A few years ago, I was taking a Statistics class that was dreaded by most students in my graduate program. Upon starting, I discovered with pleasure that the instructor had introduced a new textbook, called An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma by Andy Field. The book followed a story-telling format and featured an outlandish science-fiction type plot, humor, colorful graphics, and comic-book snippets.

The merits of storytelling have been widely discussed, and that’s not what I want to talk about here. Rather, I’d like to highlight a specific element that I believe made a great contribution to the book’s instructional value: most of the content is presented through the dialogue between the main character, Zach, who needs to learn statistics, and various mentors, in particular one professor-turned-cat. The mentors guide Zach through his learning journey by explaining concepts, answering his queries, and challenging him with thought-provoking points. This makes the content more approachable and easier to understand as we, the students, struggle, ask questions, and learn together with Zach.

I believe that using dialogues—in particular of the student-tutor type—instead of monologues in instructional materials is an underutilized method of making difficult concepts more accessible. It is not a topic that has been researched much, but I did encounter a few interesting references.

One term that is often used to refer to this type of learning—by observing others learn—is “vicarious learning”. It was introduced in the 1960’s by Bandura, who showed that learning can happen through observing others’ behavior. Later, it was also used to talk about learning through the experiences of others or through storytelling (Roberts, 2010).

I was interested specifically in the effectiveness of student-tutor dialogue, which is a type of vicarious learning, and I found two articles that presented research on this topic.

Muller, Sharma, Eklund, and Reiman (2007) used instructional videos on quantum mechanics topics for second year physics students. In one condition, the video was a regular presentation of the material. In the other, the video was a semi-authentic dialogue between a student and a tutor, and incorporated alternative conceptions that physics students might hold, in combination with Socratic dialogue. The authors found significantly better outcomes on the post-test for the dialogue treatment.

Chi, Kang, and Yaghmourian (2017) conducted two studies that also featured physics concepts. They compared the effects of student-tutor dialogue videos versus lecture-style monologue videos, using the same tutors and the same supporting multimedia presentations. They, too, found increased learning for the students who watched the dialogue videos. They also found that students who watched the dialogue videos seemed to engage more in solving problems, generating substantive comments, and interacting constructively with their peers. The researchers offered some possible explanations for why this was the case: the incorrect statements and questions of the tutee triggered a more active engagement; tutees can serve as a model of learning; tutees make errors which are followed by tutor feedback – what they call “conflict episodes” that may motivate students to try harder.

Creating tutorial dialogue videos is time consuming and more difficult than making regular lectures. So, it is certainly not practical to use them on a large scale. However, it may be worth considering them for those areas where students struggle a lot.

Let us know if you’ve tried vicarious learning in any shape or form!

References:

Bandura A, Ross D, Ross S (1963) Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(6): 601–607.

Chi, M. T., Kang, S., & Yaghmourian, D. L. (2017). Why students learn more from dialogue- than monologue-videos: Analyses of peer interactions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 26(1), 10-50.

Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D., Eklund, J., & Reimann, P. (2007). Conceptual change through vicarious learning in an authentic physics setting. Instructional Science, 35(6), 519–533. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41953754

Roberts, D. (2010). Vicarious learning: A review of the literature. Nurse Education in Practice, 10(1), 13-16.

I was recently reminded of a conference keynote that I attended a few years ago, and the beginning of an academic term seems like an appropriate time to revisit it on this blog.

In 2019, Dan Heath, a bestselling author and senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center, gave a presentation at InstructureCon, a conference for Canvas users, where he talked about how memories are formed. He explained that memories are composed of moments. Moments, according to Heath, are “mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable.” To illustrate, most of what I’ve done today–dropping my kids off at spring break camp, replying to emails, going to a lunchtime yoga class, and writing this blog post–will largely be forgotten by next month. There is nothing remarkable about today. Unremarkable is often a desirable state because it means that an experience occurred without any hiccups or challenges.

Heath went on to describe what it is that makes great experiences memorable. His answer: Great experiences consist of “peaks,” and peaks consist of at least one of the following elements: elevation, insight, pride, or connection. He argued that we need to create more academic peaks in education. Creating peaks, he contends, will lead to more memorable learning experiences.

So, how do we create these peaks that will lead to memorable experiences? Let’s explore some ideas through the four approaches outlined by Heath.

Elevation. Elevation refers to moments that bring us joy and make us feel good. You might bring this element into your course by directly asking students to share what is bringing them joy, perhaps as an icebreaker. Sharing their experiences might also lead to connection, which is another way (see below) to create peaks that lead to memorable experiences. 

Insight. Insight occurs when new knowledge allows us to see something differently. Moments of insight are often sparked by reflection. You might consider making space for reflection in your courses. Creativity is another way to spark new insights. How might students engage with course concepts in new, creative ways? To list off a few ideas, perhaps students can create a meme, record a podcast, engage in a role play, or write a poem.

Pride. People often feel a sense of pride when their accomplishments are celebrated. To spark feelings of accomplishment in your students, I encourage you to go beyond offering positive feedback and consider sharing particularly strong examples of student work with the class (after getting permission–of course!) Showcasing the hard work of students can help students to feel proud of their efforts and may even lead to moments of joyful elevation.

Connection. Connection refers to our ties with other people. Experiencing connection with others can feel deeply rewarding. As I mentioned above, asking students to share their experiences with peers is one way to foster connection. In Ecampus courses, we aim to foster student-student and student-teacher connection, but I encourage you to explore other opportunities for students to make meaningful connections. Perhaps students can get involved with their communities or with colleagues, if they happen to have a job outside of classes. Students could connect with their academic advisors or the writing center to support their work in a course. There are many ways to foster connections that support students in their learning!

It’s easy to focus on delivering content, especially in online courses. This was one of Heath’s overarching points. The key, however, to creating memorable learning experiences is to take a student-centered approach to designing and facilitating your course. 

I invite you to start the term off by asking yourself: How can I create more moments of elevation, insight, pride, and connection for my students? It might be easier than you think.

References:

Heath, D. (2019, July 10). Keynote. InstructureCon. Long Beach, CA.

Seems like an easy question to answer, right? I might not give it a second thought.

Yet, as an online course developer, I sometimes find myself in conversations with co-developers where I realize I’ve been working under a different assumption about what a lecture is. And that’s fine, I kind of like having my preconceptions challenged. I wanted to share a little of that experience.

Our media development team has one of the stricter definitions of lecture, a specific kind of video recording. They have to, they are handling hundreds of videos every term. It’s essential for them to be able to sort media into the most efficient pipeline. Makes sense.

However, when I am working with subject matter experts, instructors, co-developers, etc. … I have found it useful to stay more flexible regarding many definitions. Sometimes errors in assumptions can open a door for discourse. It has certainly been a creative challenge. As an example, I’ll reminisce a little about a couple of my favorite mistaken assumptions about lectures. Ah yes, I remember it like it happened just this last Fall ….

