection, shadows, etc.

You’re probably thinking to yourself now, that 3D models are too complicated to be of use in your courses, but that’s not necessarily true. The composition and inner workings of 3D models are complicated, for sure, but you don’t need to be an expert to benefit from them.

Where did they come from, and how are they used?

There probably isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t experience a 3D model in some way. They are everywhere.

3D models, in digital form, have been around for decades. They have been used in industrial applications extensively. 3D models are used to generate toolpaths for small and large machines to manufacture parts more consistently than a human could ever hope to. 3D models are also used to generate toolpaths for 3D printers.

3D models are used in movies, animations, and video games. Sometimes entire worlds are created with 3D models for use in virtual and augmented reality.

Modern interfaces for computers and smartphones are awash in 3D graphics. Those graphics are rendered on the screen from 3D models!

How can they help me as an educator?

If you’re still not convinced that 3D models hold any benefit to you, I’ll explain a few ways in which they can enrich your course materials.

  1. 3D models are easily examined and manipulated without damage to physical specimen.
    • If you are involved in teaching a course with physical specimens, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of a “teaching collection.” A teaching collection is a high-turnover collection that gets handled and examined during class. Normally these collections break down quickly, so instructors are hesitant to include rare and fragile specimens. Having digital proxies for these rare and fragile specimens will allow students access to otherwise unknown information. This has even bigger benefits to distance students, as they don’t have to be anywhere near the collection to examine its contents.
  2. 3D models give students unlimited time with a specimen
    • If you have a biology lab, and the students are looking at skull morphology, there’s a distinct possibility that you would have a skull on hand to examine. If there are 30 students in the course, each student will have only a short amount of time to examine the specimen. If that same skull was scanned and made into a 3D model, each student could examine it simultaneously, for as long as they need.
  3. 3D models are easily shared
    • Many schools and universities around the world are digitizing their collections and sharing them. There is a fair amount of overlap in the models being created, but the ability to add regionally exclusive content to a global repository would be an amazing benefit to science at large. Smaller schools can have access to a greater pool of materials, and that is good for everyone.
  4. 3D models have presence
    • A 3D model is a media object. That means it can be examined, but it’s special in the way that it can be interacted with. Functionality can be built on and around a 3D model. Models can be manipulated, animated, and scaled. A photograph captures the light bouncing off of an object, that is closer to a description of the object.  A 3D model is a representation of the actual physical properties of the object, and that strikes at the nature of the object itself. This means that a 3D model can “stand in” for a real object in simulations, and the laws of physics can be applied accurately. This realistic depth and spatial presence can be very impactful to students. Much more so than a simple photograph.
  5. 3D models can be analyzed
    • Because 3D models are accurate, and because they occupy no physical space, they lend themselves to analysis techniques unavailable to the physical world. Two models can be literally laid on top of one another to highlight any differences. Measurements of structures can be taken with a few clicks. In the case of a machined part, material stress tests can be run over and over without the need to replace the part.

These are only a few of the ways that an educator could leverage 3D models. There are many more. So, if you still find 3D models interesting, you’re probably wondering how to get them, or where to look. There are a lot of places to find them, and a lot of techniques to build them yourself. I’ll outline a few.

Where do I get them?

3D models are available all over the internet, but there are a few reputable sources that you should definitely try first. Some will allow you to download models, and some will allow you to link to models on their site. Some will allow you to use the models for free, while others will require a fee. Some will have options for all of the aforementioned things.

How do I create them?

The two main ways to create 3D models are scanning and modeling.

Scanning can be prohibitively expensive, as the hardware can run from a few hundred dollars, to many thousands of dollars. But, like anything else technological, you get what you pay for. The quality is substantially better with higher-end scanners.

For something a little more consumer-grade, a technique called photogrammetry can be employed. This is a software solution that only requires you to take a large series of photographs. There is some nuance to the technique, but it can work well for those unable to spend thousands of dollars on a 3D scanner. Some examples of photogrammetry software include PhotoScan and COLMAP.

Modeling has a steep learning curve. There are many different software packages that allow you to create 3D models, and depending on your application, some will be better suited than others. If you are looking to create industrial schematics or architectural models, something likeFusion 360, AutoCad, or Solidworks might be a good choice. If you’re trying to sculpt an artistic vision, where the precise dimensions are less important, Maya, Blender, Mudbox or Zbrush may be your choice.

