The following is a guest blog post from Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia, MLA. Aimee completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during the Fall of 2022.

Have you ever found yourself reading the same paragraph over and over again only to not retain any information? Or been so overwhelmed with the content you’re trying to read that you’re unable to absorb any of it? Odds are that it may not just be the content you’re trying to read; it may be the way the information is laid out. One way to help read and retain information is to make the text more readable.

Making information readable in your online course can seem overwhelming, but there are a few steps that you can take to make the content more digestible for students.

What is Readability?

First off – what is readability?  Readability is defined as “the ease in which a reader can comprehend text” (Calonia, 2020). Readability is a vital aspect to keep in mind as you design online courses. It not only makes the content of the class easier to read but increases the likelihood that students will understand the faculty’s content through lectures and discussions.  Better readability also decreases the risk of students misunderstanding the content, experiencing frustration, and increases the risk of students becoming disinterested in interacting with the course.  Though there are multiple options to make content more readable, there are five ways that you can adapt the content in your course: chunking content, using whitespace, avoiding wordiness, creating infographics, and utilizing color.

Chunking Content

What does “chunking content” mean? Chunking means breaking content into smaller chunks to make it easier to understand. This strategy originates from the field of cognitive psychology, which has proven that the human brain can “process, understand, and remember information better when broken into smaller pieces” (Moran, 2016).

Let’s demonstrate!

Below are the first two paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:

Chapter One
The Boy Who Lived
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

When reading through this excerpt, it’s easy for your eyes to scan through the information without comprehending it.  There are a few common methods that will help with chunking your material: make your paragraphs shorter, add space between your paragraphs, and develop clear hierarchies of text.

Utilizing these methods, let’s make this paragraph more readable:

Chapter One

The Boy Who Lived

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Using Whitespace

Whitespace is defined as “empty space between and around elements of a page” (Babich, 2017). Whitespace creates a backdrop or frame to make your content easier to read.  Like chunking information, whitespace allows the eye to find information easily.  Take these slides for example:

“Plastic Coffee Cup on Book” by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Do you notice how much easier it is to read the different types of coffee drinks on the slide that has more white space? In a study done by Wichita State University, research confirmed that increasing the amount of whitespace actually improves reading comprehension!

Avoiding Wordiness

We’ve all experienced reading material that has excessive wordiness. In a manner of speaking, “wordiness means using more words than necessary within a sentence, especially short, vague words that do not add much meaning” (Eliminating Wordiness, 2022). Unfortunately, the overuse of unnecessary words can muddle ideas and cause confusion for students.

To decrease wordiness, focus on the key points you want to convey and use an active voice instead of a passive voice. Consider the following example:

All of the students who are new to this university are required ot attend an orientatin that has been scheduled for December 1st.”

When reading this sentence, it’s difficult to decipher what the necessary information is for the reader to understand. Instead, let’s focus on the key points and use an active voice in this sentence:

“New students are required to attend orientation on December 1st.”

Here, we eliminated the unnecessary wording, allowing readers to understand the message the sentence is trying to convey.

Use Visuals

Pictures speak louder than words! Using visual media, such as infographics, pictures, videos, animations, and films, make content easier for students to understand and could decrease the amount of writing you have to do for the class! You can obtain visual media through free online resources such as Pexels, Pixabay, or Openverse or created on your own (Canva is a favorite for me).

So, instead of using this:

Cells are the building blocks of life. A cell is composed of cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, and mitochondria. Cytoplasm is made up of a jell-like structure that contains the contents of the cell. The nucleus serves as the command center and is typically the largest part of the inside of the cell. Ribosomes are tiny parts of the cell that make proteins and mitochondria are jelly-bean shaped and create energy from the food we eat.

Try this!

Labeled animal cell
Image by brgfx on Freepik

Color

Color makes a significant impact on the readability of your page. This can be easy to overlook, as we typically use the standard black font/white background combination. However, adding color to words or backgrounds can bring attention to a message you’re trying to convey. There are ways to do this successfully and ways to add color poorly.

Color choice example - difficult to read.

Looking at the red text on the first example can be challenging for someone with no vision issues. Imagine the difficulty students who have a visual impairment can have – in particular, red/green color blindness.

On the second example, having a text color that is nearly the same shade as the background can make reading the text nearly impossible. It takes effort to read the quote in the example – can you imagine reading a scholarly journal with the same formatting?

Don’t let these examples dissuade you from trying text colors and backgrounds! To verify if a color combination is readable, visit the Contrast Checker page, enter the RGB or RYB codes and the website will notify you if the color combinations are reader-friendly.

Color showing higher contrast

Conclusion

Drafting your site can be overwhelming when considering readability, but there are several steps you can take to make the course content easier to understand.

  • Chunking content helps break text into smaller pieces so content is easier for students to digest.
  • Whitespace provides empty space for your content to pop
  • Avoiding wordiness can make your content and message clearer
  • Using visuals allows you to utilize pictures, videos, infographics, and other media to convey content
  • Strategic use of color on your page can make reading the material more comfortable and less straining for all students, including those with vision impairments.

Below are links to resources and tools if you’d like to dive into more information about readability and the impact it has on the success of students of online students. Thanks for reading!

References

Babich, N. (2017, June 30). The power of whitespace. UX Planet. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://uxplanet.org/the-power-of-whitespace-a1a95e45f82b

Calonia, J. (2020, September 2). What is readability? Grammarly Blog. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/readability/

Eliminating wordiness. (2022). Hamilton College. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/eliminating-wordiness

Moran, K. (2016, March 20). How chunking helps content processing. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/chunking/

Sabo, C. (2018, June 19). Getting started guide: using infographics for teaching and learning. Learning Technologies. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.codlearningtech.org/2018/06/19/getting-started-guide-using-infographics-for-teaching-and-learning/

Wordiness. (2022). Las Positas College Reading & Writing Center. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.laspositascollege.edu/raw/wordiness.php#:~:text=Wordiness%20means%20using%20more%20words,main%20focus%20of%20the%20sentence

As a new term begins, we are often thinking about the logistics of our courses, the Syllabus and course schedule, and ensuring everything is working properly. For our students, these early weeks set the tone for what they might expect from their courses and from their instructors. Your first announcement, the language and tone in the Syllabus, how you greet incoming students – these small actions all help to create a welcoming environment for your course. When students feel included in a positive course climate, they are more motivated and engaged in learning.

In the weeks ahead, some students will likely reach out to you with concerns or information about major events going on in their lives. Faculty are often the first to hear of health issues, death in the family, deployment, financial matters, and a variety of mental health concerns and needs. In prior surveys, Ecampus students have shared that the most important relationship in their college career is with their instructor(s), rated higher than their advisors or other student support professionals around campus. When life happens, you are often the first person a student thinks to reach out to for support and direction. Last year, Ecampus put forth the Online Teaching Principles, derived from research-based best practices. The principle “Reach Out and Refer” directly relates to what we can do when our students need some additional support.

Check in with students who may be struggling, and refer students to the appropriate technology, academic or student support services in response to their articulated or observed needs.

Oregon State University Ecampus, Online Teaching Principle: Reach Out And Refer

When students reach out, your care, concern for their well-being, and support is sometimes enough to help the student. That may look like an assignment extension, acknowledgement of their circumstances, setting up a time to speak, or a variety of other measures. At other times, there are situations when making a referral to the appropriate resource or department is the best course of action. In these instances, it is important to remain calm and formulate a plan.

OSU’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) department shares the following about making student referrals:

When to Make A Referral

There are situations when making a referral is the best option for both you and the student. For example:

  • You know that you can’t handle the request or the behavior. There are limits to the kinds of help a faculty or staff member can provide.
  • You believe that personality differences will interfere with your ability to help.
  • You know the student personally and believe that you could not be objective.
  • You feel overwhelmed, pressed for time, or stressed.
  • The student acknowledges a problem but is reluctant to discuss it with you.
  • After working with the student for some time, you realize that you don’t know how to proceed.
  • The student’s problems are better handled through services such as CAPS, Financial Aid, the Registrar’s Office, Affirmative Action, or Legal Advising.

