Lately I’ve heard from a number of faculty whose students have expressed stress or overwhelm at the workload in a course. Further, students as well as faculty have had to adjust to a new routine or pace in their lives in recent months. All of this change gives us a chance to examine the workload and pace of a course so that it is manageable for both students and instructors. To that end, I offer three simple things that faculty can do to make their workload more manageable:

  • Manage expectations
  • Post time estimates for each activity
  • Consider your own availability

Manage expectations

One of the most effective ways to help students understand how much they should plan to do each week in the course is to be explicit and specific about the workload, early in the course. Refer to the credit hour policy to help students understand expectations. At OSU, it is expected that students engage with course materials and activities for 3 hours per week for every credit hour. So for a 3-credit course, students should expect to work about 9 hours each week on reading, studying, assignments, discussion boards, and other activities. This information is generally listed in the syllabus, but it’s nice to highlight this in an announcement early in the course, or perhaps even in an intro video or weekly overview video. Being explicit early in the course sets expectations for everyone, builds trust, and cuts down on negative emotions from students who feel there is too much (or not enough) in a course.

Post time estimates for each activity

One complaint that students occasionally have is that there is an uneven workload from week to week. One way to address this is to post estimated times for each activity for the week. This could appear in a task list on a weekly overview page, for example. This helps in several ways. First, it helps students who struggle to manage their time effectively. If they know that the assignment takes about 2 hours to complete, they can plan for that chunk of time in their week. Moreover, perhaps there are six readings posted in one week, but each reading is only about 5-10 minutes long. Posting this helps students understand that there are a number of short readings this week. That way students don’t assume each reading takes too long and decide to skip some of them. Moreover, being explicit about time estimates helps students know that you are sticking with the credit hour policy as well, which is another way to build trust.
If you find that the tasks you’ve outlined exceed the credit hour policy, let your learning objectives for the course guide your decisions for what to keep and what to cut.

Consider your own availability

Lastly, consider your own availability. Be explicit with students about when you are available so that you can be sure to carve out time to recharge your batteries. For example, if you like to have a bit of time to relax on the weekends, you might have your weekly assignments due on Monday of the following week for each module, rather than Sunday. That way, if students have questions about an assignment that they are wrapping up over the weekend, you still have Monday morning to get back to them instead of scrambling to answer multiple emails on Sunday evening.

Do you ever get the sense that students posting in their online discussions haven’t really engaged with the reading materials for that week? One way to encourage active engagement with course readings is to have students annotate directly in the article or textbook chapter that they are assigned. While it is common to see students annotating in their paper copies of their textbooks or readings, these aren’t easily shared with their peers or instructor. Of course, students could snap a photo of their handwritten annotations and upload that as a reading assignment task, though that does require additional steps on the part of both the student and instructor, and there is no interaction with others in the course during that process. However, it is possible to have students annotate their readings completely online, directly in any article on the web or in their ebook textbook. With this process, the annotations can also be seen by others in the course, if desired, so that students can discuss the reading all together or in small groups as they are reading an article or book chapter online. The benefit to this type of annotation online includes components of active learning, increased student interaction, and accountability for students in engaging with the course materials.

Active Learning

The shift to active learning is a bit like going from watching a soccer game on TV to playing a soccer game. Likewise, reading passively and reading to learn are two different activities. One way to get students actively reading to learn is to ask them to make connections from the course materials to their own lives or society, for example, which they then make into annotations in their readings. Annotation tasks require students to take actions and articulate these connections, all without the pressure of a formal assessment. Furthermore, many students arrive at college not knowing how to annotate, so teaching basic annotation practices helps students become more active and effective learners (Wesley, 2012). 

Interaction

“Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone” (Weimer, 2012). Discussion board activities are often where interaction with others in an online course takes place. However, rather than having students refer to a particular reading passage in their discussion board activity, they can simply highlight a passage and type their comments about it right there in the article, no discussion board assignment needed. Others in the course can also read participants’ annotations and reply. With some creative assignment design in Canvas, this can also be set up for small groups. Students may find this type of annotation discussion more authentic and efficient than using a discussion board tool to discuss a reading.

