Audio in Online Learning banner.

Audio is a term we all understand on some level. Commonly we think of audio as the transmission, reception, or reproduction of sound. Audible sound is what we hear. So, when we consider audio as an element of course design we are thinking about how sound can be used to communicate or support learning in an online course environment. Integrating audio in course delivery can be quite powerful if done well.

Perhaps the most common method of using sound in an asynchronous online course is via narrated lecture. The narrated lecture is typically a voice over a slide presentation or screencast. It can be an essential tool of instruction if designed effectively.

Another way the voice of an instructor can be incorporated into a course is via audio feedback on student assignments. These are short audio recordings that have been found to help build a sense of instructor presence in an online course.

Highly focused use of audio is also utilized in subjects where audio is, in essence, the topic at hand. Here we are considering language, music, and media arts courses as examples.

Other valued voices are often brought into the online learning experience via guest interviews in either audio or video format. Not to be left out, the voices of students are increasingly present in online course via tools such as VoiceThread and university provided video portals such as Kaltura Media Space. And with tools such as Zoom recording audio interviews and voice overs is easier than ever. With the availability of media platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Amazon Prime, Audible, and Apple Music and Podcasts the ability to bring external audio resources into the online experience seems almost limitless.

Audio is also used as a supporting resource for text-based content in online courses. In this case screen readers may typically provide the audio support. When using audio as a primary learning resource it is necessary to provide text-based transcripts as accessibility options. A fuller description of making audio accessible can be found at the W3C website.

The examples listed above are common ways we integrate audio elements into online learning. Are there other perhaps different ways we might consider? In the next few paragraphs we will explore a few ideas of how we might use audio in specialized ways in course design.

Specialized Audio Use

Orientation & Review Audio

Audio is a great tool to use when smaller segments of media should be used to orient students to a part of an online course. Think about short, more ephemeral, voice messages that can be easily produced and updated from term to term as the course changes. These audio segments need not be highly produced but should be of good quality. This type of audio segment reconnects students with the instructor via voice.

Listen to the orientation audio sample below that was used in an online course: RE 270 – Outdoor Recreation Resources, Behavior and Values | Module III Orientation by Dr. Craig Rademacher; Northern Michigan University c. 2012. (00:02:56).  [download orientation audio transcript  from Temi.com]

Similar short segments of audio may be used to review sections of content. The review audio may be produced by instructors or students. These audio reviews may be used in preparation for an exam, major project, or collaborations within the course. The goal of such reviews may vary but certainly one goal would be to re-focus the listener to the task at hand while providing timely tips or learning objectives.

One of the things you may have noticed about the audio clip above is the integration of music to the orientation message. Purposeful music selections can support the emotional feel of a course or module being introduced. Music can also serve as an audio cue, or audio branding, for a course. So, selecting audio stingers, or music introductions, can highlight that a particular message or topic is coming or reinforce an emotional tone if carefully planned.

The primary benefit of using audio for orientation and review is that audio is less production intensive making it a quick way to provide feedback. Audio is also fairly easy to edit with a free cross-platform audio tool such as Audacity.

Narrative

The oral traditions of learning go back centuries. Prior to print, learning was interwoven in spoken traditions, legends, and cultural stories. Today story remains a potent vehicle for learning. As you might imagine audio is a great vehicle for story.

An example of this is an Oregon State University political science course titled Governing after the Zombie Apocalypse which was designed and taught by Dr. Rorie Solberg. The story that underpins this course is that a natural disaster has caused the breakdown of the U.S. government. In response citizens must create a new government including a bill of rights and constitution. Students become the citizens creating that new government taking into account marginal populations such as the surviving zombies which are called “blues”due to their virus-caused color.

Audio is used creatively in the course by periodically inserting radio broadcasts about odd happenings around the country. Although not the heart of the effort of the course, these audio presentations, really imagined radio newscasts, provide situational tenor and decision points as students go about creating a new government. Listen to a segment of a mock radio broadcast below.

Mock radio broadcast excerpt: Story by Dr. Rorie Solberg. Produced by Oregon State University Ecampus. Voice acting credit: Warren Blyth (00:02:04)

This segment highlights how audio can be used to shape and carry a narrative through an online course. You might imagine how different narrative audio presentations may support history, literature, or science courses.

Soundscapes & Nature Sounds

Experiencing authentic places or environments is believed to be a valuable form of learning. This idea is a driving force behind field-based learning and experiential learning. Audio soundscapes provide access to authentic acoustic environments that can support online learning about the context of an environment. The environment may be urban, rural, or perhaps in a wilderness-like setting. Soundscapes may also be used to create sense of cognitive and emotional world building that can be used in instruction. Soundscapes typically feature a molar perspective of the acoustic environment.

Listen to an example of such a soundscape titled Elk Rut and Rain Shower — Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado by Gayi immersions (00:28:03) at SoundCloud. (link will open in a new tab)

Other, more specific sounds of nature are potentially positive resources for online instruction. Below is a sound sample of the call of a common raven. Listen to the raven’s call.