I helped develop an upper-division online course centered on technology for educators. My first mistaken assumption was going in all ready to talk about video lecturing. The instructor on this co-development was a podcaster and wanted to deliver lectures in that format. I’ve had other instructors who preferred podcast lectures, no worries there. Some instructors see podcasts as a more portable kind of lecture or an alternative way to access the content. Students can listen to lectures on the go or download the lecture for offline listening. We just had to make sure to include transcripts for accessibility instead of captioning.

Also, I got to design the following playback interfaces to make them look more ‘podcasty’.

As you’ve probably guessed, there was a second mistaken assumption on my part. I was thinking the podcasts were the lectures. The podcasts are pieces of a larger “discourse given before an audience or class especially for instruction”. (Miriam-Webster: lecture and discourse). For our course, this discourse might be composed of multiple media element types.

The instructor wanted each ‘lecture’ to be a curated collection of learning elements focusing on specific topics; podcasts, video, reading, even Padlet posts. Part of the pedagogy here is to immerse them, as students, in a variety of technologies in the lectures that they may be using as educators. Together, we collaborated to find the most effective way to present all of this material as discrete lectures. Below is what we came up with. Would you still consider these lectures?

Interestingly, I don’t think we’ve quite strayed far from the Merriam-Webster definitions:

  • lecture: A discourse given before an audience or class especially for instruction
  • discourse: Formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought on a subject. Connected speech or writing

While the course did include some interactive learning elements, these were not incorporated into lectures. It’s an interesting thought though.

  • How would you incorporate interactive exercises into lectures?
  • Does that still work within the definitions given above?

Maybe we can stretch the definition a little more. (Hmm. Perhaps in another blog post)

My takeaway here is that a lecture doesn’t have to be something given before a live class, or a simple narrated PowerPoint video online. As a course developer, my goal is to support my co-developer’s vision. But I am also serving the learning needs of students. As an online course developer, I have more flexibility about what a lecture can be. It makes sense to be open to more possibilities. I look forward to having more of these conversations with co-developers.

Stay flexible. Keep learning.

While attending a panel presentation by students pursuing degrees online, I heard one of the student panelists share something to the effect of, “Oh, I don’t do Office Hours. However, instead of Office Hours, one of my instructors had these ‘Afternoon Tea’ sessions on Zoom that I loved to attend when it worked with my schedule. She answered my questions, and I feel like she got to know me better. She was also available to meet by appointment.” What wasn’t revealed was why this student wouldn’t attend something called “Office Hours” but did attend these other sessions. Did “Office Hours” sound too formal? Was she unsure of what would happen during office hours, or unsure of what the purpose was? Did she think office hours was something students only went to if they were failing the course? The student didn’t say.

There is some mystery around why this student wouldn’t attend office hours, and her comment reminded me of what I had read in Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, by Flower Darby and James Lang (available digitally through the Valley Library if you are part of the OSU community). In Small Teaching Online, under the section titled, “Get Creative with Virtual Office Hours,” several tips are highlighted for how to enhance participation in office hours. Here is a summary of a few of those tips presented in this book, which are based on Lowenthal’s 2017 study (pp. 119-121, Darby & Lang, 2019):

  • Rename office hours to sound more welcoming: “Afternoon Tea,” “Consultations,” or “Coffee Breaks” are some ideas to consider (p. 188, Lowenthal, 2017).
  • To enhance participation, plan just 3-4 well-timed sessions instead of weekly office hours, and announce them early in the term. For timing, think about holding a session before or after a major assessment or project milestone is due, for example.
  • Collect questions ahead of time, and make office hours optional.

Additionally, outside of office hours, remind students that you are available to meet with them individually by appointment since students’ schedules vary so widely. 

Putting these tips into practice, here is what the redesigned office hours can look like in an asynchronous online course, where this “Coffee Break” happens three times in the term and is presented in the LMS using the discussion board tool or the announcements feature as needed:

Canvas page shows a banner image titled "Coffee Break" and  "Join me for a chat. I hope to get to know each of you in this course, so I would like to invite you to virtual coffee breaks." The description on the page details expectations, tasks, and how to join the Coffee Break.

What I like about this design is that the purpose and expectations of the session are explained, and it is flexible for both students and faculty. The “Coffee Break” is presented in an asynchronous discussion board so that students’ questions can be collected ahead of time and at their convenience. Further, if something comes up with the faculty and the live “Coffee Break” is canceled, the faculty can answer questions asynchronously in the discussion board. There is also a reminder that students are invited to make a separate appointment with their instructor at a time that works for them.

Have you tried rebranding your office hours? How did it go?

References

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online : applying learning science in online classes (First edition.). Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Lowenthal, P. R., Dunlap, J. C., & Snelson, C. (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.), 21(4), 177-. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v21i4.1285

As a follow-up to discussing equity in grading and group work, Feldman (2019) offers a compelling case against the use of extra credit. “But wait a minute,” I can hear you saying, “Extra credit is optional—students have to opt-in if they want to do it! And it can be fun! What’s wrong with that?” Many instructors may think of extra credit as a way to benefit students and give them extra opportunities in a course, especially at the end of a term, to improve their grade, take on additional challenges, and demonstrate additional skills they have learned. (I know I thought about extra credit that way at one time!) However, there is more at play with extra credit than you might think. Let’s return to Feldman’s three pillars of equitable grades:

  1. “They are mathematically accurate, validly reflecting a student’s academic performance.
  2. They are bias-resistant, preventing biased subjectivity from infecting our grades.
  3. They motivate students to strive for academic success, persevere, accept struggles and setbacks, and to gain critical lifelong skills” (Feldman, p. 71).

With these three pillars in mind, let’s examine some potential issues with extra credit:

  1. Accuracy: There are many ways extra credit can obscure what information a grade includes. First, it can be used to incentivize certain behaviors, which obscures a grade by not assessing academic performance or learning. (For example, extra credit for turning things in on time.) Second, it can obscure whether a grade reflects what students know by turning grades into a commodity (more about this below). In this way, grades are a reflection of how many points students are able to accumulate, not necessarily how much they have learned or whether they have met all of a course’s learning outcomes.This kind of extra credit can unintentionally signal to students that their behavior and non-academic performance in a course is more important than their learning.
  2. Bias: Sometimes extra credit is awarded to incentivize students to participate in extra events or opportunities, like attending a webinar, guest lecture, local event, etc. However, in addition to treating grades like a commodity, this kind of incentive also makes it difficult for students without outside resources or help to engage. What about students without the money for event tickets, transportation, child or family care, and/or without the time away from work, family, etc.? They are unable to participate, even if they want to, due to external factors outside of their control. And often these are the students who could potentially benefit the most from additional points if they are already struggling because of these exact conditions. For extra credit that provides extra challenges beyond the course materials, only the students already doing well will be able to participate and benefit from the opportunity, additionally shutting out students who are already behind.
  3. Motivation: Having extra credit, especially at the end of the course, can also be damaging to student motivation, as it places an emphasis on grades and points instead of learning. For example, some students may prioritize obtaining a desired grade above learning important content, while other students may use extra credit to bolster a weak area they were unable to fully grasp, thereby giving up on learning that material entirely. Both of these potential mindsets set students up to focus on a product (grade) more than learning and any future perspectives they might have about their learning.