How to use them in your class:

There are a number of ways to use 3D models in your class. The simplest way is to link to the object on the website in which it resides. At OSU Ecampus, we use the site, SketchFab, to house our 3D scans. The source files stay with us as we create them, but we can easily upload them to SketchFab, brand them, and direct students to view them. SketchFab also allows us to add data to the model by way of written descriptions andannotations anchored to specific structures in the model.

The models hosted on SketchFab behave similarly to YouTube videos. You can embed them in your own site, and they are cross-platform compatible. They are even mobile-friendly.

As you can see, there is a lot to learn about 3D models and their application. Hopefully, I’ve broken it down into some smaller pieces that you can reasonably pursue on your own. At the very least, I hope that you have a better understanding of how powerful 3D models can be.

A big THANK YOU to Nick Harper, Multimedia Developer, Oregon State University Ecampus

Why Accessibility?

Online education provides access to all types of students and from all across the world. Each student is unique and has unique educational needs. To better attend to our student’s needs, we can develop course materials from the beginning to be more accessible for everyone.

What can I do?

Provide the equivalent alternative to multimedia

When creating or selecting multimedia for a course, an equivalent option should be provided for students that cannot access the multimedia. As an example, if you are creating lectures you should create a word for word transcript that can be posted or better yet, be used to create closed captions.

Provide “alternative” description for images

For students who use screen readers, adding an “ALT-TAG” on all images used in the course helps them to “see” images or skip over unnecessary decorative images efficiently. The ALT-Text should describe the educational value of that image. What they are they supposed to gain from that image and why is it essential to the course material?

Make all file types accessible

When creating or selecting documents to use in your class, you’ll want to make sure that all files are accessible to students. Using built-in accessibility feature in Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents will help to develop an accessible structure for that document.

Creating meaningful link names

All students will benefit from having a link that describes where they are going to link out to. Students who use screen readers will be especially grateful if they have a link that says “Oregon State University Library resources” instead of “click here” or simply the URL.

Use contrasting colors

Blind person frustrated because the computer says to push the red button but has no other ways of conveying which button to push.
Credit: Zero Project Conference

Dark text on light backgrounds or light text on dark backgrounds will help all students read your important information easier than, perhaps, orange text on a red background. Doing this also limits the trouble that students who are color blind to see the difference between the background and text. Remember to not use color as the only form of meaning. If you have red and green text showing students what to and not to include in a paper, make sure there are headings that also state that information. Want to know what colors and backgrounds work? Check out WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker.

If you have any tips or questions, please leave them in the comment area below.

Becoming a Student Again

With excitement and a bit of apprehension I logged in to my first ever online class. Sure, I’ve taught online classes for years, but this was my first time as a student in an online class that I had paid to take and where grades were given.

I reviewed the “Start Here” module and familiarized myself with the structure of the class before I opened the first lecture from my new instructor. The instructor’s voice came through my speakers and as she began to speak I noted the length of the lecture: 44 minutes. “What?!? I don’t have time for this,” I thought as I slammed my laptop shut. It suddenly and powerfully occurred to me that I did not have control over this classroom and my expectations as a student might be vastly different from my instructor’s.

Eventually, I settled in to the rhythm of the class and my instructor’s expectations. As it turns out, that 44 minute lecture was an outlier (the rest were closer to 15 minutes), and I figured out a way to incorporate the lectures into my schedule (I watched them while on the spin bike).

The Needs of the Online Student

As a working parent, trying to balance family, work, and school obligations, I am the target customer for online education, and I certainly felt the “squeeze” of all these obligations competing for my time. Like many of my students, my days are jam-packed and most of the time, I am scheduled to the minute. Uncertainties can throw my well-planned schedule into turmoil… “Wow, that reading took longer than I expected. No, I can’t participate in a live webinar or meet for a group project at 3pm. I have to pick up kids from school. Darn, this link is broken and the instructor hasn’t responded to my questions about it…now I’ve lost my window for working on this project. My dog died today, and while I had to go to work and had to make dinner, I just don’t have it in me to watch a class lecture and take a quiz. I’m too sad…can I have an extension?”

