This past February, I was putting together a proposal for the 2022 Distance Teaching & Learning (DT&L) Conference, and I shared my draft with a couple of my colleagues for feedback.

Typically, when requesting feedback, our team relies on Google Docs, which has a nice feature set for suggesting edits.

However, I was not using Google Docs. I explained that they would be viewing my formatted document on HackMD, a collaborative web-based Markdown tool.

One of the colleagues I had asked for feedback responded:

What are the pros and cons compared to a google doc, may I ask?

That question inspired this blog post.

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a plain text format with a simple syntax to add formatting elements (headings, lists, quotes, bold, italics, etc.). It is easy to convert Markdown files into other formats, such as PDFs, HTML, and rich text. One of the primary uses of Markdown is creating content for the web, which can be done with almost no knowledge of HTML. The first Markdown specification was developed by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz in 2004 and released as Open Source.

What Are the Advantages of Writing in Markdown?

It Is Easy to Learn and Fast to Write

Most markdown syntax is intuitive. Perhaps you are writing a document, and you decide you want to emphasize some text using bold or italics styling. In Markdown, you can surround the words with underscores or asterisks rather than select content and apply a style from a menu or keyboard command. For bold text, add either two asterisks or two underscores before and after the word (your choice, most editors support either syntax):

**bold**
__bold__

For text that you want to be displayed in italics, use one underscore or asterisk before and after the word:

*italics*
_italics_

Creating hyperlinks in documents, a somewhat tedious process in a word-processing program or HTML, is as easy as putting a descriptive link text in brackets and then an address immediately following in parenthesis, like this:

[OSU Canvas Dashboard](https://canvas.oregonstate.edu/)

which in my document becomes: OSU Canvas Dashboard.

It Is Just a Text File

A Markdown file with the extension “.md” is just a plain text file. Storing information in plain text files has several advantages:

  1. Text files are future-proof. You can open a plain text file with any editor on any platform. You are not hostage to the proprietary format chosen by an application developer. You are not dependent on any particular software program still being around to open your Markdown files.
  2. Text files require very little storage. This blog post, written in Markdown, was almost 250% larger once converted to a Microsoft Word document.
  3. Text files are platform-agnostic, making them easy to share with other people or multiple devices. A text file can be opened on a Mac, on Windows, in Chrome OS, in a web browser, on an ios or Android smartphone, or on a Linux machine.
  4. If you open up one of your Markdown text documents in platforms like Box or Dropbox, it automatically renders the HTML.

Markdown is Highly Portable

One of the most significant advantages to writing in Markdown is how easy it is to convert Markdown into virtually any other file format:

  • HTML: With no knowledge or experience in web development, you can quickly convert Markdown to HTML. There are many ways to convert Markdown to HTML. You can use a web-based tool such as Markdown2Html or StackEdit or work in a text editor with support for exporting Markdown in various formats like Brackets.
  • RTF: An RTF file keeps basic formatting, such as links or emphasis, while retaining a text file’s flexibility and small size.
  • PDFs: Many Tools support applying CSS-based styles during a conversion. On my Mac, I use Marked 2 and several of the Marked 2 – Custom Styles to create beautiful PDF files.
  • Word: Markdown formatting information (titles, headings, quotes, paragraphs, lists, etc.) is retained during conversion. Suppose you convert a document from Markdown to Word. You can then apply any of the built-in styles available in Microsoft Word to format your file instantly.

For a much longer list of the supported conversion file types, explore Pandoc, a universal conversion utility. Using Pandoc, I have converted markdown files into a slide deck, a mind map, a Google Doc, and a Microsoft Word doc, but there are dozens of additional options.

It Is Easier to Read and Write Than HTML

Let’s look at a numbered list with some simple formatting. I have applied bold to item 1 and italics to item 4:

  1. Analysis
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

Here is what that list looks like in Markdown:

1. **Analysis**
2. Design
3. Development
4. _Implementation_
5. Evaluation

If you were to write that same list in HTML, it would look like this:

<ol>
<li><strong>Analysis</strong>
</li><li>Design</li>
<li>Development</li>
<li><em>Implementation</em></li><li>Evaluation</li>
</ol>

Even if you are comfortable coding in HTML, writing the list in Markdown is much quicker and can be quickly converted to HTML at any time.