One additional issue of extra credit to consider is the additional work and time on instructors for both designing additional assignments and grading the extra work, especially at the end of a term when there is usually a plethora of assignments, exams, and projects to grade.

“If the work is important, require it; if it’s not, don’t include it in the grade.”

Feldman, p. 122.

So, what options can we give students that are more equitable as an alternative to extra credit? Instead of creating additional assignments, allow students to revise and resubmit work. This shift can help support students by encouraging them to learn from past mistakes, build on their learning, and see their growth over time. Revisions and resubmissions don’t have to only happen at the end of the term, so instructors can also consider timing of revisions based on course design, formative and summative assessment timing, and their own workloads. It also helps students who may be struggling with outside barriers to have additional attempts to complete work they may have missed. It also means that students cannot opt-out of important work or concepts because they cannot substitute those points from other areas of the course. Lastly, it saves the instructor time from designing and implementing additional assignments and complicated grading setups at the end of a term when instructors are often the busiest. While the use of extra credit is often from a place of good intentions, I hope this brief outline helps recontextualize how it may have a larger, negative impact in your course than you may have initially thought, as well as a strategy for replacing it in your course designs.

References

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

One of the most common concerns that instructors raise about teaching online is how to engage students in meaningful interactions. Online discussion boards is the default for simulating the types of conversations that take place in a classroom, albeit the online environment favors written communication in the form of posts and replies. These written posts may be the easiest ways of communication in online learning environments offering students less overwhelming experiences and more opportunities for critical thinking and building community (see benefits of discussion boards). However, written communication is not the only way in which students can interact with one another -images, audio, or video can increase engagement and motivation. Still, these options are not intuitively built into online discussion forums. 

The discussion board option appears to be boring and demotivating -it sounds more like a chore than an activity where students build community and participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives – where they grow intellectually and as individuals. Online discussions can turn into spaces for dialogue, debates, and community. How do we design these spaces so that students engage and interact more meaningfully? Well, let’s explore a tiered approach to spark engagement in online discussions.

Tier 1: Revamp Discussion Boards

Consider the Community of Inquiry framework (CoI) in facilitating deep, engaging, and meaningful learning. The three elements of this framework can be used to design discussion boards: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Ragupathi (2016) describes these presences in online courses as follows: “Social presence that will encourage students to present their individual personalities/profiles, help them identify with the community, communicate purposefully and function comfortably in a trusted environment; (2) Cognitive presence that will get students to introduce factual, conceptual, and theoretical knowledge into the discussion and be able to construct/confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse; and (3) Teaching presence to provide necessary facilitation of the learning process through effective discussion.” (p. 4). Social presence in particular can be achieved through discussions (although not the only tool) to promote a sense of connection and community. 

Apart from a strong foundation on a sense of connection and community that the CoI promotes, the structure of the discussion assignment plays an important role. To this effect, “structure” and “why” are the key

Revise Structure and Format

  • Establish a clear purpose and add value to the participation/contribution:
    • Instructor-led: contextualize the outcomes, make explicit expectations
    • Student-led: ask students to share their takeaways from the discussion participation (e.g., reflection, embedded in assignments)
    • Connect the content to the discussion assignment (e.g., ask students to refer back or cite previous readings/videos completed in the weekly content)
  • Clearly set expectations for:
    • Grading criteria (e.g., provide a rubric or grading guidelines)
    • Timeframe
    • Resources (e.g., from the course or external)
    • What is a “good post” (e.g., provide an example, describe an example that does not meet expectations)
    • Clarify terminology (e.g., link to a glossary of terms)
  • Support continuity of engagement:
  • Make discussion spaces manageable (students & faculty)

Visit this link for discussion board examples.

Tier 2. Augment the Discussion Boards

The next tier is to augment the opportunities that discussion boards offer. Structure and creativity will intertwine in layers to turn discussions into collaborative spaces. Here, there is greater emphasis on community as a place where students take a more active role, embrace challenges, and own their contribution role as active participants in building knowledge together.

  • Start with setting the discussion board as a place for a conversation:
    • Introductions: encourage students to use additional elements to introduce themselves to the class (e.g., images, videos, goals, expectations). With the caveat that it is optional so they feel comfortable choosing what and how to share. 
  • Create discussion scenarios/questions/prompts that elicit more than one response:
    • Post first before you see previous posts
    • Students post follow-up questions and bring additional examples. Students reply to more than 2 peers who have not received replies yet
    • Encourage students to bring their experiences, outside readings, and additional resources to share
    • Encourage posts in different formats (e.g., video, images, infographics, mindmaps)
  • Student-facilitated discussions:
    • Create small groups and ask students to select a leader (rotate leadership role) Alternatively, randomly assign a leader
    • Student leaders post summaries of discussions in small groups and/or in whole-class discussions
    • Set expected participation: 
  • A minimum number of responses (1 post; 2 replies; number of posts in total)
  • Consider self-paced discussions and encourage students to post a certain number of posts throughout the term or week. (Caveat: the first few students that post might need to wait until others post)
  • Create a learning community for future assignments:
    • Students share initial drafts, outlines, and research topics and ask for comments/feedback. Alternatively, students post their initial work and share their goals, and ideas about how it is relevant. Students are encouraged to read the shared work or not.
    • Beyond the Question and Answer format (e.g., role plays, debates, WebQuests)
    • Set the discussion as a Peer review assignment.  

Tier 3. Beyond Discussion Boards*

The linearity that many discussion board platforms have could make the interaction feel inauthentic, boring, and tedious to navigate. An alternative to a linear discussion is the concept of social annotations and collaborative spaces where students intersect transversally and with multimodal elements.

  • Social Annotations: students can add comments, post questions, vote, and interact with peers over learning materials such as readings, videos, visuals, and websites. Students interact and collaborate based on interests and questions they have while studying the content. You can use social annotations as a learning tool.
  • Asynchronous conversations: increase the collaborative nature of group work with multimodality where students not only post and reply but also create their own content for others to comment on. Explore asynchronous conversations in VoiceThread.
  • Collaborative work: online discussions do not have to be about posts and replies only. Students can engage in meaningful conversations through collaborative work. For example, students can do collaborative assignments, interact synchronously or asynchronously, and comment on each others’ contributions. Some web platforms you can explore include Microsoft Whiteboard and Miro.

