A trigger warning in a college course alerts students to the presence of material that may provoke a traumatic response. It might sound something like this:
As a reminder, this week’s reading contains an account of suicide. Please prepare accordingly and employ self‐care throughout the in‐class discussion. One self‐care option is to make use of the Monsour Counseling Center (Sample Syllabus Language, Claremont Colleges CTL).
The usage of trigger warnings has been debated by faculty, administration, students, and researchers, and after spending time reading the arguments and research, I am uncertain whether I would recommend them to an instructor who asked for my advice on the matter. So, rather than advocating for or against trigger warnings, this guide presents several resources for instructors exploring their usage.
Among my instructional design colleagues, trigger warnings have some obvious appeal, perhaps because they dovetail well with the UDL checkpoints that direct us to “facilitate personal coping skills and strategies” and “minimize threats and distractions” in our courses, but their utility is contested. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in their report “On Trigger Warnings” outlines some of the issues. Trigger warnings might stifle free and open discussion of difficult topics, prejudice students against engaging with instructional materials critically or encourage avoidance, and interfere with academic freedom. However, in “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy,” Carter (2019) asserts that the AAUP misunderstands the goal of trigger warnings and who they’re for – they aren’t intended to protect students in general from adverse learning experiences but rather to provide students who experience trauma and anxiety with the means to engage – in other words, trigger warnings are a question of access and accommodation. Indeed, students themselves are requesting trigger warnings or complaining when they’re not used, as found by the National Coalition Against Censorship in its survey of 800 faculty.
What do we know from experimental research about the effects of trigger warnings? Jones et al. (2020) in their article “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories” describe how they presented reading passages that either did or did not contain trigger warnings to over 400 non-students who self-reported trauma. The trigger warnings did not reduce anxiety and instead seemed to cause participants to view traumatic life experiences as even more central to their life stories. Because trauma survivors who ascribe more importance to their trauma are at greater risk for PTSD, this research would suggest that trigger warnings are harming the students we most want to help.
Bentley (2017) in her article “Trigger warnings and the student experience” investigates the reactions of about 60 undergraduates taking 2nd and 3rd year courses that included trigger warnings related to the topics of war and terrorism. Notably, students who didn’t self-report a mental health condition actually experienced more anxiety. The 3rd year students, perhaps because they were further along in their degree, were more likely to perceive trigger warnings as an affront to their self-competence as learners. On the other hand, some students found the warnings helped them explore difficult topics more freely, because they were given time to frame their thoughts and feelings within an academic, rather than a reactionary or personal, context. Other students found the warnings useful because, without them, the triggering nature of course topics would not have been immediately obvious.
For instructors looking for practical tips on how, when, and where to employ a trigger warning, the University of Michigan has prepared a comprehensive “Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings”. While content featuring sexual assault may be an obvious trigger, this guide lists 20 other potential triggers that instructors might not have considered, such as classism or fat phobia, and for which students might appreciate a warning. The guide also suggests that, since what triggers others can be hard to predict, instructors should consider inviting students to request which specific types of content they’d like to be flagged. Rather than infantilizing students, the guide argues, trigger warnings empower students to prepare to engage with difficult topics, because with the knowledge of potential triggers, students can work with a therapist or schedule more time to engage with materials, thereby making them more responsible for their learning, not less. The guide also details options for implementation, like flagging individual learning materials in the course schedule by triggering topic, or by issuing blanket warnings in the course description for a course that is largely composed of potentially triggering material. This is a must-read for anyone who has decided to implement trigger warnings.
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.
At a recent faculty professional development workshop series, I became aware of faculty’s concerns about addressing the learning needs of students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Students with multilingual and multicultural identities are oftentimes perceived as deficient (Almon, 2014; Flores & Rosa, 2015) and might feel they hold an outsider status (Merryfield, 2000). In my personal experience navigating multiple identities that intersect culture and language, and in my work supporting faculty in their learning design and instructional decisions, I began examining ways in which blended and online learning spaces can offer more welcoming opportunities for students. One of these ways is using a cultural lens and mindset towards inclusive learning design.
Culturally Responsive Approaches
There have been several culturally responsive approaches to teaching and learning. By and large these approaches advocate for the recognition of students’ cultural backgrounds as critical to their learning success (Gay, 2013; Ladson-Bilings, 1994). In fact, a culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) aims to promote the integration of students’ culture to support their learning experiences. In blended and online learning, this pedagogy can create an environment that “acknowledges, celebrates, and builds upon the cultural capital that learners and teachers bring to the online classroom” (Woodley, Hernandez, Parra, & Nagash, 2017, p.1).