How to Make a Referral

Some people accept a referral for professional help more easily than others do.  Here are some tips for making a successful referral.

  • Let the student know that it is not necessary to know exactly what is wrong in order to seek assistance.
  • Assure the student that seeking help does not necessarily mean that their problems are unusual or extremely serious.
  • Be frank with students about your own limits of time, energy, training, objectivity, and willingness to help.
  • If appropriate, suggest that the student consider talking with family members, friends, clergy, community agencies, and campus offices.

CAPS provides consultations to faculty and staff who have urgent concerns about a student. If you have an immediate need, please call 541-737-2131.  Phone counselors are available after hours. If you or a person of concern are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 off campus or 541-737-7000 on campus.

The Student Care Team has compiled a chart (pictured below) of Resources For Consultation and Referral for AY 22 that can be referenced via their Box folder.

Resources for instructors

There are a wide variety of concerns that a student may bring to you. It can be time-consuming to identify the available resources and get students to the right area. There are a few main webpages you can bookmark that outline the resources available to our Ecampus students.

  1. Student Resources For Ecampus Students – This page on the Ecampus website maintains a comprehensive list of all resources available to Ecampus students. It includes academic resources, emergency food and housing, disability access services, mental health, technical support, and more. This is a great page to bookmark and/or print the PDF version that is linked at the bottom of the webpage.
  2. Student Care Team – This Box folder contains resources for faculty including a referral and consultation chart and tips for working with distressed students.
  3. In Crisis Support For Students (CAPS) – 24/7 support for students in crisis. Includes contact information for CAPS, Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, and more.
  4. If You Are Concerned About A Student (CAPS) – Faculty/staff member consultation form. You can also call 541-737-2131 for a more immediate response.
  5. Ecampus Student Services – If your student is not in crisis, but you are unsure where to start, directing them to our student services representatives is a great option. They assist students with navigating OSU resources and are the first point of contact for student inquiries. Phone: 800-667-1465 (select option 1) or Email: ecampus.ess@oregonstate.edu.
  6. Ecampus Student Success Coaching – If you feel that your student(s) could benefit from individualized, strengths-based academic counseling, you can refer them to the success coaching team. This group works with all undergraduate Ecampus students.

The following is a guest blog post from Michelle Coxey. Michelle completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during the Fall of 2022.

Bolsover Castle
“Bolsover Castle” by David Merrett is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ian Wilkins is a high school language arts teacher, but besides the students, his passion is social justice. He shares a powerful metaphor that education is like a heavily gated castle. Those inside the castle are comfortable and safe and do not realize that the people outside are hungry (Chardin & Novak, 2021). If someone opens the gate and admits a person from the outside, would that person feel comfortable and safe inside like everyone already there? Would they know the rules of the castle? Would they feel like they fit in and deserved to be there? Would the food inside reflect their own tastes, needs, and preferences? Would they stay, or would they want to return to their own comfort zone outside with their family?

If higher education is the castle, who belongs inside the castle?

Because of financial aid and diversity efforts in admissions, first-generation and low-income (FLI) students usually have access to higher education. But 90% of FLI students do not graduate from college within six years (Zinshteyn, 2016). The gates to the castle are open, but why don’t FLI students stay?

Inclusion goes beyond admissions. A student’s experience and motivation to stay is heavily influenced by the inclusiveness of the design in online courses. As a result, instructional designers are in an ideal position to design courses that are more aligned with life for FLI students outside of the virtual classroom. 

Imposter Syndrome

If you are reading this, you have experienced it at some point in your career, no doubt. Imposter syndrome is that uncomfortable feeling that you are incompetent and have fooled everyone into thinking that you belong. Imposter syndrome is a nearly universal experience and has been studied since the 1970’s. However, in the last few years, researchers and social justice activists have suggested that imposter syndrome is actually the result of systemic bias. As white people, especially men, advance in their education and careers, they develop more confidence, and the feelings of imposter syndrome usually go away. However, because of systemic bias, people with marginalized identities feel more like a fraud the further they advance in their education and careers (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021).

College is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. Most new college students have a steep learning curve and feel insecure, but the struggles are amplified for FLI students. The structure and culture of higher education is very different from the circumstances and environments they grew up in. Many FLI students blame themselves, assuming they aren’t working hard enough. Yet, cultural and social differences are to blame for their imposter feelings. 

Instructional Designers Can Help

Former U.S. President Barack Obama (2010) said, “The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.” If he is correct, instructional designers hold a lot of power because we are working to provide a world-class education for others (U.S. News, n.d.). Plus, we have managed to successfully navigate higher education ourselves and have constant access to learning in our jobs. Additionally, instructional designers are on the front lines of dismantling imposter syndrome by guiding and training instructors and designing courses and learning activities with FLI students in mind.

In addition to the research-based best practices for engagement, inclusion, and assignment transparency when designing online courses, instructional designers should consider the income demographics of online students. Online students are often FLI students. Fifty percent of online students’ family income is below $39,000 a year (Classes and Careers, 2018). Online students are likely to be working and juggling family responsibilities in addition to taking classes (OSU, 2020). They may not be taking classes online because it is the ideal learning environment for them, but because they need to fit education into their other responsibilities. Additionally, some online students pursue disciplines and majors they don’t love because of scheduling convenience or because a particular degree will bring financial security.

Instructional designers can relieve some of the pressure and insecurity for FLI students by intentionally creating an inclusive space in every course. Here are twelve research-based suggestions for how instructional designers can be inclusive of FLI students when designing courses and collaborating with instructors.

  1. Find out who the FLI students are in each course. In addition to helping instructors understand the demographics of Ecampus students, designers could encourage instructors to learn which students are FLI students. Instructors could have an informal conversation or could give an assignment where students share how their background and culture relate to the class subject. Andragogy emphasizes the importance of student experience in learning. When instructors help students see that their social class affects their college experience, the student’s life experiences can be an anchor to attach what they learn in class (Checkoway, 2018).
  2. Help students embrace their identity. Find opportunities for students to embrace their identity, regularly share about their lives, and solve problems in their own families and communities. Give students plenty of choice, provide examples using a variety of cultures, and consider topics and stories that people with a low-income can relate to. Students should analyze case studies involving situations and organizations they are familiar with. If material is real to the student, they can grasp it quicker. For example, students could learn velocity using the model of car they drive, or write an essay on a policy issue they care about (Checkoway, 2018).
  3. Encourage Small group work. Higher education in the U.S. caters to an individualistic, independent, and merit-based culture. This is even more true in online courses where everyone works asynchronously. However, FLI students often come from interdependent cultures (Canning et al., 2019; Stephens et al., 2012; Townsend et al., 2021). Group activities help students collaborate and connect with each other, supporting students that struggle with imposter syndrome or that feel more comfortable working with others.
  4. Eliminate competition between students. Competition in STEM classes increase feelings of imposter syndrome for all students, especially FLI students (Canning et al., 2019). Encourage instructors to eliminate competitive activities, such as requiring students to promote themselves in online discussions. Also, grading on a curve creates a hierarchy that causes anxiety and self-doubt in a lot of students. And last, encourage instructors to include opportunities for collaboration and cooperation and be clear that all students can succeed.
  5. Double down on inclusion in STEM classes. Extra care should be taken to support FLI students when designing and teaching STEM classes. In STEM programs, the number of FLI students is only 20 percent (Peña et al., 2022). This is especially problematic because the stakes are high for FLI students in STEM classes because students who pursue STEM careers earn significantly higher salaries. Instructional designers should design activities that help students see themselves as scientists.
  6. Design low-stakes formative assessments. Design several low-stakes formative assessments early in the course to address learning gaps in students with less confidence or experience. These assignments help FLI students learn the “hidden curriculum” of higher education, which includes expectations about assignments that are often “unspoken” or implied (Tyson, 2014). FLI students may not know to ask questions, so these assignments should be designed to provide early feedback, identify students needing more support resources, and clarify misunderstandings about policies and expectations.
  7. Use Inclusive language. Encourage instructors to use supportive and inclusive language and avoid jargon in syllabi, assignment instructions, and informal videos. This helps students without experience feel like they belong in the course.
  8. Apply course concepts to the real world. Help instructors become transparent with how assignments and course outcomes develop skills that are useful in the real-world. This effort benefits all students but especially helps students that are in danger of dropping the course see the long-term value of sticking with it.
  9. Design social annotation activities. With social annotation, students collaborate to annotate an open educational resource (OER). This learning activity promotes interdependence and shared meaning-making among classmates. Hypothesis, NowComment, Perusal, and Diigo are a few popular tools for social annotation (Farber, 2019).
  10. Identify career paths. FLI students may not have access to insights about careers, education, research, or internships. Encourage instructors to share details about their own career path and professional development as well as how to navigate different careers within the discipline. Instructional designers could create a discussion board for students to ask and answer questions with their peers about future careers.
  11. Encourage financial sensitivity. Consider using low or no-cost learning resources. Use OER, older editions of textbooks, and if a high-cost text is necessary, justify it. Also, work with the campus library to see if required textbooks can be made available online. And last, encourage instructors to teach students how to access, read, bookmark, highlight, and annotate digital resources so they can get the most out of their study sessions.
  12. Explicitly explain office hours. Explicitly state that students are encouraged to contact the instructor with questions. Explain what office hours are, that they are useful for creating supportive bonds between instructors and students, and that students are invited to go anytime. Many FLI students feel intimidated by going or do not even realize how speaking with the professor would be useful (Tyson, 2014).