News article embedded in the assignment shows annotations made by specific students with a box to reply
Above, the online news article is embedded in the Canvas assignment. Students simply go to the assignment and can begin annotating. In the image above, a student highlights a passage to show what the annotation refers to. For a collaborative activity, students can reply to any peer’s comment. Alternatively, the instructor can set the annotations to be private, for more independent tasks.

Accountability

A popular way to ensure that students have done the reading is to give them a quiz. However, this is a solitary activity and is higher-stakes than asking students to make targeted annotations throughout a reading. It may make more sense to guide them through a reading with specific annotation tasks. Being explicit about what pieces of the reading students should focus on can help them understand what they need to retain from the reading assignment.

Possible Activities

  • Student-student interaction: Replace a discussion board activity with a collaborative annotation activity where students can annotate the article as they read. Then they can go back later in the week and reply to each other. 
  • Activate prior knowledge: Ask students to include one annotation related to what they already know about this topic.
  • Evaluate sources: Find a pop-science article in your discipline that includes weak support for arguments or claims, for example. Ask students to identify the sources of support in the arguments and challenge the validity of the support. Perhaps they could even be tasked with adding links to reliable sources of support for your discipline in their annotation comments. 

Nuts and Bolts

Two popular annotation tools are Hypothesis and Perusall. I would encourage you to test these out or ask your instructional designer about your needs and whether an annotation tool would be a good fit for your course learning outcomes. 

Resources:

Hypothesis

Perusall

Wesley, C. (2012). Mark It Up. Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Mark-It-Up/135166

Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

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:

“Diversity is our world’s greatest asset, and inclusion is our biggest challenge. And the way that we are going to address that challenge is by extending our empathy.” -Jutta Treviranus, Founder of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University

Decorative image

Sure, you’ve been teaching online courses for a few terms or years now, but have you ever been an online student? Many current faculty members earned their degrees in traditional face-to-face settings and have learned how to migrate their courses to the online environment by using research-based best practices and support from instructional designers and media experts. However, are there benefits to experiencing this fledgling educational modality from the perspective of the online student? I argue that faculty who challenge themselves to take an online course experience both personal and professional benefits and become more empathic, inclusive, creative, and reflective.

Benefits for Faculty Members

Challenge yourself to try out something completely different than your specialization or discipline: Are you a STEM professor who has a screenplay idea? Perhaps you have a trip to the French Riviera on your bucket list, or your college Spanish is rusty. Try a foreign language course this summer. Are you a humanities professor who is curious about the composition of the soil in your garden? Find out about the dirt in your yard as a soil science student.

Here are some benefits to consider:

  • Taking an online course may give you ideas or inspiration for something that you want to try in your own course.
  • Continuing education may benefit brain health.
  • Stretching yourself may spur creativity and innovation.
  • You are modeling lifelong learning for your students and family.
  • Most importantly, it just might be fun!

Building Empathy

I’m consistently impressed with the care and concern OSU faculty have for their students, and taking an online course is one way to demonstrate that concern. By changing roles, such as by becoming an online student, faculty expand their perspectives, which results in the potential for even greater student support and understanding.

Yes, faculty members contend with heavy workloads and may feel that taking an online course on top of everything else would be overwhelming. However, your Ecampus students may also struggle with feeling maxed out.

Did you know that the average age of a student taking an Ecampus course is 31 years old? This means that it is likely your online students are responsible for full-time work as well as family obligations. Taking online courses helps faculty members build empathy for their students by giving themselves opportunities to experience the excitement, anxiety, and pride of successfully completing an online course.

Furthermore, by increasing empathy, faculty members may become more inclusive and reflective practitioners. For example, as an online student, you know how it feels to be welcomed (or not) by your instructor, or to receive feedback within a few days as opposed to a few weeks. As an adult learner, you also may desire to share your prior experience or professional background with the instructor or students. Does your course give you the opportunity to introduce yourself to the instructor and other students, to describe your background and some strengths that you bring to the course community, or are you left feeling invisible in the course, with your expertise unacknowledged?