Tier 4: Unleash the Discussion Boards

While discussion boards are mainly associated with asynchronous learning environments, discussions can play an important role in hybrid learning. You may be wondering why when we know that one of the underlying features of hybrid learning is to use the class time for active learning, collaborative and team activities, increased participation, and social interaction. But these activities do not have to end when the class time is over. Discussions can help keep students engaged in the class topics and activities after the in-person experience. Any of the tier approaches described above could be integrated seamlessly into hybrid learning to give continuity to class conversations, prep for future in-person activities, foster metacognitive and reflection skills, and strengthen social presence. 

*Note: The use of other tools outside of the Canvas learning management system will require a careful evaluation of accessibility and privacy policies.  

References

This article has its roots in a discussion I had with an Ecampus intern about going on the job market. This intern is working in an academic technologies role at a higher ed institution already, but also getting the Instructional Design certificate here at OSU. It was my first time thinking about what the growth of instructional design certificate and degree credentials means for all instructional designers. Very few of the instructional designers I’ve met and worked with here or at my previous institutions actually have degrees in instructional design, including myself. The field of instructional design emerged out of a specific institutional and educational need in higher education and corporate education, which makes for an ever-growing, ever-changing, but always innovative membership. How do we, as a field, continue to be inclusive of all instructional designers, regardless of their academic or educational backgrounds? 

One potentially positive fact is that academia moves very slowly, so we have some time to strategize. Instructional design is still an emerging speciality within higher education, with each institution classifying that role differently, and providing that role with different levels of support. Some institutions, even today, do not have any instructional designers. Current research indicates that this must change. One of the best sources of data about the field of instructional design in higher education and instructional designers is the Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) Project. The participants in the CHLOE survey are “the senior online officer at each participating institution.” This survey pool recognizes the variance in organizational structures at different institutions by focusing on the COO’s purview. In the 2019 CHLOE 3 survey, it was reported that the median number of instructional designers employed at 2-year colleges, and public and private 4-year institutions, was four, regardless of enrollment or institution size. In CHLOE 7, one of the conclusions was that “insufficient instructional design staffing may be one of online learning’s most serious long-term vulnerabilities,” with only 10% of Chief Online Officers surveyed describing their ID capacity as sufficient for their current needs, and only 3% believing they would be able to meet anticipated need. 

These findings signal that universities should be moving towards a significant fiscal investment in hiring instructional designers. Joshua Kim wrote a few key takeaways from the CHLOE 7 in CHLOE 7: The Present and Future of Instructional Design Capacity. Kim predicts that universities will need to not only hire more instructional designers, but that these roles will need to be hybrid or remote to attract the post-pandemic workforce. In addition to hybrid and remote options, Kim posits that, “Forward-thinking universities may find that they need to start offering star non-faculty educators the same recognition and incentives that have long been necessary to recruit and retain star tenure-line faculty.” But what does this mean for instructional designers? How would an instructional designer even be able to become identified as a “star” within the field or even at a specific institution? 

Understanding Branding for Faculty and Non-Faculty Educators

Circling back to my initial inquiry about what instructional designers can do to ensure the field stays inclusive, I believe an individual enterprise will have a collective impact that will benefit the largest number of people: personal branding. In What’s the Point of a Personal Brand? Executive coach Harrison Monarth uses the story of his client, Mike, to illustrate how important it is for employees to think about how personal branding is now a strategy for gaining visibility within organizations, and that visibility is now a key component when employers are thinking about promotion. Monarth observes that “In high-performing organizations, at certain levels, everyone is exceptional. To clearly differentiate your value and what you bring to the table, you need to do more than have a good reputation. You need to have an outstanding personal brand.” Having a brand isn’t the same thing as being a celebrity, although I think many would agree that there are celebrities in every field, even instructional design. 

Creating a personal brand is a successful career strategy outside of the corporate world as well, and one of the fields that is encouraging faculty to think about branding is not, as one might think, business but medicine. In 2019, the Academic Medicine blog published Knowing Your Personal Brand: What Academics Can Learn From Marketing 101, the purpose of which was to persuade medical professionals that a brand identity can be empowering. According to the article,

[K]nowing one’s academic brand can (1) help faculty members approach projects and other responsibilities through the lens of building or detracting from that brand, (2) provide a framework for determining how faculty members might best work within their institutions, and (3) help faculty members better understand and advocate their own engagement and advancement.

Although this article specifically speaks to and about academic teaching faculty, Instructional designers at institutions are often placed in the professional faculty role, along with librarians or program directors, and have many of the same professional demands on their job descriptions. As former faculty, I can attest that both of my careers have included independent  research, departmental service, and conference or publication responsibilities. 

Finding Your Personal Brand

If a brand is defined as opinions that people have about you based on your work, it is important to be self-aware, and intentional about the work that you do. Creating your brand can be a difficult task if, like me, you have a variety of experiences and interests. It requires self-reflection about one’s accomplishments and body of work as a whole, and the need to generalize what are sometimes very disparate activities. In Using Your Personal Mission Statement to INSPIRE and Achieve Success, an article published in Academic Pediatrics, the official journal of the Academic Pediatric Association, the authors describe a framework for building a personal mission statement (INSPIRE):

  • Identify Your Core Values
  • Name the Population You Serve
  • Set Your Vision
  • Plan How You Will Achieve Your Vision
  • Identify Activities That Align With Your Mission
  • Review, Revise, and Refine Your Mission Statement
  • Enlist Others to Help You Accomplish Your Mission

A slimmed down version of this same framework can be a helpful starting point for creating a brand identity. It enables you to identify your core values, name the population you serve, and identify activities that support those values and populations. But unlike a mission statement, this framework is best completed in reverse; a backwards brand design, if you will. (Sidenote: Instructional designers love to do things backwards). I call this framework SIFT:

  • Start with your experience and accomplishments
  • Identify keywords or topics
  • Frame your work and interests
  • Tie everything together

I believe that SIFT-ing has the potential to be a reflective process that will lead to a changing self-awareness of different types of instructional designers, for ourselves, and collectively. 

Start with your experience and accomplishments

The best place to begin is with your complete resume or CV. It might be tempting to start with the tailored version you used to get your last position, but you don’t want to limit your view to only things that you think are relevant to instructional design. I can trace some elements of my brand back to my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I also include my two years as a contracted captioner for 3play and Rev within the same brand. Finding a brand that encompasses all that you are will only be successful if you use the most complete picture of yourself.

Identify keywords or topics

Your brand is more than just the places that you’ve worked at, the committees you’ve served on, and projects you’ve worked on. To understand your brand, you should begin by identifying a perspective, or positionality, that informs the decisions you’ve made in the past, however unconsciously that might have been, and looks towards the future. Keywords can be a useful next step, but you will want to avoid the potential to find yourself trapped within categories! In a field like medicine, there are already established research interests and specialties. As a field, instructional design hasn’t reached the point of specialization, but we are trending towards accepting that there are too many topics that fall under the broad umbrella of instructional design for everyone to be experts in everything. For example, the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association has 21 expertise categories that you can select from when joining the association that others can use to find you to connect with you. 

