By Susan Fein, Instructional Designer, susan.fein@oregonstate.edu

In my role as an instructional designer, the faculty I work with are often looking for ways to increase student engagement and add a “wow” factor to their online course. One way to do that is to add or increase active learning practices.

Active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing, rather than simply listening, as with a passive-learning lecture (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning brings positive and lasting outcomes to students, including better retention and grasp of concepts, and is particularly evident when students work together to develop solutions (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Tackling Discussions

In 2019, I worked with an instructor developing a biochemistry/biophysics course for Ecampus. The instructor loved the peer-to-peer interaction intended for discussions, but was discouraged by the often lackluster exchange commonly demonstrated in the posts. She wanted to liven up these conversations, not only to increase the strength of the community but also to have an impact on the value of the learning that took place.

Enter knowledge boards! With a simple but creative retooling of the predictable initial-post-and-two-replies format, the instructor found a way to reimagine the often mundane discussion board and transform it into a lively and highly engaging conversation and exchange of knowledge.

How did she do this? Rather than compel all students to respond to a narrow or artificially-constructed prompt, the instructor instead posted several relevant topics or short questions extracted from the concepts presented during that week’s lectures and readings. Topics might be a single word or a short phrase, and the questions were tightly focused and direct.

Choice and Agency

From this list of 5 to 10 conversation starters that give breadth to the topics, the students can choose which they want to respond to, often selecting what’s of greatest interest to them. These posts could be anything related to the topic or question, so students are free to approach from any perspective or direction.

The instructor found that the students more freely contributed ideas, insights, understandings, questions, confusion, and commentary. They were encouraged to ask questions of each other to delve into significant points. Students could engage in as many conversations as desired, at their discretion. As a result, they tended to be more actively involved, not only with the content and concepts from that week’s materials, but also with each other, producing a strong community of inquiry.

This simple change transformed the tired and (dare I say it?) potentially boring weekly discussion into a meaningful opportunity for a lively and valuable knowledge exchange. The instructor explained that students also report that this knowledge board becomes a study guide, summarizing multiple approaches and insightful content they use for studying, so many revisit the posts even after that week is over as a way to review.

But Wait…There’s More!

The instructor didn’t stop at discussions in her pursuit of increased engagement and active learning. Her next “trick” was to evaluate how the assessments, especially homework problems, were presented.

A typical format in many Ecampus courses is to have students complete homework assignments individually, and these are generally graded on the correctness of the answers. But once again, this instructor redesigned a conventional activity by applying principles of active learning and collaborative pedagogy to improve learning outcomes.

In the new version, students first answer and submit solutions to the homework individually, and this initial phase is graded on proper application of concepts, rather than on the correctness of the answer. Next, students work together in small groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the same set of problems and, as a group, arrive at consensus of the correct answers.

The active learning “magic” occurs during this critical second phase. If one student is confident about an answer, they present evidence from the lectures and readings to persuade their peers. And when a student is not certain that they correctly grasped the concepts, they discuss the problem and relevant principles, learning from each other through this review, hearing different perspectives and interpretations of the materials. It is through these vital peer-to-peer interactions that the active learning takes place.

As the last phase of the activity, the group submits their answers, which are graded for correctness.

This reshaping of a classic homework activity results in deeper levels of understanding and stronger knowledge retention (Weimer, 2012). And there’s an added benefit for the instructor, too. Since there are fewer papers to grade, formatting homework as a group submission means extra time to offer more and better feedback than would be feasible when grading each student individually. A win-win bonus!

Benefits of Active Learning

These are just two simple but ingenious ways to reformat classic forms of interaction and assessment.

Do you have an idea of how you can alter an activity in your course to make it more interesting and engaging? If you sense that your online course could use a boost, consider incorporating more active learning principles to add the extra oomph that could transform your teaching content from mundane to magical!

So let’s close this post in true active learning style and take a moment to reflect. What kinds of active learning practices have you tried in your course? How did those go? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please share in comments.

References

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.

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/

Evaluating Textbooks

When selecting a textbook, there are a number of factors to evaluate. In addition to assessing the textbook for appropriate content, one category that I recommend looking at is how inclusive the textbook is. Here are a few guiding questions to ask when evaluating textbooks for inclusion:

student studying on a laptop
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

  • What is the cost of this textbook? Have you looked for open (free) textbooks, perhaps from the Open Textbook Library or considered writing or adapting your own? Affordability is inclusive.
  • Do the textbook images of people represent diverse cultural heritage and lived experiences?
  • Are the contributions to the field that are highlighted in the textbook from a diverse range of scholars in the field? If not, is there discussion about why certain voices were historically excluded from the field?
  • Is the textbook accessible? If there is an e-book, do the images have alt text, for example? Can students with disabilities access all materials in the book?
  • If the textbook is an e-book, are the concepts presented in multiple ways, such as text, infographic, slide decks, or multimedia elements? Giving students choices in how they explore the course concepts empowers them to use their existing preferences, and helps them develop new strengths and avenues for learning.

