Canvas Survey with Mud Card Questions

New online instructors often express concern about the loss of immediate student feedback they get by teaching in person. These educators count on in-class interaction to help shape their lesson plans in real-time. Student questions, lack of interaction, or even blank looks, help them understand what concepts are difficult for their learners. Others just feel more comfortable with the two-way nature of in-classroom communication.

But teaching in an online environment doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from gauging student interest and comprehension.

Mud Cards

child in mud puddle in rain boots

I was first introduced to the concept of “Mud Cards” or “Muddiest Points” through an open course MIT offered in Active Learning in College-Level Science and Engineering Courses. The instructor described handing out index cards to each student at the end of class asking students to write down an answer to one or more of a few prompts (MIT OpenCourseWare, 2015).

In an online course, this could easily take the form of a weekly survey that looked something like this:

  • What concept from this week did you find confusing?
  • Is there anything you found particularly compelling?
  • What would you like to know more about?

Potential Benefits

The answers received have multiple potential benefits. First of all, instructors will get to look for trends in a particular class.

  • Are learners missing something central to a course learning outcome?
  • Is there a concept they need additional resources to master prior to an upcoming exam?
  • What excites them the most?

Getting this information weekly can provide information that is normally gathered during in-class interactions. It may even be more informative, as participation is likely to be higher (or can be incentivized through participation points). This feedback can be used to add content, perhaps through an announcement at the beginning of the next unit, addressing any common problems students reported. It can also help improve the content or activities for the next iteration of the online course.

The second benefit of an activity like this one is that it is an easy way to introduce active learning to your online course. Active learning, with origins in Constructivism, includes the idea that students build knowledge through “doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”

Rather than passively watching narrated slide-based lectures or videos, or completing assigned readings, they are asked to think about what is being taught to them. Each student, by reflecting on questions like the examples above, takes some responsibility for their own mastery of the content.

3-2-1 (a similar tool)

I recently attended the keynote at the Oregon state Ecampus Virtual Faculty Forum by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2020). At the beginning of her presentation, she told all of us we were going to be asked to email her our “3-2-1.” A 3-2-1, she defined as:

  • Three things that are new to me
  • Two things so interesting I will continue to research or share with someone else
  • One thing I will change about my practices based on the information shared today

Even though I was very familiar with the underlying pedagogical practice she was leveraging, I paid significantly more attention than I would have otherwise to an online presentation. I wanted to come up with something helpful to say. To be honest, suffering from COVID related ZOOM fatigue, it also made sense to ensure the hour of my time resulted in something actionable.

A Word of Caution

The use of a tool like the Mud Cards or 3-2-1 will be successful only if used consistently and students see the results of their efforts. If not introduced early and repeated regularly, students won’t develop the habit of consuming content through the lens of reflecting on their own learning. Similarly, students who never see a response to their input, through a summary or additional explanations, will get the message that their feedback is not important and lose the incentive to continue to provide it.

Conclusion

Introducing a reflection activity like those suggested is a simple, quick way to incorporate active learning into a course while simultaneously filling a void instructors sometimes miss through being able to ask questions of their students in a classroom.

Canvas allows for building anonymous graded or ungraded surveys in which a weekly activity like this would be easy to link to in a list of tasks for a unit of study. It is a low development effort on the part of the instructor, and participation from students shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.

I will link below to some of the resources mentioned that discuss the use and benefits of Mud Cards and active learning in instruction. If you try it out in an online course, I would love to hear how it works for you.

Resources


Rainboots photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

I am writing this blog post on Monday morning, June 1st, 2020. Throughout this past weekend across the country, protests erupted following the death of George Floyd who died while pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer. Social media platforms and news outlets are flooded with tweets, videos, blog posts, hashtags, and images describing the chaos, anger, and destruction. (All of this has happened while the country is still reacting to and absorbing the economic, emotional, and physical health impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak).

What I most want this morning is the ability to turn to someone I trust with the education, perspective, and insight to help me think about the incredibly complex issues that erupted over the weekend:

  • While I’m troubled by the looting, vandalism, and destruction of property I have been watching on the news, I am more troubled by the fact that minorities fear their lives when interacting with law enforcement. Where can I read different perspectives on this issue?
  • What lessons can I teach my children about this moment and how to combat systemic racism?
  • What authors might I read to understand the experience of being black in America right now? How about the history in our country that led to this moment?
  • What needs to be done to make this a turning point for our country?

