I was recently assigned to be the Instructional Designer for an introductory programming course here at OSU. While working with the instructor, I was happy to see his inventiveness in assessment design. As one example, the instructor created an assignment to introduce loops, a block of code in a computer program that repeats while a condition is true. Here’s how he described the assignment to the students:
Your assignment is to simulate the progression of a zombie epidemic as it spreads through Portland, Oregon, beginning in the year 2001 (which was about the time that zombies became unnervingly popular). This assignment will test whether you can use loops when translating from a problem to a computational solution.
I was excited about the design possibilities this introduced to a usually dry topic. Zombies! I built the page in our LMS, Canvas, and was excited to review it with him.
“Isn’t this fun?” I asked, showing him the assignment page I had created:
“I guess so,” he said, “is there any research to indicate that decorative graphics support learning?” he asked me. I guess that’s fair to ask, even if it was a bit of a buzzkill.
I had no idea if including cool pictures was a research-based best practice in online course design. While I really wanted it to be true and felt like it should be true, I could not immediately cite peer-reviewed studies that supported the use of zombie images to improve learner engagement; I had never seen such research. But, I was determined to look before our next meeting.
The instructor’s research challenge led me to discover Research Rabbit. Research Rabbit is a relatively new online platform that helps users find academic research. Research Rabbit has users organize found research into collections. As articles are added to a collection, Research Rabbit helps identify related research.
Without realizing how much time I was exploring, four hours quickly passed in which I was wholly engrossed in the search to justify including a zombie picture in one assignment for one instructor. Below, I will share a few of the features that enamored me with Research Rabbit and why I continue to use it regularly.
Why I love Research Rabbit
Visualization of Search Results
Rather than combing through reference lists at the bottom of a paper, you can quickly view any works cited by a paper you have selected or change views and get a list of articles that have cited the selected document. Those results are presented in a list view, a network view, or on a timeline.
A Tool for Discovery
Research Rabbit starts generating suggested additions as soon as you add a paper to a collection. The more papers you add, the more accurate these recommendations become. It works somewhat like personalized Netflix or Spotify recommendations (ResearchRabbit, n.d.), helping you discover research you may not have been aware of in this same area of study.
Using their discovery functionality, you can identify clusters of researchers (those that have published together or frequently cite each other’s work). You can also use the “Earlier Work” option to see when research on a particular topic may have started and identify foundational papers in the field. Looking for “Later Work” helps you find the latest research and stay current on your research topic.
The Research Rabbit founders explain their reasoning for keeping their tool Free Forever as follows:
Why? It’s simple, really.
Researchers commit years of time, energy, and more to advance human knowledge. Our job is to help you discover work that is relevant, not to sell your work back to you.
(Research Rabbit FAQ)
Research Rabbit Syncs Collections to Zotero
I would have lost a lot of enthusiasm for Research Rabbit if I had to manually add each new paper to my Zotero collection. But Research Rabbit integrates with Zotero, and automatically syncs any designated collections. If you use a different reference tool, you can also export Research Rabbit collections in common bibliographic formats.
A Tool for Sharing and Collaboration
Once you have created a collection, you can invite other researchers to view or edit a collection based on the permissions you set. Collaborators can also add comments to individual items. Research Rabbit also gives you an opportunity to create public collections that can be shared with a custom link.
How to Explore Research Rabbit on Your Own
The feature set of Research Rabbit is beautifully demoed on the Research Rabbit website. From there, you can explore how to visualize papers, discover author networks, and start building collections. There is also a growing list of introductory and instructional videos by the academic community online.
Deanna Grant-Smith, Timothy Donnet, James Macaulay, Renee Chapman, & Renee Anne Chapman. (2019). Principles and practices for enhanced visual design in virtual learning environments: Do looks matter in student engagement?https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-5769-2.ch005
Over the last couple of terms, I joined a series of reading sessions with instructional design colleagues to read Alfie Khon and Susan Blum’s book Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) and discuss the practices and implications of this approach to reconceptualize assessment design and the place of grading. This two-part blog aims to capture the takeaways from those discussions including the main concepts, approaches, types of activities, implications, and challenges of adopting ungrading practices. This first part of the blog covers a brief overview of the concept of ungrading, its major benefits, and design considerations; and the second blog will include a summary of the types of ungrading practices and challenges to implementation ––all derived from the authors’ extensive arguments and examples. For a detailed review and summary of the book chapters, you can also check the blog Assessment Design: Ideas from Ungrading Book.
Overview of Ungrading
The concept of ungrading is sparking widespread interest only recently even though educators have been studying and using ungrading approaches for quite some time. The foundational premise of ungrading is to move away from a focus on grades that judge, rank, sort, and quantify student learning to adopting an approach that focuses on using alternative and authentic means to assess learning such as self-evaluation, reflection, student-generated questions, peer feedback, to name a few. Along with that premise is the questionable ranking that comes with grading which makes students compete with one another in an artificial way. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) sees ungrading as a conversational method that facilitates the communication between instructors and students about how students perform in the class. If, as underscored by the authors, grading and the fact of assigning point values to students’ performance makes more harm than good, then, why use grading? Considering that grading is rooted in our educational systems, many of these authors conclude that it becomes inevitable to grade student learning as it is currently done today.