Audio recorded in the Beaver Basin Wilderness at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in 2010 | Craig Rademacher. (00:00:26)

Now imagine how this simple recording may be utilized in a course. It might be used to help identify ravens from crows in an ornithology course. Perhaps this audio clip could be used to help communicate a sense of isolation for listeners studying wilderness values. Or, perhaps it could be used to introduce the poem by Edgar Allen Poe titled The Raven. In each case the audio would be used intentionally to deepen the context or experience of the learner.

Fidelity Matters

Sound quality is an important factor when selecting and using audio in an online course. Audio files need to be of sufficient quality to clearly indicate what you are expecting students to hear. Poor audio, or a confusing sound recording, is experienced as distracting and student will likely tune out. Recording and editing audio does require some knowledge and practice. And there are many places where you can learn to produce audio. LinkedIn Learning offers courses in audio production, podcasting, and even how to select a microphone. So, if you are interested give it a try.

If you are not inclined to produce your own audio content there are resources available where you can find high quality audio for use in courses. Some of these resources are royalty free. Others may require licensing of audio for use.

Final Thoughts

We have reviewed how audio is commonly used in online courses and how we might think about new ways of integrating audio. As you explore the links to resources below start to think about your next course design. How can you augment the text and video you normally use with audio? How might you leverage voice, narrative, or soundscapes to connect online students to the context, authenticity, and humanity of learning? You might want to experiment with audio at first. Start small. If it works, then you will have truly found a sound idea for online course design.

Select Audio Resources

Royalty free online resources:

Podcast Resources
There are several ways to find audio podcasts to review for inclusion in a course. Apple Podcasts is a dominant resource in this area. Apple streams over 750,000 podcast shows with over 20 million episodes. Google Play Music is another good resource. Podcast feeds can also be found simply by browsing for podcasts online.

Audiobooks
Audiobooks are found in many online book seller sites such as Amazon (Audible.com). Additionally some more specific sites such as audiobooks.com also provide resources.

Soundscapes and Nature Sound Resources

 

**Special thank to Matt Djubasak and Chris Lindberg for their contributions to this post.

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

Awe – A Shared Uncommon Human Experience

Can you recall the last time you experienced awe? It is likely you can because awe is an emotion that tends to be a positive memorable experience. What were you doing during your awe experience? Did you learn anything from it? Do you still think about it? This post will profile the nature of awe and will conceptualize how we may integrate awe in learning design for online instruction. We will begin with exploring what awe is and how it occurs. Then our focus will turn to how awe might impact cognition and therefore learning. Lastly some examples of how awe integration might be conceptualized for online instruction and remote experiential learning.

 

Photo of the North Shore of Lakes Superior by Lawren Harris.
Figure 1. North Shore of Lake Superior by Lawren Harris (1926). Paintings are examples of art that may elicit the awe response. Photographed in situ by Craig Rademacher.

It is understood that awe is a common feeling associated with experiencing art, music, panoramic views, and other beauty (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Awe is considered a positive emotion with a prototypical facial display (Shiota, Campos, and Keltner, 2003). Awe is a state experience that is differentiated from other positive emotions such as amusement, interest, love, joy, contentment, and  pride (Campos et al., 2013). As an emotional state it is transient but may produce feelings of transformation, or openness, due to its impact on cognition (Danvers & Shiota, 2017). Course developers and instructional designers often value new ways of creating learning experiences in course design. The nature of awe suggests it may be useful in that regard. Before we can integrate awe into online course design we must have a better understanding of how it occurs.

 

What Makes Awe Happen?

The awe experience is elicited by two key features in a stimulus: perceptual vastness and need for acommodation (Shiota & Keltner, 2007). Although perceptual vastness is often experienced when viewing grand landscapes, vastness may also be found in any stimulus that expands a person’s accustomed frame of reference.

From this perspective vastness may be understood as a function of space, time, number, complexity, ability, or the mass of human experience. Shiota and Keltner (2007) further suggest vastness may be implied by a stimulus, making even a mathematic equation feel vast due to its ability to explain a large number of phenomena. Even people like Henry Ford, Rachel Carson, Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Gates might elicit a sense of vastness due to their understood expansive impact on the lives of others and society.

 

Panoramic photo of a lone person standing in the vast landscape of Bad Water Basin in Death Valley National Park in California.
Figure 2. A hiker stands alone in the vast landscape of  Death Valley. Encountering vast landscapes like those in Death Valley National Park have the potential to elicit awe in park visitors.   Image by Craig Rademacher.

When facing this sense of vastness that challenges personal understanding, we adapt. Cognitive accommodation is a process of changing our thinking patterns, or frames of reference, in the face of perceptually vast stimuli. This differs from assimilation which brings a new experience in line with existing schemas or experiences. In contrast, accommodation stimuli reshape or alter existing cognitive schema. This sense of a need for accommodation is the second key feature of the stimuli that elicit awe.

 

How Awe Impacts Us

From a cognitive perspective awe occurs during the engagement with novel, complex, patterned information that is accessible yet, as previously has been stated, is outside a normal understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 1999). This cognitive challenge creates a feeling of wonder and astonishment and humans respond (Shiota et al., 2017). Rather than depend on default cognitive frames of references  or scripts, awe encourages cognitive accommodation, prompting the taking in of new information to update understanding.