Fostering Information Literacy through Content Curation

The ability to research complex problems from multiple perspectives should be a fundamental goal of education. By guiding students through this process, we can help them become well-informed citizens, better parents, and more empathetic human beings. Developing these skills, however, depends on having access to the most relevant and informative resources.

College instructors, as experts in their fields, are in a unique position to provide learners with vetted collections of content. They can not only point students to resources they might not have discovered on their own, but can also provide context, share their point of view, and point out relationships between found materials. All of this will help make the content more meaningful for learners.

For the past several years, educators have started to recognize the value that they can provide to their students by sharing collections of reliably sourced content around a learning topic.

The keynote speaker at the Oregon State Ecampus Virtual Faculty Forum this year, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, spoke about the use of mini-libraries (which she calls “Bundles”) in her courses. Tracey is a neuroscientist and professor with Harvard University Extension School. The Bundles she uses are curated lists of hyperlinked articles, videos, podcasts for each topic that help ensure students are allowed entry points to the same subject from their individual starting point. Tracey uses analytics to see how much time students are spending on the bundles which informs the course and bundle design for future iterations. She also uses them to differentiate homework for cross-listed courses with both graduate and undergraduate students (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2020).

Online students, like most of us, are continuously dealing with information overload. My Google search for “systematic racism” returned 16,800,000 results in 0.34 seconds.  How am I supposed to process close to 17 million results, particularly without prior knowledge of thought leaders and reliable sources in this field? 

Students face these same research challenges. The time it takes to go through millions of returned search results looking for something useful and relevant. Time that could be better spent on an in-depth review and analysis of instructor vetted materials. 

By providing a narrowed list of references instructors are also helping contribute to students’ information literacy. It is possible to model, through the selection and provided context, what makes a particular source credible. Is it the author? The fact that it comes from a peer-reviewed publication? The way an author sites their sources or the citations this particular content has received? Use this opportunity to support student’s development of their own “crap detector.” (Rheingold, 2009)

What is the Process?

There is more to curation than sharing lists of articles and videos. As the curator, an instructor is adding value through the organization and maintenance of the collection along with the context provided to the collected materials. Here’s a suggested process for instructors gathering curated collections of content for learners:

  1. Identify Themes – Find a topic for which you wish to create a collection of materials. Name this collection and add it to your course in a way that is easy to modify.
  2. Select Sources – Consider where you are going to search for content. You may already have several saved resources around the topics you teach. Can you supplement with scholarly journals you read regularly or blogs you follow? Who are the thought leaders in your field? Who do they follow?
  3. Establish Filtering Criteria – What types of materials won’t you include? What is the learning objective that aligns with this particular collection and how should that inform what material you include?
  4. Organize the Content You Have Selected – Should material be accessed in a particular order? Is there guidance you can provide based on the starting point of your learners? Are there natural sub-topics or patterns?
  5. Provide Context – Why did you select a particular piece? Does it contradict the information in other sources? What key questions should learners be able to answer after consuming the content? How does this piece fit into this collection’s larger theme? Are there emerging patterns? How does it fit in a historical context?
  6. Build a Linked List to the Selected Materials and Provide Attribution – Curation, while benefiting from the organization, context, and insight of the curator is only achieved through the sharing of work from others whose efforts should be recognized.
  7. Create Learning Activities Around the Collected Content – Given the learning outcomes associated with this particular topic or theme, what do you want students to do with the information they acquire going through the content? Are they going to discuss it with their peers? Use it as a basis for a position paper or as research for a project? Maybe you want them to create their own curated collections based on this example, or contribute to yours.
  8. Regularly Update Your List – Review your collections for broken links, outdated content, and supplement with new content. Look for other ways to refine your collection around current news events or new research.

Through effective content curation and inclusion of topic-based “mini-libraries” within their courses, instructors can become a guide for their learners. Instructors will expose students to new ideas and help them quickly access information that has already been reviewed for credibility. By doing so, instructors have the opportunity to model – in an academic setting – what we so desperately need in our personal lives as well: how to grapple with difficult issues from multiple perspectives while sharpening our information literacy skills.