For students whose first language is not English, we first should focus on their strengths and not their deficiencies. These students bring their cultural backgrounds, values, experiences, and language diversity with them to the online learning environment. It is important to recognize that culture is central to teaching and learning; therefore, advancing online and blended learning design should be grounded on dimensions for cultural sensitivity where students’ diverse identities, cultures, languages, and backgrounds are seen through an asset-based lens. This means, recognizing the value in the cultural backgrounds, experiences, and languages of students; and embracing these students’ traits as assets. This asset-base approach can be the first step in developing a mindset for designing and teaching in ways that promote social, academic, and emotional learning for these and ALL students.
Culturally responsive approaches have been mapped out to the three principles of Universal Design for Learning to offer (1) multiple means of engagement, (2) multiple means of representation, and (3) multiple means of action and expression (UDL, n.d.). UDL and CRP can help instructors amplify the opportunities for students from different cultural backgrounds to demonstrate their knowledge when given strategies that incorporate multiple perspectives, experiences, connections to the real world, and choices (Bass & Lawrence-Riddell, 2020; Kieran & Anderson, 2018)
The connection of UDL and CRP offers consideration to inform instructional design choices. Yet, these considerations appear to be adds-on to the design of the learning experience. How can we expand the UDL and CRP connection to embrace a mindset to move towards an inclusive learning design where the cultural and linguistic traits of students are seen from an asset-based perspective? A few dimensions from research and praxis would get us started to help achieve this goal.
Dimensions for Learning Design
The following dimensions for learning design, that expand the connections between UDL and CRP, should be considered whenever possible in the design of blended or online learning experiences. Following are the six dimensions.
Identity and Experience
Instructor identity and experience relates to the practice reflection –inner analysis to reveal assumptions about teaching and learning (Jaramillo Cherrez & Jin, 2020). Through these reflections, instructors can identify ways to humanize the learning experience. Instructional designers (IDs) can help instructors engage in a (self) dialogue to explore how the instructor’s identity informs or impacts their teaching and instructional decisions, how they respond to students’ cultural differences and embrace them as strengths, and how instructors could also learn from students.
The visual design of the course and learning materials can have a profound impact on students’ learning experience (Hedberg & Brown, 2002). For students whose first language is other than English in particular, it is important to be aware that these students may come from different cultures and social groups, and thus, visual representations may have positive or negative consequences to their success in the course. Visuals should be carefully chosen because the variety of images, colors, and symbols may affect the message students receive in the class. When using images from pop culture, it is helpful to add context to give more clarity to the instructional purpose. The visual design also relates to the readability of the content and how it is presented and structured. Asking a colleague or friend to read the instructions and descriptions of assignments can help clarify expectations and requirements for students. Bear in mind that what is clear to one is not always clear to others, especially when using complex sentences and terminology of a discipline.
Many students might have a first language different from English. Also, keep in mind that different cultures may have different ways of writing, usually influenced by rhetorical and social contexts (Almuhailib, 2019). There may also be linguistic and cognitive differences in the way that students interpret the information given to them. For some cultures, direct descriptions are fine, whereas for others the context is important before addressing a specific perspective. Some cultures may characterize themselves for being more individualistic and others more holistic, and students, including those whose first language is other than English, can find themselves moving along that continuum. In designing culturally responsive blended or online courses, language matters because of the transactional distance characteristic of asynchronous spaces. Many students may already be pressured to demonstrate “good”, “academic”, “professional” English. One way to be aware of linguistic diversity is to be more explicit with instructions. For example, indicate clearly the use of naming conventions, abbreviations, acronyms, and descriptors in activities and assignments.
The fourth consideration is content. The main suggestion is to try to diversify the curriculum with resources from around the world (e.g., content from scholars from diverse cultures and linguistic backgrounds). Allow students to see themselves represented in the materials. Create activities and assignments that help students explore the concepts in connection to their own backgrounds and communities(e.g., linguistic, cultural) and experiences, and that allow students to move from low to high cognitive tasks (e.g., staged projects). Yet, diversifying the curriculum goes far from bringing into the course content perspectives that are commonly ignored. It involves explicit acknowledgement of the value of the different perspectives and modes of knowledge.
Interaction also can benefit from a culturally responsive mindset in that instructors can vary the modes of interaction by using audio/video communication(e.g., assignment feedback, DB, announcements). It is also important to guide and scaffold group activities with resources such as guidelines, group contracts, teamwork guidelines, group rapport activities, conflict resolution resources). Particularly for teamwork, instructors can build group activities early in the course to promote collaborative learning. For online discussions, instructors could allow students to select the tools that they feel more comfortable with using, bearing in mind that many students from different cultural backgrounds might not be familiar or have experience participating in discussion activities. Another suggestion is to promote student-led discussions to help students move from the individual task to the group task. This will allow to vary the cognitive demands that can foster meaningful knowledge construction and organization while also addressing different audiences, styles of writing and analysis, and communication modes.
These dimensions underscore the need to approach learning design with a mindset that not only acknowledges student multilingual and multicultural identities, but also catalyzes these identities to help students be valued and successful. I consider these dimensions in my instructional design work, and I would like to invite you to consider them next time you design an online or blended learning experience.