What to Do When the Textbook Is Not Ideal

It’s tough to find a textbook that is inclusive and has all of the concepts you are hoping to teach. What can you do when you find a textbook that has the concepts you need but is lacking in inclusive excellence? Here are some simple ideas for addressing this:

  • Consider giving publisher feedback. Write a brief email to the publisher about your concerns around a lack of representation in the book or whatever it is that you see as missing. 
  • For any text you choose, consider inviting students to write to the publisher if they see areas for improvement, whether that is with cost, bias, or other issues. You could include the contact information for the publisher in your course materials page, inviting students to write in feedback directly to the publisher. 
  • Acknowledge to your students that the textbook isn’t as inclusive as you would like it to be. Share the ways that you are advocating for better quality. You could also invite students to have a bias hunt discussion about the textbook or course materials. Then you could collect that feedback and send it to the publisher.
  • If the textbook lacks contributions from a diverse range of scholars, consider adding scholarly articles, images, or interviews from diverse professionals in your field to your course learning materials pages, in your LMS course site.
  • Consider highlighting professional organizations in your field that promote and mentor the professional development of scholars from specific historically underrepresented communities.

Have you had success in this area of evaluating textbooks? Have you found a publisher or textbook that has made gains in this area? If so, please share your resources in the comments.

References: 

We believe textbooks should be diverse and inclusive. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

Peralta Online Equity Rubric

UDL Progression Rubric

Open Textbook Library

Image credit: Surface on Unsplash

Memory plays the central role in learning – it is “the mechanism by which our teaching literally changes students’ minds and brains” (Miller, 2014, p. 88). Thus, understanding how memory works is important for both instructional designers and instructors. According to modern theories, memory involves three major processes: encoding (transforming information into memory representations), storage (the maintenance of these representations for a long time), and retrieval (the process of accessing the stored representations when we need them for some goal or task) (Miller, 2014). Let’s briefly review these processes and see how they may inform our course design and instruction.

Encoding – What Is the Role of Attention and Working Memory?

How does encoding happen? We receive information from our senses (visual, auditory, etc.), and then we perform a preconscious analysis to check whether it is important to survival and if it is related to our current goals. If it is, this information is retained and will be further processed and turned into mental representations. Thus, attention is the major process through which information enters our consciousness (MacKay, 1987). Attention is limited, and it is to some extent under voluntary control, but it can be easily disrupted by strong stimuli. Attention is crucial for memory, and without attention we cannot remember much (Miller, 2014).

How attention is directed depends on the way the content is presented and on the nature of the content itself (Richey et al., 2011). If the content is intrinsically motivating for the student, it will catch their attention more readily. But beyond that, the manner we design our instructional materials can influence how learners focus their attention to select and process the information, and in turn on what and how much gets stored in their memory. For example, we can ensure that students are guided to the most relevant content first by making that content more visually salient. Or we can tell an engaging story to focus their attention to the concepts that come next.

Baddeley and Hitch's multicomponent model of working memory (1974).
Baddeley and Hitch’s multicomponent model of working memory (1974)

Working memory is a concept introduced in the 1970s by Alan Baddeley. This model describes immediate memory as a system of subcomponents, each of them processing specialized information such as sounds and visual-spatial information. This system also performs operations on this information and are managed by a mechanism called the central executive. The central executive combines the information from the various subcomponents, draws on information stored in long-term memory, and integrates new information with the old one (Baddeley, 1986).

Some researchers consider attention and working memory to be the same thing; while not everyone agrees, it is clear that they are highly interconnected and overlapping processes (Cowan, 2011; Engle, 2002). Attention is the process that decides what information stays in working memory and keeps it available for the current task. It is also involved in coordinating the working memory components and allocating resources based on needs and goals (Miller, 2014).

The capacity of each of the working memory components is limited. However, these components are mostly independent: visual information will interfere with other visual information, but not much with another type such as verbal information (Baddeley, 1986). Therefore, the most effective instructional materials will include a combination of media, such as images and text (or better yet, audio narration), rather than just images or just text.

Graphic by Cheese360 at English Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Storage – How Fast Do We Forget?

Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve (1885) - the graph shows the percentage of words recalled declining sharply after one day and then more slowly
Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve (1885)

In the late 1800s, Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted his famous series of experiments on the shape of forgetting. The result was the forgetting curve (also called the retention curve), which is a function showing that the majority of forgetting takes place soon after learning, after which less information will be lost (Ebbinghaus, 1885). A recent review of studies on the retention curve concluded that the rate of forgetting may increase up to seven days, and slows down afterwards (Fisher & Radvansky, 2018). This interval is useful to consider when planning instruction. A well-designed course will include sufficient opportunities for practice and retrieval during this time, so as to minimize the forgetting that naturally occurs.

Graphic from MIT OpenCourseWare is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Retrieval – How Do We Get It Out of Our Heads and Use It?

While long-term memory is considered unlimited, retrieval (or recall) can be challenging. Its success depends on a few factors. To retrieve memory representations, we use cues—information that serves as a starting point. Since a memory can include different sensory aspects, information with rich sensory associations is usually remembered more easily (Miller, 2014). Visual and spatial cues are particularly powerful: memory athletes perform some mind-blowing feats by using a special technique called “the memory palace”—imagining a familiar building or town and placing all content inside it in visual form (to learn more about this technique, check out this TED talk by science writer Joshua Foer).

Recall is also influenced by how the information was first processed: deep processing (focusing on meaning) will yield superior retrieval performance compared to shallow processing (focusing on superficial features like some key words or the layout of the information). However, equally important is a match between the type of processing that happens during encoding and the one that happens during retrieval (Miller, 2014). For instance, if the final exam contains multiple-choice questions, learners will perform better if they also practiced with multiple-choice questions when they learn the content. Finally, emotions have been shown to boost memory (Kensinger, 2009), and even negative emotions (such as fear or anger) can have a strong effect on recall (Porter & Peace, 2007).