Circling back to the castle metaphor, the castle is comfortable if you already are used to the structure and culture of higher education. But to help FLI students feel confident and successful, instructional designers can design courses more in line with life for FLI students outside the gates. Instead of molding FLI students to fit in at college, instructional designers can adapt to them, designing courses with a focus on interdependent and collaborative learning activities.

References

Canning, E., LaCrosse, J., Kroeper, K., & Murphy, M. (2019, November 19). Feeling like an imposter: The effect of perceived classroom competition on the daily psychological experiences of first-generation college students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 647-657. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1948550619882032

Chardin, M. & Novak, K. (2021). Equity by design: Delivering on the power and promise of UDL. Corwin.

Checkoway, B. (2018, August 20). Inside the gates: First-generation students finding their way. Higher Education Studies, 8(3). https://doi.org/10.5539/hes.v8n3p72

Classes and Careers. (2018). Online College Student Trends [Infographic]. https://www.classesandcareers.com/online/online-college-students-growth-demographics

Farber, M. (2019, July 22). Social Annotation and the Digital Age. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/social-annotation-digital-age

Obama, B. (2010, January 7). Remarks by the President in State of the Union address [Speech]. The White House. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-state-union-address

Oregon State University Ecampus. (2020). OSU Ecampus annual student survey report. https://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/services/student-services/student-survey-2020.pdf

Peña C., Ruedas-Gracia N., Cohen J.R., Tran N., & Stratton M.B. (2022, October 6). Ten simple rules for successfully supporting first-generation/low-income (FLI) students in STEM. PLOS Computational Biology, 18(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010499

Stephens, N., Fryberg, S., Markus, H., Johnson, C., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178–1197. https://doi-org.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu/10.1037/a0027143

Townsend, S., Stephens, N., & Hamedani, M. (2021, February 9). Difference-education improves first-generation students’ grades throughout college and increases comfort with social group difference. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(10), 1510-1519. https://doi-org.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu/10.1177%2F0146167220982909

Tulshyan R. & Burey, J. (2021, February 11). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome

Tyson, C. (2014, August 4). The hidden curriculum. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/04/book-argues-mentoring-programs-should-try-unveil-colleges-hidden-curriculum

U.S. News & World Report. (n.d.). Oregon State University. Best Online Programs. https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/oregon-state-university-3210/bachelors

Zinshteyn, M. (2016, March 13). How to help first-generation students succeed. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/how-to-help-first-generation-students-succeed/473502/

We begin with a ghost story.

This story may sound familiar. It begins in a space of learning. You enter as a student. You know you will be in this place for the next two or three months with other students and an instructor. But although you know you are all there in the same space, you can’t see or hear any other students. You wander alone until you discover a pre-recorded message telling you what to do. This should be reassuring, but the person in the video doesn’t look like the instructor listed on your course schedule.

“Welcome,” says the man in the video. “In this course you will learn how to apply theoretical concepts in the real world.”

You wander around the space. An announcement appears, welcoming you to the course. It includes a picture of the instructor listed on your schedule.

“So they do exist,” you think to yourself. And yet, as you look around, all the recordings you see are of someone else. This isn’t really their class, you realize. Someone else built this place. It’s unsettling to be in this space and feel like your instructor doesn’t belong here. Maybe you don’t belong here either.

Eventually, you find the one place where you can talk to other students, but even this space feels strange and isolating. There’s writing on the wall.

Please introduce yourself.

You can see writing by other students in the class, but the instructor never makes a comment. You come back to this room several times during the term to write more, as directed. You write replies to what other students have written, but it doesn’t really feel like talking. It feels like a performance, judged by the unseen, unheard instructor who exists only in writing.

The weeks go by. You listen to a disembodied voice talking over a slideshow lecture. Your instructor makes their ghostly presence known through weekly announcements and in the grades that appear on your homework. On one assignment, you see a comment in addition to the grade:

If you would like to talk to me about your grade, please make an appointment to meet during my office hours.

But you don’t. The idea of meeting your mysterious instructor is more terrifying than a bad grade.

The term ends, and the doors open for the students to leave. Even though you did well, you feel unsatisfied with the experience. You can’t wait to leave and put this strange, unsettling experience behind you. You learned what you were supposed to learn, but the instructor was a ghost; their presence an afterimage of a creator from long ago. Months later, you realize you’ve forgotten your instructor’s name, but you never forget the man in the videos.


My ghost story was partly inspired by the story I read last year about automated courses that are still using the videos created by someone who has since passed away. Sometimes it takes a true story like this to remind us that students know when an online instructor is present, and when they are absent. They know what it’s like to be taught by a ghost–even if that instructor is still living. This story was also a stark reminder to me as an instructional designer that it doesn’t matter how well-designed a course is if the students do not feel like the instructor is actually there and present with these students, while the course is running. 

What it means for an instructor to be present in an online course was challenged by the forced shift to online teaching in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. Many teachers used Zoom or other web conferencing software to meet with students during their scheduled class times, to varying degrees of success, and varying degrees of exhaustion. Suddenly, we were not in a classroom or office and neither were our students. We saw bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, cars, parks, and parking lots. We saw parents and kids and intrusive cats. We saw a lot of camera malfunctions, heard a lot of microphone feedback, and experienced many technical difficulties.

But because this was a global crisis, there was a collective understanding that it is more important to be present than to be perfect. While online students may have already experienced the ghost in the course shell, for the first time, instructors were experiencing the other side of that ghost story. Previously embodied in a physical classroom, they were now reduced to digital images, speaking into the void of black boxes; ghosts of their former selves. They found the experience just as eerie as their students. And just like a ghost who struggles to get a message to their loved ones from beyond the grave, a lot of instructors struggled to find a way to reach their students from beyond the classroom.

In the early days of lockdown, a colleague of mine asked for help with one of his online course videos. He always recorded his video announcements the same way he recorded his lectures: inside his office, wearing a suit, looking very formal and professional. This time he wanted to do something different. He wanted to show his students that he was also feeling the strain of lockdown, and that they were all in this lockdown together. An avid walker himself, he decided that he wanted to encourage his students to go for a walk outside, and then show himself walking outside.

“How can I do that?” he asked. 

He had no idea how to make a video that did that, because he’d never seen anyone make a video like that–and no one to teach him.

“Go for a walk,” I told him. “Record a video on your phone while you’re walking and send it to me–I’ll do the rest.”