Almon, C. (2015). College persistence and engagement in light of a mature English language learner (ELL) student’s voice. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(5), 461-472.
Almuhailib, B. (2019). Analyzing Cross-Cultural Writing Differences using Contrastive Rhetoric: A Critical Review. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 10(2), 102-106.
Bass, G., & Lawrence-Riddell, M. (2020). Culturally Responsive Teaching and UDL. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/equality-inclusion-and-diversity/culturally-responsive-teaching-and-udl/
Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter: Making the connections that help students meet standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kieran, L., & Anderson, C. (2019). Connecting universal design for learning with culturally responsive teaching. Education and Urban Society, 51(9), 1202-1216.
Gay, G. (2013). Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48-70.
Hedberg, J. G., & Brown, I. (2002). Understanding cross-cultural meaning through visual media. Educational Media International, 39(1), 23-30.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). What we can learn from multicultural education research. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 22-26.
Merryfield, M. M. (2000). Why aren’t teachers being prepared to teach for diversity, equity, and global interconnectedness? A study of lived experiences in the making of multicultural and global educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(4), 429-443.
Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.
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.
Reflection assignments as an active learning strategy are commonly seen in humanities courses. The purpose of this writing is to share an example of how simple reflection activities can make a huge impact in two math courses.
MTH 251 Differential Calculus covers five units, with one exam for each unit, counting 14% of the final grade. Before students attempt to take the unit exam, they are assigned to read textbook readings, watch instructor-created lecture videos, work on Canvas-based homework assignment and Adaptive Learning based practice assignments in Knewton Lab online platform. After assignment due date expires, students are assigned to complete a weekly written homework reflection. The weekly homework and the weekly homework reflection together count for 14% of final grade in this course, weighing the same as each of the unit exams.
MTH 341 Linear Algebra I has ten weekly modules. Each week, students read textbook assigned readings, watch lecture videos created by the instructor (Dr. ), complete post-reading questions in quiz format, work on graded group discussion questions to solve math problems in small groups, complete written homework individually, and in the following week, complete a written homework response activity individually in discussion format.
The written homework reflection in MATH 251 and the written homework response in MATH 341 are both reflection activities designed to optimize student learning success, through comparing their own homework solutions with answer keys and evaluate whether they did it correctly or incorrectly and analyze where they did it wrong and how to get it right. The purpose of such weekly reflection is to help students develop meta-cognitive skills related to their learning. By looking back at students’ own work and learning from their mistakes, they develop an understanding of what is the proper way to solve a problem and what is not the proper way for solving a particular math problem. It also prompts students to plan for proper action in the future and exercises students’ executive functioning skills (CAST, 2018).
Here is what the instructions for the weekly reflection look like: 1. First answer the weekly prompt: Reflecting on the Unit 1 module, which topics did you struggle with the most? 2. Download the written homework solutions PDF: (Solution for each written homework in pdf format is attached here.) 3. Look over the solutions and compare to your submitted homework. Look for any problems where your solution differs from the posted solution.
If your solutions had one or more incorrect problems then in the discussion board please discuss the following:
why you struggled with certain problems
why each solution makes sense now
what your misunderstanding was
what will you do in the future when solving problems similar to these?
what strategies will help you?
what did you learn by making a mistake?
what did you learn from looking at the solutions?
If you are still confused about a problem, ask a question. DO NOT simply list which problems you got wrong.
If your solutions are all correct then in the discussion board please discuss the problem that you found the most challenging. Describe what specific tasks helped you to complete that problem. Be as detailed as you can about your solution process.
Students not only posted their own reflections, but they also comment on or answer other students’ reflections as well. Additionally, the instructor and the four TAs in the course responded actively to students’ reflections, which makes the reflection more valuable since students get encouragement, praises, or corrections from the instructor and teaching assistants. Again, feedback from experts is critical in the success of a reflection activity (Vandenbussche, 2018)
Image 1: How reflection usually looks like and How reflection should look like (Image Source)
Many students were reflecting on what they did wrong and asked for help. Some were reflecting on their time management in completing the homework assignments. And we were glad to see students completing homework, evaluating their own work, analyzing where they did wrong, and planning for future improvement. Overall, the purpose of this assignment is accomplished!
A great benefit that comes from these weekly reflection activities is increased or sustained homework completion rate. For MTH 251 winter 2021 week 1 to week 7, over 85% of students completed the weekly homework and the reflection activity on average. For MTH 341 Fall 20 week 1 to week 7, over 90% of students on average completed the weekly homework and the reflection assignments. All math teachers love to see their students practice with homework assignments before they attempt to take the quizzes or exams! And evidence-based research tells us that deliberate practice with targeted feedback promotes mastery learning (Ambrose et al., 2010).
So, if it works in math courses, it will work in Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Engineering and other STEM courses too! If you’re interested in implementing this technique in your teaching and have questions about setting it up, feel free to contact us. We’d love to help you figure out the easiest way to set it up in your course.
Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovettt, M.C. , Norman, M.K., & The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
People spend more time in virtual worlds than ever before. And educators are leveraging these popular forms of recorded and interactive escapism to increase student engagement. Recently academic departments have begun to experiment with the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets, which have become much easier to use and far less expensive. Headsets can make people feel like they have traveled to a new place, so they are an intriguing new tool for learning. They can create an experience that differs significantly from using a computer to work or play in an online environment.
When using a computer to visit an online world, your sense of immersion is affected by many factors, including the quality of video and audio, the number of distractions from real life, and your virtual representation on the screen. It is like a tug-of-war. Your avatar may be traveling in a helicopter through a fantasy landscape, but your brain also knows that you are sitting in front of your desk. You can see and feel the cat in your lap for example, but it is not in the helicopter with your avatar, so you are managing two worlds at once. In a continuum of this sense of immersion, at what point is there presence, where you lose connection with your environment and truly feel that you are somewhere else?
Using a VR headset instead of a computer may move you along this pathway, because you don’t see your desktop or clearly hear the sounds of your household. The sense of being connected with the everyday world changes. “I usually say the way to tell if it is working is if you take off the goggles and are surprised by which direction you are now facing,” says Warren Blyth, Multimedia Developer at Course Development and Training Department (CDT) at Oregon State University’s Ecampus. And whether you are a student who may find themselves in a class with VR components, or an instructor curious about adding this kind of experience to your teaching, VR, like most new adventures, will be shaped by your readiness for it.
You could think of the act of putting on a headset as departing on a voyage, because for many it feels like traveling somewhere and being present in another place. When you take off the headset at the end of the trip you may have moved physically, mentally and/or emotionally. Or not. Just like a trip to Paris, everyone’s experience will be different. To help you get ready, this article is a checklist about the very beginning of your journey, before you put on the goggles. It is about the pre-departure phase in which, as for any other trip, you might prepare by researching, planning, packing your bag, and saying goodbye to the cat.
Technology lift may be a part of your pre-departure phase. This is a term floating around the CDT Department, thanks to the adventurous lexicon of Assistant Director of Course Development & Training Laurie Kirkner, who says that “technology lift takes place over a longer period of time than cognitive load, which is specific to working memory. It includes activities like reading manuals, investigating safety protocols and coping with expectations. And it will vary with the difficulty of the task and your skill level, just like cognitive load.”
Technology lift in anticipation of a VR journey may be analogous to researching luggage before taking a trip to a foreign city. You may ask: how much weight can I lift and for how long? Many of us have witnessed the oversupplied backpacker on a trip overseas. She struggles with a heavy load while shouldering her way through the crowds. One wonders if more thoughtful preparation could have saved her from being on the brink of pitching over during her first day in Paris. And although she probably had a great time anyway, planning ahead may have been worthwhile.
Before entering a new VR space you can find out what controls exist for dealing with inappropriate or annoying behavior. For example, some platforms allow you to mute the audio of other avatars or create a personal space bubble. If you plan to meet others or visit a popular platform it can be helpful to do a test run by yourself beforehand, taking the time to get used to the location without any social awkwardness concerns. Owners, builders and organizers of platforms may have additional controls like banishing certain users – instantly and/or permanently. In addition there may be codes of conduct governing acceptable behavior. It is great to learn something about the culture before arriving.
Pre-departure planning can increase positive experiences and keep you safe. For example, people have experienced sexual harassment, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and socially undesirable behaviors in real life (IRL) as well as in VR. “Social VR creates a life-like, immersive and public experience. Given this immersive nature and the overwhelmingly unequal gender dynamic with more men than women in this space, respondents talked about these spaces as seeming similar to public settings where they have been harassed.” (Outlaw & Duckles, 2017) You can take off the headset for a quick exit and also research other strategies to keep your trip free of pests.
If you took a trip to Paris, how would you get from the Charles de Gaulle airport to your hotel? After getting through customs you may feel jet lagged and confused, which is not a good time to learn new things. So your cognitive load would be less heavy if, for example, you already knew how to buy a ticket and get on the right train. In VR, navigation systems vary widely, so you may want to learn something about them before departure. A good example is learning how to move, fly, or teleport. And especially if you plan to meet others, it is helpful to know how to open the menu system and search for locations/meetings.
When you go places, you occupy new spaces. Once you put on a VR headset, you will set up a play area that can be stationary or quite a bit bigger. For the Oculus Quest 2, a popular newer headset, at least 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet is recommended for natural body movement. Once you get out the measuring tape, your house may suddenly feel claustrophobic as you figure out the distance between the couch and the cat box. So consider how much movement you would like to have on your trip and whether it is worth moving the furniture.