For further reading, you may wish to review the curated Anti-Racist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi published by the Chicago Public Library (Kendi, 2019)

Postscript: After writing the first draft of this blog post, I found a credible source on Twitter addressing the question, How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change (Obama, 2020).

References

Kendi, I. X. (2019, February 12). Anti-Racist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi—Chicago Public Library. BiblioCommons. https://chipublib.bibliocommons.com/list/share/204842963/1357692923

Obama, B. (2020, June 1). How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change. Medium. https://medium.com/@BarackObama/how-to-make-this-moment-the-turning-point-for-real-change-9fa209806067

Rheingold, H. (2009, June 30). Crap Detection 101. City Brights: Howard Rheingold. https://blog.sfgate.com/rheingold/2009/06/30/crap-detection-101/

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2020, May 5). Faculty Forum 2020—Keynote—Never a Better Time to Be an Educator! Ecampus Faculty Forum Special Virtual Event, Oregon State University Ecampus. https://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/faculty/forum/

Special thanks to OSU Ecampus Assistant Director of Instructional Design Laurie Kirkner for her insightful peer review comments and wording suggestions on this blog post.

 

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.

One of the most common questions I get as an Instructional Designer is, “How do I prevent cheating in my online course?” Instructors are looking for detection strategies and often punitive measures to catch, report, and punish academic cheaters. Their concerns are understandable—searching Google for the phrase “take my test for me,” returns pages and pages of results from services with names like “Online Class Hero” and “Noneedtostudy.com” that promise to use “American Experts” to help pass your course with “flying grades.” 1 But by focusing only on what detection measures we can implement and the means and methods by which students are cheating, we are asking the wrong questions. Instead let’s consider what we can do to understand why students cheat, and how careful course and assessment design might reduce their motivation to do so.

A new study published in Computers & Education identified five specified themes in analyzing the reasons students provided when seeking help from contract cheating services (Amigud & Lancaster, 2019):

  • Academic Aptitude – “Please teach me how to write an essay.”
  • Perseverance – “I can’t look at it anymore.”
  • Personal Issues – “I have such a bad migraine.”
  • Competing Objectives – “I work so I don’t have time.”
  • Self-Discipline – “I procrastinated until today.”

Their results showed that students don’t begin a course with the intention of academic misconduct. Rather, they reach a point, often after initially attempting the work, when the perception of pressures, lack of skills, or lack of resources removes their will to complete the course themselves. Online students may be more likely to have external obligations and involvement in non-academic activities. According to a 2016 study, a significant majority of online students are often juggling other obligations, including raising children and working while earning their degrees (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2016).

While issues with cheating are never going to be completely eliminated, several strategies have emerged in recent research that focuses on reducing cheating from a lens of design rather than one of punishment. Here are ten of my favorite approaches that speak to the justifications identified by students that led to cheating:

  1. Make sure that students are aware of academic support services (Yu, Glanzer, Johnson, Sriram, & Moore, 2018). Oregon State, like many universities, offers writing help, subject-area tutors and for Ecampus students, a Student Success team that can help identify resources and provide coaching on academic skills. Encourage students, leading up to exams or big assessment projects, to reach out during online office hours or via email if they feel they need assistance.
  2. Have students create study guides as a precursor assignment to an exam—perhaps using online tools to create mindmaps or flashcards. Students who are better prepared for assessments have a reduced incentive to cheat. Study guides can be a nongraded activity, like a game or practice quiz, or provided as a learning resource.
  3. Ensure that students understand the benefits of producing their own work and that the assessment is designed to help them develop and demonstrate subject knowledge (Lancaster & Clarke, 2015). Clarify for students the relevance of a particular assessment and how it relates to the weekly and larger course learning outcomes.
  4. Provide examples of work that meets your expectations along with specific evaluation criteria. Students need to understand how they are being graded and be able to judge the quality of their own work. A student feeling in the dark about what is expected from them may be more likely to turn to outside help.
  5. Provide students with opportunities throughout the course to participate in activities, such as discussions and assignments, that will prepare them for summative assessments (Morris, 2018).
  6. Allow students to use external sources of information while taking tests. Assessments in which students are allowed to leverage the materials they have learned to construct a response do a better job of assessing higher order learning. Memorizing and repeating information is rarely what we hope students to achieve at the end of instruction.
  7. Introduce alternative forms of assessment. Creative instructors can design learning activities that require students to develop a deeper understanding and take on more challenging assignments. Examples of these include recorded presentations, debates, case studies, portfolios, and research projects.
  8. Rather than a large summative exam at the end of a course, focus on more frequent smaller, formative assessments (Lancaster & Clarke, 2015). Provide students with an ongoing opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge without the pressure introduced by a final exam that accounts for a substantial portion of their grade.
  9. Create a course environment that is safe to make and learn from mistakes. Build into a course non-graded activities in which students can practice the skills they will need to demonstrate during an exam.
  10. Build a relationship with students. When instructors are responsive to student questions, provide substantive feedback throughout a course and find other ways to interact with students — they are less likely to cheat. It matters if students believe an instructor cares about them (Bluestein, 2015).