Meeting Our Students Where They Are

I ended up taking several classes from several instructors over the course of a year. Being a student in these classes exposed me to a number of different teaching styles and techniques and strategies, and I was able to experience these things from a student point of view. Based on my experience, here are 4 strategies for instructors that your students might find helpful:

  1. Provide time estimates for weekly activities. Estimated read times and watch times for learning materials are very helpful for a busy student trying to plan the week.
  2. Chunk the material. As an online student, I rarely had long chunks of time to work on my classes, but I could squeeze in smaller chunks of time here and there. And while students can start and stop a task as needed in the online classroom, it’s rewarding to actually finish a task in one sitting.
  3. Make it easy to find class resources. In the online classroom there are many wonderful learning materials we can easily incorporate (e.g., links to blogs, videos, calculators); but when these resources are scattered throughout 10 learning modules, they can be difficult for the student to find. Provide a works cited page (with hyperlinks) or a glossary of key terms to help students locate material, especially when studying for exams.
  4. Anticipate Questions. This might be tough the first time you teach a course, but over time we often see the same questions arising from our students. We can reduce the delay in response time, by anticipating these questions and providing answers and support ahead of time. This could be a Q&A sheet for complex assignments or a guided worksheet with comments from the instructor to help students get through well-known tricky spots.

The flexibility of the online classroom gives busy students around the world access to educational opportunities that have not been available in the past. These students are working hard in every aspect of their lives and with a little support from us, their online instructors, we can help them make the most of the time they have in order to learn and grow.

-Nikki Brown, Instructor, College of Business

On May 2nd, Ecampus held our annual Faculty Forum which showcases the outstanding work that OSU is doing in online education. Sixteen interactive sessions allowed faculty the opportunity to learn more about innovative teaching methods and share their experiences in online teaching with each other.

This year we were delighted to have Dr. Kevin Gannon, a professor of history and director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Education at Grand View University, present a keynote address on a very timely and relevant topic for all online educators – designing online classrooms where inclusive discussions can take place while effectively engaging students with challenging or controversial materials.  His presentation – Sea lions, trolls, and flames – oh my! Navigating the difficulty places in online learning – was a thought-provoking and inspiring call to action for online educators.

Mega phone & speech bubbleMay I have your attention please? This is what we are saying when we add an announcement to an online course. Typically, the announcement tool is used for reminders, deadlines, or other key pieces of information. Announcements are quick, efficient statements meant to get the point across in just a few words.

But have you considered using the announcement tool to promote instructor presence? As Arbaugh (2010) noted, “Instructor presence is a positive predictor of perceived learning and student satisfaction.” Students want instructors that are engaged or present in the course (Eom, Wen & Ashill, 2006). This is easy to achieve in a face-to-face classroom, where students can see the instructor, ask questions, and get immediate feedback. Achieving this can be difficult for online instructors, though. Given the 24/7 nature of the online classroom, engaging with students in a timely, effective, and efficient manner can seem time consuming and sometimes daunting to instructors. The announcement tool is an effective and efficient way for instructors to remind students they are on hand and involved.

Try using the announcement tool to summarize the week’s activities or discussions and provide insight into content. Or maybe use it to point out key topics and notable student discourse. These are just a couple of great strategies for maintaining presence in your course without feeling you have to participate in every discussion post.

-Cyndie M McCarley



Arbaugh, J. (2010). Sage, guide, both, or even more? An examination of instructor activity in online MBA courses. Computers & Education., 55(3), 1234–1244.

Eom, S. B., Wen, H. J., & Ashill, N. (2006). The Determinants of Students’ Perceived Learning Outcomes and Satisfaction in University Online Education: An Empirical Investigation*. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 4(2), 215–235.

Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, Assistant Director, Ecampus Research Unit

Online Learning Efficacy Research Database

Person looking at the research database on a computer screen

Despite the prevalence of online and hybrid or blended courses in higher education, there is still skepticism among faculty and administrators about the effectiveness of online learning compared to traditional classroom learning. While some individuals may have a basic awareness of the published research on online learning, some want to know about the research findings in their own home discipline. The Ecampus Research Unit has developed the Online Learning Efficacy Research Database, a tool to help address these needs and concerns. This searchable database contains research published in academic journals from the past 20 years that compare student outcomes in online, hybrid/blended, and face-to-face courses.

Using the Database

Screenshot of Research Database

The database currently includes 206 research citations across 73 discrete disciplines from 153 different journals. The database allows users to find discipline-specific research that compares two or more modalities (e.g. online versus hybrid). Users can search the database by keyword, discipline, modality, sample size, education level, date range, and journal name. The database also includes the ability to filter results by discipline, modality, sample size, and peer review status.