Several scholars and instructors consider grading to be problematic. First, grades are not good indicators of learning. Blum (chapter 3) argues that grading assumes all students are the same, does not provide accurate information about student learning gains, is consequential, adds fear and avoidance of negative consequences, and is arbitrary and instructor-led. Second, the overemphasis on grades can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation, students’ excessive anxiety, and the complexity of quantifying how learning happens (Stommel, chapter 1). Third, it can also decrease interest in learning, students may feel inclined for easier tasks, and critical thinking is lacking (Alfie Khon, foreword). Fourth, grading makes students be fixated more on their grades than on the process of learning, leading them to believe that grades are all that matters in school (Khon & Blum; Talbert, 2020). And finally, too much focus on grades can be detrimental to students’ mental health (Eyler, 2022). However, ungrading does not mean dismissing grades altogether. Instead, Stommel proposes creating a learning space that fosters critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition– all skills that are valuable for 21st-century education. Likewise, Alfie Khon contends that grading can be participatory since it does not require a unilateral decision, and thus, students can also propose their own grades (with the instructor’s reservation to accept them).
“Ultimately ungrading— eliminating the control-based function of grades, with all its attendant harms— means that, as long as the noxious institutional requirement to submit a final grade remains in place, whatever grade each student decides on is the grade we turn in, period.”
(Khon, 2020, p. xv)
While ungrading may be an innovative approach to assessments, it should be thought of carefully and adopted with a clear objective. Ungrading, as pointed out by Katopodis and Davison (chapter 7), needs a structure to be effective, allowing students to envision themselves as authoritative, creative, confident, and active, thus achieving a high impactful goal. As ungrading requires instructors to evolve in their approach to assessment, it does too for students who are expected to engage in a process of self-evaluation, self-assessment, and reflection. This requires engagement in metacognitive practices that many students might not be ready to embark on or don’t know how to do it. In addition, while ungrading is believed to be student-centered, it can deepen equity gaps if guideposts are entirely removed. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) believes that ungrading is a matter of social justice –going beyond the expected student agency and aiming at having students exercise their voice and participate in assessment decisions.
As a whole, Blum (introduction chapter) provokes us all to rethink the nature of grading considering that students’ learning conditions vary, with many enduring inequities at many levels. Blum wants us to keep focused on how “varying assessment and feedback methods contribute to the real learning of real individual learners, rather than imposing an arbitrary method of sorting.” (p. xxii); all for the sake of healthy learning.
These are a few key points about the arguments for ungrading. While this assessment practice is taking force in higher education, there are also many critics and skeptics. The purpose of this blog is not to enter into the discussion and controversy of ungrading, but to share a few perspectives and takeaways after an intense and well-structured book club discussion. In the following section of this part-one blog, I will share considerations for designing for ungrading.
Assessment Design Considerations
The educational system requires all instructors to submit grades at the end of every term. There is dissatisfaction with the current grading practices among many instructors and students as explained at large in the book. Here is where the ungrading movement takes force to provide alternative ways to account for evidence of student learning. Riesbeck (chapter 8) argued that by implementing ungrading practices, students can focus more on the content and feedback than on the grades. The use of critique-driven learning allows for more easily quantifiable efforts, progress, and accomplishment. Each ungrading consideration is dependent on a myriad of factors that may or not apply to each instructor’s context. The bottom line in ungrading is re-envisioning the teaching and learning process, engaging students in active learning, and active self-assessment through feedback. The following are design considerations:
Decenter grading and communicate (un)grading practices
Instructors can encourage students to focus on the process of learning, instead of talking about grades, Blums says, we should talk about the purpose and goals of the activities with students. These conversations can help develop relationships with students to encourage them to own their learning and have a voice in that process. Decentering grades also involves having an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues, and administrators about assessment decisions. Although each instructor exercises their academic freedom, it is also essential to share assessment practices that work and possible changes to implement. In these conversations, it is also important to carefully use language that conveys a clear understanding of the concept and practice of ungrading to avoid confusion, anxiety, misunderstandings, and reactions that prevent its implementation. Having these kinds of conversations can help shift the mind from a grade-focused to a learning-focused approach. A key element in these conversations is to ensure that the pedagogical reason behind the adoption of ungrading practices is not only clear but well understood (and this may take time).
Set a structure for ungrading
As with other elements of exemplary course design considerations, the structure of assessment practices is necessary. Adding a structure for ungrading assignments gives students a clear objective, steps, and flow that allow them to be consistent and accountable to their own learning goals and strategies.
Reflect on pedagogical and assessment practices
Instructors are invited to examine more in-depth their grading policies, why they grade in the way they do, what they are grading, and how they grade. In many cases, the path to ungrading is a response to dissatisfaction with grading policies. Aaron Blackwelder (chapter 2) says that, over time, he turned into a gatekeeper; he lost focus and was more interested in meeting institutional and “rigor” requirements than building relationships with students. His students had turned into competitive grade seekers. He questioned what a grade really suggests and posits that grades fail to communicate learning. The fact that grading allocates a specific number or letter that can bring some negative feelings to students, can also negatively affect the potential for learning. Sackstein (chapter 4) calls for a change in mindset to identify the way in which learning can be communicated and understood beyond the traditional use of numbers and letters. While Blum also argues for assessing the entire learning experience (with portfolios, for example), Sacksatein suggests considering changes in the language of grading which can provide students with an opportunity to shift the way they feel and think about their own learning.