A screencapture of the list of categories from the QM IDA website
A screencapture of the list of categories from the QM IDA website

When I first joined the QM IDA, I didn’t know what boxes to check, or even what some of these categories were. And since they are presented without explanation, the criteria for self-identification are unclear. I can check almost all of these boxes as things I have experience in—with the exception of K12 and the Continuing and Professional Education Rubric, but is experience the same thing as expertise? It might be my imposter syndrome talking, but I am more inclined to identify with interests than areas of expertise. (Sidenote: I still haven’t checked any boxes.) 

Frame your work and interests

I hadn’t noticed a pattern to my interests while I was doing them, but by reflecting on my professional journey, I realized that I could trace one interest all the way back to my undergraduate honors thesis, through to my current career as an instructional designer. I’ve always had an interest in communities and the community spaces they inhabit—especially if they are online. Community doesn’t appear on QM’s list of categories, but it is the lens through which I approach many of the categories on that list. Accessibility, Computer-Based Learning, Distance Education, Hybrid instruction/Design, LMS, Multimedia Creation, Problem-Based Learning—all of these categories need to address questions of community by addressing inclusivity, access, equity, and authentic student-student and student-teacher interactions. Community is the keyword I use to frame my research interests and approach to instructional design, in all of its various forms.

Tie everything together

If you go to my LinkedIn profile, you’ll see that I have “Humanities girl in an instructional technology world” as my headline. That’s my brand. You might notice that it does not include “instructional design” or “community.” But at the same time, by labeling myself a humanist, I am evoking the words associated with humanities and humanism–things like communities, kindness, compassion, human potential, and the arts. Technology is often viewed either as the savior of humanity, or its destruction. In reality, of course, it’s both. By framing myself as a humanist working with technology, I am clueing people in that my perspective on technology will incorporate potential negative impacts for people. The playful nature of the headline i.e. using “girl” to rhyme with “world” also reveals my personality. Compare this headline with something like, “I am interested in humane approaches to technology used in education.” It’s true, but it doesn’t tell you about me as a person outside of my interests. 

Being “On Brand”

To declare a brand is not to limit your interests, nor should it be criticized as promoting a non-interest in other topics. Another observation from Kim is that instructional designers are likely very busy, and overstretched. In his words, there is “a significant mismatch between institutional demand for instructional design services and the available supply.” To avoid burnout, instructional designers need to be strategic with the projects they commit to. A brand can also help you be selective about which conferences you attend, or committees you serve on. Being “on brand” can be a way of focusing your energy, and also a touchstone of your identity. 

Using the SIFT framework, you can reflect on your professional values, and your professional goals. One of my colleagues in the field is an accessibility expert, and gets called in to consult on all things related to accessibility in addition to her daily work as an instructional designer. She recently became a certified Accessibility Professional with the IAAP, and this credential is visible on her LinkedIn profile as an emblem of her brand. Knowing her brand allowed her to appeal to her institution to allow her this opportunity that enriches not only her own skillset, but the prestige of her institution by having an IAPP certified accessibility professional on their staff. In that sense, personal branding can also help institutions build diverse departments that are teams of specialists.

To return to the three benefits of branding for faculty outlined in the Academic Medicine article, knowing my brand helps me decide where to devote my limited bandwidth by pursuing professional activities that are “on brand” for me. I can also use my brand to search for specific opportunities that will build my brand, even if those fall outside the typical skillset of instructional designers. However, moving towards a “branding” mindset also benefits my colleagues, who are equally, individually, uniquely talented, and should be recognized for their specialties and allowed to follow their passions, rather than be constrained to their job duties. As instructional design teams at universities grow, having a team of specialists can also help alleviate burnout by allowing people to play to their strengths. This can ensure that instructional design remains a space where all career pathways are valid and not contingent on specific credentials.

References

Borman-Shoap, Emily, Li, Su-Ting T., St Clair, Nicole E., Rosenbluth, Glenn, Pitt, Susan, and Michael B. Pitt. Knowing Your Personal Brand: What Academics Can Learn From Marketing 101 Academic Medicine 94(9):p 1293-1298, September 2019.

Kim, J. CHLOE 7: The Present and Future of Instructional Design Capacity InsideHigherEd (2022)

Li, Su-Ting T., Frohna, John G. and Susan B. Bostwick. Using Your Personal Mission Statement to INSPIRE and Achieve Success View from the Association of Pediatric Program Directors 17(2): p107-109, March 2017.

Monarth, H. What’s the Point of a Personal Brand? Harvard Business Review (2022)

Uranis, J. Definition Update: Chief Online Learning Officer (COLO) (2023)

What can we do to help?

Oregon State University has prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and it is up to us as educators and those who support teaching and learning to actively co-create a culture that promotes tolerance and inclusion, for our students, our staff, and our community. To do this, we must challenge exclusion and commit to inclusive practices that promote real equity and extend opportunity to all students. University staff and instructors may be intentionally or unintentionally signaling their institution’s, their department’s, or their own levels of inclusion by the policies, rules, statements, systems, symbols, and representations they choose and use, so it is important to reassess what messages we are sending to students. While students may develop feelings of belonging on their own, it is more likely when the community actively, publicly, and earnestly offers a place at the table for everyone.

Ecampus strives to understand the unique issues faced by our online students and implement research-based solutions and strategies for increasing our students’ sense of belonging. Our commitment begins with high-quality, collaborative course design that enables instructors to work directly with the instructional design team to build interaction into course content, supplemented with faculty training opportunities to expose Ecampus instructors to a wide range of facilitation strategies that complement good design. 

There are a few general conditions that provide a foundation for belonging that we should be aware of, backed by extensive research. 

Support and flexibility

Online students choose our program for the flexibility it offers, and this often means that they are studying outside of business hours, at night and on the weekends. Likewise, their student support needs are likely to come at non-traditional times, so anticipating this and offering support services on demand and for extended times becomes important. Being aware of these needs and creating policies and practices that allow students to get the support they need in a timely manner can be a critical factor in online student success. 

Representation

Students need to see themselves represented, both amongst the staff and faculty they interact with and in the course materials they use. When students from marginalized groups see people who openly share their identity or background, they are reassured that they, too, belong. OSU is committed to building and retaining a diverse workforce and has implemented several strategies towards this goal, including a suite of trainings including the Social Justice Education Initiative (SJEI) and Search Advocate program, among others. Faculty and course designers can contribute to these efforts by considering how course content serves to further amplify previously ignored or excluded voices by choosing to include rather than exclude diverse voices, images, perspectives, and ideas.  

A safe environment that supports the conditions for learning

We support a safe learning environment when we actively challenge unhealthy beliefs about who can be successful and become more aware of behaviors that may harm others. In practice, this translates into making it clear that our school is a safe space and is not accepting of intolerance, bullying, stereotyping, or harassment. This effort is supported when faculty are knowledgeable about online learning best practices and work to welcome, inspire, engage, and mentor students learning online.