No single strategy is guaranteed to immunize your course against the possibility that a student will use some form of cheating. Almost any type of assignment can be purchased quickly online. The goal of any assessment should be to ensure that students have met the learning outcomes—not to see if we can catch them cheating. Instead, focus on understanding pressures a student might face to succeed in a course, and the obstacles they could encounter in doing so. Work hard to connect with your students during course delivery and humanize the experience of learning online. Thoughtful design strategies, those that prioritize supporting student academic progress, can alleviate the conditions that lead to academic integrity issues.


1 This search was suggested by an article published in the New England Board of Higher Education on cheating in online programs. (Berkey & Halfond, 2015)

References

Amigud, A., & Lancaster, T. (2019). 246 reasons to cheat: An analysis of students’ reasons for seeking to outsource academic work. Computers & Education, 134, 98–107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.01.017

Berkey, D., & Halfond, J. (2015). Cheating, student authentication and proctoring in online programs.

Bluestein, S. A. (2015). Connecting Student-Faculty Interaction to Academic Dishonesty. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(2), 179–191. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668926.2013.848176

Clinefelter, D. D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2016). Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. 60.

Lancaster, T., & Clarke, R. (2015). Contract Cheating: The Outsourcing of Assessed Student Work. In T. A. Bretag (Ed.), Handbook of Academic Integrity (pp. 1–14). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-079-7_17-1

Morris, E. J. (2018). Academic integrity matters: five considerations for addressing contract cheating. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 14(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-018-0038-5

Yu, H., Glanzer, P. L., Johnson, B. R., Sriram, R., & Moore, B. (2018). Why College Students Cheat: A Conceptual Model of Five Factors. The Review of Higher Education, 41(4), 549–576. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2018.0025

For Ecampus students, online education offers accessibility, flexibility and asynchronous learning opportunities when attending courses on campus may not be possible. University-based distance education has experienced steady growth over the past 20 years. A 2018 study found that 31.6% of all students are taking at least one online course (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). But, although the growth of online courses has improved access to education, it hasn’t necessarily coincided with a growth of relevant, engaging, and innovative learning experiences. While many educators and online course designers recognize the value of project-based learning, concerns over the skills and the time required to develop authentic projects limits their use in online classes. This blog post will look at ways Constructionism, the theory that learning is most effective when students make authentic artifacts to build knowledge, can be applied to online higher education.

Seymour Papert working with a children's turtle robot.
Seymour Papert” by Matematicamente.it, Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Constructionism is a term first defined by Seymour Papert, an MIT scholar, educational theorist, and an early champion of using computers in education (MIT Media Lab, 2016). Papert built on the earlier work of philosopher Jean Piaget. Piaget’s similarly named Constructivist theory proposed that children learn not as information is transmitted to them or in response to stimulation, but through experiences in which they are given the opportunity to “construct meaning.” While Papert agreed, he expanded on these ideas and slightly modified the name. He believed that constructing knowledge was more effective when it was done “in the world.”

Papert’s Constructionism theory held that students learned best when given an opportunity to construct their own meaning by creating meaningful artifacts for an authentic audience. He felt that by creating something to share, something that “can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired” student motivation to learn was increased (Papert, 1993, p. 143).