The accommodation process fostered by awe focuses a more detailed analysis of the information-rich stimulus under consideration. In this process individuals in awe shift their awareness away from normal concerns. In a sense, awe changes our vantage point to something greater than ourselves and opens the mind to new information, perspectives, and understandings.

Awe not only leads to new ways of processing information it also changes how we see the world, making life a richer experience. Research has shown that awe elicits self- relevant thoughts and connectedness leading to an experience of a “small self” (Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019). These self-transcendent feelings are positive and contribute to awe being an emotion that is pleasant and calming and inspires an interest in social responsibility.

 

Integrating Awe in Online Instruction

After an awe experience it is likely we have changed our thinking, feeling, and perhaps behaivor. Isn’t this one of the great purposes of education and a goal of learning? How might we leverage this awe in online instruction?

A recent op-ed by Goldie Blumenstyk in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2020) addressed the topic of what kind of higher education is needed now and beyond the current pandemic. Blumenstyk  identified a number of issues. Two are salient to a discussion of integrating awe into online learning. In brief these were:

  • A need for more applied learning that can be evaluated through guided reflection and mentoring to prepare students for careers of purpose in society.
  • Customized education, leveraging the online environment and technology that is both values-based and experiential.

As we have seen in the research, awe theory addresses the needs identified by Blumenstyk. Awe is a positive emotional experience that fosters personal reflection. It is individualistic, or personally customized, and inspires consideration of ideas and actions outside the self and increases prosocial behavior (Piff et al, 2015). It is clearly experiential in nature. Awe as a goal and vehicle for learning seems worth exploring. How might we integrate awe into course design and development of online instruction. Let’s look at three different examples as a starting point.

Example #1: Referencing Awe Experiences in Learning

One of the most obvious and perhaps easiest way to bring awe into online instruction is to have learners reference past awe experiences as part of their course work. This may seem daunting to faculty who cannot identify or manage what experiences will be brought forward. However, that is part of the benefit. Referencing awe experiences is a personal application of learned experience to the online environment. As an example, an instructor may post a discussion prompt that might look like this.

Discussion Prompt – Topic: Poverty and the Social Safety Net
For this assignment I would like you to recall a time you experienced awe. Where were you? How did you feel in that moment of awe? Did it change your perspective in any way? Once you have thought about your awe experience post a response to the following questions:

What ideas or feelings about your role in society are related to your awe experience? Are your beliefs about poverty and the role of government in providing a social safety net informed by your perceived role in society? How is your perspective aligned with government policies concerning social aide?

Although not completely fleshed out in terms of response posts or a rubric this discussion prompt encourages individualized learning related to the course topic of poverty in the local community. It encourages reflection, analysis, and logical comparison. It brings awe into the discussion as an individualized reflective element.

Example #2: Stimulate Awe Experiences in Learning

Research on awe has used writing about awe and video viewing to stimulate awe in study subjects. Stimuli that creates a sense of perceptual vastness and accommodation shapes the awe emotional response. Can we create these opportunities for students? Below is an example to consider.

Interactive Timeline – Topic: Anthropology and Early Human Migration
At Oregon State University we often use a proprietary timeline tool in online courses. The scale of this timeline can be varied and it typically is media enriched with images, video, text, and links. Any timeline can be built entirely by the instructor or students can contribute to the timeline as part of an assignment.

In this example of a senior level Anthropology course the instructor provides a timeline chronicling physical appearance of the Bering Land Bridge and the migration of humans across the land bridge into North America. The assignment may read something like what is seen below:

 

Illustration of the Beringia gene flow map.
Figure 3. Map of Gene Flow in Beringia. Some concepts include vast ideas such as the scale of geologic time. This too can elicit awe in learners. Erika Tamm et al / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

Paper Assignment Prompt

For this assignment review the contents of the Bering Land Bridge timeline that addresses the migration of humans in the Beringia region during the Ice Age. In your review pay close attention to the process of glaciation and how it impacts both the land bridge and human and animal migration patterns. Note the length of this time period.

Once your review is complete write a paper about Beringia and the scale of both the time period and human/animal migration. What impressed you about the history and geography of the migration? How does this migration inform your thinking about how species adapt to survive?

Although a cursory assignment, it illustrates an intent to engage students with the vastness of geology and geography and immense physical/cultural change over time. It also asks learners to reflect on new information and how it may inform current thinking about the human experience and nature. It is designed with an awe experience in mind. And it is presented and completed entirely online.

Example #3: Awe In Experiential Learning – Art Appreciation

In an earlier post on this site Rademacher (2019) described the process of experiential learning. That process is depicted in the experiential learning model below (Kolb & Kolb, 2018).

 

Model of the Experiential Learning Cycle.
Figure 4. Model of the Experiential Learning Cycle. Model depicts the four stages of the experiential learning cycle.