This new database improves upon other older searchable databases by adding the capability to search by specific disciplines. On a monthly basis, the database is updated with the latest published research. To learn more about scope of the database, sign up for monthly database updates, or to suggest a publication for inclusion in the database, see our FAQ page.

The database is also a valuable tool for those who are interested in or are currently engaging in research on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It will provide users with an efficient way to find gaps in discipline specific literature and pursue research to fill those gaps.

Term Paper

Those two words can be the cause of stress and anxiety for some but it doesn’t have to be that way. The creation of staged assignments can help!

For students, the looming deadline of a paper near the end of the term can be complicated by poor planning and/or leaving inadequate time to complete the assignment. This procrastination means an assignment gets done all at once and possibly poorly.

For faculty, papers done in a rush at the end not only require attention on a shorter time frame but the quality is often poor and grading can be arduous.

What is “staging”?

5 Steps of a staged Assignment as listed in the article text

Staging is the sequencing assignments and activities to allow ample time to develop ideas and make revisions.

To do this, look at the large assignment in your class. Think about how it could be divided up and assigned throughout the term to allow for greater success (and less procrastination).

You’ll likely find some breaking points that students could do in smaller assessments. This will build in structure that doesn’t allow them to procrastinate as much and give you more opportunities to provide feedback.

How do I stage an assignment?

Let’s take a research term paper and break it down.

The expectation is that the paper has a title, an abstract, the body of the paper with organized content, and references in order to have a complete paper and for it to be free of grammatical errors. How can we stage this assignment?

  • Week 2: Article Abstracts – Find articles that relate to what your project might be, cite, and provide a summary.
  • Week 4: Project Proposal – Based upon your articles and feedback from your instructor, create a proposal
  • Week 6: Outline of Paper including references
  • Week 8: Rough Draft of entire paper to be instructor and peer reviewed
  • End of term: Final paper with revisions based upon peer and instructor feedback.

With this staging, both you and the student will know the paper is on track and will have both have had the time to head off problems before the final submission. It’s a win-win!


Read more: Queen’s University: Formative Feedback & Multi-Stage Assignments

Icons made by three from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY
We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve. - Bill Gates
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

In online education courses, providing effective feedback is essential. It’s can be easy to provide students with a number or letter grade on their assignments, but it is the additional feedback where the opportunity for student growth occurs. While there are many forms of effective feedback, there are 5 elements that can help you provide more meaningful and effective feedback regardless of the method of delivery.

  1. Give Timely Feedback
    • Timely feedback to students sends the message that you are engaged in the course and the student’s work. Having just finished an assignment, the student is also going to be more open to the feedback you provide because their work is still fresh in their mind. They have the opportunity to immediately incorporate your feedback into the next assignment, improving their overall performance going forward. Students in a master’s degree program were more likely to ignore feedback comments on their written work that were not provided promptly. (Draft & Lengel, 1986) Including a statement in the syllabus about your expected time of feedback on assignments, and sticking to it, helps students understand your timeline and will reduce questions to you later on.
  2. Start with a positive message
    • Creating a feedback sandwich (compliment, suggestions for correction, compliment) for your student pairs together both specific positive feedback and any elements the students should work on. The positive feedback encourages the student and prepares them with a positive outlook when hearing about areas that need improvement. Finishing again with positive feedback such as “I look forward to seeing your next assignment” tells the student that even though they have corrections to make, their work is still valued and that they can improve on future assignments.
  3. Use Rubrics
    • One of the best tools that can be used are rubrics. A detailed rubric sets clear expectations of the student for that particular assignment. While completing their assignment they can constantly check their work against what you expect to see in their finished work. Another benefit to creating the rubric is that you can use it to analyze their papers with that same criteria. Some instructors have found that by using a rubric, it helps to be more consistent and fair with grading. No matter if it is the first paper, the last paper, or if you might be having a good or bad day, the rubric helps.
  4. Give personal feedback and help the students make the connection between the content and their lives
    • Connection is key. Providing personal feedback to your students while helping them see the connection between the content and their lives will show that you have taken time to personally respond to them instead of using “canned responses.” Students who don’t feel as if the content in the class will ever relate to their lives now, or in their careers later on, will often lose interest in  assignments in general as well as feedback because they don’t see the connection. Getting to know your students at the beginning of the term assists in giving good personal feedback while helping them see the connection between the content and their life.
  5. Consider using alternative formats of feedback
    • Students are used to getting feedback in written form and while that format can be very effective, using an alternative way to provide feedback can be equally or more effective. They enjoy the personal connections that can be created through audio and/or video feedback. Students appreciate receiving specific feedback relating to the grade, rubric, and overall assessment. In fact, some students say that: “..video encouraged more supportive and conversational communication.” (Borup, West, Thomas, 2015) Give it a try!