Encouragement and acknowledgement 

When we create learning environments that combine high expectations and rigor, we can support students’ achievement by affirming their ability to excel. Recognizing barriers and helping students overcome hurdles helps them build strong identities as scholars. Acknowledging students’ intersecting identities, celebrating diversity, and fostering respectful relationships between students lets students know that they are a valued part of our community. 

Additionally, we can help online students create a sense of community and connection to OSU, their peers, and their instructors. Small acts of inclusion can go a long way toward creating a warm, friendly, welcoming space for students. 

Connecting with the university

Online students may identify more strongly as an online learner than an OSU student. They may feel unseen in comparison to on-campus students. This may be compounded when multiple, intersecting identities further this sense of disconnection. To combat this, we can strive to reinforce to our online students’ that they are indeed an important part of our community by welcoming new students, celebrating milestones and successes, and providing coaching, tutoring, and resources to support advancement and matriculation. Ecampus sends incoming students an OSU graduation tassel as a reminder that they are part of the OSU community and to encourage them to persevere throughout their studies. 

Connecting with other students 

Campus affinity organizations, such as OSU’s seven unique cultural centers, and clubs can offer students the chance to meet and become involved with students and staff who share their identity and/or interests. Peer mentorship programs can be another way of providing direct supportive connections to fellow students. 

Connecting with support staff

Oftentimes, the first OSU representatives new students interact with are support staff who handle welcome or orientation programs, so they play a large role in setting the stage for belonging by being explicitly inclusive and communicating OSU’s commitment to DEI. Academic Advisors can be crucial to success, helping navigate the policies, procedures, and schedules online students must be aware of. Another key support role is that of the Success Coach, who works closely with students to identify barriers to success, find available resources, develop good study habits, and collaboratively build out plans to achieve academic goals. Online open houses, info sessions, newsletters and engagement events can strengthen online students’ sense of belonging, as can sharing relevant social media channels with online students, providing a substitute experience for on-campus visits and activities. Overall, it is important that university staff meet online students where they are, bringing the campus experience to them as much as possible via the LMS, social media, email, and Zoom. 

Connecting with faculty

Undoubtedly, the group that has the most significant impact on online students’ experience of belonging is the faculty they learn from. Students resoundingly report that instructor interaction and feedback are the most influential aspects of online course satisfaction. This is reflective of the reality that instructors play several roles in online classrooms, serving as course manager, technical support, and social facilitator in addition to subject matter experts. This gives instructors of online courses many opportunities to influence how welcome students feel in their online courses, and they communicate this via the implicit and explicit tone of their communications, the learning materials and activities they choose, their course policies, and the feedback they provide. 

complex bar chart showing student responses in the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022
The chart above, from the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022, echoes our internal Ecampus student survey results, with a large proportion of students indicating that instructor access is key to success and happiness in online courses.

Beginning with the syllabus, an instructor signals their own beliefs and attitude towards learning by both what they say and how they say it. If the course lacks face-to-face or synchronous meetings, online students must look at course design, learning materials, and instructor communications for clues about how included they can expect to be. Syllabi written in a warm, welcoming tone serves as an indicator that an instructor first and foremost cares about students, and simple tweaks to syllabus language can go a long way toward conveying this to students. Using language that references learning together, respecting differences, and building of community can reassure students that their instructor cares about them and wants them to succeed. Ecampus recently released updated online and hybrid syllabus templates for the 23-24 academic year, with some sections rewritten in a more inclusive and welcoming tone. 

This short video by Ana Lu Fonseca, OSU Assistant Director of Diversity, highlights the importance of using inclusive and affirming language.

Course design and content is another area where instructors can have direct influence on students’ sense of belonging. Ecampus courses are designed via collaboration between an instructional designer and faculty developer, using our Ecampus Essentials as a guideline. Instructors who want to improve their online courses can ensure that they meet not only the essential standards but also the exemplary ones, which represent research-based best practices that help students have better outcomes when learning online. 

Creating courses that are accessible for all students is a priority at Ecampus, and our designers often turn to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines, which outline concrete steps to make courses more learner friendly for all students. Our OSU Canvas LMS also has built-in accessibility tools, including the UDOIT checker for faculty and Canvas’ own checker in the Rich Content Editor box, that can assist instructors in finding and fixing accessibility issues. We also have Ally, which checks the accessibility of course content, helps fix the content, and helps students by generating alternative forms of content. 

Representation is another important factor related to belonging where faculty can have a significant influence. Instructional materials that reflect diverse perspectives can help students understand whose voices, perspectives, and contributions are deemed worthy, valued, and legitimate. Acknowledging and helping students understand how certain groups have contributed to or been left out of certain fields and areas of study is an important facet of challenging and countering negative stereotypes. Instructors can choose to include a wide range of images, stories, and voices in the learning materials for their courses. When students see themselves represented in the course in positive and inclusive ways, they are more likely to be engaged and willing to learn. If materials in a course present a limited viewpoint or show only a small fraction of human races, genders, nationalities, and experiences, students may struggle to find them relevant to their own lives. 

Creating a sense of community within a course has a positive effect on students’ sense of belonging, and instructors have opportunities to foster community throughout the term. Structuring courses so that students have varied opportunities to interact with the instructor and fellow students is an important part of community building, especially in asynchronous courses. Group work, peer review, and collaborative projects can help students get to know their classmates, which is another component of belonging. Consider giving students chances to interact both academically and socially. This might include not just offering but actively inviting them to synchronous study sessions, happy hours, or office hours, assigning some group or pair work or peer reviews, or providing forums such as discussion boards or chat tools like Teams or Slack where students can informally interact. 

An significant but often unstated role of an instructor in online courses is that of guide, helping students make sense of the course layout, format, and flow as well as framing the big picture when it comes to content and learning outcomes. This can take many overlapping and complementary forms, such as making announcements that recap the prior week or assignments and remind students what is coming and how it connects to the prior lessons, providing study guides, timelines, flowcharts or other big-picture supports, or helping steer online discussions in the right direction. Rubrics are another meaningful way to convey relative importance and weight of different aspects of graded work, with the added benefits of communicating clear expectations and making it easier to grade work fairly. 

Related to serving as a guide to course materials, instructors can help students connect to their field of study in more personal and comprehensive ways. How an instructor chooses to address students can facilitate them seeing themselves as practitioners and experts, and by addressing them as future scientists (or artists or historians), can instill a measure of confidence in their self image. Course content can also be adapted to include clear connections to professionals in the field and professional organizations that might be of interest. Helping students become cognizant of the norms, vocabulary, and typical work conditions they can expect can help motivate and prepare students for life and work after graduation, and sets a foundation for belonging within their discipline and track. 