Teach students to view mistakes as a necessary step in the learning process
Instructors are invited to reflect on how traditional grading practices are punitive, dehumanizing, and demotivating. Gibbs (chapter 6) points out that a system that punishes students for making mistakes reinforces the notion that all learning is flawless and therefore mistakes need to be avoided. Ungrading, on the other hand, aims to implement and cement the idea that learning is a process that needs constant feedback for that learning to be consolidated. Therefore, students need to be given opportunities not only to learn from their mistakes but to act on them in an interactive way. This requires instructors to plan for assessments that include steps for review (e.g., self, peer) to help the student build their skills, and knowledge over time.
Care for students and their learning
Instructors are also invited to demonstrate more explicitly that they care and validate students’ work. Further, Gibbs (Chapter 6) argues that her teaching philosophy is better summarized by the word “freedom”, the freedom that learners have to learn and grow at their rhythm and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The role of the instructor is then to be supportive in that process through feedback and empathy. Ungrading, as it is overall discussed throughout the book, does not mean that there are no assessments or grading at all. On the contrary, the assessments should focus on helping students build their knowledge and understanding in less stressful ways, allowing students to build learning habits, develop creativity, become better communicators, and connect to their lived experiences and contexts. Caring for students also involves valuing their identity as learners and what they bring into the learning environment.
Be aware that ungrading can increase student anxiety and uncertainty
It is critical that instructors who are considering ungrading be cognizant that it involves a high level of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of students. Let’s recognize that students are so used and “conditioned” to grades that they will find it confusing not to have a grade associated with each assignment in the course. Many students consider being successful if they score a perfect grade which can be overwhelming and obscure the value of learning. Instructors who adopt ungrading should explain why and how ungrading will be done in certain classes. This will add transparency to the expectations and assumptions that instructors have about students.
Implement student voice and choice supported with personalized feedback
Instructors can help students take ownership of their learning through hands-on, real-life activities that allow students to use the content they are learning in projects of their interest, conduct research, and solve problems. Students can choose their topics and projects and the instructors can guide them to narrow topics and ensure the projects are feasible within the course timeframe. Consider feedback as a formative assessment approach that enables students to make choices about their learning strategies and needs to improve their learning tasks. Sackstein (chapter 4 ) suggests teaching students to collect feedback and identify the strategies that work for different kinds of assignment revisions. This way, students can develop better strategies that move them from lower-thinking to higher-thinking processes.
Since ungrading promotes the use of student-self assessment and reflection practices, it implies that instructors will need to personalize and tailor feedback to meet students where they are. In addition, instructors can consider setting a culture of feedback (Gibbs, chapter 6) where instructors teach students to use feedback to improve their work, provide peer feedback effectively, and see the value of learning from their mistakes.
Promote peer support
Authors of several chapters in this book have posited that students are more likely to give each other better feedback in the absence of grades. This kind of feedback can allow students to help each other, learn from one another, expand their awareness of their own understanding, and develop skills for life. Peer support will also help students build their confidence and autonomy to learn from each other.
One critical aspect of assessment is trust –trust that students do the work they are expected to do by themselves. Instructors have legitimate reasons to express their concerns and create course policies about academic integrity that lead them to adopt plagiarism systems and surveillance tools to monitor and proctor students’ work. In adopting ungrading, trust is fundamental to change the way learning and performances are assessed. It involves helping students think differently about what it means to learn. Instructors can help students evolve in their approach to learning to move away from grades to focus on their learning by including in assessments strategies for building capacity for metacognition, confidence in their skills, life-long learning goals, and owning their learning.
Ungrading does not mean instructors don’t grade and students don’t receive grades on their work. Ungrading, as posited by the authors in the Ungrading book, is a mindset to approach student learning differently. In the second part of this blog, I will share the types of ungrading practices, implications, and challenges as presented in the book.
The changes in higher education precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have reignited questions and misconceptions about online education. This is a time that we should draw on the insights and experience of online faculty. At Oregon State University (OSU) we have a significant number of faculty who have been teaching online for over a decade. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the Ecampus Research Unit interviewed 33 OSU instructors who had taught online for 10 years or more. In a series of interviews, the instructors were asked to reflect on their experiences as an online educator and how their perspectives have changed over time. More information about the broader study can be found on the study website. The final question asked of the instructors was, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” We conducted a qualitative analysis of their responses to this question. The findings were recently published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Below, we discuss some of the key findings from this analysis.
Key finding #1: Online and blended learning will continue to grow
Two-thirds (22) of the instructors expected online learning to expand as higher education moves toward increased access and accessibility, and as employers show increased expectations of continuing education. They acknowledged that online learning would continue to be the choice of adult learners as they balance work and life responsibilities.