Lego Mindstorms Robot
Lego Mindstorms” by Bernard Goldbach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Papert illustrated this theory working with elementary school aged children to program Legos. His work in education inspired the development of the Lego Mindstorms line, that now has widespread use in K-12 STEM educational programs and robotic competitions. Papert developed a curriculum based on his Constructionism theory for elementary school children in classrooms. But how can these same principles, those of learning by doing, be applied to adults earning college degrees online?

Creating effective online learning requires new practices. Earning an undergraduate degree in Oregon represents roughly 5400 hours of schoolwork.1 But what does that look like? For an online student, this time is spent going through the learning materials online and completing the related activities and assessments. The majority of online instructional materials are designed for passive consumption. Slide-based presentations and PDF articles are being embedded into Learning Management Systems (LMS’s), and whiteboards and lectures are being videotaped and exported to YouTube. To demonstrate their understanding of the material, students are asked to post in discussion forums and to write papers. Imagine completing 5400 hours of these types of activities to earn a degree.

two glasses of lemonade
Tray of Lemonade by Charity Beth Long on Unsplash

Face-to-face interaction with an instructor and classmates can inspire effort that is more difficult to motivate in virtual instruction. Research findings by Constructivist thinkers have found that in order to facilitate an active learning experience for students, they must be doing something besides passively reading or listening to lecture content. “Teachers can’t “pour” knowledge into the heads of students as they might pour lemonade into a glass; rather, students make their own lemonade” (Ormrod, 2016, pp. 158–159). Students are more engaged when they are presented with the challenge of analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and presenting information. They retain more when they participate in their own learning.

There is now widespread availability of multimedia tools that can enable students to create content that reflects on what they are learning. These include podcasts, skits, videos, and narrated presentations. They can create timelines, online portfolios, or interactive maps. Assignments like these usually require higher order thinking skills – asking students to analyze or synthesize what they have learned and share it with an audience.

I had the opportunity to create multimodal projects several times while earning my master’s degree at Western Oregon. I created numerous digital stories. I used them to introduce myself to my online classmates, to create tutorials, and to share experiences raising my children after my husband passed away (see my first digital story, Suck it up Buttercup). In doing these projects, I realized that I had a story to tell – and one to which I needed to add my voice. They were powerful and engaging learning experiences for me. I became comfortable with the technology required to create the projects, I practiced writing, editing, speaking and presentation skills. In the process of sharing a bit of myself with my classmates and instructors I felt connected to them in a way that I had not before as a distance learner. I was proud of the projects I created. I put long hours into them and continued to edit them after they had been submitted and graded because I wanted to improve them and share them with a broader audience. I have never done this with a discussion forum post or research paper. One of my course presentations, in conjunction with an online portfolio I created for a different class, was used to interview for the job I now hold as an Instructional Designer at Oregon State University.

Technology-based assessment projects should only be introduced to curriculum intentionally. Assignments should be selected carefully to align with the learning outcomes of the course and should be appropriate for the level of the course. Projects should be challenging, but doable and relevant to the learner’s goals and outcomes developed at the beginning of course design.

While introducing Constructionism into online courses using technology-based tools may move away from traditional teaching methods, it does not mean students will not develop the same types of core skills expected from an undergraduate education. Judith V. Boettcher holds a Ph.D. in education and cognitive psychology and owns the website “Designing for Learning.” In a 2011 article on assessment alternatives to writing papers, Boettcher asserted that the skills required for written assignments: critical thinking, analysis, knowledge of the subject, assembly of ideas, and information processing were still exercised and developed when the output was a different type of product (Judith V. Boettcher, 2011). Her point is well taken.

Consider what it takes for a student to create a video documentary, script a podcast, or even develop a narrated presentation. Many of the skills required to write a research paper, essay or thoughtful discussion post are also present in assignments that leverage technology for creation. The student still has to enter the conversation about their subject area with thoughtful and well-developed contributions. But with the wealth of tools now available, there are many ways for them to share their work. Boettcher also noted that looking for ways to leverage technology in assessment strategies has the additional benefit of reducing the burden of reading “endless numbers of papers.”

Many instructors worry that learning curves associated with new tools will interfere with the ability to absorb the course content. However, when probing faculty, often it is their own unfamiliarity with technology that is at the root of this fear. It is worth experimenting before presupposing that learning how to build a website or create an animated presentation or video will be too hard.