Packing your bag
For a voyage to Paris, you might think about which beret (and matching scarf) to bring along for a feeling of style and comfort. For your VR trip, the headset will eliminate any possibility of style, but you can still plan for comfort. In the last couple of years, headsets have become much less onerous; for example, they are now untethered from computers, and lighter. But there are still personal adjustments that can make you feel more at ease. And in regards to style, you could always try a beret over the headset.
“Did you know? The world’s first VR headset was created in 1968, and weighed so much it had to be mounted from a ceiling. Due to its appearance, it was nicknamed “The Sword of Damocles.”” (Best Reviews, 2020)
When shopping for the right backpack for your trip to the City of Light, the size and shape of your body comes into consideration. For VR, it turns out that the distance between your eyes is important. This is because you want the lens spacing in the headset and your interpupillary distance (IPD) to line up in order to decrease the possibility of motion sickness. This may be especially important for people with smaller bodies, such as women. According to the 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel, the mean interpupillary distance is 61.7mm for women and 64.0mm for men. The Oculus Quest 2, for example, has three IPD settings: 61mm or smaller, 61 to 66mm, and 66 mm or larger. You can check with your optometrist to find your own IPD and then make sure that your headset is on the right setting.
Straps and Comfort
Even though headsets have become much more comfortable, it is always a good idea to make sure that things fit properly. A trial run with the headset powered off but resting on your face can give you some time to dial in the best strap tension and see how it feels on your head. “I often tell people before a demo that they want it just snug enough that it isn’t falling off their face – but not so tight that it’s cutting off circulation,” says Blyth. Some people report discomfort with the way their headset feels on their face, which can be distracting. Because you may need to spend less time using it than anticipated if it bothers you, taking the time to adjust your headset properly will help you feel more immersed on your trip.
Before you put your headset on and can’t see anything, you may want to try out your hand controllers, which can include features such as buttons, thumb-sticks and triggers. You could view support materials from the manufacturer or other users to investigate all of the functions in order to create a tactile memory of the controllers.
Saying goodbye to the cat
As you get to the final stages of pre-departure, you may want to check in with your expectations. “Virtual reality – even the name is hype,” says Nick Harper, CDT Multimedia Developer. “VR only addresses the senses of sight and sound, and even those may not work well for some users. Touch, smell and taste are underdeveloped at this point. So trying to immerse yourself in VR through a headset can feel like a struggle because your body wants to keep you safe and your brain is getting so many mixed signals.” One thing we know for sure is that your virtual trip will not be like anyone else’s experience. It may disappoint, or possibly blow your mind. And your memories will be affected by any problems you run into along the way. For example, if you walked right into a sewer during your first trip to Paris, it might be hard for you to believe other people had an amazing time in the Louvre or atop the Eiffel Tower.
Right before you leave, there is a point where you say some goodbyes. After all, you are leaving to meet new people and experience groovy new things in virtual reality. And the cat can’t come along. So saying goodbye may mean removing pets and humans from your play area, shutting the door, and putting the phone on mute. With the headset on, immersed in video and audio, it won’t be fun to step on your pet or hear snarky comments from your roommate (even if you are wearing a beret). Finding a way not to have an audience on the ground can help you relax and feel immersed.
It may be said that reading about VR is like dancing about architecture. So if you do get the chance, try it for yourself, (and also maybe think about that trip to Paris). No matter how many descriptions you read, the final destination will surprise (and hopefully delight) you in ways you may never have imagined. Especially if you have researched, planned, packed your bag and said goodbye to the cat, you will be ready for a great trip. Bon voyage!
VR Readiness Checklist
Take some time to plan/create your play area.
Research the platform codes of conduct.
Find out what controls exist to minimize unwanted interactions.
Learn how to navigate, access the menu system and search for locations/meetings.
Check with your optometrist to find your IPD and then make sure your headset is on the right setting.
Experiment with controller functions and create a tactile memory.
Adjust the straps so that they are snug but not cutting off circulation.
Explore your expectations.
Create a distraction free space.
Take a test run before meeting others.
Best Reviews. (2020, December). Best VR Headsets. https://bestreviews.com/best-vr-headsets
Kei Studios. (2017, November 23). A Complete Virtual Reality Glossary.
Outlaw, J., Duckles, B. (2017, October). Why Women Don’t Like Social Virtual Reality: A Study of Safety, Usability, and Self-Expression in Social VR. The Extended Mind. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56e315ede321404618e90757/t/5afca0716d2a73e7b3c77f28/1526505624385/The+Extended+Mind_Why+Women+Don%27t+Like+Social+VR_Oct+16+2017.pdf
The Economist. (2019, November 21). Virtual reality continues to make people sick. https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/11/23/virtual-reality-continues-to-make-people-sick
The LMS Canvas by Instructure comes with a decent set of styled elements to start with, but diving into the HTML editor is where you can really modify content, giving it a specific look and feel. Recently I have found that I am going to these customized elements more often to help achieve learning outcomes and provide a different look and feel for accessible course pages.