The starting point of the experiential learning process is the concrete experience. Incorporating awe into experiential learning is about designing learning that integrates an awe eliciting concrete experience. Once that is complete, then the experiential learning cycle can be completed. Interestingly, the four stages of the experiential learning cycle seem to parallel the awe experience process. In the table below, you can see the parallels that might be conceptualized. This teases the idea that awe may be an archetype of experiential learning.

 

Image showing the parallels between the Experiential Learning Cycle and the Awe Experience Process
Figure 5. Conceptual Parallels: The Experiential Learning Cycle and The Awe Experience Process.

So in this example the goal is to create a remote learning experience where students seek out a setting where they may, or have, experienced awe. As various forms of art elicit awe let’s use an art example.

Experiential Learning Assignment Description

The major assignment for this term is to examine the purpose of art in the human experience. Your assignment is to visit a local art gallery or museum of your choice. During your visit identify several art pieces that you feel inspired by. Spend focused time looking over and reading about your favorite piece of art. If permitted, take a photograph of that piece of art for future reference.

Compose a paper about your art experience. Before you write, reflect on how the artwork you photographed inspired you. With that in mind provide answers to the following questions:

  • Describe your thoughts and feelings about experiencing the artwork in person?
  • Did your understanding of art change from this experience? How?
  • How might you approach viewing art differently in the future?
  • How do you think your experience might be like that of other people viewing this art?
  • Describe how your art experience affirms or contrasts the purpose of art as defined by the authors of the course text.

Submit your paper via the learning management system by…

These three examples were provided as a way to begin thinking about how we might integrate awe as part of online instruction. Each example is incomplete and would need further details. Each does, however, provide a kernel of an idea of how awe integration might be pursued.

 

Final Thoughts

Awe is a common human emotion that has been shown to be important from the perspectives of spirituality, philosophy, health, wellness, and defining ourselves (Keltner, 2016; TED, 2016). This article posits that awe may also be valuable as a vehicle for online instruction and learning. As course designers we often look for ways to connect real life experience with the online learning environments. The conceptual parallels between awe and the experiential learning cycle highlighted earlier may be worth examining in greater depth.

In her 2016 TED Talk, awe researcher Lani Shiota defined awe:

Awe is an emotional response to physically or conceptually extraordinary stimuli that challenge our normal frame of reference and are not already integrated in our understanding of the world.

Shiota’s definition suggests that awe serves as a form of new learning originating from things we do not readily understand. Yet it is not simply taking in new knowledge, it is adapting to ideas and physical stimuli that we perceived as vastly bigger than our selves. It may prove valuable for course developers and designers to think about what awe opportunities might exist in the design of online instruction. We might begin that process by better understanding how awe shapes cognition and emotion. Integrating awe into online instruction could very well help online learners find the vastness and beauty of new subjects, new ideas, or new experiences.

 

References

Blumenstyk, G. (2020, April, 22). The higher ed we need now. Leadership & Governance | The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Higher-Ed-We-Need-Now/248591

Campos, B., Shiota, M.N., Keltner, D., Gonzaga, G.C., & Goetz, J.L. (2013) What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 27 (1), 37-52.

Danvers, A.F. & Shiota, M.N. (2017). Going off script: Effects of awe on memory for script-typical and irrelevant narrative detail. Emotion, 17 (6), 938-952.

Keltner, D. (2016, May 10). Why do we feel awe?. Greater Good Magazine.
Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (1999). The social functions of emotions at four levels of analysis. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 505–522.

Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17 (2), 297-314.

Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about The Experience Learning Cycle. Australian Educational Leader, 40 (3), 8-14.

Nelson-Coffey, S.K., Ruberton, P.M., Chancellor, J. Cornick, J.E. & Lyubomirsky, J. (2019). The proximal experience of awe. Public Library of Science (PLoS One), 14 (5), p. e0216780.

Piff, P.K., Dietz, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D.M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-889.

Rademacher, C. (2019, February 16). Experiential learning in online instruction. Ecampus Course Development & Training (Oregon State University). Retrieved from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2019/02/06/experiential-learning-in-online-instruction/

Shiota, M.N., Campos, B., and Keltner, D. (2003). The faces of positive emotion: Prototype displays of awe, amusement, and price. Annals New York Academy of Science, 1000, 296-299.

Shiota, M.N. & Keltner, D. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion 21 (5), 944-963.

Shiota, M.N., Thrash, T.M., Danvers, A.F., & Dombrowski, J.T. (2017). Transcending the self: Awe, elevation, and inspiration. In M. Tugade, M. N. Shiota & L. Kirby  (Eds.), Handbook of positive emotion (pp. 362–395). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

TED (2016). Why awe is such an important emotion | Dacher Keltner [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysAJQycTw-0

TED (2016). Why awe is such an important emotion | Lani Shiota [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW8h3JIMmVQ

Flexibility is an inclusive practice. Structure is an inclusive practice. Both of these statements are true–yet, many people might wonder how to reconcile these seemingly opposite approaches in their course designs. How does one build a course that is both flexible enough to accommodate the diverse needs of their students, yet structured in a way that is clear and unambiguous? In a practical sense, what do these words really mean?