Key finding #2: Online learning will increase access and accessibility
More than half (18) of the instructors predicted that online learning would increase access to education. These instructors discussed how online learning increases accessibility because online courses can be taken anywhere (location flexibility) and online courses can be accessed anytime (time flexibility). While these instructors were interviewed before the COVID-19 pandemic, their responses are now particularly timely and relevant, as the pandemic shifted higher education’s focus to remote and online teaching.
Key finding #3: Will online learning replace brick and mortar institutions?
One third (11) of the instructors discussed the possibility that online learning may grow to become the primary modality used in higher education, replacing face-to-face learning. However, 13 instructors indicated that they did not think the face-to-face learning should be eliminated in the future. Many of these instructors hoped that online education could provide more options for students rather than replacing brick and mortar institutions.
Key finding #4: Technology development will increase
Nearly 40% of the instructors (13) discussed the role of technology development in the future of online education. Acknowledging that the development of technology has already made teaching online easier and more effective, many optimistically predicted this would continue to improve the teaching and learning experience. Others were more pessimistic about technology replacing elements like face-to-face communication.
Overall, instructors’ ideas of the future aligned with some themes in the broader field of higher education, such as diversity, opportunity, and access. These key findings have implications for the professional development of online instructors. As more faculty transition to online teaching, it is important that they be well prepared for the online learning landscape. As the population of students in online education continues to evolve, it is also important that instructors understand the diversity of their students and the needs of adult learners. As technology is rapidly changing, timely and accessible training that can be used across multiple modalities is needed for future faculty development. Enhancing instructors’ pedagogy and technology skills across a range of modalities will enhance the educational experience for online learners around the globe.
A group of instructional designers at Ecampus participated in a book club reading “Ungrading” (Kohn & Blum, 2020). We learned many creative ways of designing assessments through participation in this book club. If you happen to be searching for ideas on designing or re-designing assessments in your teaching, we would highly recommend this book!
The idea of “Ungrading” may sound radical to many of us. Yet instructors at all types of educational institutions have tried ungrading in many different courses, ranging from humanity courses, to STEM courses, and from primary education to higher education. Starr Sackstein (author of Chapter 4 “Shifting the Grading Mindset” of the book) encourages educators to consider “ways to adjust small things in the classroom that will lead to important growth for students”. And this suggestion of starting small is coherent with what James Lang proposes in his book “Small Teaching” (Lang, 2016) and Thomas Tobin’s +1 strategy for implementing new teaching and learning strategies (Tobin & Behling, 2018). Sackstein provides a table comparing the grades vocabulary that focuses on judgement or criticism, with the non-grade vocabulary focusing on assessing and opportunity for improvement.
In chapter 5, Arthur Chiaravalli proposed a way for teaching without grades: Descriptive Grading Criteria, such as A for outstanding, B for Good, C for Satisfactory and I for Incomplete. Do you remember elementary school report cards that use E for Excellent, S for Satisfactory, and NI for Need Improvement type of categories? I think that is exactly what descriptive grading criteria represent.
In chapter 7, Christina Katopodis and Cathy Davidson offer a new approach to start a new term/semester by asking students:” What is Success in this class for you? And How can I help you achieve it?” (p. 107) Katopodis and Davidson also remind us the importance of explaining why when you challenge your students to take their own learning seriously and give students opportunities for metacognitive reflections about the learning activities themselves. Katopodis and Davidson also offer a model of contract grading for Twenty-First Century Literacies and a model of collaborative peer evaluation. Students’ grades in the course come from self-and-peer evaluations using detailed evaluation forms.
In chapter 8, Christopher Riesbeck described his critique-driven learning and assessment design of do-review-redo submission process for his intermediate-level programming course. I have used similar approach in my own teaching before and it works very well for any course with manageable number of students. The advantage for this approach is every one of your students can improve their first submissions based on feedback they receive from the instructor. The disadvantage for this approach is the potentially extended time instructors may spend on providing the feedback and reviewing the submissions and re-submissions. The key to this assessment method is making sure that the workload of providing feedback and reviewing revisions is manageable. In chapter 9, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh provided her experience of using ungrading in her organic chemistry II course, giving students opportunities to practice evaluating their own work.
And that is only snippets of what I took away from a few chapters from this book. Many resources about ungrading outside the book were shared during our book club meetings, such as two-stage exams, group exams and public exams. To answer a common question that ungrading practices may fit humanity courses more easily, Cyndie McCarley shared “Grading for Growth” blog written and maintained by two math instructors Robert Talbert and David Clark. To learn about all the creative assessment design methods introduced in this book, read it yourself either through library ebook or get a hard copy and enjoy reading, designing and experimenting!
Kohn, A. and Blum, S. (2020). Ungrading. West Virginia University Press.
Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Tobin, T.J. and Behling, K.T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone. West Virginia University Press.
“Annotation provides information, making knowledge more accessible. Annotation shares commentary, making both expert opinion and everyday perspective more transparent. Annotation sparks conversation, making our dialogue – about art, religion, culture, politics, and research – more interactive. Annotation expresses power, making civic life more robust and participatory. And annotation aids learning, augmenting our intellect, cognition, and collaboration. This is why annotation matters.”