It is not limitless, however, or even as open as regular web development would be. Canvas has an HTML Editor Allowlist for elements, styles and classes (though some absent from this list will work if you give it a go!). Many of these are activated by using in-line class or style, but other attributes are also available.
Without further ado, here are three of the more popular elements I have been drawn to when creating courses over the past few terms.
Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)
a set of attributes that define ways to make web content and web applications more accessible to people with disabilities Source
These attributes are some of the most popular because they help with accessibility (particularly, screen readers) on the course site. Where native HTML5 elements are not available, these ARIA attributes help to explain what a particular piece of content does and how a learner should interact with it. By using these, we help to make courses open to a wider set of learners.
You want to include an element on your course site that expands to reveal more content. You will need to make a screen reader aware that the content is there, and what it does. Using the following should get you off to a good start:
<spanclass="element_toggler" role="button" aria-controls="something"
aria-label="longer description of the element" aria-expanded="false">
Click here to see the explanation</span>
<divid="something" style="display: none;">
combines with id="something" later on in the code. The value must match the id value for it to work correctly. This is used to interact with the element.
aria-label="longer description of the element"
used to describe the functionality of the element if it is not explained prior to the interaction.
used to tell the screen reader the button is initially closed.
Example 2: Descriptions
You have a particularly visual element on the page, and you want to write a larger piece of text for a screen reader to explain this. You can use aria-describedby and then link it to the id of an element (in the <span> below):
<spanid="close_up">A close-up view of the rock target named "Máaz" from the SuperCam
instrument on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover.</span>
Analysis of SuperCam data shows that Máaz has a basaltic composition.
It is either an igneous rock or consists of fine grains of igneous material
that were cemented together in a watery environment.<br>
Full image and caption from
NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory.</a> NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS
Device specific content
Next up, is hidden content. So you added the element_toggler above, but your learners with the Canvas Mobile App let you know they cannot click it!
Some of the projects I work on with these elements require an entirely different way of accessing the content on a mobile device.
A potential fix
Create different versions of the content by hiding each one depending on the device.
To do this, you will need to divide the content using two containers. Using the same element_toggler code from above, we can easily add a separate, but hidden part underneath for Canvas app users.
<spanclass="element_toggler" role="button" aria-controls="something"
aria-label="longer description of the element" aria-expanded="false">
View the explanation</span>
<divid="something" style="display: none;">
<divclass="hidden-desktop hidden-tablet hidden-phone">
The addition of the class="hidden-desktop hidden-tablet hidden-phone" attributes will hide this container for most users. As it is sitting outside of the element toggler, however, mobile app users do not need to click the element toggler to see the explanation! This provides a more accessible option for users of those devices.
Note: if you have access to the stylesheet for your institution, it would be more beneficial to add these changes there than on a per-page basis.
Anchoring to part of a page
If you have ever seen text content that says something similar to this…
As we discussed before…
As I mentioned previously…
Back in Module 3, we talked about…
…then you need to use this simple feature of the anchor element!
I use this a lot on course content that requires students to refer to previous material. Everyone will have heard of a hyperlink using the <a> tag, but you can also use this anchor to link to a certain part of the page. I regularly use it to send learners to particular headings or content that they would find relevant for assignments. If you set up your course from the start with this in mind, it can be a fast way to group revision material from certain parts of a page, or create more accessible navigation menus.
Give an element an id, like this:
<h3 id="section_2">Section 2</h3>
Then, when you want to send a learner back to that part of the page, just reference it by adding the id to the end of the page link with a `#`. For example:
This will take the learner directly to the heading with the id of ‘section_2’, which you set up before.
You can even do this within the same page to jump to that part of the page. Just link it like this without the rest of the URL.
<a href="#section_2”>Section 2</a>
These are a sample of the elements, classes, and styles I have used to enhance content over the last few terms. With each, accessibility has been a must, which requires a bit of reflection on how learners would interact with the content. There are a lot more available, and you have a list in the Canvas HTML Editor Allowlist to start experimenting. By thinking of accessibility from the early stages of course design, more users can appreciate these page elements and content.
Love it or hate it, group work is an important part of education. Learning to work cooperatively with diverse people is a core 21st century skill, one which employers increasingly value and expect new workers to have mastered. Experience gathered from group work in educational settings directly transfers to and prepares students for successful collaboration in work teams. By collaborating in teams, students learn a wide range of discrete as well as soft skills that make group work worth the effort, including those below.
Coping with stress
Creating work plans and schedules
Forecasting needs and hurdles
Time management & meeting deadlines
Working with difficult personalities
Managing & navigating unmet expectations
Following up & messaging
Development of academic/professional voice
Pedagogically, group work supports a constructivist approach to learning, in which students contribute to the learning environment, build knowledge both individually and collectively, and co-create the classroom environment. Constructivist theory posits that learning is a social process and values student interaction with and contributions to collective knowledge. Group work and student collaboration are foundational methods in constructivist classrooms that help students develop the knowledge and skills that allow them to meet learning objectives. Additionally, group work is seen as a key element of student-student interaction.