First, let’s define these terms and consider why each of these approaches are critical to student success. What do we mean by flexibility and structure and why are they both important features of course design and facilitation?

Flexibility

Flexibility is getting a lot of press right now, due to our global pandemic. We are all encouraged to be flexible and understanding of one another and to recognize that most of us, especially right now, are dealing with increased responsibilities. As a student myself, I recall how much relief it gave me to read in a note from my professor that this term is “all about flexibility” along with detail around what this means in the context of our course. 

For those of us familiar with online learning, accommodating students with full-time jobs and child or eldercare responsibilities, for example, is not new. However, even for our online students, these responsibilities are compounded by school closures and other distancing measures. Everyone needs additional flexibility, understanding, and support right now. Even you, reader! Let’s be explicit and honest about this in our communications with students and each other.

In the context of our online or remotely taught courses, how do we communicate this to students? Here are a few ideas and suggestions to get you started:

  1. Flexible policies: Saying you will be flexible is not enough. Build flexibility into your policies. For example, if students are required to do field observations for a report or lab, are the guidelines for these observations too restrictive? Might students with mobility challenges or high-risk health considerations be unable to spend extended periods of time outdoors? What alternatives can you provide to these students?
  2. Student choice: Providing your students options will increase their autonomy and engagement. Choice is especially important now because it will allow students to make decisions based, not only on their personal and professional interests, but also based on their individual circumstances, which may have drastically changed in recent months.
  3. Communication: Keeping the lines of communication open is essential. Frequent communication builds feelings of connection so that student needs are more likely to be articulated.

Structure

Building structure into your course means removing ambiguity and avoiding assumptions about your students. Structure does not mean being inflexible. You can be explicit and unambiguous without being rigid.

Two helpful tools for adding structure to your course are rubrics and models, or examples. Rubrics will help you to communicate with your students and will allow you to identify your expectations along with how each criterion will be evaluated. Model assignments will help students to interpret your expectations.

When you don’t have enough structure built into your course, when your expectations are ambiguous, your underrepresented students are disproportionately impacted. This level of ambiguity often results from assumptions about your students’ prior experiences. Assuming they know how to use an LMS or that they have reliable WiFi at home, for example, puts students who don’t have these resources at a disadvantage. 

When you don’t have enough structure built into your course, your students will be forced to make assumptions, correctly or incorrectly, about your expectations. Some students may ask questions, but others will do their work and hope for the best. This results in a clearly unequal playing field, exacerbating existing inequalities. 

Balance

Given that both flexibility and structure are needed in course design and teaching, whether online, remote, on-ground, or hybrid, how does one balance these competing elements?

Too much structure, and your students will lose agency and motivation. Too much flexibility, and your students may feel ungrounded and directionless.

Here are some tips for finding balance:

  • Give choice, but include clear parameters for evaluating student work.
  • Provide multiple lower stakes assessments and stage your course projects, so that students have multiple opportunities to get feedback, correct misconceptions, and earn course points.
  • Welcome student questions and concerns and share your feedback with the whole class. If one student is asking a question, many others are thinking about asking it and would benefit from the same communication. 
  • Don’t wait for students to request alternatives: odds are high that only your most privileged students will feel comfortable asking for accommodations such as more time or additional feedback. If one student requests an accommodation, others who need similar considerations, may not be asking for them. Why not proactively offer these options to all students?

As a final thought, both structure and flexibility are essential ingredients in the recipe for exemplary teaching. When you find the perfect blend of these elements, all your learners will benefit!

References

Parker, F., Novak, J, & Bartell, T. (2017). To engage students, give them meaningful choices in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (2), 37-41.

Sathy, V. & Hogan, K.A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_inclusive_teaching

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/

Welcome to the Webcam and Video Tips guide by Oregon State University Ecampus
This brief series of tips is meant to be a beginner’s overview for DIY home recording on webcam, with some additional options suggested if you want to take your video production even further.
Since this document may not cover every issue you encounter while acclimating to DIY video recording, we recommend contacting your school tech person for additional troubleshooting.

WHERE TO START

  • Internet Connection
    • Wired connection via ethernet cable is best
    • If wired connection is not possible, having a clear line of sight to wifi router will give the best wireless connection
    • Disconnect any wifi devices that are not in use or needed.
  • Computer Check
    • Determine if your computer meets minimum system requirements for streaming software
    • Close all non-essential programs to free up more computer resources
    • Disconnect any external monitors if you are on a laptop and it is running slowly
  • Testing Your Tech
    • Does your computer have a built in webcam or do you have a 3rd party webcam?
    • Identify where your microphone is and talk towards it
    • Test the webcam and audio settings BEFORE your first recording. 
    • Practice practice practice
      • The last recording will be better than the first
  • Making sure your voice is clear and easy to understand
    • Having a microphone helps with this
    • Smart phone earbuds have a built-in microphone that can help you with voice clarity
    • Airpods would also work when recording to an iPhone

PRESENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

  • Be aware of your environment.
    • Limit any background noise as much as possible.
    • Clean up your space and be aware of what is in the background of the video.
    • Rooms with carpets and drapes are best for audio.
    • Turn off lights and close windows that are behind you when you are recording.
    • If possible, turn on a light behind the camera.
    • Keep experimenting with lighting until you have a set up that works for you.