That experience led me to think about how students engage with video content that is formal and compare that to how they interact with content that is informal. Instructors can tap into what makes some of the best internet content these days–authenticity and informality–if they know how. Video is the easiest and most successful way to create authentic presence and build a sense of community with the students taking the course, and it only requires using one technology that most people use every day: a smart phone.

As an instructional designer, I want to enable and empower the faculty I work with, and that includes providing resources and support to prepare them to deliver their course as well assist with the design. I can find many articles written for educators about how to create home recording studios for professional-looking lecture videos, but I have yet to find an article that explicitly focuses on advising faculty how to make informal videos for course delivery purposes that goes beyond the theoretical to the practical, so I decided to write one. 

I’m going to focus on TikTok as the model for these videos not because I think faculty should be on TikTok, but because TikTok changed the game for authentic video engagement. Like many of my generation, I’m not on TikTok, and I needed my younger Gen Z friends to explain it to me. (PBS just premiered a documentary on TikTok as explained by Gen Z, so I am clearly not alone in this). But what I do understand, and what I think faculty can bring to their course videos, is the importance of the creator-viewer dynamic popularized by TikTok. 

What goes viral on TikTok tends to encapsulate a mood, and not require any particular technical expertise to create–like the video by the guy who recorded himself on his skateboard, sipping cranberry juice while listening to Fleetwood Mac. That kind of realness is increasingly important in a digital age where there’s a growing disconnect between “brand” and “authenticity.” It’s why corporations like Wal-Mart have moved from brand partnerships with well-known influencers on Instagram to creating their own “influencer” platform where they will pay for “real” testimonials of their products, and NBCUniversal just announced a initiative with TikTok stars to create television shows.

So how can instructional designers, media producers, and instructors tap into this zeitgeist? How do you prove to your students that you’re not a ghost lurking in the course shell? Good design for videos is often invisible–just like good design in an online course–because we experience them as a whole and they have a cumulative effect. But by looking at examples, we can identify specific elements that are associated with TikTok videos that are visually distinct from traditional videos. They also serve a different purpose, and that purpose can be supplemental to a traditional video. I’ve separated out eight individual elements in the two video examples where the design decision has a different effect on the audience. 

Design Element

YouTube

TikTok

Purpose

Educational/entertainment Announcement/call to action

Orientation

Horizontal (optimal for viewing on a television or desktop browser) Vertical (optimal for recording and viewing on a phone)

Setting

In a studio On location

Lighting Source

Stage/studio overhead Hand-held ring light

Camera Angles

Medium, multiple shots from multiple camera angles Medium, close up, extreme close up, one continuous shot

Wardrobe

“Formal” “Casual”

Audience

Speaking to a group Speaking to an individual 

Length

15 minutes 1 minute

There’s one additional element that is important to understanding why TikTok creates an immediacy with the viewer even beyond the timeliness of the video. TikTok videos are both ephemeral (in the sense that social media platforms are themselves ephemeral and therefore so is the content) and time-specific (in the sense that the content is only relevant until the event takes place). This time-specific framing and call to community is what makes the video feel so immediate and inclusive. Instructors often try to connect with students in this way through announcements or discussion boards, but it is far more difficult to try to accomplish with those tools. Video, because it is visual, and because it is such a large part of students’ daily lives, is able to make that connection far more easily.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: here are some strategies for how to create a video with TikTok vibes using existing pre-scripted announcements. 

  • Record your video on your phone. You do not need to have the latest iPhone or Pixel with a 4k camera. Remember that amateur videos are better than professional-looking videos in creating the “person to person” connection. Your students don’t all have the latest phone, and so they don’t expect you to either. There are a couple of different ways to get video from your phone to your online course. At Oregon State, we use Kaltura to host videos, and you can either upload a video from your phone directly to Kaltura, or record your video using the Zoom app on your phone, which will automatically upload to Kaltura. 
  • Keep it current. Students want to feel like their instructors are existing at the same moment in time as they are and are in a specific location–even if it’s not in the same location as they are. You can comment on the weather or changing of the seasons. And don’t hesitate to go outside! Nothing signifies real time than the weather, and think of the impact of a term-long video sequence in front of a tree as it goes from green summer, to red fall, and finally bare winter. If there are events happening on OSU’s campus, or holidays, those are also good opportunities to connect with students at a specific time.
  • Keep it short. Most of the video content students consume on social media platforms is under 5 minutes. Any longer than that and you risk losing their attention. Keeping the videos short reinforces their purpose as timely, especially if they see a new video every week.
  • Make students feel “seen.” You might comment on work that has been received, or point to meaningful discussion board posts they might have missed. You might address a question that a student brought up during office hours or by email. Students value this kind of acknowledgement, even if they are not one of the students being acknowledged. Even the tone you use in recording to the video can create that relationship between speaker and audience. Talk to the camera as if it is a person, and not just a recording device. Students want to feel like you are talking to them, not at them. 
  • Change the way they see you–visually. If all of your videos in your class are studio productions or voiceover slideshows, your students have only one idea of what you are like. Move locations. If your students only see you behind a desk or in the studio, find another location. If you can find a location that relates to the week’s topic, fantastic, but even going to your living room or kitchen will be a welcome change. Change your wardrobe. Go casual. If your formal lecture videos have you in a suit and tie in a library, dress down in a fleece or t-shirt and go outside the office–or even outdoors! (climate YMMV). Even being in a kitchen, living room, or patio will create an informality that feels authentic.
Four students working together on a project
Four students working together on a project

A term paper is a common final assignment, but does the final assignment have to be a paper? The answer depends on the type of course and the learning outcomes. If the final assignment can be an alternative to the term paper, we can consider other types of assignments that allow students not only to accomplish the learning outcomes, as expected, but also to engage more deeply with the content and exercise critical thinking. A caveat related to the discipline is important here. Fields that require a writing component may necessarily rely on the term paper which can be scaffolded through a set of stages. For assignments with a sequence of tasks, refer to staged assignments (Loftin, 2018) for details on how to design them.

A first step in moving towards considering other types of assessments is to self-reflect on the purpose of the course and what role it will play in students’ learning journeys. You can use some of the following questions as a guide to self-reflect:

Focus levelInitial self-questions
Course What is the nature of the course (e.g., practice-based, reading-intense, general education, writing-intensive, labs, etc.)?
What are the outcomes?
What level do the outcomes target (e.g., recall, analysis, evaluation)?
Discipline What do people in the discipline I teach regularly do in the work environment? Do they: write grants? or develop lesson plans? write technical reports? write articles or white papers? build portfolios? demonstrate skills? and so on…
Do all students need to complete the final assignment in the same format or can the format vary (e.g., paper, presentation, podcast)?

Taking some time to reevaluate the assessment practices in your course might be beneficial for your students who seek meaningful learning opportunities and expect relevant assignments (Jones, 2012; ). Students might also welcome variety and flexibility in how they learn and be evaluated (ASU Prep Digital, 2021; Soffer et al., 2019). 

Let’s explore alternative and authentic assessments next.

Alternative assessments

Alternative authentic assessments tend to focus on high-order and critical thinking skills –skills much appreciated these days. These assessments aim to provide more effective methods of increasing knowledge, fostering learning, and analyzing learning (Anderson, 2016; Gehr, 2021). Research also suggests that authentic assessments can increase students’ employability skills (Sotiriadou et al., 2019). However, the implementation of alternative assessments needs to transcend the status quo and become a critical element that allows instructors and students to focus on societal issues, acknowledge the value of assessment tasks, and embrace these assessments as vehicles for transforming society (McArthur, 2022). A student-centered environment also challenges educators to search for alternative assessments to make the learning experience more meaningful and lasting –fostering student agency and lifelong learning (Sambell & Brown, 2021).

Authentic assessments

I recall that when I was learning English, some of the types of practices and assessments did not really equip me to use the language outside the classroom. I thought that I would not go around the world and select choices from my interlocutors as I used to do through the language quizzes in class. I have been motivated by the Task-Based Language Teaching framework to focus on designing tasks (for learning and assessment) that help students use their knowledge and skills beyond the classroom –more useful and realistic tasks. 