Conclusion – Implications for Instruction

What can we do to maximize our students’ memory potential? Based on these memory characteristics, here are a few strategies that can help:

  1. Make use of graphic design and multimedia learning principles to create attention-grabbing, well-organized instructional materials that include a combination of media.
  2. Include plenty of retrieval practice activities, such as polling during lectures, quizzes, or flashcards. The website Retrieval Practice is a fantastic resource for quick tips, detailed guides, and research. Top things to keep in mind:
    • Boost retrieval practice through spacing (spreading sessions over time) and interleaving (mixing up related topics during a practice session).
    • Make sure you plan some sessions for the critical seven-day period after introducing the material.
  3. Consider teaching students the memory palace technique for content that requires heavy memorization.
  4. Support every type of content visually where possible.
  5. Encourage deep processing of the material, for example through reflections, problem-solving, or creative activities.
  6. Ensure that students have opportunities to engage with the material during learning in the same way as they will during the exam.
  7. Try to stimulate emotions in relation to the content. While negative affect can help (for example, recounting a sad story to illustrate a concept), it is probably best to focus on positive emotions through exciting news, inspiring anecdotes, and even more “extrinsic” factors such as humor, uplifting music, or attractive visual design.

Using these strategies will help you create learning experiences where students encode, store, and retrieve information efficiently, allowing them to use it effectively in their lives, studies, and work. Do you have any related experience or tips? If so, share in a comment!

References

Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. Oxford University Press.

Cowan, N. (2011). The focus of attention as observed in visual working memory tasks: Making sense of competing claims. Neuropsychologia, 49(6), 1401–1406. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.01.035

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology.

Engle, R. W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(1), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00160

Fisher, J. S., & Radvansky, G. A. (2018). Patterns of forgetting. Journal of Memory and Language, 102, 130–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2018.05.008

Kensinger, E. A. (2009). How emotion affects older adults’ memories for event details. Memory, 17(2), 208–219. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210802221425

MacKay, D. G. (1987). The organization of perception and action: A theory for language and other cognitive skills. Springer New York. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-4754-8

Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.

Porter, S., & Peace, K. A. (2007). The scars of memory. Psychological Science, 18(5), 435–441. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01918.x

Richey, R., Klein, J. D., & Tracey, M. W. (2011). The instructional design knowledge base: Theory, research, and practice. Routledge.

Is it okay to use YouTube videos in your course? What about copyright? I get inquiries like this often. Here I’ll share the most common questions from instructors and the answers I provide.

Q: Should I be concerned about relying on a link to a YouTube video for essential course content? There are quite a few YouTube videos on a topic I cover in my course, and all of them are better than what I could put together on my own, given the constraints on my time and technical expertise.

A: There are several considerations when using YouTube videos:

  •  YouTube videos may be taken down at some later date, and this would be a problem if you are relying on them for essential course content. However, you say there are “quite a few” videos on this topic. If the video you select for the course were taken down, would you be comfortable using a comparable video? A related consideration is, does the YouTube channel that posted the video own the rights to it? Or, have they pirated someone else’s content? We don’t want to share pirated videos with students because this models inappropriate intellectual property practices and because these videos are more likely to be removed by YouTube for copyright violation.
  • Another consideration is that students have come to your course with the expectation that you will offer a unique educational experience tailored to the context of their university and the degree program they’re enrolled in. When presented with YouTube videos, some students may ask, why am I paying for a course delivered by a professional university instructor if I can get the content for free on YouTube? Students may not be aware of the time and attention that you have put into finding, sequencing, and providing context around external videos. Consider balancing the use of external videos with your own materials so that you are still able to communicate your individual teaching presence.

Q: Am I infringing on copyright in some way by including YouTube videos in my course?

A: By linking to or embedding YouTube videos on your course site, you aren’t infringing on copyright. The YouTube video channel still controls the linked content, not you; you haven’t downloaded or made a copy of the video, nor have you stored it on your own device or the university’s servers. By driving traffic to YouTube’s website, you are actually helping YouTube and the content creator make money and/or get views. You may have heard of programs that allow you to download a YouTube video so you can retain a copy to share with students, just in case it gets taken down. Doing so would very likely infringe on copyright and would be a violation of YouTube’s terms of service. So stick to sharing links or embedding!

YouTube channel link location
The channel here, indicated with blue brackets, is an institutional entity, but you can click the channel name to learn more about it if you’re uncertain.

Q: How can I determine if a video has been pirated?

A: Take a closer look at the channel that uploaded the video. You can find the channel’s name listed beneath the video title. Do you recognize an institutional entity that would logically be the owner/creator of the video? Or, is the channel title just some person’s nickname? Click on the channel’s hyperlinked name so that you can browse the other videos and playlists the channel offers, as well as any information provided on its About page. If you find a random list of videos that don’t have a common theme, or no description is available on the About page, the channel may have pirated the video you had planned on using.

Q: I understand that linking to a pirated YouTube video isn’t a great thing to model to students, but what if this is the only video on my topic? Can I get in trouble for pointing students to pirated content? And what are the chances that YouTube or the true content owner will succeed in getting this pirated video taken down?

A: You haven’t pirated the video, so you’re not liable, but again…this isn’t recommended. Still, you may be surprised to learn that YouTube will often retain pirated content. If the content owner agrees, YouTube monetizes the video with ads and it continues to be hosted on the pirating channel with the revenue going to the true owner (and in some cases a portion to the pirating channel). In 2017 most copyright claims resulted in monetization, so those pirated videos you’re interested in might not be taken down after all. That said, there’s no easy way to know if a pirated video has been monetized and sanctioned by YouTube and the content owner; ads will appear on videos that haven’t been monetized as well as on those that have. Conclusion: you’d be better off finding a video from a legitimate source or creating your own content!