By employing these strategies, your students will be appreciative of the feedback you provide and you might just get some fantastic feedback yourself. In one case, an instructor shared a great comment from one of their students comparing past courses to the instructor’s:

…I never received personal feedback [in some other courses]. Your course however has been wonderful. Thank you for putting so much time into each of your comments on my writing. I can tell you really made personal feedback a priority. You don’t know how nice it was to really know that my professor is reading my work.” The student goes further to say; “Thank you for taking your teaching seriously and caring about your students. It shows.

Getting personal and effective feedback like this should inspire you to begin or continue that great feedback!



Borup, J., West, R.E., Thomas, R. (2015) The impact of text versus video communication on instructor feedback in blended courses Education Tech Research Dev 63:161-184 doi: 10.1004/s11426-015-9367-8

Draft, R.L. & Lengel, R.H. (1986. Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science, 32(5), 554-571

Getting to know your students

Each term brings upon us an entirely new group of students. Getting to know your students in an online class takes work. An introduction discussion board is used and students are asked to tell us who they are, where they came from, why they are taking this class, and to maybe upload a picture.

Why not take it further? You can bring in critical thinking skills and have the students learn about one another in a different fashion. A class here at Ecampus that has chosen to do just that. ANTH 332: Archeological Inference. came up with a creative way to not only introduce the students to one another but to bring in skills that will be used later in the class.

The exercise goes as follows:

  • Part 1 – gather at least 10 personal possessions that reflects activities, interests, or personal biography. Students are reminded that even the most mundane objects are perfect because it’s those everyday things that archeologists often find. Describe the items in detail and give a context as to where the items are kept. For example, a backpack or a purse with these items in it, and where in it, would work well.
  • Part 2 – students examine the descriptions that others have given and try to come to a reasonable conclusion about their activities and interests, where they might be from, what age they might be, etc. to post as a response.
  • Part 3 – the original poster then gets a chance to “correct” the record and provide additional details if they so desire.

This activity is well received by students, and with an average of 3 significant posts per student in this discussion activity and is deemed a success.

Many thanks to Jeremias Pink and Brenda Kellar for their inspiring discussion activity!

You send out announcements but do your students actually get them? You might wonder if you are doing something incorrectly or if they just aren’t reading them, but, you’ll be interested to know that Canvas allows notification preferences to be modified by the individual user.

Notification preferance list in Canvas
Click to enlarge

Each user has the ability to alter their notifications from Canvas and choose how, when, and with what frequency they want to be notified of several different activities. They even have the option to receive the notifications via text or a different email address that they might check more frequently! What these individual settings mean is that if they select that they don’t want any notifications at all, they aren’t getting news of announcement postings, posted grades, due date reminders, or discussion board posts.

In order to encourage your students to receive notifications, you might think about sending a start of term email with an example of the notification preferences you would suggest based upon your class and explain to them why these specific notifications will help them as the term goes on. In that same email, you can also direct them to the Canvas Guides with step-by-step instructions on how to set up notifications in Canvas You send out announcements but do your students actually get them? You might wonder if you are doing something incorrectly or if they just aren’t reading them, but, you’ll be interested to know that Canvas allows notification preferences to be modified by the individual user.

Each user has the ability to alter their notifications from Canvas and choose how, when, and with what frequency they want to be notified of several different activities. They even have the option to receive the notifications via text or a different email address that they might check more frequently! What these individual settings mean is that if they select that they don’t want any notifications at all, they aren’t getting news of announcement postings, posted grades, due date reminders, or discussion board posts.

In order to encourage your students to receive notifications, you might think about sending a start of term email with an example of the notification preferences you would suggest based upon your class and explain to them why these specific notifications will help them as the term goes on. In that same email, you can also direct them to the Canvas Guides with step-by-step instructions on how to set up notifications in Canvas