Perhaps most important ways an instructor impacts student belonging is how they facilitate a course in progress. Regular communication and clear presence of the instructor within the online course site, along with timely and meaningful feedback on assignments, consistently rise to the top as critical for online student success. These findings underpin many of our Online Teaching Principles, a guide for faculty focusing on the art of facilitating courses online, developed in 2022 to complement our Ecampus Essentials. These principles include suggestions aligned with best practices that support creating an inclusive environment.

Feedback is one of the most critical ways instructors influence students’ learning, and research supports a 24-hour turnaround time for responding to questions during the week and a five-day turnaround for grading and feedback, both essential for online students to be able to progress through course content in a timely manner. How feedback is given is equally important- comments for improvement should be couched in positive and encouraging language, focusing on improvement rather than perfection. Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset can be a powerful lens through which to view providing feedback, as it focuses on attitudes towards failure as a part of learning, stressing potential and improvement rather than perfection. Multiple studies confirm that promoting a growth mindset can empower students to take initiative in their learning, build self-efficacy, be more resilient when facing difficulties, better regulate emotions, and persevere through stress and challenges. Instructors can encourage this mindset by framing failure as part of the learning process, praising effort over intelligence, avoiding negative language and insults, and reassuring students of their own capabilities. 

Oregon State University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion requires the entire OSU community to commit to understanding how belonging can be nurtured and how inclusion can be extended or denied. When all students, employees, and community members have a seat at the table and feel welcomed, valued, and included, then we are succeeding. A recent update from Executive Director of Student Experiences & Engagement Damoni Wright and Associate Provost & Dean of Students Kevin Dougherty, sums it up well, “Social justice work cannot be done in a vacuum and cannot be done only in one or two departments, it must be understood, committed to, and integrated into every facet of our work, and we are dedicated to continuing our efforts to make this happen… Through our work together, we will continue to positively change our campus and support student success.” This is a goal we all contribute to daily, in many large and small ways, and is work that must continue to be prioritized and supported.


Sources

Ally for Canvas | Learn@OregonState

Belonging and Emotional Safety – Casel Schoolguide 

Building Inclusivity and Belonging | Division of Student Affairs

College Student’s Sense of Belonging

Creating a Safe and Respectful Environment in Our Nation’s Classrooms 

Cultural Centers | Oregon State University

Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution

Ecampus Essentials – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Establishing Community in Online Courses: A Literature Review 

Growth Mindset in the Higher Education Classroom | Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research

Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence | Institutional Diversity 

Mission, Vision and Values | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Online Teaching Principles – Standards and Principles – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Oregon Department of Education 

OSU Search Advocate Program

Peer Mentor Program | TRiO | Oregon State University

Social Justice Education Initiative 

State of Oregon Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan

Student Academic Experience Survey 2022

The UDL Guidelines

Update Syllabus – Term Checklist and Forms – Faculty Support | Oregon State Ecampus | OSU Degrees Online

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity

Wooden sign with the word welcome on it.
Wooden sign with the word welcome on it.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” ~ Will Rogers

As Winter Break has begun it’s rapid decent into the start of a new term, it’s time to take a look at how we will welcome our students back to school in the new year. Winter term brings new beginnings for students as their papers now contain the date 2024. Maybe they’ve made resolutions to do homework on time, or read every last page you request, or just be more present, whatever it is, that first message or impression from you in the new term sets the tone for the class. I’m sure that everyone wants to start a class off on a positive note, so let’s look at 5 ways you can create an informational, welcoming, and inclusive message to start the term/semester off right.

  1. Welcoming tone
  2. Talk about your class
  3. Offer support (and remind them to review the syllabus!)
  4. How to get started
  5. Inspire them

Create a Welcoming Tone

I don’t know about you but when I think back to the professors and teachers that I enjoyed learning from, I remember who they were and how they communicated with the class. They weren’t just an educated, knowledgable, and smart person, they were personable too. Empathy for their students, calling out the fact that we all have a bad day from time to time or might have just missed a deadline made it not seem daunting if we had to come “begging” for an extension. It didn’t seem like begging, it was known and called out that it could happen. Give your students the ease as you recognize them as people and not just a name on a roster.

Talk About the Class

Just think, a brand new set of classes, so many new syllabi to read and materials to devour. Hype your class up by talking about exciting topics, real world applications, and maybe mention an assignment or two that they’ll be working on.

Offer Support

We know that each of our students begins our class with a different set of circumstances on the other side of that screen. With that in mind, including a reference to support for these students can be helpful in letting them know the resources are there and it’s ok to use them. Mention your syllabus, the getting started or introduction module, and make sure they know resources are listed and available in all of those places and not only for your class but for all those other things that life tosses their way.

How to Get Started

So much information is available at the start of a new term. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start! Wait, what happens when it’s before the term starts? Can we help our students prepare for their classes ahead of time and maybe ease their mind a little bit? How about a Canvas email to your students that introduces them before the term starts to their upcoming class. You could include information about if the class is published already, even if it’s just the welcome page and what OSU Ecampus calls the “Start Here” module that includes information about the class (syllabus) and resources that they have access to as Ecampus students. In that same email, you can help them to figure out where they should start. By telling them directly, and maybe even providing a link, you can give them the information to get started with less anxiety as they know they’re starting where you think they should.

Inspire them

Your excitement about working with them often evokes excitement and positive anticipation of a great class. Share with them a quote or why you love this topic and maybe give them an interesting fact that can pique their curiosity. The point here is to get them inspired and excited to learn.

Example

Dear Students,

Welcome to QLT 123: Introduction to Quilting! My name is Professor Seam and I’ll be your instructor for this online course. We are going to learn so much this term, the first three months of quilting are simply mind-blowing as you move from not knowing how to start to drafting a mockup of one you’d like to make, and finishing your first quilt! We’ll explore the basics, you’ll have opportunities to show off your success and funny failures (because guess what, they happen!) and in the end, you’ll get to showcase all of your hard work in your finished quilt. Guess what? There are no textbooks for this class! Instead, you get order in some fun fabric (but not yet!) Hop into our Canvas site and take a look at the syllabus, find resources for support if you are in need, introduce yourself in the first discussion board and take a look at what’s in the first module. We’ll start next week when the term begins so get ready to sew the seams of creativity because you’ve just started the most sew-perb quilting class and I can’t wait to embark on this journey with you.
-Professor Seam

Share out!

Got a great welcome message? Share with us in the comments!

For the first part of this post, please see Media Literacy in the Age of AI, Part I: “You Will Need to Check It All.”

Just how, exactly, we’re supposed to follow Ethan Mollick’s caution to “check it all” happens to be the subject of a lively, forthcoming collaboration from two education researchers who have been following the intersection of new media and misinformation for decades.

In Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online (University of Chicago Press, November 2023), Mike Caulfield and Sam Wineburg provide a kind of user’s manual to the modern internet. The authors’ central concern is that students—and, by extension, their teachers—have been going about the process of verifying online claims and sources all wrong—usually by applying the same rhetorical skills activated in reading a deep-dive on Elon Musk or Yevgeny Prigozhin, to borrow from last month’s headlines. Academic readers, that is, traditionally keep their attention fixed on the text—applying comprehension strategies such as prior knowledge, persisting through moments of confusion, and analyzing the narrative and its various claims about technological innovation or armed rebellion in discipline-specific ways.

The Problem with Checklists

Now, anyone who has tried to hold a dialogue on more than a few pages of assigned reading at the college level knows that sustained focus and critical thinking can be challenging, even for experienced readers. (A majority of high school seniors are not prepared for reading in college, according to 2019 data.) And so instructors, partnering with librarians, have long championed checklists as one antidote to passive consumption, first among them the CRAAP test, which stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. (Flashbacks to English 101, anyone?) The problem with checklists, argue Caulfield and Wineburg, is that in today’s media landscape—awash in questionable sources—they’re a waste of time. Such routines might easily keep a reader focused on critically evaluating “gameable signals of credibility” such as functional hyperlinks, a well-designed homepage, airtight prose, digital badges, and other supposedly telling markers of authority that can be manufactured with minimal effort or purchased at little expense, right down to the blue checkmark made infamous by Musk’s platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter.

Three Contexts for Lateral Reading

One of the delights in reading Verified is drawing back the curtains on a parade of little-known hoaxes, rumors, actors, and half-truths at work in the shadows of the information age—ranging from a sugar industry front group posing as a scientific think tank to headlines in mid-2022 warning that clouds of “palm-sized flying spiders” were about to descend on the East Coast. In the face of such wild ideas, Caulfield and Wineburg offer a helpful, three-point heuristic for navigating the web—and a sharp rejoinder to the source-specific checklists of the early aughts. (You will have to read the book to fact-check the spider story, or as the authors encourage, you can do it yourself after reading, say, the first chapter!) “The first task when confronted with the unfamiliar is not analysis. It is the gathering of context” (p. 10). More specifically:

  • The context of the source — What’s the reputation of the source of information that you arrive at, whether through a social feed, a shared link, or a Google search result?
  • The context of the claim — What have others said about the claim? If it’s a story, what’s the larger story? If a statistic, what’s the larger context?
  • Finally, the context of you — What is your level of expertise in the area? What is your interest in the claim? What makes such a claim or source compelling to you, and what could change that?
“The Three Contexts” from Verified (2023)

At a regional conference of librarians in May, Wineburg shared video clips from his scenario-based research, juxtaposing student sleuths with professional fact checkers. His conclusion? By simply trying to gather the necessary context, learners with supposedly low media literacy can be quickly transformed into “strong critical thinkers, without any additional training in logic or analysis” (Caulfield and Wineburg, p. 10). What does this look like in practice? Wineburg describes a shift from “vertical” to “lateral reading” or “using the web to read the web” (p. 81). To investigate a source like a pro, readers must first leave the source, often by opening new browser tabs, running nuanced searches about its contents, and pausing to reflect on the results. Again, such findings hold significant implications for how we train students in verification and, more broadly, in media literacy. Successful information gathering, in other words, depends not only on keywords and critical perspective but also on the ability to engage in metacognitive conversations with the web and its architecture. Or, channeling our eight-legged friends again: “If you wanted to understand how spiders catch their prey, you wouldn’t just look at a single strand” (p. 87).

SIFT graphic by Mike Caulfield with icons for stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.

Image 2: Mike Caulfield’s “four moves”

Reconstructing Context

Much of Verified is devoted to unpacking how to gain such perspective while also building self-awareness of our relationships with the information we seek. As a companion to Wineburg’s research on lateral reading, Caulfield has refined a series of higher-order tasks for vetting sources called SIFT, or “The Four Moves” (see Image 2). By (1) Stopping to take a breath and get a look around, (2) Investigating the source and its reputation, (3) Finding better sources of journalism or research, and (4) Tracing surprising claims or other rhetorical artifacts back to their origins, readers can more quickly make decisions about how to manage their time online. You can learn more about the why behind “reconstructing context” at Caulfield’s blog, Hapgood, and as part of the OSU Libraries’ guide to media literacy. (Full disclosure: Mike is a former colleague from Washington State University Vancouver.)

If I have one complaint about Caulfield and Wineburg’s book, it’s that it dwells at length on the particulars of analyzing Google search results, which fill pages of accompanying figures and a whole chapter on the search engine as “the bestie you thought you knew” (p. 49). To be sure, Google still occupies a large share of the time students and faculty spend online. But as in my quest for learning norms protocols, readers are already turning to large language model tools for help in deciding what to believe online. In that respect, I find other chapters in Verified (on scholarly sources, the rise of Wikipedia, deceptive videos, and so-called native advertising) more useful. And if you go there, don’t miss the author’s final take on the power of emotion in finding the truth—a line that sounds counterintuitive, but in context adds another, rather moving dimension to the case against checklists.

Given the acceleration of machine learning, will lateral reading and SIFTing hold up in the age of AI? Caulfield and Wineburg certainly think so. Building out context becomes all the more necessary, they write in a postscript on the future of verification, “when the prose on the other side is crafted by a convincing machine” (p. 221). On that note, I invite you and your students to try out some of these moves on your favorite chatbot.

Another Postscript

The other day, I gave Microsoft’s AI-powered search engine a few versions of the same prompt I had put to ChatGPT. In “balanced” mode, Bing dutifully recommended resources from Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard on introducing norms for learning in online college classes. Over in “creative” mode, Bing’s synthesis was slightly more offbeat—including an early-pandemic blog post on setting norms for middle school faculty meetings in rural Vermont. More importantly, the bot wasn’t hallucinating. Most of the sources it suggested seemed worth investigating. Pausing before each rabbit hole, I took a deep breath.

Related Resource

Oregon State Ecampus recently rolled out its own AI toolkit for faculty, based on an emerging consensus that developing capacities for using this technology will be necessary in many areas of life. Of particular relevance to this post is a section on AI literacy, conceptualized as “a broad set of skills that is not confined to technical disciplines.” As with Verified, I find the toolkit’s frameworks and recommendations on teaching AI literacy particularly helpful. For instance, if students are allowed to use ChatGPT or Bing to brainstorm and evaluate possible topics for a writing assignment, “faculty might provide an effective example of how to ask an AI tool to help, ideally situating explanation in the context of what would be appropriate and ethical in that discipline or profession.”

References

Caulfield, M., & Wineburg, S. (2023). Verified: How to think straight, get duped less, and make better decisions about what to believe online. University of Chicago Press.

Mollick, E. (2023, July 15). How to use AI to do stuff: An opinionated guide. One Useful Thing.

Oregon State Ecampus. (2023). Artificial Intelligence Tools.