Resources

YouTube: How can rights holders make copyright claims?

By Christine Scott and Elisabeth McBrien

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on how cultural background has a deep impact on overall classroom experience. This is true in the physical classroom, and it is no less true online. Cultural experiences not only affect how students navigate meaning in learning contexts, but these experiences also play a role in motivation and satisfaction in a course.  

Various comparative studies in the larger educational context have demonstrated the need for consideration of cultural differences in the delivery and design of instruction in the physical classroom. Likewise, in order to improve learner experience for diverse student groups in the online environment, it is important to examine the unique landscape of the virtual classroom.

Communication Frameworks

Frameworks for understanding various cultures, such as Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, are frequently relied upon for increasing cultural competence in the workplace or classroom. One particularly relevant type of cultural difference framework is referred to as “High-Context” “Low-Context” (Hall, 1976). In high-context cultures, people rely on nonverbal cues as well relationship building as the backdrop for information exchange (Bai, 2016). In low-context cultures, however, information exchange matters more than relationship building, and nonverbal cues as well as social hierarchy can largely be ignored. Low-context communication is expected to be explicit and highly verbal. Context such as body language and facial expressions are nice in a low-context environment, but they are not a required element of communication and not necessary for receiving the full intended message, as they might be in a high-context culture. Furthermore, expressing personal views in a low-context culture is expected and does not automatically threaten one’s relationships with friends or colleagues who might hold differing opinions.

“In high-context culture, people tend to personalize their disagreement with others. To show one’s disagreement and anger in public is tantamount to admitting loss of control and face, because what is being said is taken personally which may have an influence on interpersonal relationships. Therefore, they will keep their emotions inside or just remain silent to avoid trouble. In this way, they can maintain social harmony and intimate bonds with each other. In the eyes of people from low-context culture, this kind of repression is totally unreasonable. Everyone has their own rights to express opinions, and this explicit criticism has nothing to do with their interpersonal relationships” (p. 22, Bai, 2016).

Because communication norms can be so distinct between cultures, consider their impact on the learning environment. For example, in the physical classroom, communication and meaning rely on multiple forms of interaction. While some communication relies on written language in a face-to-face class, the majority of exchanges are driven by speech. Participants have multiple strategies at their disposal: verbal feedback, social cues, confirmation checks, body language, and even the physical arrangement of the classroom itself. Instructors can have students work in pairs or groups, sit in a circle or rows, and so on. All of these forms of input combined with students’ background knowledge about how various classroom configurations function help students negotiate meaning. 

However, in the asynchronous online classroom, the majority of communication relies on written language. Instructors typically use tools within the learning management system (LMS) to provide written feedback and grading. Student interactions take place via discussion forums, blogs, structured peer-review assignments, and other text-driven means of communication. While text-based communication has some advantages for English language learners (ELL)  in particular (e.g. opportunities for revision and low-stakes rehearsal), written language is open to interpretation and lacks the visual and physical cues of verbal language. This can be tricky for learners from high-context cultures where communication relies heavily on implicit and contextual cues, such as body language and tone of voice. In fact, one study found that learners from these language and cultural backgrounds tend to misinterpret intent or look for hidden meaning in instructor feedback and discussion posts (Hyland, 2013). 

All this is to say, which student would be most comfortable in a setting where nearly all non-verbal cues are absent, direct text-based information is exchanged, and disagreement among peers is encouraged? Students from low-context cultures may feel at home in this environment, but students from the high-context cultures may feel they – as well as the instructor – are regularly violating norms and expectations. This is important for faculty to understand because it affects whether students see themselves and others as active participants who contribute in a meaningful way, which has a direct impact on the learning community in the course.

Tips for Cultural Inclusivity

  • Survey Students. Use a word cloud, survey, or similar to ask students how comfortable they are expressing disagreement with others. Create guidance for participation based on the responses received. 
  • Provide clear guidance and models. Include guidelines for appropriate language for discussions or debates. Make explicit that respectful disagreement or questioning of ideas is encouraged. Consider including sentence stems that model how to express disagreement or varied perspectives using academic language. Use rubrics that clearly identify expectations for both initial posts and peer response.
  • Be creative with discussion prompts. Assign roles on occasion to build students’ participation confidence by lowering the personal stakes. Other prompt types include problem statements, cases studies, video analysis, or student facilitation of discussions.
  • Use multiple means of communication. Include weekly overview videos or podcasts to deliver important details about the course verbally in addition to providing the information in written form so that students may benefit from both high-context and low-context forms of communication. Sharing assignment feedback through video or audio comments (e.g., in Canvas Speedgrader) can provide additional physical cues and context for the communication that written feedback alone cannot convey.
  • Provide flexible options around communication. Invite students to introduce themselves or participate in discussion posts through video, if they would prefer, while also giving them the option not to appear on camera. Allow them to decide how they would like to exchange information in the course.
  • Be flexible about tools. Provide information about how to record video or other media used in the course, but keep in mind that preferred or available tools will vary in different regions of the world. Allow students the flexibility to determine which tools are best for communication tasks.
  • Include anonymous peer review tasks. This can relieve students who are concerned about damaging relationships with their peers through negative feedback. Gather anonymous feedback about the course as well. Consider culturally based perspectives on power dynamics between students and teachers. 
  • Provide feedback in multiple formats. Give specific examples of what students did well while also being clear about areas for improvement. Avoid making assumptions about what students will take from the comments. Feedback delivered through multiple means (video, audio, text) can help to avoid miscommunications. 
  • Extend existing inclusive language practice to include cultural considerations. Be mindful about clarity and use of idiomatic speech that may be less transparent for students from a different language background.