When you think back to your early college years, you may remember your professor assigning a text to annotate. Annotating a text has long been a common task in higher education, one that ideally promotes deeper reading, interaction with, and comprehension of important texts. Annotation assignments vary widely but the traditional paper-based type of annotation asks readers to respond to a text as it is read, physically marking or highlighting the text itself and perhaps writing in the margins. This approach allows students to enter into a dialogue with the text by recording their responses to the text, adding reflections or critiques, and anchoring those reactions to a specific place in the text. When students annotate a text, they are working their way through skills that span the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, from remembering to predicting, connecting, analysing, and evaluating. Annotation, at its best, encourages active engagement with a text beyond the surface level, promoting deeper critical thinking and stronger retention of concepts.
While this is, of course, fantastic individual practice, the nature of traditional annotation assignments is primarily solitary. Today’s classrooms place more of an emphasis on 21st century skills such as group and collaborative study, and new digital tools have been developed that have revolutionized what, how, and with whom we can annotate. So-called social annotation has picked up speed with the growing popularity of two major players, Perusall and Hypothes.is, bolstered by the sudden shift to remote learning in 2020. Online instructors seeking ways to replicate the back and forth, robust discussion of a face-to-face class have found these tools a fitting substitute, and the asynchronous format of the discussion means these tools have a place in all modalities.
Equity, Inclusion, & Community
“As a teaching method, critical social annotation allows for equitable conversations to unfold in-line with the knowledge being presented in course texts. In this way, it can potentially subvert or even redress instances of inequity in course content.”
Social annotation platforms increase equity and inclusion in a course in several ways. Digital annotation platforms offer students a variety of ways to connect with material, allowing students to post links, images, video, and more in response to the text, their peers, and other annotators. By putting students’ ideas front and center, social annotation can empower learners to take initiative and experience more feelings of control over their educational process. Unlike the fast paced back and forth of traditional face-to-face discussions, the nature of digital social annotation allows students more time to engage with the text and to take as long as they need to post and respond (within the assignment boundaries). Additionally, the major platforms discussed in this post feature easy-to-use controls that require little technical expertise to use. They also boast comprehensive accessibility features that combine to provide inclusivity to a wide range of student needs.
Social Annotation as Collective Construction of Meaning
One major difference between today’s digital social annotation and traditional solitary practice is that when students in a particular class collectively annotate a text using one of the digital platforms available today, they are actively building knowledge and understanding as a group. By sharing the document for collective annotation, the act of annotating itself becomes a social activity and contributes to the interaction of individuals within the group. Socially annotating a text is one of the best ways to encourage close and active reading skills, with many studies reporting higher levels of student comprehension of socially annotated materials. Students who collectively annotate a text are entering into an exchange of questions, opinions, perspectives, and reactions to a text, engaging in a discourse with their peers (and facilitator, usually) and by extension learning from and with them. The process of a social annotation assignment allows students to see knowledge creation in action and become co-creators.
Use of social annotation in asynchronous online courses can also increase sociability within an otherwise geographically remote, disparate group of students. Asynchronous instructors sometimes struggle to provide opportunities for real social interaction and building of community given the limits of the modality. An often unstated goal of higher education is to socialize students to academic community norms, and social annotation allows students to experience and practice some of these. For example, students annotating collectively learn appropriate language for responding to peers’ ideas and criticisms, develop online academic social identities, and gain experience with navigating power dynamics within the higher education classroom.
Ready to Try It Out?
Adding social annotation to a course involves matching the task to your learning outcomes, deciding which readings would be best suited to annotation, and choosing your online annotation platform.
Assignments can be tailored to meet a variety of instructional purposes and goals:
Recognizing formatting of various documents
Providing background or contextual information
Learning academic norms for responding to peers- supporting, agreeing, disagreeing
Drafting questions and responses that are rigorous and meaningful
Determining main points vs. supporting details
Distinguishing fact from opinion
Identifying themes, tone, biases, author’s purpose, rhetorical devices, etc.
Learning and practicing discipline-specific writing and reading conventions
Connecting the material to the field of study, to their own practice, or to other course materials
Developing evaluative and analytical skills
Considering differing perspectives and viewpoints in constructing knowledge
Facilitating a deeper understanding of difficult passages
Some best practices to consider when using collective annotation online:
Remind students that they have already practiced annotation in their everyday lives (reading and making your own notes in your inherited cookbook, reading your teacher’s remarks on your essay, leaving comments on a colleague’s report)
Model annotation with a fun text first
Seed the reading with your own comments, questions, and notes to help guide students
Situate the social annotation assignment within the context of the course and make clear the intentions you have for the activity
If the activity is to be graded, be sure students know the grading criteria, preferably by providing a rubric
Annotation assignments are ideal for small group activities, and some platforms automatically create groups
Be prepared to provide guidelines for behavior and etiquette among students and to need to enforce these guidelines if students step out of line
Monitor the discussion and provide nudges, likes, upvotes, or validations, and otherwise engage with the dialogue throughout the assignment
If the platform allows tagging, do so- students get notified when someone responds to their post or asks a question, a convenience which increases the likelihood of them returning to the assignment for further interaction
Social Annotation Tools: The Major Players
Perusall (stand-alone site/integrated into various LMS, including canvas)
Perusall is a collective annotation platform developed by Harvard University following a major research initiative into online collective annotation. Perusall offers free accounts for teachers and students at the basic level with options for institutions to integrate the tool into their LMS. The platform allows educators to use Perusall directly for stand-alone courses and upload their own materials for annotation as well as partner with their textbook catalog to purchase and annotate textbooks directly. For integrated LMS users, Perusall offers seamless grade pass back and options for pass/no pass grading as well as a robust automatic AI grading system that saves time and effort. Some instructors have also used Perusall for peer review to great effect using student-uploaded documents. *recommended tool for Ecampus courses
Hypothes.is is a groundbreaking new tool that bypasses restrictions of the classroom and enables anyone anywhere to annotate any webpage via a unique delivery system- as a browser extension that creates a layer over any webpage. This open source, free tool can revolutionize how we view and interact with web pages as well as texts by allowing us to save our annotations privately as well as publicly, inviting the world at large to socially annotate with us. Hypothes.is is also available as an integrated tool in most LMSs. The company also hosts the AnnotatED community, a group of users that hosts events, studies, and conferences to learn best practices for the tool. *recommended tool for research with a wider audience.