Tuition Reduction for OSU Employees

As OSU employees, faculty and staff are now eligible to take Ecampus courses at the reduced tuition rate, according to the staff fee privileges.

  • Summer courses begin on June 24th, and fall courses begin on September 25th.

Share Your Experience!

Have you been an online student as well as an online instructor? How did being on online student inform your teaching practices? Reply in the comments section, below.

Resources:

Decorative image: laptop with a screen that shows a portfolio layout

“A well-executed e-portfolio program is an incredible tool for higher education. They provide institutions with authentic assessments of student learning and promote the deeper learning that we want for our students…” -Candyce Reynolds, associate professor, Post-Secondary, Adult, and Continuing Education, School of Education, Portland State University, from PeerReview: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education

What Is an E-portfolio?

There are now more ways than ever to showcase one’s work as a student or professional. Long gone are the days of lugging around an actual folder full of plastic sleeves containing paper prints. Today, students and professionals routinely choose electronic contexts to house their best works. This digital context for storing selected pieces is referred to as an electronic portfolio or e-portfolio, and the items in the portfolio are referred to as artifacts.

To best understand what we are talking about when we speak of e-portfolios, let’s start with a definition. As a former instructor of English to speakers of other languages, I find that word etymology opens my eyes to rich context. For example, in this case, “port” is Latin for haven or harbor. And the “folio” part of the word comes from the Latin word “folium,” which means leaf (foliage) or sheet. From these etymological roots, we can think of the word portfolio as translating to a harbor or haven for your sheets of paper, in a sense.

In order to contextualize this definition within a contemporary academic setting, I turn to a working definition of e-portfolios, such as this one from Lorenzo and Ittleson: “An e-portfolio is a digitized collection of artifacts, including demonstrations, resources, and accomplishments that represent an individual, group, community, organization, or institution.” In other words, for our purposes, an e-portfolio is a selection of a student’s best works, displayed in an electronic format.

The electronic portfolio may be used for assessment or to track progress in a course, for example. An e-portfolio may take the form of a number of electronic contexts, including a user-friendly web-based website design (such as Wix), within the modules of a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas, in video, as docs within a Google Drive folder, or even within a simple pdf document (Lorenzo and Ittleson). In any case, there are two main elements in an e-portfolio: a digital context and a selection of works.

The Benefits: Here Are a Few Things That E-portfolios Can Do:

  • foster learning communities in online graduate programs. – Bolliger, D.U. (2010) Journal of Distance Education
  • encourage independence and self-directed learning (which is an element of Heutagogy, or taking responsibility for one’s own learning as an autonomous, lifelong learner)
  • prompt students (and faculty) to articulate connections among the products of their courses, the overall program or course curriculum, and larger life goals
  • prepare students for applying to graduate programs or employment, which can be highly motivating and engaging for students
  • give students the opportunity to use higher order thinking skills and metacognition when evaluating their own work (or the work of others, as with e-portfolio peer reviews)
  • provide faculty with a rich source of data, which they can use to evaluate the effectiveness of courses or programs

What Students Are Saying

Student voices from The Benefits of E-portfolios for Students and Faculty in Their Own Words:

“I didn’t realize the importance of the work I was doing… all the communication skills I was learning while doing research… When I had a chance to reflect on it and was asked to describe the experience to others in my e-portfolio, I realized that I had learned a lot more than I thought. I was so focused on getting into business school, that if I had not had the space to stop and reflect on my experiences, I would have never known how much I actually gained from everything I did my first year.” Second-year student, University of Michigan

“I feel that the process has enhanced my understanding of the overall higher education experience… I have always felt confused and irritated by the lack of connection between my general education requirements and my core department requirements. I think that the e-portfolio is a great way to link the two… It was encouraging to see that I was attending college for my own personal and professional growth.” Student, Portland State University

Examples of Student E-portfolios & Platforms

  • LaGuardia Community College: Student E-portfolios
  • Pathbrite: An e-portfolio platform
  • Digication: Explore e-portfolios
  • E-portfolios can be as complex as building a website, as in the above examples, or as simple as a group of final essays (or lab reports or other documents) in a digital file folder.