  • Try not to bump the desk, computer, camera, or microphone while recording.
    • Typing should also be avoided.
  • Do a test lecture and watch it.
    • See what works and what doesn’t.
    • If possible, get feedback from others
  • Practice
    • The more you practice, the more natural it will feel.
    • Run through what you want to say before you start recording.
  • Relax and be natural! Hopefully you are sharing knowledge that you are passionate about and we want that to show. (Remember that we are always our own worst critic, and your teaching team will be there to help you with constructive feedback on how to help students best enjoy and learn from these videos.)
  • Have notes in front of you while you’re recording. 
    • It is easy to get distracted or off topic, especially when you are uncomfortable.
    • Having notes in front of you while you record can help you stay on track.
    • These notes can be as vague or as detailed as you want, but avoid reading off of them directly and not looking at the camera.

DIGITAL NOTATION

GOING FURTHER WITH VIDEO PRODUCTION

  • For DIY video production, there are many ways to go about this!
    • The lowest barrier to recording on your own would be to use a smart phone attached to a tripod or other mount.
    • If you have access to a camcorder or DSLR, get out there and use it!
  • For smart phone video
    • Avoid handheld and invest in a tripod or smart phone / camera mount
    • If you have a decent internet connection for uploads, consider recording 1080p at 30fps
    • Use an external microphone whenever possible

ACCESSORIES TO CONSIDER IF RECORDING WITH A PHONE

Apps:

  • Filmic Pro – $14.99
    • Allows manual control of exposure and white balance, audio monitoring, and other useful features.

Audio:

  • Lavalier microphone – $18.99 
    • Highly recommended. Audio recorded from your phone’s microphone can be difficult to hear if you aren’t standing near the phone or if the location is noisy. 
  • Double lavalier microphone – $25.99
    • For when you have two people on camera. Both mic cable feed into the same phone, removing need to sync two audio sources. 
  • Audio cable extension – 10 ft. $9.95 or 20 ft. $15.95
    • For when you need to stand farther away from the camera.

Stabilization:

  • Selfie stick w/built-in tripod and Bluetooth remote – $23.99 (heavy duty, 51″ extended), $14.99 (27.6″ extended)
    • Terrific for self-recording in the field.
  • Combination hand grip/small tripod/tripod adapter – $8.89
    • Can be used as a hand grip for filming on-the-go or as a desktop tripod. Phone mount can be removed from the hand grip/tripod legs section, allowing you to mount your phone on most standard tripods.
  • Gimbal stabilizer – $94.99
    • Pricey, but will greatly increase the quality of your footage if you’re filming something that requires camera movement, such as a walk-and-talk interview or a field trip video.
  • Creative ways to mount a smart phone with household items:

 

ADD-ONS / TIPS AND TRICKS

  • If you would like to have access to a teleprompter as you record video, consider one of the following:
  • Here are some sound improvements to consider to reduce echo in your recordings.
    • Add blankets or blinds on walls to reduce echo.
    • Record in the smallest room possible.
    • Avoid rooms with hardwood floors.

Lighting for video

  • Turn a window or glass door into a soft “Key Light” by hanging a cheap, frosted shower curtain over the window. 

 

Authors: Jason Jones, Drew Olson, and Sammi Lukas, with special thanks to Victor Yee for technical support with the images.

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

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

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

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

Accessibility

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

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

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

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

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

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

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

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

Inclusive Design

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

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

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

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

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

In Practice

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

Literature

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

Digital Storytelling as Educators

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

The Power of Storytelling, with Sir Ian McKellen

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

Digital Storytelling Assignments

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

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

Single Image Digital Story Example

 

Digital Story Making Process

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

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

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

Digital Storytelling Process Movie link

Recommended Resources & Tools

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

Adobe Spark

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

Canvas

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

Audacity

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

Padlet

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

Storyboarding Tools

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

Storyboard That

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

The Boords

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

A4-landscape-6-storyboard-template

Looking for Inspiration?

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

As online educators, we strive for a balance of learning activities that incorporate three types of engagement: learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-learner.  The learner-to-learner component is often filled through discussion boards or group projects, but an underutilized and undervalued option is peer review.

The Rationale

There are many ways peer review benefits students, among them Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation lists:

  • Empower students to take responsibility for and manage their own learning.
  • Enable students to learn to assess and give others constructive feedback to develop lifelong assessment skills.
  • Enhance students’ learning through knowledge diffusion and exchange of ideas.
  • Motivate students to engage with course material more deeply.

More broadly, the authors of The Knowledge Illusion argue that our individual capacity for knowledge is often much more limited than we realize and that our true depth of knowledge is held collectively.  They remind us that, “when you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive.  But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone” (page 5).  In our increasingly complex world, some evidence of a shift towards building knowledge collectively can be seen in research. For example, in the MEDLINE database, “the average number of authors per article has nearly quadrupled from about 1.5 in 1950 to 5.5 in 2014” (page 226).  This is just one of many examples the authors use to illustrate how essential collaboration and relationship skills have become.  In nearly every field, students need to be prepared to be more than individual achievers, but rather to contribute effectively to a group.  Peer review provides students an opportunity to give and receive feedback with the goal of creating a better end product, but it is also an opportunity for students to practice and build their teamwork skills.