Traditional learning materials such as textbooks can limit access to innovative teaching and learning practices. With Open Educational Resources (OERs), teachers and students are freed from the constraints of these materials and are empowered to adapt, use, and share learning materials created by others. This is a series of two blogs that will explore the importance of OERs and the resources needed for creating our own open resources for language learning?.
First, let’s take a brief look at what makes OERs appealing, yet challenging to adapt and create in language education.
A Brief Overview
Open Educational Resources (OERs) are a key component of an approach to learning known as Open Pedagogy, which aims to leverage the use of shared resources to improve educational outcomes. Simply put, OERs include “any educational resources (including curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts, and any other materials that have been designed for use in teaching and learning) that are openly available for use by educators and students, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or license fees” (Butcher, 2015, p.5). OERs are usually shared under a Creative Commons license which allows users to revise, remix, retain, reuse and redistribute these materials without incurring any copyright infringement (The 5R activities).
“Going open is more a philosophy than a skill. But, obviously, it takes a handful of skills to be able to apply this philosophy in the classroom”
Małgorzata Kurek Anna Skowron
Language instructors and researchers have recognized the potentials that OERs bring to the language classroom. We call these potentials the ecology of OERs for the language classroom—the complex connections and relations that exist in the process of teaching and learning another language and its cultural foundations. In this ecology, we find benefits including adapting authentic materials, merging literacy and culture, and fostering multiliteracies (e.g., digital, information). Yet instructors and researchers also acknowledge the barriers to widely adopting open resources.
OERs can engender creative and innovative practices for making language teaching and learning more meaningful, enjoyable, authentic, and democratic. Open resources can be game-changers that reshape the classroom ecology and its dynamics—fostering a hub for new social learning. These resources can challenge the social norms and behaviors expected in the language classroom, making instructors and students collaborators. Both students and instructors can become active producers of content, transforming the language class into more democratic and participatory. A participatory approach to making students content creators can promote opportunities for students to be exposed to authentic uses of the language and, thus, increase their motivation to learn and use the language in more meaningful and relatable ways (Blyth & Thoms, 2021).
OERs create opportunities for adapting and repurposing content to fit particular contexts and uses, levels of skills, student characteristics, instructors’ competencies, and available technologies. Both students and instructors can engage in higher-order cognitive processes as they retain, revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, and evaluate copyrightable works. OERs often come in different formats such as videos, interactive content, gamified practices, animated presentations, audio effects, etc. making the content and learning experience more engaging as well as connected to students’ language learning interests and needs. In addition, OERs are easily adapted, foster language and literacy skills for students, and are beneficial for the professional development of instructors. OERs can promote the development of digital multiliteracies for instructors (Mitsikopoulou, 2019), who could eventually integrate multiliteracies into their teaching practices organically.
Commercial textbooks can become outdated quickly, and updating them can take a long time. In addition, instructors might find more challenges adapting or reusing these textbooks due to copyright laws. The open nature of OERs offers instructors the opportunity to adapt multiple resources to innovate their teaching practices and expose students to more realistic content that is current and relevant. Even further, using OERs in the language classroom may contribute to going beyond the goal of language education—from a communicative perspective where learners are expected to develop the language skills to communicate with other speakers of the target language to a learning experience that fosters literacy (Thoms & Thoms, 2014).
In broadening language teaching goals, instructors can become content-generators and create their own OERs. Instructor-generated OERs afford the opportunity for instructors to rethink their pedagogical content and practices in a way that can broaden their understanding and perspectives of the world. Instructors can integrate more content from the language and culture of diverse communities around the globe, decentering the language usage of a particular dominant group within the community of speakers. For instance, many Spanish textbooks in the U.S. focus on the Spanish language and culture from Spain, failing to embrace the multifaceted nature, complexity, and nuances of the language and culture in the other 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the world.