References

Seattle University, Graduate Writing Center: Inclusive Language

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Hofstede Insights

eLearn Magazine: A Fundamental Looks at Cultural Diversity and the Online Classroom 

He Bai (2016) A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Advertisements from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures

Educational Technology & Society: Cultural Differences in Online Learning

Studies in Educational Evaluation: Student perceptions of hidden messages in teacher written feedback

When looking at the name Serverless, it may seem obvious what Serverless is; the lack of a server for an application. The name is actually quite deceiving, as Serverless applications still require servers to perform their duties. Serverless actually refers to a collection of managed cloud services that help to run our applications including storage, databases, functions, back and forth data transfer and more. With serverless, a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure handle all the configuration, provisioning and management of the server instead of the developer. In simple terms, this means organizations adopting a serverless architecture will be saving a lot of time and money by removing the need to worry about setting up and managing servers.

The Platform Development Team (part of the multimedia group at Oregon State University Ecampus) builds and maintains a number of platforms that leverage Serverless. Web Platforms are pieces of software that facilitate the creation and consumption of content or activities at scale. By using Serverless, our team has experienced a huge decrease in time needed to develop and deploy new platforms and applications. Without the need for our team to configure and manage servers we can handle the setup of our backend for new applications more quickly and efficiently. Any support needed for a dedicated server has also completely disappeared, that is now all handled by the cloud provider. Another huge money saver for our team has been the lack of need for a dedicated server (a server dedicated to you, not shared with anyone else). In the past when using a dedicated server, you would have to pay for both the server, in addition to any resources dedicated to that server, these costs continue to occur even when the server is not in use. With Serverless, you simply pay for what you use, this means when our applications are not receiving requests we are not being charged. When a serverless architecture is performing jobs, the costs accrued are very small, each job costing less than a fraction of a penny. The combination of both an increase in our speed to produce new applications and the lower price tag of using Serverless to handle tasks has allowed our team to undoubtedly save on development costs and provide software to users in a timelier manner.

Apart from its cost benefits, there are also many other positives to using a serverless architecture. These include security, scalability and accessibility. Because the server is no longer managed by the developer, many of the security aspects for applications that a developer would have had to manage in the past are handled by the cloud provider. There are still many security concerns a developer has to consider and handle outside of what the cloud provider handles, but Serverless helps reduce the list of concerns for the developer. Scalability is also a huge plus. As an application gets more popular or starts receiving more requests, Serverless allows scaling to handle those requests. With a dedicated server you would need to manually increase resources. Often when increasing the resources for a dedicated server there will likely be a good portion of those resources going to waste (wasted resources means wasted money), especially as the application receives different levels of traffic at different times. With Serverless, there is no need to worry about wasting resources because it only uses what is needed and scales to the amount of traffic an application is receiving. One of the main goals of our team is to make everything that we develop fully accessible. Serverless helps to us achieve this goal by being offering the ability to deliver content from different regions all over the world, rather than being dependent on a delivering all content from dedicated server located in Oregon. This allows students to more easily access our content and at higher speeds.

Ecampus’ Platform Development Team has seen so many benefits from using the serverless architecture over a dedicated server that it is now used in almost everything that we do. Every single one of our platforms including NES (our platform designed to handle long form content), SLIDE (our platform designed to add interactivity to slideshows), VDL (our platform designed to add interactivity to videos) and the upcoming interactive labs platform all have fully adopted a serverless architecture, which has helped us in producing interactive content for Ecampus’ courses in lightning fast speeds. We can also now utilize the time we have saved to improve our platforms and the overall interactive content that is used in Ecampus’ courses. In summary, Serverless has not only saved our team time and money but also has allowed us to offer better learning experiences to students taking Ecampus’ courses.

Author – David Jansen

Over the last several years, research on online education has been growing rapidly. There has been an increased demand for quality research online teaching and learning. This demand now seems more urgent as teaching modalities are changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2016, the Ecampus Research Unit has been funding OSU faculty-led research on online and hybrid education through the Ecampus Research Fellows Program. The goals of the program are the following:

  • To fund research that is actionable and that impacts students’ learning online;
  • To provide the resources and support to “seed” pilot research leading to external grant applications;
  • To promote effective assessment of online learning at the course and program-levels at OSU;
  • To encourage the development of a robust research pipeline on online teaching and learning at OSU.

Ecampus Research Fellows are funded for one year to engage in an independent research project on a topic related to online teaching and learning. Fellows may apply for up to $20,000 to support their research project. Up to 5 projects are funded each year. The program follows a cohort model in which fellows meet on a quarterly basis as a group to discuss their projects and receive support from the Research Unit. Each fellow completes an Institutional Review Board (IRB)-approved independent research project, and they are required to write a white paper based on their project results. The program’s white papers are published by the Ecampus Research Unit.

Actionable research impacting online education

In the past five years, the program has funded 24 projects with 34 faculty from across the university. The funded research has been conducted in anthropology, biology, chemistry, education, engineering, geography, mathematics, philosophy, physics, psychology public health, rangeland science, sociology, statistics and veterinary medicine. The faculty have benefitted from having dedicated time and resources to undertake these research projects. Their fellows’ projects are significant for their own research pipelines, and their findings are valuable Ecampus as we continue to innovate in our development of online courses. An example is geography instructor, Damien Hommel’s project, which led to a larger effort toward expanding experiential education for Ecampus courses beyond his discipline. Other fellows’ projects are providing valuable information about peer influence, inclusive teaching, hybrid laboratories, video segmentation, online research platforms, and more.