Moreover, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 3b emphasizes the need for students to, “evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.”  Peer review is a great way for us to meet this standard and to combat against misinformation, by teaching students to evaluate and challenge claims.  In Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era author Daniel J. Levitin shares strategies for how we can think more critically and evaluate the trustworthiness of what we are being told.  He notes that, “sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you’ll draw the wrong conclusion; sometimes they don’t know the difference themselves” (page xx).  If your students are in either of these groups, it benefits them to have an attentive reader review their work and provide respectful suggestions for improvement prior to a final assignment submission.  This may help you as the instructor to avoid catching errors too late in the process when students cannot revise their work.

The Explanation

However, students may not see the value of peer review on their own.  The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis describes many reasons students may express uncertainty around peer review as, “Many students do not perceive feedback from peers as relevant to the process… students are likely to assume that it is only the instructor’s feedback that ‘counts.’”  Therefore, it is important that we explain to students why we are asking them to engage in peer review explicitly.

It can be helpful to explain specifically how this will relate to industry or field of study requirements as a student advances as a professional and scholar – it looks different for a researcher than it does for a project manager, so motivate students by sharing with them how they will engage in similar activities in the future as this gives them an opportunity to practice what Starting Point: Teaching Entry Level Geoscience describes as, “key skills such as abstracting, developing arguments, describing, assessing, criticizing, analyzing, and reviewing.”  As Faculty Focus advises, we can’t assume that students will implicitly understand the purpose of peer review.  When we craft a peer review assignment, we need to think carefully about how we will articulate the benefits of the process to students.  It can be helpful to answer questions like, “Why am I having students do this?” and “Why should students be excited about this process?”  Or, to take it a step further, we can anticipate the questions from our students’ perspective and proactively address the purpose and logistics in the assignment description, by answering questions like, “Why am I doing peer review?” and “How am I supposed to review my peer’s work?”  Make sure the technology needed and processes are clear and that resources are provided for students that need more guidance.

The Process

Remember, knowing why students are peer reviewing and being able to peer review are two totally different skills.  If you are an Ecampus instructor, talk with your instructional designer about strategies that can help your peer review process be more successful.  Some of the best practices suggested by Center for Instructional Technology & Training at the University of Florida include:

  • Clarify expectations in advance
  • Check your students have all the tools they will need
  • Provide enough time in the peer review process so that students can meaningfully engage – this may span more than one module
  • Model the type of feedback you want your students to use
  • Create a quality rubric as a guide

Your instructional designer can also talk to you about digital tools or strategies that can be used to introduce students to peer review. For example, you can discuss whether it makes more sense to use Canvas Peer Review or another tool, like Peerceptiv, which is research-validated peer assessment technology available for Ecampus courses.

Remember, students need opportunities to practice peer review, as they may never have done it before.  That means they have to get familiar with both the tools and the process.  It’s best if they can practice with the technology on a low stakes assignment before using it for a high stakes assignment, so that they can familiarize themselves with a peer review process without the added anxiety of a major grade on the line.  It will also take time for you as the instructor to get familiar with the process, but it is a completely worthwhile investment!

I invite you to consider some concluding thoughts from Levitin, “Information gathering and research that used to take anywhere from hours to weeks now takes just seconds… The implicit bargain that we all need to make explicit is that we will use just some of that time we saved in information acquisition to perform proper information verification” (page 253).  Let’s reinvest some of the time our students saved researching to engage them in verifying claims, evaluating evidence, offering commentary, and incorporating feedback – all of which support the development of a stronger student work and the building of a collective knowledge.

Introduction

For those who work in higher education, it may not come as a surprise that the field of instructional design has grown in tandem with the expansion of online programs and courses. Evidence of this growth abounds. While the discipline of instructional design has expanded rapidly in recent years, the history of instructional design is not well known by those outside of the field.

This post will cover a brief history of instructional design with a particular emphasis on design: What influences design? How are design decisions made? How has the way we approached design changed over time? We’ll also consider how instructional designers actually design courses and the importance of course structure as an inclusive practice.

Instructional Design: Theory and History

Every instructional design curriculum teaches three general theories or theoretical frameworks for learning: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. While an instructional designer (ID) probably wouldn’t call herself a cognitivist or a behaviorist, for example, these theories influence instructional design and the way IDs approach the design process.

The field of instructional design is widely believed to have originated during World War II, when training videos like this one were created to prepare soldiers with the knowledge and skills they would need in battle. This form of audio-visual instruction, although embraced by the military, was not initially embraced by schools.