You Can Write Without Distraction

Using Markdown, I can focus on content rather than the formatting. I can indicate how something should be formatted (as a hyperlink, heading, paragraph, etc.) and then let a MarkDown tool transform my document to numerous other file types. I don’t have to look at dozens of text and paragraph formatting options on a ribbon toolbar or interrupt my writing to apply them.

What Do You Need to Get Started?

A Text Editor

You can write Markdown in any text editor. However, many tools provide a real-time preview of your formatted document and give you several export options. These web-based Markdown tools are free options worth exploring:

  • Dillinger is a great place to start. You can experiment with the syntax and instantly preview your content without installing any software on your computer. StackEdit works much the same way. Both are free, and both support export to HTML and PDF.
  • HackMD is another web-based tool, also free, which has collaborations options.

If you prefer working in a desktop application, there are also many options. Here is a nice write up of several Markdown Editors.

Learning the Syntax

After choosing your editor, you need to get familiar with some basic syntax. The most common and helpful Markdown syntax is very easy to master. You saw bold, italics, and a Markdown link earlier. Here are a few more examples:

Headings

To place a heading in the document, precede the text for the heading with one or more hashtags. Here’s a level two heading:

Level Two Heading

In Markdown, you would write it like this:

## Level Two Heading

Many Markdown editors also support the use of an id in a heading:

### Level Three Heading {#custom-id}

When converted to HTML, this will give you an anchor that you can use to link directly to that heading.

<h3 id="custom-id">Level Three Heading</h3>

Lists

Lists look much like they would in any other document. Here is a numbered list:

  1. trumpet
  2. french horn
  3. tubal
  4. trombone

which in Markdown is:

1. trumpet
2. french horn
3. tuba
4. trombone 

and an unordered list:

  • cymbal
  • drum
  • marimba
  • tambourine
  • xylophone

looks like this in Markdown:

- cymbal
- drum
- marimba
- tambourine
- xylophone

Or you can use the single * with a space to make a list of items like this:

* string instruments
    * cello
    * violin
    * harp

Note the support for indenting lists using spaces in the example above, which would work with either * or -. The Markdown list above would render like this:

  • string instruments
    • cello
    • violin
    • harp

Hyperlinks

To make a hyperlink in Markdown, you write a descriptive title in brackets, followed by the URL in parenthesis, as mentioned above. You can even save yourself the trouble of manually creating markdown links through the use of one of the many available browser extensions like this one for Chrome or this one for Firefox, which allow you to copy a website address as a Markdown link.

Rather than document the complete set of Markdown formatting options, I will refer you to the Markdown Basic Syntax Guide or in Markdown:

[Markdown Basic Syntax Guide](https://www.Markdownguide.org/basic-syntax/)

MultiMarkdown: An Expansion of the Language

The Markdown language is Open Source. Since its inception, other developers have enhanced the language to include options beneficial to academic writers. These include:

  • tables
  • blockquotes
  • citations
  • footnotes [^1]

Adding specific examples of these items is beyond this basic Markdown blog post. Instead, I recommend reviewing the MultiMarkdown v6 Syntax Guide. As you will see, the syntax for the new items follows the same spirit of being easy to add to a document and relatively intuitive syntax.

Advanced Tools and Applications

If you want to do a deep dive on Markdown, here are a few resources you can explore:

Yes, But What Are the Cons?

You may recall that my colleague asked about the pros and the cons. So, as much as I love writing in Markdown, I should be transparent about the limitations I have encountered.