While interest in and implementation of OERs has grown across disciplines since the early days of the open education movement, adoption of these resources among foreign language educators has been slower and continues to present a number of challenges that may limit the efforts to integrate them into some educational contexts. Persisting barriers may include reluctance to reuse material created by others and share resources more broadly (Rolfe, 2012; Weller, 2011); lack of guidelines on the use and evaluation of OERs for quality and accuracy of the content (Adams et al., 2013); technical difficulties in access, development, and delivery of content; need for a sustainable team for development and authoring; and compliance with accessibility standards (Baker, 2012). It is notable that many of the challenges identified here represent a historical perspective of the OER movement. However, these potential obstacles, along with “a lack of research which investigates the benefits and challenges of FL learning and teaching in open environments” (Blyth and Thoms, 2021), continue to hinder the widespread use and creation of open resources among foreign language educators.
Supporting Efforts to Incorporate OERs in the Language Teaching and Learning
The benefits of OERs across disciplines has been by now well-documented. Language programs and educators weighing the barriers to creating OERs should not be discouraged. To the contrary, it is critical to support efforts to democratize education through the use of OERs and open education initiatives. These efforts include: (1) providing research-based and empirical evidence of the benefits and impact on language education, (2) grounding the development of OERs on theoretical and practical frameworks to ensure quality of learning experiences, (3) training users and developers of OERs on how to find, adopt, adapt, evaluate and create open resources, (4) supporting the use of technologies and Creative Commons licensing for OERs, and (5) creating clear guidelines for instructional practices (Zapata & Ribota, 2021). An important piece in adopting OERs and advocating for the open pedagogy movement is to support instructors who want to venture into creating their own OERs. How do we get started with our own OER project? What considerations are critical for this kind of project? What resources are needed and available? Who will be involved and how will their different areas of expertise be integrated? We believe it is necessary to discuss these questions (and possibly others). In Part 2 of this series, we outline a detailed process and structure for language programs to determine the appropriate scope and sequence within the larger curriculum, author rich thematic content, weave cultural and social justice topics into language skills content, promote multiliteracies, and produce media objects or search for existing media and images in the public domain.
Adams, A., Liyanagunawardena, T., Rassool, N., & Williams, S. (2013). Use of open educational resources in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44, 149– 150. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12014
Baker, J. (2012). Introduction to open educational resources. Connexions. http://cnx.org/content/col10413/1.3
Blyth, C. S., & Thoms, J. J. (Eds.). (2021). Open education and second language learning and teaching: The rise of a new knowledge ecology. Multilingual Matters. https://www.multilingual-matters.com/page/detail/?k=9781800411005
Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning (COL).
Mitsikopoulou, B. (2019). Multimodal and digital literacies in the English classroom: Interactive textbooks open educational resources and a social platform. In N. Vasta., & A. Baldry. (Eds.). Multiliteracy Advances and Multimodal Challenges in ELT Environments, (pp. 98-110). Udine.
Thoms, J. J., & Thoms, B. L. (2014). Open educational resources in the United States: Insights from university foreign language directors. Systems. http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume22/ej86/ej86a2/
Weller, M., De los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, B., & McAndrew, P. (2015). The impact of OER on teaching and learning practice. Open Praxis, 7(4), 351-361.
Zapata, G., & Ribota. (2021). Open educational resources in heritage and L2 Spanish classrooms: Design, development and implementation. Open Education and Second, 25.
Many Oregon State colleagues have had transformative experiences in this program. A Fellows study funded in 2020 highlights the ways in which these projects have advanced research in online/hybrid education, as well as Fellows’ programs of research.
Fellows program highlight
Funding recipients expand the inclusivity mindset of computer science students
Lara Letaw, an experienced online instructor and lead researcher from Oregon State’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, partnered with Heather Garcia, an OSU Ecampus inclusive instructional designer on a research study called “Impacting the Inclusivity Mindset of Online Computer Science Students.”
Together with their team, Letaw and Garcia implemented an intervention that was designed to improve feelings of gender inclusivity among online computer science students and to train these students to develop more gender-inclusive software applications.
In this intervention, online computer science students experienced new curriculum developed by Letaw and Garcia’s team. The curriculum was based on GenderMag, a software inspection method for identifying and correcting gender biases in software. Curriculum for teaching GenderMag concepts can be found on the GenderMag Teach website. Students completed a set of assignments and, if they chose to participate in the research study, questionnaires about inclusivity climate, both in the course and in the computer science major. Students’ software design work was also evaluated for the use of gender-inclusive principles.
The image below shows examples of the cognitive facet values people (e.g., Letaw and Garcia) bring to their use of software, shown across the spectra of GenderMag facets (information processing style, learning style, motivations, attitude toward risk, and computer self-efficacy).
Computer science students in the Ecampus courses Letaw and Garcia modified learned about their own cognitive styles and those of their teammates. They also built software that supports the cognitive diversity of software users. One student reflected, “Identifying my facet values was tremendously helpful [for articulating what had] been abstract… I feel much more confident.”
The results of their study showed that, overall, students felt included by the GenderMag curriculum (nobody felt excluded by it), it increased their interest in computer science, and it had positive effects on their team dynamics and self-acceptance. Students who completed the GenderMag intervention were also more effective in developing gender-inclusive software designs, and they reported greater recognition and respect for the diversity of software users.