Considerations for Successful Groups
The first thing instructors should consider when planning to incorporate group work is to reflect on WHY they are assigning it- as an objective of learning or as a means of learning. Group work for the purpose of learning collectively, producing collaboratively, or for gaining experience working cooperatively are all valid reasons to include group work.
Additionally, instructors must consider the limits of the asynchronous modality when creating group assignments. We all know how difficult it can be if the group you end up working in is not harmonious; For students in asynchronous online courses, group work can be even more difficult, with challenges like different time zones, different daily schedules, and lack of face to face collaboration opportunities. Even the most thoughtfully designed group activities can run into problems. What happens when one student fails to contribute? Do the other group members take up the slack and cover for their absent partner? How should a group handle an overbearing group member who takes on more than their fair share of the project? Anticipating the potential hurdles that may arise when planning the group project and incorporating support and resources for struggling groups can alleviate these barriers to a large degree.
An important consideration when creating group assignments is Conrad & Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement model, which advises instructors to structure group work so that students can build up group cohesion through low-stakes activities like icebreakers, introductions, and discussion forum posting towards the beginning of the term before ramping up to more complicated collaborative projects. This scaffolding of tasks helps groups bond and build community among members, facilitating better working relationships and the trust necessary to work through the intricacies of a complex group project. The theory can be helpful when approaching a series of courses within a specific degree program as well, moving from simple group projects in lower division courses to co-facilitating and transformative ongoing engagement at the upper levels.
Another model that can help instructors understand how to structure group work is Peter Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which describes a pyramid of features that are required for groups to function effectively. Lencioni claims that trust is the foundation of any functioning group, followed in ascending order by managing conflict through healthy discourse, ensuring commitment and buy-in, providing a method of accountability for team members, and a focus on collective results over personal prestige. Avoiding dysfunction by clearly structuring group work to anticipate and provide tools for dealing with these problems can ensure teams get off on the right footing and can work together smoothly.
Additionally, instructors should consider the type of collaboration that is common within their own discipline, whether it be performing distinct roles within a team or more general projects requiring cooperation. Designers often work together creatively to develop and improve products; medical teams must work collectively but in distinct roles to serve patients; computer software developers must be able to distribute work and manage tight deadlines; public-facing personnel must be able to amicably respond to a range of customer behaviors. Connecting group work explicitly to real-world work scenarios helps students see the value and relevance of their learning, which helps increase engagement and dedication. Structuring group projects to mimic the type of work tasks they can anticipate also provides the added value of preparing students for scenarios they will actually be faced with on the job.
Finally, since asynchronous group work relies heavily on technology, ensure that the technology to be used by the group is familiar or can be mastered quickly. Provide detailed instructions or tutorials for how to use the technology, plan for how to handle issues students might face with technology, and share resources they can tap should they run into problems. University instructional technology support can be linked to, and websites and apps often offer training videos.
Types of group work
Informal cooperative active learning
Group essays or projects
Setting groups up for success
Set up groups of the right size, preferably with an odd number of participants
Make groups heterogenous to encourage peer-to-peer learning
Provide opportunities for students to activate their unique background knowledge and perspectives
Provide detailed instructions for group interaction expectations
Provide guidance on strategies for dividing the workload, such as setting up roles (ie: organizer, recorder, liaison, etc.)
Provide detailed instructions and rubrics for expected process and product
Split the grade for group work between collective and individual grades
Build in check-ins with instructor early on and midway
Plan for interventions if groups are not functioning well
Allow team members to evaluate each other’s and their own performance for contribution, cooperation, & timeliness
By Susan Fein, Instructional Designer, firstname.lastname@example.org
In my role as an instructional designer, the faculty I work with are often looking for ways to increase student engagement and add a “wow” factor to their online course. One way to do that is to add or increase active learning practices.
Active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing, rather than simply listening, as with a passive-learning lecture (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning brings positive and lasting outcomes to students, including better retention and grasp of concepts, and is particularly evident when students work together to develop solutions (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).
In 2019, I worked with an instructor developing a biochemistry/biophysics course for Ecampus. The instructor loved the peer-to-peer interaction intended for discussions, but was discouraged by the often lackluster exchange commonly demonstrated in the posts. She wanted to liven up these conversations, not only to increase the strength of the community but also to have an impact on the value of the learning that took place.
Enter knowledge boards! With a simple but creative retooling of the predictable initial-post-and-two-replies format, the instructor found a way to reimagine the often mundane discussion board and transform it into a lively and highly engaging conversation and exchange of knowledge.
How did she do this? Rather than compel all students to respond to a narrow or artificially-constructed prompt, the instructor instead posted several relevant topics or short questions extracted from the concepts presented during that week’s lectures and readings. Topics might be a single word or a short phrase, and the questions were tightly focused and direct.