  1. Collaboration. Both Microsoft Word and Google Docs support providing feedback on documents using the review or suggestion features. I have yet to find a Markdown editor that supports this type of collaboration. When I want to have a document reviewed, I convert the Markdown document to one of those other formats and then convert it back after implementing the feedback. Converting from Markdown to something, as I have said, is something most markdown editors already do. Converting from some other format to Markdown may take more effort. In this case, I used a Google Doc add-on, Docs to Markdown.
  2. Citation tool support. When writing in academia, I use an integrated tool for citation. Zotero, when installed as an add-on to Word or Google Docs, will help generate bibliographies and inline citations. I have managed to integrate Zotero integrations into my Markdown editor of choice (Visual Studio Code), but it was very fiddly. I followed the setup described in this video: Setting Up a Scholarly Writing Environment With Markdown, VSCodium, and Pandoc. Not for the faint of heart, with a very detailed how-to, step-by-step video, it still took me the better part of a Saturday, with reasonably in-depth knowledge of Markdown, Zotero, and my editor.

Conclusion

To begin your Markdown journey, I suggest starting here: Markdown Guide. The easiest way to learn Markdown is to start using it; you can learn the basics in minutes. Once you do, you will find broad application and support. You can use Markdown to write HTML, draft blog posts, create documentation, and post messages on messaging platforms or forums such as Reddit, Discord, and GitHub.

[^1]: It seems worth mentioning, in a footnote, that I wrote this blog post entirely in Markdown. Feel free to download it and take a look. To see it with the formatted HTML, try pasting it in the online markdown editor Dillinger.

The following is a guest blog post from Meilianty Gunawan. Meili completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during Fall 2021.

Have you ever driven a car on a highway with no streetlights in the middle of the night? Your first instinct is to turn your car’s high-beam lights on to give you greater visibility on what lies far ahead of you. You are probably fine just by relying on the car’s low-beam lights, but you will not be able to get a clearer picture of the far end of the road as you would get from the high-beam.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework used by instructors to develop course learning outcomes. It lays out six cognitive domains (from basic to more advanced) and examples of measurable action verbs along with those domains.

When course learning outcomes are set from the point of students’ knowledge and skills deficiency, students are inadvertently deprived of the greater things that they were able to achieve after completing the course. Lower-division courses (100- and 200-level courses) generally focus on the lower-order cognitive processes in Bloom’s Taxonomy. However, there are expectations for the upper-level and graduate-level courses to focus more on the higher-level of cognitive processes.  This expectation was clearly spelled out in the Upper-and Lower-Division course policy that was approved by the OSU Faculty Senate Curriculum Council in April2021.

Therefore, instead of looking at the knowledge or skills students are lacking, try thinking along the following lines to stretch the course learning outcomes into the higher-level thinking processes:

  • What can the students do after they have met the lower-level portion of the learning outcomes?
  • What if all my students scored “A” in their prerequisite course(s) or they are so academically prepared to take the course?
  • What if all my students had mastered the lower-level skills required and they liked problems that are more challenging?
  • How can my students apply the skills and knowledge from the course to their professional work?

When courses aim for the higher-order cognitive domains in their learning outcomes, it inadvertently drives the assessment away from the traditional factual memorization type of assessment that is generally entailed mainly in the ‘remembering’ and ‘understanding’ cognitive realms.

As an illustration, we will use the following learning outcome as a baseline:

“Describe the winemaking process”

A glass of red wine and bunch of grapes in low light.
Image source: “Red Wine” by leguico is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Describe is a verb under the ‘understanding’ cognitive process.  While it is good that students are able to describe the wine-making process, think again about the greater purpose of them being able to describe the wine-making process. Why do they need to be able to describe the winemaking process? Is it so that they can recommend the best process, compare and contrast various processes, evaluate the suitability of a process, etc?

The following are some of the suggested revisions to the above learning outcome that are geared towards the higher-order thinking in Bloom’s and how it impacts the ways students are being assessed.