B.F. Skinner
“B.F. Skinner” Portrait Art Print
by Xiquid

In the 1950s, behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, dominated popular thought on how to teach and design instruction. For behaviorists, learning results in an observable change in behavior. The optimal design of a learning environment from a behaviorist perspective would be an environment that increases student motivation for learning, provides reinforcement for demonstrating learning, and removes distractions. Behaviorists are always designing for a specific response, and instruction is intended to teach discrete knowledge and skills. For behaviorists, motivation is critical, but only important to the extent that it elicits the desired behavior. 

Cognitivism was largely a response to behaviorism. Cognitivists emphasized the role of cognition and the mind; they acknowledged that, when designing learning environments, there is more to consider than the content to be learned. More than environmental factors and instructional components, the learners’ own readiness, or prior knowledge, along with their beliefs and attitudes, require consideration. Design, from a cognitivist approach, often emphasizes preparedness and self-awareness. Scaffolding learning and teaching study skills and time-management (metacognitive skills) are practices grounded in a cognitivist framework.

While cognitivists emphasize the learner experience, and in particular, acknowledge that learners’ existing knowledge and past histories influence their experience, the learner is still receiving information and acting on it–responding to carefully designed learning environments.

Constructivism, the most current of the three frameworks, on the other hand, emphasizes that the learner is constructing their own understanding of the world, not just responding to it. Learners are activity creating knowledge as they engage with the learning environment.

All–or nearly all–modern pedagogical approaches are influenced by these theoretical frameworks for learning.

Design Approaches

A single course can be seen as a microcosm of theoretical frameworks, historical models, and value-laden judgements of pedagogical approaches

Learning theories are important because they influence our design models, but by no means are learning theories the only factor guiding design decisions. In our daily work, IDs rely on many different tools and resources. Often, IDs will use multiple tools to make decisions and overcome design challenges. So, how do we accomplish this work in practice?

  1. We look to established learning outcomes. We talk about learning goals and activities with faculty. We ask questions to guide decision making about how to meet course learning outcomes through our course design.
  2. We look to research-based frameworks and pedagogical approaches such as universal design for learning (UDL), inclusive design, active learning, student-centered design, and many other models. These models may be influenced by learning theory, but they are more practical in nature.
  3. We look to human models. We often heed advice and follow the examples our more experienced peers.
  4. We look to our own past experiences and solutions that have worked in similar situations, and we apply what we learned to future situations.
  5. We make professional judgements; judgements rooted in our tacit knowledge of what we believe “good design” looks like. For better or for worse, we follow our intuition. Our gut.

Over time, one can see that instructional design has evolved from an emphasis on teaching discrete knowledge and skills that can be easily measured (behaviorism) to an emphasis on guiding unique learners to actively create their own understanding (constructivism). Design approaches, however, are not as straightforward as simply taking a theory and applying it to a learning situation or some course material. Instructional design is nuanced. It is art and science. A single course can be seen as a microcosm of theoretical frameworks, historical models, and value-laden judgements of pedagogical approaches–as well as value-laden judgements of disciplinary knowledge and its importance. But. That’s another blog post.

Design Structure to Meet Diverse Needs

Meeting diverse needs, however, does not necessitate complexity in course design

If learners are unique, if learning can’t be programmed, if learning environments must be adaptable, if learners are constructing their own knowledge, how is all of this accommodated in a course design?

Designing from a modern constructivist perspective, from the viewpoint that students have vastly different backgrounds, past experiences, and world-views, requires that many diverse needs be accommodated in a single course. Meeting diverse needs, however, does not necessitate complexity in course design. Meeting diverse needs means that we need to provide support, so that it is there for those who need it, but not distracting to those who don’t need it. Design needs to be intuitive and seamless for the user.

Recent research on inclusive practices in design and teaching identify structure as an inclusive practice. Design can be viewed as a way of applying, or ensuring, a course structure is present. In that way, working with an instructional designer will make your course more inclusive. But, I digress. Or, do I?

Sathy and Hogan contend, in their guide, that structure benefits all students, but some, particularly those from underrepresented groups, benefit disproportionately. Conversely, not enough structure, leaves too many students behind. Since many of the same students who benefit from additional course structure also succeed a lower rates, providing course structure may also help to close the achievement gap.

How are We Doing This?

The good news is that Ecampus is invested in creating courses that are designed–or structured–in a way that meets the needs of many different learners. Working with an Ecampus instructional designer will ensure that your course materials are clearly presented to your students. In fact, many of the resources we provide–course planning templates, rubrics, module outlines, consistent navigation in Canvas, course banners and other icons and visual cues–are intended to ensure that your students navigate your course materials and find what they need, when they need it.

References

Icons made by phatplus and Freepik from www.flaticon.com are licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Boling, E., Alangari, H., Hajdu, I. M., Guo, M., Gyabak, K., Khlaif, Z., . . . Techawitthayachinda, R. (2017). Core Judgments of Instructional Designers in Practice. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 30(3), 199-219. doi:10.1002/piq.21250

Eddy, S.L. and Hogan, K. A. (2017) “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” CBE—Life Sciences Education. Retrieved from https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Sathy, V. and Hogan, K.A. (2019). “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_inclusive_teaching

Tanner, K.D. (2013) “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” CBE—Life Sciences Education. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3762997/