Becoming a research fellow

Are you an OSU faculty member interested in doing research on online education in your discipline? Previous experience with classroom-based or human subjects research is not a requirement. The Ecampus Research Unit is available to support you with your application and the research design process. We will be accepting our 6th cohort in 2021. The application is available now and is due on November 1st. Funded projects will be notified by December 1st.

If you have questions about the program contact Mary Ellen Dello Stritto (maryellen.dellostritto@oregonstate.edu), the director of research for OSU Ecampus. Additionally, attend an information session on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 1p.m. or Friday, October 2, 2020 at 11a.m. To register for one of these information sessions email: maryellen.dellostritto@oregonstate.edu.

About the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit

The Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit responds to and forecasts the needs and challenges of the online education field through conducting original research; fostering strategic collaborations; and creating evidence-based resources and tools that contribute to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The OSU Ecampus Research Unit is part of Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s top-ranked online education provider. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.

 

Assignments are an integral component of the educational experience to guide the teaching and learning processes. In fact, Dougherty (2012) contends that assignments are instructional events that aim to teach for learning, that is “recipes for instructional events— lessons in the best sense— and their main function is to create a context for teaching new content and skills and practicing learned ones.” (p. 23). Assignments as instructional plans provide students with the opportunities to apply concepts they studied in the class. Further, through assignments, students can demonstrate the skills developed in a unit of content in more concrete ways and aligned to the goals of the course.

In my consultations with instructors I often hear them raise concerns about course assignments. These concerns range from making assignments more practical and relevant, clarifying the purpose and instructions, integrating problem-solving and critical thinking, to including authentic and experiential tasks. In addition, I hear instructors mention that some assignments that students submit are incomplete, offer superficial and unsubstantiated arguments (i.e., written reports), focus on tangential ideas, have been googled, reflect bias, and are simple opinions using non-credible sources. These concerns are very valid and it is important to examine the assignments deeper. What I have noticed is that some assignment descriptions lack a purpose and clarity. In a word, assignments need to be transparent

Determining the structure of an assignment bears the questions of how can instructors make the assignments learning events that are clear and relevant enough for students? how can students not only demonstrate what they learn, but also use the assignments as catalysts for further intellectual and academic challenges? Let’s take a closer look at transparency.

Transparency

The first time I heard about transparency in assignment design was at the Wakonse Teaching and Learning conference a few years go. Several sessions and small group activities at the conference showed us that the assignments need to have a clear structure, detailed instructions, and a grading criteria. Obviously! I said to myself at the time. However, the reality is that assignments tend to be reduced to a list of instructions, tasks that students need to complete and submit for a grade. In some cases these instructions vaguely indicate the grading criteria in terms of the format and style (i.e., number of words, font size, spacing). 

The underlying framework for transparent assignments is a structure that clearly describes the purpose of the assignment, the instructions or tasks, and the grading criteria (Dougherty, 2012; Winkelmes, 2013; Winkelmes, Bernacki, Butler, Zochowski, Golanics, & Weavil, 2016). Winkelmess and colleagues (2016) draw from three theoretical bases to support the three-stage framework: metacognition, agency, and performance monitoring. Contrastively, Dougherty (2012) draws from instructional strategies informed by backward design and alignment to outcomes to set the assignment structure. In this framework, instructors deliberately design the assignment for high quality learning experience and relevance to students. In their research study, Winkelmess and colleagues (2016) found that students who received transparent assignments showed evidence of greater learning in three areas related to student success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of skills. 

Designing transparent assignments involve creating a clear and coherent architecture. Through this structure students can think deeper about the concepts studied, focus their attention on particular topics, make connections to real-world contexts, and see the relevance for their future lives and goals (Dougherty, 2012). In doing so, instructors need to create a harmonious structure that clearly explains why students need to do an assignment, what is the assignment about, how to do the assignment, and how they will be graded on it.

When I presented this architecture to one instructor, he replied “you are asking me to tell students the answer! Why would I need to hand-hold students in this way when I want them to be problem-solvers and critical thinkers?” While this comment is valid, and also paralyzed me for a few seconds, I engaged the instructor in discussing what the assignments need to be clear. For instance, we talked about how students will know what to do, why students should care about completing the assignment (besides the grade), and how students will meet the expectations if they don’t know the purpose and the way to complete it. In addition, I said “you want students to be problem-solvers of the content and topics, not problem-solvers of the assignment design.”

A transparent assignment should have the following three basic components: purpose, task, and grading criteria.

Purpose

The starting point in an assignment is to be able to answer the question of why? Why will students learn from this assignment? Why will students need to complete this assignment? Why is this assignment important in students’ learning? Stating the purpose of the assignment serves a two-fold objective. First, it gives the instructor a frame of reference for creating an activity that is relevant and meaningful to students, and that connects to the learning outcomes. Second, the purpose of the assignment gives students a focus and a sense of direction. 

Winkelmes (2013) suggests establishing the purpose in terms of the skills students will practice and the knowledge they will gain. In addition, the purpose can also be determined by contextualizing the learning outcomes in practical ways within the activity.  

Task

You can call it tasks, details, instructions, steps, or other. In this structure, the instructor describes what students need to do, what resources they can use, and the expectations of the assignments. Having a clear set of instructions makes the assignment more rigorous and helps students produce more high-quality work.