  1. Recommend a suitable winemaking process to produce a product with industry-accepted specifications.
    • Recommend falls under the ‘evaluating’ cognitive domain. In the assessment, the instructor can give a list of specifications of the final product (e.g., the color, purity, turbidity of the wine) and ask the students to recommend a suitable winemaking process. In the quest of selecting and recommending the suitable process, the students are exercising critical thinking skills and potentially problem-solving skills, especially if they need to suggest certain optimization in the process to produce the product with the right specifications.
  2. Evaluate the feasibility of a certain wine-making process under specified conditions.
    • For the assignment, the instructor can present a case study of company X that wants to do a start-up business in making wines. Given the specified capitals, resources, and expected lead time for the product, the students need to evaluate if the winemaking process in question is feasible. By justifying their yes or no answer, they are practicing the synthesis, reasoning, and argumentative skills which fall under the higher-order thinking process.
  3. Compare and contrast the different winemaking process commonly used in the industry.
    • Compare and contrast are within the ‘analyzing’ and ‘evaluating’ cognitive domains. To measure this learning outcome, the instructor can ask the students to compare and contrast the processes A, B, and C. The instructor can also award points if the group is able to illustrate their explanations with the aid of diagrams. By comparing, contrasting, and illustrating the different winemaking processes, the students are having a more in-depth analysis of each process and how they are being similar or different from one another.

So, the next time you are thinking about the course learning outcomes, you may want to picture them in the context of their entirety and see them in the grand scheme of things; just like how you would have seen the far distance after turning that car’s high-beam on! 

The following is a guest blog post from Andrea De Lei. Andrea completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during Fall 2021.

WHY SELF-CARE IS IMPORTANT FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS

Stress is not a new concept to college students, faculty, or staff. By teaching and incorporating self-care and overall health into your curriculum and design, your students can better manage stress and the host of obligations they may have to balance: full course loads, employment, commitments to their family and friends, internship, and networking opportunities. The Covid-19 pandemic this past two years added additional stressors both in teaching and engaging with students -added isolation and global pandemic stressors. To say these past two years was challenging would be an understatement. One way to get students and ourselves to practice self-care is to incorporate it into our lessons. 

In a 2016 survey of Canadian university students, 

  • 90% of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, 
  • over 40% reported stress as the number one impact on their academic performance, 
  • 71% wanted more information on stress reduction (Alberta Canada Reference Group, 2016). 

BURNOUT IS NOT NEW

College students are experiencing high rates of anxiety, depression, burnout, and unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage their stress. A study done by Ohio State University showed that in August 2020, student burnout was at 40%. When Ohio State conducted the survey again in April 2021, it was 71%, highlighting the continued struggles of student mental health and the need for higher education to create a holistic approach centered around student health and wellness. Teaching self-care can help instructors prevent student burnout, interact more effectively with students and create a culture more conducive to learning. Teaching and practicing self-care is necessary to balance and prevent burnout (Tan & Castillo, 2014). 

BENEFITS OF ADDING SELF-CARE INTO THE CURRICULUM

The past year was filled with unprecedented events; social injustices, global pandemic, and increased stress diminished our prioritization of self-care. Increased isolation and loneliness mixed with online learning have created a void in identifying when someone needs help. Traditional self-care checkpoints are not as prominent for distance online learners as students learning in-person. Instructors can play a crucial role in supporting student mental health and wellbeing by incorporating self-care into their curriculum. 

A visual graphic showing multiple layers within OSU that highlight how OSU at a university, Ecampus, and campus partners prioritizing student health within their mission and values.


Image 1:Wellness Embedded in a Culture of Student Health visual aid created by Andrea De Lei; content cited from Oregon State University (OSU), OSU Ecampus and OSU Student Affairs webpages.

HOW CAN YOU ADD SELF-CARE INTO THE CURRICULUM

Supporting university-wide mental health initiatives is critical to student success and wellbeing. But, how do I add self-care in my online math course? Understanding the values of your university, department, campus culture, and needs of the students can help align these values into the curriculum and add self-care into any online course. A key component is giving students opportunities to plan time to incorporate self-care into their busy and stressful lives.