E-portfolios in Your Course

Would you like to include an e-portfolio element in your course but not sure where to start or what tools to use? Talk to your instructional designer to get some ideas about various kinds of e-portfolios and whether an e-portfolio would be a good fit for your course.

Have you used e-portfolios in a course before? How did it go? What tools did you use?

Resources & References

IJeP: International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/index.html

Barrett, H. [TEDxTalks]. (2010, March 10). TEDxASB – Helen Barrett – 2/25/10 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ckcSegrwjkA

Bolliger, D.U. (2010). Student perceptions of eportfolio integration in online courses. Retrieved from the Journal of Distance Education: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01587919.2010.513955

Bowman, J., Lowe, B., Sabourin, K. & Sweet, K. (2016). The use of eportfolios to support metacognitive practice in a first-year writing program. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP221.pdf

Getman-Eraso, J. & Culkin, K. (2017). Close reading: engaging and empowering history students through document analysis on eportfolio. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP242.pdf

Kelly-Riley, D., Elliot, N, & Rudniy, A. (2016). An empirical framework for eportfolio assessment. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP224.pdf

Lorenzo, G. & Ittelson, J. (2005). An overview of e-portfolios [Report]. Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) website: https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2005/1/eli3001-pdf.pdf

Lorenzo, G. & Ittelson, J. (2005). Demonstrating and assessing student learning with e-portfolios [Report]. Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) website: https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2005/1/eli3003-pdf.pdf

Miller, R. & Morgaine, W. (2009). The Benefits of E-portfolios for Students and Faculty in Their Own Words. Retrieved from PeerReview: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/peerreview/Peer_Review_Winter_2009.pdf

Song, B. & August, B. (2002). Using portfolios to assess the writing of ESL students: a powerful alternative? Retrieved from Journal of Second Language Writing: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S106037430200053X

Image Source: Pixabay (Creative Commons License)

Fall term is in full swing, and right now students are at their best in terms of motivation and anticipation of a good term and academic year ahead. In a few weeks, however, the motivation that students started out with in September may change to disengagement as the term progresses. Some students, for example, have the misconception that online courses are easier than face-to-face courses. This misunderstanding can cause them to feel overwhelmed and disengaged when they realize that their online courses are just as rigorous as their face-to-face courses. Now is the time to get a jump on ways to spot disengaged students — and what to do about it — before they give up and drop that fabulous online course that you are working so hard on. Here are some key takeaways from a recent workshop on this topic that I attended through the Online Learning Consortium: Strategies for Increasing Interaction & Engagement Self-Paced Workshop

Signs that a student is disengaged:

  • Discussion posts are too short
  • The student rarely logs into the course
  • Little or no time spent participating in activities or interacting with other students
  • Missing or late assignments

Disengaged students may feel isolated and reluctant to reach out for help. Here’s what you can do:

  • Connect with students early and often at the beginning of the course.
  • In your communications with students or in your welcome video, convey to students a sense of community and that the course is a safe space for learning.
  • Encourage students to post their own introductory videos to help everyone get to know each other better.
  • Assign tasks that involve teamwork, which can encourage the development of student relationships that keep students engaged and are essential for learning.
  • Remind students of the many resources that they have through Ecampus, such as the Student Success Team, which include student services, exam proctoring, and success counseling.

What have you experienced in your own courses? What has helped keep students engaged, and what have you done when you have noticed disengagement?

 

Resources on this topic: 

Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment (Martin & Bollinger, 2018)

Online Learning Consortium, Workshops

OSU Ecampus Student Success Team

The eLearning Dilemma: Engaged vs Unengaged Learners by Karla Guitierrez