Authentic assessments provide students with opportunities to apply what they learn to situations that they likely will encounter in their daily life. These situations will not be well-structured, easy to solve, and formulaic (like the English language practices I had); to the contrary, these situations will be complex, involve a real audience, require judgment, and require students to use a repertoire of skills to solve the problems and tasks (Wiley, n.d.). 

As you may see, alternative and authentic assessments can overlap, giving educators options to innovate their teaching and providing students opportunities to increase interest and engagement with their learning process. Below, you will see a collection of ideas for assessments that go beyond the term paper and give room for course innovations, learning exploration, and student agency.

Examples of Alternative and Authentic Assessments

You can select one or more assessments and create a sequence of assignments that build the foundation, give students an opportunity to reflect, and engage students in the active application of concepts. Diversifying the types of assessment practices can also serve as an inclusive teaching approach for your students to engage with the course in multiple ways (McVitty, 2022).

Introduction to New Concepts

students to these new ideas by designing simple and direct tasks such as:

  • Listen to podcasts, watch documentaries/films: write summaries or reviews
  • Conduct field observations: report what was observed, thoughts, and feelings
  • Create fact sheets and posters: share them with peers and provide comments
  • Study a case: write a report, design a visual abstract, create a data visualization or presentation
  • Create an infographic or digital prototype: present it to peers for feedback
  • Write a short newspaper article: contribute to the class blog, post it on the class digital board
  • Provide insights and comments: contribute with annotations and posts (e.g., Perusall, VoiceThread)

Reflective Practice

Reflection allows students to think further about their own learning process. If you are looking for activities to instill in students higher-order thinking skills and metacognitive skills, you can consider designing one of the tasks below. Remember to provide students with guiding questions for the reflection process

  • Review assignments and describe the learning journey: Create a portfolio with reflective notes
  • Develop an understanding of concepts by identifying areas of difficulty and feedforward goals: write a weekly learning log, create a learning journey map/graph 
  • Describe your learning experience through personal reflection: write an autoethnography
  • Connect course concepts and activities to learning experiences: create a think-out-loud presentation, podcast, or paper
  • Self-assess learning and progress: take a quiz, write a journal, create a learning map: “from here to there”)   

Theory Application

  • Demonstrate a solid understanding of key elements, theory strengths, and weaknesses: write an application paper to explore lines of inquiry, create an infographic connecting theory and examples, write an article or artifact critique through the lens of the theory
  • Dissect a theory by identifying and organizing the key components of theoretical frameworks: develop a theory profile document or presentation (instructor can create a dissect theory template)
  • Anchor course concepts in the literature: write a position paper, a response paper, or a commentary for a journal. 

Application Tasks

  • Guided interviews with professionals
  • Digital and augmented reality assets
  • Grant/funding applications
  • Project/conference proposals
  • Annotated bibliographies, article critiques
  • Reviews (e.g., music, videos, films, books, articles, media)
  • Oral discussion group exam (e.g., cases, scenarios, problem-solving) w/reflection
  • Conduct Failure Mode and Effect Analysis studies/simulations
  • Book newsletter, blog, and book live event Q&A (e.g., students plan the Q&A)
  • Create a student-led OER
  • Patchwork Screencast Assessment (PASTA) Reflections

The list of alternative and authentic assessments provided above is not exhaustive and I would welcome your comments and suggestions for the activities that you might have designed or researched for your online or hybrid courses. I would love to hear more about your approaches and thoughts on alternative and authentic assessments.

References

Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to choose, choosing to learn: The key to student motivation and achievement. ASCD.

ASU Prep Digital. (2021). Why Do Students Prefer Online Learning? https://www.asuprepdigital.org/why-do-students-prefer-online-learning/ 

Gher, L. (2021, March 11). How using authentic digital assessments can benefit students. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-using-authentic-digital-assessments-can-benefit-students/#:~:text=With%20this%20method%20of%20assessment,of%20the%20comments%20and%20responses.

Jones, S. J. (2012). Reading between the lines of online course evaluations: Identifiable actions that improve student perceptions of teaching effectiveness and course value. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(1), 49-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v16i1.227

Jopp, R., & Cohen, J. (2022). Choose your own assessment–assessment choice for students in online higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 27(6), 738-755. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1742680

Loftin, D. (2018, April 24). Staged assignments. [Oregon State University Ecampus blog post] https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2018/04/24/staged-assignments/

McArthur, J. (2022). Rethinking authentic assessment: work, well-being, and society. Higher Education, 1-17. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-022-00822-y

McVitty, D. (2022). Building back learning and teaching means changing assessment. Wonkhe Ltd.  

Soffer, T., Kahan, T. & Nachmias, R. (2019). Patterns of Students’ Utilization of Flexibility in Online Academic Courses and Their Relation to Course Achievement. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v20i4.3949

Sotiriadou, P., Logan, D., Daly, A., & Guest, R. (2020). The role of authentic assessment to preserve academic integrity and promote skill development and employability. Studies in Higher Education, 45(11), 2132-2148. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1582015

Sambel, S., & Brown (2021). Covid-19 assessment collection. Assessment, Learning, and Teaching in Higher Education. https://sally-brown.net/kay-sambell-and-sally-brown-covid-19-assessment-collection/

Wiley University Services. (n.d.). Authentic assessment in the online classroom. https://ctl.wiley.com/authentic-assessment-in-the-online-classroom/

One of the major advantages of digital learning is that we can ensure our materials are accessible to all students. As such, at Ecampus, we are striving – and encouraging others to strive – for universal design, that is, design that anyone can use comfortably regardless of any impairments. In past posts, we have covered various ways of improving accessibility in a course, including how to fix PowerPoint or Word files. Today I’d like to focus on making Canvas pages accessible and making use of the on-page Accessibility Checker available in the Canvas Rich Content Editor.

Common Issues

Here are the main things you can do to ensure your Canvas pages (including assignments, discussions etc.) are accessible:

  1. Use proper hierarchy of headings and do not skip heading levels. You want to start with Heading 2 (Heading 1 is the title), then subordinate to that will be Heading 3 and so on. This is especially useful for screen reader users because it helps with logical page navigation. Some people choose their headings by the font size – not a good idea! If you want to adjust the size of your text, use the “Font sizes” option in the editor, after designating the correct heading level.
  2. Add an alt text description to any image or mark it as decorative. This is helpful for screen reader users and people for whom the images are not loading.
  3. Make the link names descriptive, rather than just pasting the url. For example, you would write Student Resources instead of https://experience.oregonstate.edu/resources. Also, avoid linking “click here” type of text. This helps screen reader users (which would read a url letter by letter), and it also makes it easier for everyone to scan the page and find the needed information.
  4. Ensure good color contrast. I often see instructors making their text colorful – in particular, red seems to be very popular. Indeed, a touch of color can make the page more visually pleasing and help bring out headings or important information! The danger lies in using colors that don’t have enough contrast with the background. This is especially problematic for people with less-than-optimal eyesight, but good contrast really just makes it easier for all of us to read. Also, a word of caution: Canvas has recently rolled out dark mode for mobile platforms and many people like to use it. Some colored or highlighted text may not look clear in dark mode.
  5. Add caption and header row to tables. These are extremely helpful for screen reader users, and the caption helps everyone to quickly see what the table is about. To add these things, you actually have to rely on the on-page accessibility checker – it will flag the issues and walk you through fixing them. While we’re on the subject of tables, you also want to avoid complex tables with merged cells because they are hard to navigate for a screen reader.
  6. Avoid underlining text. Underlining is normally reserved for links. Try using other means of highlighting information, such as bold, italics or caps.

Find and Fix

Canvas has a very useful tool that can help you find some accessibility issues as you edit your page. At the bottom of the editor, the icon representing a human in a circle will show notification when something is amiss.

Screenshot of bottom of editor showing the accessibility checker icon

When you click on that icon, the checker will open on the right-hand side, explaining each issue and allowing you to fix it right there.