“Self-care has an experiential component in that it includes reflection and action in conjunction with real-world encounters” (Hroch, 2013, p. 5). Consider one or multiple assignments focused on self-care and wellness. Adding self-care and wellness can look like a wellness self-assessment, engaging in self-care activities and reflecting on that experience, incorporating additional resources into the syllabus or providing a “get out of jail [assignment] card.”

Self-Care and wellness discussion Canvas module example
Image 2: Self-Care and Wellness Discussion Module online Canvas course created by Andrea De Lei, 2021.

O’Brien-Richardson (2019) recommends four self-care strategies to support students: making yourself available, pausing for mental breaks, allowing for moments of self-reflection, and equalizing class participation. Suggested self-care activities for students can include an array of possibilities. From physical, spiritual, emotional, social and many more. Self-care is personal to the individual and looks different for everyone. Some examples include:

  • Physical self-care activities
    • Go on a run
    • Practice yoga
    • Get some sleep
  • Spiritual/Mindfulness self-care activities
    • Read poetry
    • Meditate
    • Take a milk bath
  • Emotional self-care activities
    • Write your feelings down.
    • Cry and laugh
    • Practice self-compassion.
  • Social self-care activities
    • In-person or virtual coffee or lunch with a friends/family
    • Phone or virtual facetime 
    • Join a [insert interest] club
    • Watch a movie or show with friends/family

THERE’S ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

To sum it up, adding self-care and wellness into the online curriculum can help students take time for themselves, destress, self-reflect, and create healthy habits to become better involved and engaged students. Instructors can continue to support students in various ways: self-care assignments, making yourself available, pausing for mental breaks, and allowing for moments of self-reflection.

References

Alberta Canada Reference Group (2016). Executive summary. American college health association. National College Health Assessment.

Hroch, P. (2013). Encountering the “ecopolis” Foucault’s epimeleia heautou and environmental relations. ETopia online initiative of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies. Retrieved from http://etopia.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/etopia/article/view/36563/33222

O’Brien-Richardson, P. (2019, October 14). 4 Self-care strategies to support students. Harvard Business Publishing Education. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/4-self-care-strategies-to-support-students 

Saken, P., & Gerad, D. (2021, July 26). Survey: Anxiety, depression and burnout on the rise as college students prepare to return to campus [Student Mental Health MMR news release]. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. http://osuwmc.multimedia-newsroom.com/index.php/2021/07/26/survey-anxiety-depression-and-burnout-on-the-rise-as-college-students-prepare-to-return-to-campus/ 

Tan, S. Y., & Castillo, M. (2014). Self-care and beyond: A brief literature review from a Christian perspective. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 33(1), 90-95.

This post is a continuation of an earlier one, Boost Your Student Engagement with Qualtrics: Part 1. This post will describe the setup and use of a specific Qualtrics Survey used in a recent OSU Ecampus Course, Communications Security and Social Movements (Borradaile, 2021).

In the survey example, I am going to share, an instructor had an assignment in which each student was to select from a list of social movement groups they wished to research and prepare a recorded lightning talk. The instructor didn’t want any two students to be able to select the same group to research.

Social movement group selection survey.

What the survey needed to do was eliminate each choice once it had been selected by a student. As the students take the survey, one by one, and select their group, the next students taking the survey should not see the choices previously selected.

Qualtrics lets you add “Quotas” to a survey. Using quotas you can specify a number of actions that modify your survey’s behavior once a condition has been met. That is how this design challenge was solved. Each option in the survey was given a quota of 1. Once that quota had been reached, because a student selected that social movement group, and then submitted their survey, the item would disappear from the list.

This survey uses a combination of a Simple Logic Quota and Display logic. This is a bit more complex than setting up a normal survey, so let’s walk through the steps.

Design Your Survey

Do the following steps outside of Qualtrics.

  1. Identify a list of topics students can choose from.
  2. Determine how many students should be able to select an individual answer (this number would not have to be the same for each option).
  3. If the list is long, you will want to write out the list of choices in a text file. It will make the question creation a little faster, and if anything goes wrong, you can easily start over.