Grading Criteria

Providing the criteria of how the assignment will be graded will also give students a sense of clarity and direction. Clear expectations through a rubric or grading guidelines helps students adhere to the outcomes of the assignment. Winkelmes (2013) suggests including several examples of real-world problems so students can see how the application of knowledge and skills will look like.

Remarks

A transparent assignment should have a well-structured framework or an architecture of steps. Transparency in assignments is a mindset, a way of thinking, the vision that students are given clear and relevant learning events that allow them to demonstrate their learning, and foster their engagement. Transparent assignments can be designed as stand-alone pieces or as a multi-stage assignment. Multi-stage assignments can build on cognitive complexity, include multiple skills, and extend learning to outside the class. In our next blog, I will look at how to design multi-stage assignments. 

Sources

Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter: Making the connections that help students meet standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Winkelmes, M. 2013. “Transparency in Learning and Teaching: Faculty and Students Benefit Directly from a Shared Focus on Learning and Teaching Processes.” NEA Higher Education Advocate, 30(1), 6-9.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash.

This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

  1. We generally avoid failure.
  2. We experience failure when playing games.
  3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid. (Juul, p. 2)

As a continuation from my last blog post considering grades and Self-Determination Theory, I wanted to take a brief side-quest into considering what it means to experience failure. Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games will provide the main outline and material for this post, while I add what lessons we might learn about feedback and course design in online settings.

Dealing with Failure

Juul outlines how games communicate through feedback using the theory of Learned Helplessness. Specifically, he focuses on Weiner’s attribution theory, which has three dimensions:

  1. Internal vs. External Failure
    1. Internal: The failure is the fault of the player. “I don’t have the skills to defeat this enemy right now.”
    2. External: The failure is the fault of the game. “The camera moved in a way that I couldn’t see or control and resulted in a game over.”
  2. Stable vs. Unstable Failure
    1. Stable: The failure will be consistent. No recognition of experience gained or improvement. “No matter what I do, I can’t get past this challenge.”
    2. Unstable: The failure is temporary. There is a possibility for future success. “I can improve and try again.”
  3. Global vs. Specific Failure
    1. Global: There is a general inability preventing success. “I am not good at playing video games.”
    2. Specific: Poor performance does not reflect on our general abilities or intelligence. “I’m not good at flight simulators, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad at all video games.”

In general, a combination of Internal+Stable+Global failure feedback would contribute most strongly toward a player adopting a learned helplessness mindset. There is a potential parallel here with course design: when a student does not do well on an assessment, what kind of feedback are they receiving? In particular, are they receiving signals that there is no opportunity for improvement (stable failure) and that it shows a general inability at the given task (global failure)? Designing assessments so that setbacks are unstable (offer multiple attempts and a way for students to observe their own improvement over time) and communicating specific skills to improve (make sure feedback pinpoints how a student could improve) would help students bounce back from a “game over” scenario. But what about internal vs. external failure? For Juul, “this marks another return of the paradox of failure: it is only through feeling responsible for failure (which we dislike) that we can feel responsible for escaping failure (which we like)” (p. 54). This importance of internal failure aligns with what we know about metacognition (Berthoff, “Dialectical notebooks and the audit of meaning”) and the numerous benefits of reflection in learning.

Succeeding from Failure

Now that we have an idea on how we deal with failure, let’s consider how we can turn that failure into success! “Games then promise players the possibility of success through three different kinds of fairness or three different paths: skill, chance, and labor” (Juul, p. 74):

  1. Skill: Learning through failure, emphasis on improvement with each attempt. (This is also very motivating by being competence-supportive!)
  2. Chance: We try again to see if we get lucky.
  3. Labor: Incremental progress on small tasks accumulates more abilities and items that persist through time and multiple play sessions. Emphasis here is on incremental growth over time through repetition. (Animal Crossing is a great example.) (This path is also supported by Dweck’s growth mindset.)

Many games reward players for all three of these paths to success. In an online course, allowing flexibility in assignment strategies can help students explore different routes to success. For example, a final project could allow for numerous format types, like a paper, podcast, video tutorial, interactive poster, etc. that students choose strategically based on their own skills and interests. Recognizing improvement will help students with their skills and helping students establish a routine of smaller, simpler tasks that build over an entire course can help them succeed through labor. Chance is an interesting thing to think about in terms of courses, but I like to think of this as it relates to content. Maybe a student “gets lucky” by having a discussion topic align with their final project topic, for example. For the student in that example, that discussion would come easier to them by chance. Diversifying content and assignment types can help different individuals and groups of students feel like they have “lucky” moments in a course.

Reflecting on Failure

Finally, how do games give us the opportunity to reflect on our successes and failures during gameplay? Juul outlines three types of goals that “make failure personal in a different way and integrates a game into our life in its own way” (pp. 86–87):

  1. Completable Goal: Often the result of a linear path and has a definite end.
    1. These can be game- or player-created. (i.e., Game-Driven: Defeat the ghost haunting the castle. Player-Driven: I want to defeat the ghost without using magic.)
  2. Transient Goal: Specific, one-time game sessions with no defined end, but played in rounds. (e.g., winning or losing a single round of Mario Kart.)
  3. Improvement Goal: Completing a personal best score, where a new high score sets a new goal.