Screenshot of the accessibility checker dialog window

This tool can find:

  • Skipped heading levels/starting with the wrong heading
  • Missing alt text
  • Insufficient color contrast – you can find a suitable color right here
  • Missing table caption and header row

It will NOT flag poorly formatted links or underlined text. So, for these issues, you’ll have to watch out yourself!

For a full list of problems verified by this checker, see this article from Canvas Community.

When you’ve finished building your course, you can also use UDOIT, the global accessibility checker, or Ally, if your institution has installed it. These tools can help you find additional problems, including embedded materials with accessibility issues.

To conclude, following these simple rules can greatly enhance the usability of your Canvas course. The built-in accessibility checker will help you spot and fix some common issues. Once you start paying attention, building instructional content with accessibility in mind will become second nature!

Ashlee M. C. Foster, MSEd | Instructional Design Specialist | Oregon State University Ecampus

This is the final installment of a three-part series on project-based learning. The first two articles, Architecture for Authenticity and Mindful Design, explore the foundational elements of project-based learning. This article shifts our attention to generating practical application ideas for your unique course. This series will conclude with a showcase of an exemplary Ecampus course project. 

Over the last couple of years, as an instructional designer, I have observed my faculty developers shifting how they assess student learning. Frequent and varied low-stakes assessments are replacing high-stakes exams, in their courses. Therefore, students increasingly have more opportunities to actively engage in meaningful ways. What an exciting time!

Activity Ideas

Instructors commonly express that adopting a new, emerging, or unfamiliar pedagogical approach can be challenging for two reasons: 1) identifying an appropriate activity and 2) thoughtfully designing the activity into a course. Sometimes a brainstorming session is just the ticket. Here are a few activity ideas to get you started.

TitleDescriptionResource
Oral HistoryStudents pose a problem steeped with historical significance (e.g., racism). Students conduct research using primary sources which corroborate and contextualize the issue. Experts and/or those with direct/indirect experience are interviewed. Interviews are documented with multimedia. 
Oregon State University SCARC Oral History Program
Renewable Course MaterialsStudents write, design, and edit a course website that takes the place of a course textbook.Open Pedagogy Notebook
App LabStudents collaboratively design an application that will serve a relevant societal need, resolve barriers, or fix a problem.CODE
Problem solved!Students select a problem that affects the local, regional, state, national, or global community and conduct research. Students collaboratively create scenarios that authentically contextualize the problem. Students develop solutions that utilize the main course concepts while engaging with the problem within a real-world context.Oregon State University Bioenergy Summer Bridge Program
GenderMag ProjectGenderMagis a process that guides individuals/groups through any form of technology (e.g., websites, software, systems) to find gender inclusivity “bugs.” After going through the GenderMag process, the investigators can then provide recommendations and fix the bugs.The GenderMag Project

Take a moment to explore a few of the following resources for additional project ideas:

While exploring project-based activities and/or assessments, it may also be helpful to consider the following questions: 

  • Does this activity align with the course learning outcomes? 
  • What type of prerequisite knowledge and skills do students need?
  • What types of knowledge and skills will students need after completing the project?
  • Can the activity be modified/customized to fit the needs of the course?
  • What strategies will be employed to foster authentic learning? 
  • What strategies can be used to guide and/or coach teams through the activity?
  • How will the activity foster equitable engagement and active participation?
  • What strategies can be utilized to nurture and build a strong learning community?

Project Spotlight

Becky Crandall

Becky is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Adult and Higher Education (AHE) program at Oregon State University. We had the pleasure of collaborating on the Ecampus course development for AHE 623, Contemporary Issues in Higher Education. With two decades of experience in postsecondary settings, Becky came to the table with a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and strong perspectives grounded in social justice, all of which situated her to create a high-quality, engaging, and inclusive Ecampus course. When interviewing her for this article, she shared her pedagogical approach to teaching online and hybrid courses, which provides a meaningful context for the project design

“At the start of every term, I take time to explain the idea that shapes the approach I take as an educator and the expectations that I have of the class: ‘we are a community.’ Inspired by educational heroes like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Marcia Baxter Magolda, as well as the excellent teachers who shaped me as a student, I take a constructivist approach to teaching. I also center the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ of the material we cover through active learning exercises that create space for students to reflect on their learning and its applicability to the real world. Admittedly, such active learning exercises are engaging. Research also highlights their effectiveness as a pedagogical strategy. More importantly, however, they provide a means of disrupting power structures within the classroom (i.e., the students are positioned as experts too), and they serve as mechanisms through which the students and I can bring our full selves to the course.” ~Becky Crandall

The Project

In AHE 623, students complete a term-long project entitled the “Mini-Conference.” The project situates students as the experts, “by disrupting traditional classroom power structures” and provides an opportunity to “simulate the kind of proposal writing and presenting they would do at a professional conference.” The project’s intended goal is to foster deep learning through the exploration of contemporary real-world higher education issues.

Design

The project is a staged design with incremental milestones throughout the 11-week academic term. The project design mimics the process of a professional conference, from proposal to presentation. The project consists of “two elements: (1) a conference proposal that included an abstract, learning outcomes, a literature review, policy and/or practice implications, and a presentation outline and (2) a 20-minute presentation.”  As the term concludes, students deliver the presentation (i.e., conference workshop) that actively engages the audience with the self-selected topic. Students have varied opportunities to receive peer and instructor feedback. The information gleaned from the feedback helps to refine student proposals for submission to a professional organization.

Becky shared how she conceptualized and designed the project using backward design principles. “Specifically, I began by considering the goals of the course and the project. I then researched professional associations’ conference proposal calls to determine what elements to include in the project. When developing learning exercises, I often ask, ‘How might the students use this in the real world?’” By using an intentional design process, the result is a project which is strongly aligned, structures learning, and has authentic application.

Project Overview Page

Delivery

The first delivery of AHE 623 was successfully launched in the Spring of 2022 with minimal challenges other than the limited time. “The students engaged fully in the mini-conference. As reflected in the outcomes, they not only learned but were left hungry for more.”  Requests flew in for additional opportunities to apply what they had learned! The students raved about this project such that they even asked if they could host a virtual conference using their presentations.The project proved to be a transformational experience for students. “Multiple students noted that this opportunity helped them refine their dissertation ideas and related skills.” As Becky looks forward, she hopes to consider restructuring the design into a rotating roundtable format. Doing so will ensure that students are exposed to their peers’ perspectives in the course.

Remember that course design and development is an iterative process. Please know you do not have to get it right the first time or even the tenth. Your students do value your enthusiasm for the subject and appreciate the effort you have put into crafting valuable learning experiences for them. You have got this!

Inspire!

Visit the Ecampus Course Development and Training team blog for application tips, course development and design resources, online learning best practices and standards, and emerging trends in Higher Education. We look forward to seeing you there.

Acknowledgments

Dr. Becky Crandall, thank you for candidly sharing your core pedagogical approaches, philosophy of teaching, and the course project with the Oregon State community. Your commitment to social justice continues to shine in your course designs and instructional delivery.

Research and strategies for implementing gratitude interventions in higher-education.

Every November for the past few years, my family takes a small uncarved pumpkin (leftover from Halloween), and we use it as a canvas. Every night after dinner we each write a word or phrase naming something we are thankful for that day. We have only one rule; you cannot repeat something already on the list. On Thanksgiving, we go back and read aloud all the things we have been grateful for throughout November, making  us laugh, reminisce, and feel full emotionally (on top of our full bellies). This practice of gratitude is simple, yet I find that as the list on the pumpkin grows each night, I feel a little happier and a little more content with my life. In reflecting on what we are grateful for, saying it out loud, and writing it down, we are allowing it to take up presence in our consciousness. By creating this space in our day for gratitude to flourish, we are exemplifying an important life practice. And as the word “practice” indicates, gratitude is a skill we can learn, hone, and grow. There is mounting scientific evidence that gratitude can serve as a major contributor to mental health, and there is a growing body of research related specifically to gratitude interventions in higher-ed.  