The image below highlights what students considered when designing a software user interface before (left) and after (right) learning GenderMag concepts. As one student put it, “Now when I think of users using a piece of software I don’t picture them … just jumping in and tinkering … I am more aware that there are [people whose] interests in using a software … might not align with mine.”
This Fellows project has also provided research opportunities for two female Ecampus computer science students (Rosalinda Garcia and Aishwarya Vellanki), a group that is typically underrepresented in STEM fields. Rosalinda Garcia successfully defended her honors thesis with these data in the spring of 2021, and Vellanki is currently working on her own.
Join the Ecampus Research Fellows Program
Learn more about the Fellows Program and what materials are needed to prepare your proposal.
Last fall, my colleague featured the Ecampus Research Fellows (ECRF) program in her blog post. The ECRF program, which began in 2016, funds OSU faculty-led research on online and hybrid education. Each year, approximately five projects are selected to receive funding. One unique aspect of the program is that, in the past few years, 1-2 members of the Ecampus Course Development and Training (CDT) team are paired with the faculty on funded research projects. The CDT team includes instructional designers and media developers. These professionals have expressed interest in conducting research, but in most cases, have had few opportunities to engage in formal research projects. Similar to faculty, CDT fellows have to apply to the ECRF program.
For this blog post, I’d like to share some takeaways from my experience as a CDT research fellow, as well as some takeaways my CDT colleagues have shared with me. I will also share some feedback from faculty fellows who have had CDT colleagues join their research teams. But before I dig into these valuable takeaways from past participants, let me first address the importance of this program for instructional designers and related disciplines.
In 2017, the Ecampus Research Unit published a report titled “Research Preparation and Engagement of Instructional Designers in U.S. Higher Education.” This report was the result of a national study of instructional designers working in higher education environments. Among the many findings of this study, one compelling finding was that more than half (55%) of respondents indicated that instructional designers need more training in research methods to fulfill their role. Instructional designers also indicated why they think it is important to gain more experience in research. Among the reasons, respondents indicated that research skill development would allow them to grow professionally, further their discipline, better understand the needs of students and faculty, and collaborate with faculty.
The Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU) answers this call through their CDT research fellows program.
In the summer of 2020 at the NWeLearn conference, three CDT fellows reflected upon their participation in the program, sharing valuable insights and experience. I, Heather Garcia, was one of them. The other participants were Susan Fein and Tianhong Shi. The full recording can be viewed on YouTube at this link, but I’ll summarize some highlights from the session in the following paragraphs.
The projects undertaken by CDT research fellows in partnership with faculty spanned disciplines from computer science to field-based courses.
When asked why they were interested in being research fellows, all three participants indicated that they were pursuing additional graduate education at the time they applied. One participant also indicated that acquiring more knowledge and experience with research would allow faculty to see course design suggestions as “more convincing and easily accepted,” giving her additional credibility when recommending new design approaches to faculty.
The fellows also shared details about their contributions to the research projects they were working on. All of the instructional designers spoke to ways their existing expertise was valued by the researchers. They gave examples of the expertise they offered, which ranged from reviewing course design and educational technologies to designing surveys to offering a fresh perspective and a critical eye. In addition to contributing their design expertise to the research projects, CDT research fellows contributed to the research processes as well, through data analysis and research paper writing and reviewing.
All of the CDT research fellows indicated that they learned a lot from their experiences partnering with faculty on research. One particular highlight in this area is that fellows learned that they contribute diverse perspectives to the research process; they have different backgrounds, experiences, and areas of expertise, and everyone on the team contributes something valuable. CDT fellows also indicated that they learned about the IRB process and the importance of asking questions. Perhaps most importantly, they learned that their expertise is valuable to research teams.
Faculty fellows were also given the opportunity to share how having a CDT fellow on their research team enhanced the research experience, and their feedback was shared in the conference session. They expressed many positive sentiments about the experience including the following:
“Our research team started as a group of inspired but like-minded computer scientists wanting to make better online classrooms for diverse students. After she joined the team as an instructional design fellow, the work became credentialed, interdisciplinary, and stronger. She brings expertise and sees what we miss—she not only makes us better able to serve the students we hope to, she makes our team better by adding diversity of thought.”
“The combined knowledge and experience of teaching faculty and an instructional designer is incredibly powerful.”
“She viewed the scope of the research and content of the courses involved through a different lens than I did.”
“The instructional designer provided valuable input on areas of my project merging the instructional design with the research.”
“My work with the instructional designer let me explore very practical logistic issues that are often not included in the literature.”
Altogether, it becomes clear that many instructional designers are eager to participate on research projects and they are valuable contributors to the research process. The questions I have now are: How can we continue these partnerships into the future? And, how can we create more research partnership opportunities for other instructional designers and teaching and learning professionals, who aren’t traditionally involved in research?
Dello Stritto, M.E., Fein, S., Garcia, H., Shi, T. (2020). Instructional Designers and Faculty Partnerships in Online Teaching Research. NWeLearn 2020 Conference.
Linder, K. & Dello Stritto, M.E. (2017). Research Preparation and Engagement of Instructional Designers in U.S. Higher Education. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.
Loftin, D. (2020). Ecampus Research Fellows Program. Ecampus CDT Blog.