Choice and Agency
From this list of 5 to 10 conversation starters that give breadth to the topics, the students can choose which they want to respond to, often selecting what’s of greatest interest to them. These posts could be anything related to the topic or question, so students are free to approach from any perspective or direction.
The instructor found that the students more freely contributed ideas, insights, understandings, questions, confusion, and commentary. They were encouraged to ask questions of each other to delve into significant points. Students could engage in as many conversations as desired, at their discretion. As a result, they tended to be more actively involved, not only with the content and concepts from that week’s materials, but also with each other, producing a strong community of inquiry.
This simple change transformed the tired and (dare I say it?) potentially boring weekly discussion into a meaningful opportunity for a lively and valuable knowledge exchange. The instructor explained that students also report that this knowledge board becomes a study guide, summarizing multiple approaches and insightful content they use for studying, so many revisit the posts even after that week is over as a way to review.
But Wait…There’s More!
The instructor didn’t stop at discussions in her pursuit of increased engagement and active learning. Her next “trick” was to evaluate how the assessments, especially homework problems, were presented.
A typical format in many Ecampus courses is to have students complete homework assignments individually, and these are generally graded on the correctness of the answers. But once again, this instructor redesigned a conventional activity by applying principles of active learning and collaborative pedagogy to improve learning outcomes.
In the new version, students first answer and submit solutions to the homework individually, and this initial phase is graded on proper application of concepts, rather than on the correctness of the answer. Next, students work together in small groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the same set of problems and, as a group, arrive at consensus of the correct answers.
The active learning “magic” occurs during this critical second phase. If one student is confident about an answer, they present evidence from the lectures and readings to persuade their peers. And when a student is not certain that they correctly grasped the concepts, they discuss the problem and relevant principles, learning from each other through this review, hearing different perspectives and interpretations of the materials. It is through these vital peer-to-peer interactions that the active learning takes place.
As the last phase of the activity, the group submits their answers, which are graded for correctness.
This reshaping of a classic homework activity results in deeper levels of understanding and stronger knowledge retention (Weimer, 2012). And there’s an added benefit for the instructor, too. Since there are fewer papers to grade, formatting homework as a group submission means extra time to offer more and better feedback than would be feasible when grading each student individually. A win-win bonus!
Benefits of Active Learning
These are just two simple but ingenious ways to reformat classic forms of interaction and assessment.
Do you have an idea of how you can alter an activity in your course to make it more interesting and engaging? If you sense that your online course could use a boost, consider incorporating more active learning principles to add the extra oomph that could transform your teaching content from mundane to magical!
So let’s close this post in true active learning style and take a moment to reflect. What kinds of active learning practices have you tried in your course? How did those go? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please share in comments.
Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.
Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/
When selecting a textbook, there are a number of factors to evaluate. In addition to assessing the textbook for appropriate content, one category that I recommend looking at is how inclusive the textbook is. Here are a few guiding questions to ask when evaluating textbooks for inclusion:
What is the cost of this textbook? Have you looked for open (free) textbooks, perhaps from the Open Textbook Library or considered writing or adapting your own? Affordability is inclusive.
Do the textbook images of people represent diverse cultural heritage and lived experiences?
Are the contributions to the field that are highlighted in the textbook from a diverse range of scholars in the field? If not, is there discussion about why certain voices were historically excluded from the field?
Is the textbook accessible? If there is an e-book, do the images have alt text, for example? Can students with disabilities access all materials in the book?
If the textbook is an e-book, are the concepts presented in multiple ways, such as text, infographic, slide decks, or multimedia elements? Giving students choices in how they explore the course concepts empowers them to use their existing preferences, and helps them develop new strengths and avenues for learning.
What to Do When the Textbook Is Not Ideal
It’s tough to find a textbook that is inclusive and has all of the concepts you are hoping to teach. What can you do when you find a textbook that has the concepts you need but is lacking in inclusive excellence? Here are some simple ideas for addressing this:
Consider giving publisher feedback. Write a brief email to the publisher about your concerns around a lack of representation in the book or whatever it is that you see as missing.
For any text you choose, consider inviting students to write to the publisher if they see areas for improvement, whether that is with cost, bias, or other issues. You could include the contact information for the publisher in your course materials page, inviting students to write in feedback directly to the publisher.
Acknowledge to your students that the textbook isn’t as inclusive as you would like it to be. Share the ways that you are advocating for better quality. You could also invite students to have a bias hunt discussion about the textbook or course materials. Then you could collect that feedback and send it to the publisher.
If the textbook lacks contributions from a diverse range of scholars, consider adding scholarly articles, images, or interviews from diverse professionals in your field to your course learning materials pages, in your LMS course site.
Consider highlighting professional organizations in your field that promote and mentor the professional development of scholars from specific historically underrepresented communities.
Have you had success in this area of evaluating textbooks? Have you found a publisher or textbook that has made gains in this area? If so, please share your resources in the comments.