Whether we are faculty, staff, students, administrators, or leaders in the world of higher-ed, we are pulled in many different directions, wear many different hats, and have many competing demands. It is no wonder we often forget to pause and take stock of all the manythings for which we are grateful. How can we bring the practice of gratitude into our classes (regardless of the modality)? And further, why does it matter? What does the research have to say about gratitude and our health? What place does gratitude have in higher-ed? Let’s dive in and explore this topic through an evidence-based lens and then end with some easy ways to embody and enact gratitude in our higher-ed courses.

It may be helpful to define gratitude scientifically. A recent meta-analysis of gratitude and health characterizes gratitude as both a state and a trait. A state of gratitude is an emotional experience where we find value in something and realize that it has a positive outcome from outside of ourselves. Gratitude as a trait can be seen as a broader worldview, where one is more likely to observe and appreciate the good things in life. People who display trait gratitude tend to feel more fulfilled and have a greater ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. In either case, those who exhibit and experience gratitude often are more likely to show pro-social behavior and act with reciprocity. Researchers theorize that these behaviors help explain why gratitude is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. While the evidence that gratitude changes physical health is sparse in the literature, many studies demonstrate that gratitude (and specifically gratitude interventions) are associated with improved emotional well-being. Not surprisingly and likely linked, higher gratitude practice also facilitates social well-being. (Jans-Beken et al.,2019)

For those who wonder why gratitude is such a powerful tool emotionally and socially, Algoe (2012) posits that gratitude promotes opportunities to (1) establish new interpersonal connections, (2) remember extant social ties, and (3) maintain existing social relationships. It is no surprise that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, learners are more likely to experience stress and anxiety at higher rates. The pandemic interrupted our lives and our ability to be regularly social. College students have expressed increased rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, even as we have moved out of isolation (Jiang et al. 2022). Thus, it is important to note that dozens of research studies from the past ten years have correlated gratitude interventions with positive effects on our emotions, specifically helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Gratitude interventions could be a game-changer in higher-ed, as it stands to reason that learners who are less anxious and stressed will likely experience better learning outcomes (Hysenbegasi et al., 2005).

Many of the studies specific to gratitude interventions in college classes have shown that learners not only perform better in the course but also leave the course with more positive emotions, which can spill over into other aspects of the learners’ lives (Datu & Bernardo, 2020; Datu et al., 2022; Gleason, 2022, Grier & Morris, 2022). So what does it mean to have a gratitude intervention? In most cases, it was as simple as the researchers/instructors offering a weekly gratitude journal assignment. These low-stakes opportunities allowed learners to reflect on their lives and simply list a few (usually five) things/events/people for which they were grateful. Other interventions included writing letters of gratitude or attending one-time gratitude workshops. While these kinds of assignments might not be a fit for every class, there can certainly be a place for such interventions on occasion.  Student success teams could encourage these practices outside of class time, or provide gratitude workshops. Faculty could demonstrate and allow time for such practices in their high-stress courses. Online course designers could conclude modules or weeks with simple gratitude surveys. If we can help our learners to reflect on their lives with a gratitude lens, we might all benefit.

So, it turns out that my family’s little Thankful Pumpkin was onto something. My feelings of contentment after each night of adding gratitude to our gourd stems from something more profound. This little pumpkin is my family’s gratitude intervention, and now I want to figure out how to keep us all practicing and honing this skill all year long. So, if you have made it to the end of this blog post, I want to say thanks. Thanks for reading, and thanks for considering this blog post worthy of your precious time.  I am grateful that you are here. I hope that you are grateful for this message and will consider how you can carry it forward in your life and your work.

References

  • Cownie, F. (2016) Gratitude: does it have a place within media-practice education?, Journal of Media Practice, 17(2-3), 168-185, DOI: 10.1080/14682753.2016.1248192
  • Datu, J. A. D., & Bernardo, A. B. I. (2020). The Blessings of Social-Oriented Virtues: Interpersonal Character Strengths Are Linked to Increased Life Satisfaction and Academic Success Among Filipino High School Students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 983–990. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620906294
  • Datu, J. A. D., Valdez, J. P. M., McInerney, D. M., & Cayubit, R. F. (2022). The effects of gratitude and kindness on life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and COVID-19 anxiety: An online pilot experimental study. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 14(2), 347– 361. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12306
  • Ge, J. S., Berger, E. J., & Major, J. C., & Froiland, J. M. (2019, June), Teaching Undergraduate Engineering Students Gratitude, Meaning, and Mindfulness Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2—33358
  • Geier, M. T., & Morris, J. (2022). The impact of a gratitude intervention on mental well-being during COVID-19: A quasi-experimental study of university students. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 14(3), 937– 948. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12359
  • Gleason, L.U. (2022). Gratitude Interventions in a Biology Course to Foster Student Persistence and Success. CourseSource 9. https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2022.41
  • Henry D. Mason (2019) Gratitude, well-being and psychological distress among South African university students, Journal of Psychology in Africa, 29(4), 354-360, DOI: 10.1080/14330237.2019.1647492
  • Hysenbegasi, A., Hass, S. L., & Rowland, C. R. (2005). The impact of depression on the academic productivity of university students. The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 8(3), 145–151.
  • Jans-Beken, L.,  Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2020) Gratitude and health: An updated review, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743-782, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888
  • Jiang, Z., Jia, X., Tao, R., & Dördüncü, H. (2022). COVID-19: A Source of Stress and Depression Among University Students and Poor Academic Performance. Frontiers in public health, 10, 898556. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2022.898556
  • Nicole T. Gabana, Jesse Steinfeldt, Y. Joel Wong, Y. Barry Chung & Dubravka Svetina (2019) Attitude of Gratitude: Exploring the Implementation of a Gratitude Intervention with College Athletes, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 31:3, 273-284, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2018.1498956
  • Yoshida, M.(2022) Network analysis of gratitude messages in the learning community. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 19(47). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-022-00352-8
courage
courage

Are you passionate for what you do? I do. I enjoy, treasure, relish what I do as an instructional designer. But I also realize that not everyone is able to work on something they are passionate about. As an educator, I believe we ought to stir up passion and values in the learners we serve. So, I started searching for ways to motivate, to stir up and help people find their passion. And I found these resources: books and podcast by Todd Henry on passion, and book and podcast by Liz Forkin Bohannon.


Todd Henry shared his recipe for finding the power to keep your passion firing for a lifetime by starting with a few simple questions.

  • What is something that you are willing to suffer on behalf of it?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What moves you emotionally?
  • What gives you hope?


Quotes from Todd Henry, author and experts on creativity, productivity, and passion for work.
Goal of life is not comfort, but conquest!
The love of comfort is often the enemy of greatness.
The seeds of tomorrow’s greatness is planted in today’s activities.
If you are intentional, and if you live by design, not by default, someday, in the distant future, when you lay your head down for the last time you can point to a delta, a body of work and you can say “yes, that represents me.”


Beginner’s Pluck is a 2019 book by Liz Forkin Bohannon (Podcast host, and co-founder of Sseko Designs). In this book, Liz teaches us that passion is not discovered, as we were told for so long, but rather passion is built step by step! And the first step is to find an interesting problem. And to have a posture of curiosity over criticism. The good news is the world is full of interesting problems!

This is a totally new perspective to me: passion is built and the first step to build passion is to find interesting problems. And this new perspective leads me to think how I could and should plan my instructional design work to provide room and opportunities in any course for asking questions that guide learners to build their passion. It could be in the syllabus, in each module’s content page, before or after learners work on the readings and lecture videos, or at the end of the module as a self-assessment. There are many different ways and places we can incorporate the building of passion into course design!


Conclusion: Build your Passion starting with questions and interesting problems. My questions for you, dear educator, “is there room in your teaching to ask an inspiring question that points your learners towards building their passion for life?” Or if you are reading this for your own benefit, consider what problems are interesting to you and start working on solving the problems, little by little. If you need to someone to brainstorm design ideas for infusing questions into your teaching, feel free to contact me at tianhong.shi@oregonstate.edu

References:

Bohannon, L.F. (2019). Beginner’s Pluck. Baker books.