Implement Your Survey in Qualtrics

The following steps assume basic familiarity with creating surveys in Qualtrics. Where applicable, links to the Qualtrics documentation will be provided to go into more detail as needed.

Setup Your Survey and Survey Question

  1. Create a new survey project in Qualtrics
  2. Create a multiple-choice question to hold your list of choices.
    • Answer type: Allow one answer
  3. Add your answer choices to the multiple-choice question for your students to pick from.

Add a Quota to Each Answer Choice

During this step, you will be defining how many students (survey respondents) you would like to be able to select each choice.

  1. Navigate to the Survey Options by clicking on the Survey Options Icon on the left hand side of the screen.
  2. Select “Quotas” from the Advanced Section
  3. Select Add a Quota
  4. Choose “Simple Logic Quota”
  5. Make the following selections under “Increment the quota when a response is submitted that meets the following conditions:”
    • Question
    • MC question containing your list
    • Select the first option in the MC list
    • Choose “Is Selected”
  6. From Quota Options choose, Choose “None for Skip Logic or Survey Flow) from “When the quota has been met, then:” pull-down.
  7. On the left-hand side, give the item a name and set the number of students you would like to be able to choose the MC answer selected above. Once you have set how many you like, it should show 0/1. This says that zero people have selected the option out of the 1 you want for each choice.
  8. Click Save

See the steps to add quota logic to a question choice in action.

Once you set up the Quota for one of your MC answer choices, you can copy the quota logic and re-use it for the other choices. Additional information can be found in Qualtrics Creating Quotas Documentation.

When you have completed setting up your desired quota for each choice, move on to the Display Logic configuration.

Set the Display Logic for Each Answer Choice

During this step, you will be configuring your survey question to only display each answer until the quota has been reached.

  1. Activate the first option in your list.
  2. From the pull-down, select “Add Display Logic”
  3. Under “Display this Choice only if the following condition is met:” Select “Quota” in the first pull-down
  4. Select the first option in your MC list
  5. Select “Has Not Been Met” from the third pull down. In other words, only display this option if the quota has not been met.
  6. Select Save.

Again, repeat this for each item in your list.

Creating Surveys

Working with Large Lists

In the social justice example described above, there were close to 40 options in one MC question. The long list was copied from a text file and then pasted into the survey. This made it easier and quicker to create the long list. It also helped as we were experimenting with the survey and setting up samples ahead of the design. It is easy to paste by clicking on the first MC question where it says “Click to write Choice 1” and paste your list of options See this in action.

Additionally, to make it easier to navigate, the options were grouped by category using the Assign to Group feature.

Gotchas to Watch Out For

  • Survey responses do not increment quota numbers until the survey is submitted. If multiple students launch the survey at the same time, it is possible that they both could make the same choice, resulting in your set quota being exceeded.
  • If you are using this survey as an assignment (for instance giving completion points for participation), make sure that your assignment settings do not allow for multiple submissions.

References

Borradaile, G. (2021, March 29). CS 175 Communications Security and Social Movements.

Canvas Survey with Mud Card Questions

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

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

Mud Cards

child in mud puddle in rain boots

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

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

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

Potential Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

3-2-1 (a similar tool)

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

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

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

A Word of Caution

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Resources


Rainboots photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

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

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

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

Fostering Information Literacy through Content Curation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Process?

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Literature

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

Digital Storytelling as Educators

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

The Power of Storytelling, with Sir Ian McKellen

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

Digital Storytelling Assignments

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

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

Single Image Digital Story Example

 

Digital Story Making Process

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

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

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

Digital Storytelling Process Movie link

Recommended Resources & Tools

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

Adobe Spark

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

Canvas

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

Audacity

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

Padlet

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

Storyboarding Tools

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

Storyboard That

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

The Boords

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

A4-landscape-6-storyboard-template

Looking for Inspiration?

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote

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

References