For Juul, each of these goal-types have different “existential implications: while working toward a completable goal, we are permanently inscribed with a deficiency, and reaching the goal removes that deficiency, perhaps also removing the desire to play again. On the other hand, we can never make up for failure against a transient goal (since a lost match will always be lost), whereas an improvement goal is a continued process of personal progress” (pp. 86–87). When thinking about your courses, what kinds of goals do you design for? Many courses have single-attempt assignments (transient goal), but what if those were designed to be improvement goals, where students worked toward improving on their previous work in a more iterative way that replaced old scores with new and improved scores (improvement goal)? Are there opportunities for students to create their own challenging completable goals?

I hope this post shines a light on some different ways of thinking about assessment design, feedback types, and making opportunities for students to “fail safely” based on how these designs are achieved in gaming. To sum everything up, “skill, labor, and chance make us feel deficient in different ways when we fail. Transient, improvement, and completable goals distribute our flaws, our failures, and successes in different ways across our lifetimes” (Juul, p. 90).

Introduction to Intersectionality

In 1989, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer and scholar of Critical Race Theory (CRT), coined the term intersectionality to describe the multiple and layered oppressions experienced by African American women. Over time, this term has been used to describe many aspects of social identity, particularly focusing on race, gender, and class oppression. Intersectionality allows us to consider the impact of multiple oppressions on individuals and groups. For example, asking what it means to be poor in the United States is different from asking what it means to be a poor, Black, woman in the United States, which is different from asking what it means to be a poor, Black, disabled woman in the Southern United States. 

Intersectionality matters because, if we don’t recognize and support our most marginalized citizens, they will continue to fall through the cracks. In colleges and universities, this means that our most marginalized students may need additional support to perform to their full potential. Addressing one source of oppression may not provide enough support to students who are working to overcome multiple sources of oppression.

Disability in Higher Ed

Disability is an obstacle for many college students. Consider these statistics:

  • 19% of undergraduate students report having a disability. 
  • 28% of American Indian/Alaska Native students reported a disability.
  • 21% of White students reported having a disability (rounded to nearest percent). 
  • 17% of the students with disabilities are Black. (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2019).

When considering disability–or any other identity–we need to consider how other characteristics might compound the marginalization of students with disabilities. Let’s consider how race intersects with disability.

While the percentage of Black people with disabilities in higher education is lower than the percentage of White people with disabilities in higher education, in the general population, the reverse is true. According to Courtney-Long, E.A., Romano, S.D., Carroll, D.D. et al. (2017), 1 in 4 Black people have a disability, while 1 in 5 White people have a disability. This means that more white people with disabilities are accessing and progressing through higher education

It is also important to recognize that the actual percentages of students with disabilities is higher as many students choose not to disclose their disabilities to their institutions. According to one study, “9% of students who identified as disabled did not disclose this information to their college or university” (Taylor & Shallish, 2019, p. 10).

There are clearly opportunity and equity issues that disproportionately impact students of color with disabilities in higher education. 

Yet, when we work to create learning environments that are inclusive of students with disabilities, we often neglect to address intersecting sources of oppression. For example, accessibility requirements do not consider how disability intersects with other oppressions, such as class or race. 

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach that is commonly cited as a way to meet the needs of all learners. UDL includes a framework with three general principles (multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression) each of which includes multiple guidelines and checkpoints for actual practice (CAST.org, n.d.). The goal of UDL is to increase access and usability for the greatest number of people possible. A UDL approach is structured and practical and, despite the critiques included here, is lauded for its utility by course designers and teachers alike. 

UDL, however, does not meet the needs of all learners, particularly our most marginalized learners. Let me repeat: UDL does not meet the needs of our most marginalized learners, as much as we would like to believe it does. Let me highlight a few of the reasons for this.

  1. As Dolmage (2017) explains in the book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, UDL’s emphasis on universality is problematic because universality is connected to normativity. (p. 134). Dolmage (2017) states that UDL has gained recognition by appealing to the majority, but in doing so “the needs of the majority once again trump the needs of those who have been traditionally excluded—people with disabilities” (p. 135). UDL is viewed as a framework for addressing the needs of disabled students, but its actual emphasis is on meeting the needs of the majority.
  2. With its emphasis on “multiple means” UDL aims to include multiple learner identities and preferences; however, it “overlooks the importance of feedback from its own users” (Dolmage, 2017, p. 126). In this way, UDL ignores the individual circumstances of actual students
  3. By focusing on the “means,” over the students themselves, UDL is not an intersectional approach to design and teaching. Defining what a Universal Design looks like without considering the particularized realities of actual students results in the continued marginalization and erasure of students who are not in the majority. 

UDL has popularized educational practices that serve many students, but in doing so, it has effectively erased the needs of some of the most marginalized students–those with disabilities. Those students with disabilities who are also part of other oppressed groups are increasingly at a disadvantage.

There’s no doubt that UDL is an incredibly useful tool and makes our course designs better, but we must not fail to recognize that UDL is not a panacea. UDL should be one of many tools we use to meet the needs of students, but let’s not forget that we need a truly intersectional approach to design and teaching. Without this, we, unwittingly or not, are contributing to the marginalization and erasure of our most disadvantaged students.

References

About Universal Design for Learning. (n.d.). CAST.org. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html

Courtney-Long, E.A., Romano, S.D., Carroll, D.D. et al. (2017). Socioeconomic Factors at the Intersection of Race and Ethnicity Influencing Health Risks for People with Disabilities. J. Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 4, 213–222. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-016-0220-5 

Dolmage, J. (2017). Universal Design. In Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education (pp. 115-152). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr33d50.7

Taylor, A. & Shallish, L. (2019). The logic of bio-meritocracy in the promotion of higher education equity, Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2019.1613962

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017 (2018-070), Chapter 3. Retrieved June 10, 2020 from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60