Henry, T. (2013). Die Empty. Penguin Publishing Group

If you design or teach online courses, and the term Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) is unfamiliar to you, not to worry. It’s likely that you’ve already implemented some degree of RSI in your online courses. RSI is the US Department of Education (DoE) requirement for institutions receiving federal funds to “ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors” in their online courses. It was intended as a quality assurance and consumer protection measure, but it is also a key component of high-quality online learning. Simply put, student-teacher interactions must be consistent and meaningful throughout the delivery of an online course. There is a mountain of research supporting this idea by now, and we have long known that this type of interaction is an essential component of learning and has a deep impact on student experience and satisfaction with online learning.

word cloud containing high- frequency words from post
Word cloud created via WordItOut.com

Characteristics of RSI

You may be thinking that you already have plenty of quality interaction in your course. If you’re familiar with the Ecampus Essentials standards for course development (based on the Quality Matters course design rubric) or the Ecampus Online Teaching Principles, you know that teacher-student interaction is a basic component of effective online course design and delivery. You may also be thinking that “interaction” is a vague term. After all, interactions can occur synchronously or asynchronously via many different platforms. They can occur in response to student progress in a particular course or be an intentional aspect of the instructor’s course delivery plan. So, what exactly does quality interaction in the context of RSI entail? The DOE guidelines outline the main characteristics of regular and substantive interaction as follows: 

Instructor-initiated 

Instructor-student interaction should be an intentional component of the course design and delivery. While students should also be encouraged to reach out to the instructor as needed, interactions should be required and initiated by the instructor to be considered RSI. For example, ad hoc office hours and auto-graded objective quizzes would not be considered RSI, but requested office visits, individualized feedback on assignments or open-ended quizzes, and instructor-facilitated online discussion forums would qualify as regular and sustained interactions. Likewise, announcements tailored to the course content during the term of the delivery would also meet the guidelines for RSI.

Frequent and consistent 

Simply put, frequent and consistent interaction means that you are present in your course in an intentional manner regularly throughout the term. Instructor presence in online courses deeply impacts student learning, satisfaction, and motivation, so this is probably not a new idea for those who have taught online. Many online instructors maintain instructor presence through regular announcements or videos providing updates on student progress or feedback, adding to ideas presented in student discussions or other submissions, offering clarifications to questions regarding content or assignments, etc. There are many ways for instructors to be present in a course so that students feel that they are part of a community of learners. To meet the standards for RSI, the instructor presence should also be planned and occur regularly throughout the term.

Focused on the course subject

Interactions should be related to the academic content and help students to achieve the course outcomes. Assignments should provide a space for instructors to assess student learning through substantive feedback. Non-specific feedback (Good job!) or a grade entered without comments related to work on the assignment at hand would not count as RSI. However, communications providing reading guidance, posting examples with explanations, sending an announcement clarifying concepts students may have missed in a discussion are all good examples of interactions focused on the course subject. That’s not to say that sending a message of encouragement or celebration to students (Go Beavs!) would not be an important component of social presence in a course. 

Faculty member meets accreditation standards

This requirement presents a little bit of a murky area, and each institution will need to decide who would be considered a qualified subject matter expert based on their accrediting body standards. For example, Teaching Assistants (TAs) may or may not be considered qualified subject matter experts depending on where they are in their postgraduate journey. However, regardless of the level of expertise, the role of any TA or other course mentor can never be in lieu of the instructor interaction in a course. 

Increasing RSI in your course

Meaningful interaction may already be an integral part of your course design and delivery, or you may have some work to do in that area. Whatever your current level of RSI, there are many ways to increase or vary the interaction in your course. Some practitioners note that what constitutes “meaningful interaction” for the purposes of RSI compliance can be difficult to measure. In response, the DoE updated their definition of Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in 2021 to further clarify the issue for practitioners. To be considered regular and substantive, interaction, “…must engage students in teaching, learning, and assessment, as well as two of these five actions: 

  • providing direct instruction;
  • assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; 
  • providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; 
  • facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; 
  • or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.”

The good news is that the DoE definition is broad enough to include a huge range of activities giving course developers and instructors many options for choosing how and when interaction occurs in a course. While not an exhaustive list, a few recommendations to boost RSI in your course include: 

Set expectations

Make your plan for interaction clear to students, and include them in setting expectations for both the instructor and the students. Your communication policy stating the response time students can expect from you on emails and assignment feedback should be stated in the syllabus and posted in the course. You should also tell learners how to communicate with you. Make participation expectations clear through discussion guidelines and rubrics for participation. You might also create an introductory activity in which students and the instructor make their expectations explicit through a negotiated process. 

Provide timely and individualized feedback

There are many methods for delivering feedback (written, video, audio, conferences, etc). In fact, using a combination of methods is good practice for incorporating elements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Regardless of how you deliver feedback, it should add to or extend students’ understanding, make concrete suggestions for improvement, highlight what they are doing well, or provide models. 

Send regular announcements

Announcements are handy for sending reminders about due dates and other housekeeping items. As an RSI strategy, announcements present a useful vehicle for digging into course content and helping students to synthesize important information. You might use announcements to extend concepts from the previous week’s activities, contextualize content students will see in the coming week, or to identify sticky points or patterns seen in student work. While announcements can be used for on the fly reminders or clarifications, it is a good idea to establish a pattern for sending substantive announcements whether that be on Sunday evenings or at other intervals so that students know when to expect them. 

Incorporate tools for meaningful interaction

VoiceThread, Padlet, and Perusall are just a few examples of platforms that instructors can use to facilitate interaction. While it may be tempting to incorporate several tools to boost engagement, a more effective approach would be to avoid using technology for the sake of using technology. Instead, try incorporating one or two tools and create meaningful tasks around them. Use each two or more times during the term so that students spend their time engaging with each other and the content via the tool rather than learning how to use it. 

Conduct surveys and evaluations 

Midterm surveys on students’ experience in the course are helpful for second-half tweaks to stay on track toward the goals you set out to accomplish. They can also be useful for making adjustments for the next time you deliver the course. Ask students how they feel about the interactions with other students and the instructor. Ask how they could be improved, and encourage them to reflect on their own contributions. If there is group work involved, solicit opinions about how it is going and how you can support their collaborations. In doing so, you give learners the opportunity to ask for help where they need it, and you gain information to give you ideas for how to structure interactions for the next iteration of the course. A trusted colleague or an instructor designer can also be helpful in evaluating the level of RSI in your course. When you feel you have reached your goals around interaction and other markers of high-quality course design, consider asking for a formal review of your course to become Quality Matters certified. 

Hold regular office hours

In order to qualify as RSI, office hours must be predictable, scheduled, and required rather than an optional feature of the course. While synchronous sessions should be kept to a minimum to allow for student flexibility, you can also facilitate meaningful interaction via a virtual meetings. If you give mini-lectures or provide models for specific lessons, for example, you might consider recording your explanations so all students, including those who cannot attend a particular session, benefit from the extra guidance. 

Resources

Poulin, R. (2016) Interpreting what is Required for “Regular and Substantive Interaction”. WCET Frontiers. Retrieved from https://wcet.wiche.edu/frontiers/2016/09/30/interpreting-regular-and-substantive-interaction/

Regular and Substantive Interaction. SUNY Online. Retrieved from https://oscqr.suny.edu/rsi/

Regular & Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online Learning. Chemeketa Center for Academic Innovation. Retrieved from https://facultyhub.chemeketa.edu/instruction/rsi/

How to Increase Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online and Distance Learning. OLC Webinar 2021. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/webinar/how-to-increase-regular-and-substantive-interaction-rsi-in-online-and-distance-learning/

Quality Online Practices: Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI). University of Tennessee Knoxville. Retrieved from https://onlinelearning.utk.edu/online-teaching-learning-resources/quality-online-practices/rsi/