Student portfolio on the new google sitesRecent advances in technology have produced endless collections of websites and apps that have a very low barrier to creating visually stunning multimedia content. Many of them are free or low cost, particularly to educators. As an example, the new Google Sites released in 2018 makes it easy for those with no web development experience to create and publish a website including videos, pictures, documents and audio files. Users can apply themes, chose colors and change font styles to personalize the site. As users add content to templated page layouts, they are automatically aligned and sized based on best design practices. Google Sites has the added advantage for those concerned about privacy of allowing content to be restricted to users on a school’s domain or to invited individuals.

In contrast to many university faculty instructors who are new to multimedia content creation tools, this generation of students has grown up online. They use online tools for social interactions, at work, for school, and to pursue their personal interests. Their research projects start with an online search, so much so that looking for information has become synonymous with the name of the world’s most popular internet search engine. “Let me Google that.” If a student has questions about how to use a tool to create a presentation or edit a video, they will do just that. More likely however, they will just start trying to use it, building useful, employable skills as they do so.

In 2013, Google commissioned a study that reinforced the value of employees willing to think for themselves, experiment, and explore new ways of sharing information. Writing about this study in the Washington Post, Cathy Davidson (Cathy Davidson, 2017), author of “The New Education: How to revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux,” said that the study showed that workplace success is predicted largely by skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving, curiosity and making connections across complex ideas. In the New Media Consortium 2017 Horizon Report on Higher Education they reiterated the findings of the Google study: “Real-world skills are needed to bolster employability and workplace development. Students expect to graduate into gainful employment. Institutions have a responsibility to deliver deeper, active learning experiences and skills-based training that integrate technology in meaningful ways” (Becker et al., 2017). Both of these studies reflect the importance that today’s students leave school knowing how to collaborate, question, and engage – skills not necessarily developed through passive consumption of content in online courses. In other words, a willingness to experiment, the ability to think creatively, and communication and presentation skills – all of those traits exercised when learners are asked to create and share projects demonstrating new knowledge – are those that will help them during a job search. Not only that, but some of these artifacts can be used while applying for and interviewing for work. Presentations and online portfolios can be shared with prospective employers. Prospective job applicants cannot, however, take LMS discussion posts to an interview.

Building skills and creating artifacts that will help students at work or to find work is motivating for adult learners. Adult enrollment in online degree programs is primarily driven by their career aspirations (Jordan Friedman, 2017). Numerous studies find higher student satisfaction and retention in online higher education courses when there is a link to a professional application. Student are more motivated to learn when the relevancy and applicability of activities to their chosen field is obvious (Ke, 2010). This reflects both pedagogical best practices (Luna Scott, 2015), and the fact that the majority of online students are hoping to develop skills that will support their careers. These studies  found that the ability to apply knowledge to real-world applications consistently contributed to a learner’s positive experience.

Student hands on a laptop
OSU Ecampus image of an Online Learner

An increasing number of students are turning to online education to earn their degrees. As educational costs rise, many students are doing this out of necessity while juggling school, work, and family commitments. Educators need to look for ways to create relevant and engaging forms of assessment for these learners. There is an over-reliance on passive consumption of learning materials and text-based assignments. But students, when given the choice to develop projects of their own design and based on their own interests, are likely to retain more information and walk away with modern career skills.

The lessons Papert learned by allowing elementary school children to build and program Lego structures can and should be carried over to online higher education. Let students build something. Let them share it with an authentic audience. Leverage technology that enables students in online classes to use knowledge, rather than just store it. This type of assessment allows students to find their voice and excites them about their coursework. There are numerous options that instructors can include in an online course to foster this type of learning.

Footnote

  1. Undergraduate students attending Oregon universities must complete a minimum of 180 credit hours. Guidelines, like those offered by the Oregon State University Registrar’s office, suggest that students should expect three hours of work per week for each credit hour (Oregon State University, 2018). Over the course of a ten-week quarterly term, like those of Oregon’s public universities, 180 credits at 12 credits a term would require 36 hours of work a week and take 15 terms, or 150 weeks. 150 weeks X 36 hours of work/per week is 5400 hours.

References