NDAs and Open Pedagogy

One of the principles upheld by the open pedagogy movement is that the role of the learner must be active and the tasks that they engage in must be meaningful. These are not new ideas by any stretch, but as we move toward a more open pedagogical environment, it becomes necessary to examine the types of assignments that we create and assign. How do these tasks contribute to efforts to democratize education and increase learner autonomy, engagement, and freedom? What makes an assignment open? To answer these questions, this post will explore the relationship between open pedagogy and open assignments. 

While interest in the topic of open pedagogy has steadily gained steam in the roughly 50 years since its inception, definitions of and familiarity with the concept of today’s open pedagogy varies among educational practitioners. Some discussions focus on the expansion of the use of these resources. You might be hard-pressed to find an instructor who hasn’t at least reused open content (See 5R framework of Open Content) or encountered such materials as a student. Other conversations emphasize the remix and revise aspect of open content and pedagogical practices, and the number of faculty-created Open Educational Resources (OERs) intended to replace the traditional textbook is ever increasing. Still others have turned their attention to implementation of open pedagogical practices that put students in the role of content creators rather than passive beneficiaries of innovations in open content. In our efforts to create tasks that accomplish this shift in the role of the learner, we must first ask what the value of the task is for the student, peers, and the larger community, and what life will such a task have after its completion. To answer these questions, we can look to the non-disposable assignment (NDA). 

Non-Disposable Assignments (NDAs) 

To define the characteristics of this type of assignment, it is helpful to first define what we mean by “disposable” assignment. It is safe to say that we are all familiar with these types of assignments: typically they include one-off or busywork tasks designed to be filed away and forgotten as soon as completed and graded. In his article What is Open Pedagogy (2013), David Wiley described the disposable assignment in this way: 

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.

Online learning within the confines of a learning management system (LMS) is particularly ripe for these types of assignments. In fact, one could argue they are designed for this type of task. In an online course, instructors create and post the assignment, students complete it, instructors grade it, the course ends, student work is deleted, the course is rolled over, and the next crop of students begins the cycle again. The work is designed to be contained within the LMS for the duration of a course, not to be shared with a broader audience of students or colleagues. 

As an alternative to the disposable assignment in favor of more meaningful tasks, Wiley coined the term Non-Disposable Assignment. The NDA (also referred to as a renewable assignment), in contrast to its binworthy counterpart, is an assignment that “adds value to the world.” Later definitions, no doubt influenced by the growing open pedagogy movement and the promotion of the use of OER materials, go further and hold that an NDA ought to produce a resource that is openly published so that “others can find, use, and if desired, repurpose or update the work,” (Jhangiani, 2015; Wiley, 2013; Wiley et al., 2017; Wiley & Hilton, 2018). Such assignments put the learner in the role of creator and impact or benefit an audience beyond the instructor and student. Because the premise of the NDA is that it can not only be shared widely, but also revised and reused without permission by both instructors and students, the content should be openly licensed. Considering the role of learners as authors of the content, they should have a say in determining the type of open license appropriate for their work.

In the article A Conceptual Framework for Non-Disposable Assignments: Inspiring Implementation, Innovation, and Research, Seraphine et al (2019) provide a set of principles NDAs must adhere to. The Five Principles are summarized as follows: 

  1. NDAs fundamentally involve information collaboration and exchange.
  2. As forms of responsive and responsible pedagogy, NDAs involve communication throughout and opportunities for revision, creativity, modifying key terms and objectives, etc.
  3. While NDAs might not necessarily involve communal assembly, the resulting product or practice must always be shared outside the teacher–student dyad, creating opportunities for communal access of the NDA as an information resource 
  4. NDAs produce learning through cooperative critique.
  5. Because they are not exams or isolated writing assignments, NDAs involve innovation as a fundamental concept.

Benefits and Value of NDAs

Apart from their ability to reach a broad audience, NDAs increase student motivation, engagement and autonomy resulting in improved achievement of learning outcomes. (Ariely, Kamenica, & Prelec, 2008; Chalofsky & Krishna, 2009; Pink, 2011). While this claim may be at least in part anecdotal, it follows that when students know that their work may be used by peers, faculty, and colleagues across their field in the future, investment in the quality of their work increases. Non-disposable assignments and authentic assessments add value in other areas by

  • promoting community engagement.
  • fostering innovation. 
  • iInterrogating and dismantling systems of oppression by centering experiences of historically marginalized groups.
  • providing opportunities for culturally rich content (inject identity, student influence over content). 
  • cultivating information literacy skills.  
  • increasinge accessibility to educational resources.
  • helping students communicate in writing to a general audience.
  • offering opportunities to collaborate with peers around the world. 
  • increasing self-regulated learning and autonomy.

Despite their numerous benefits, NDAs are not without challenges and risks. For  example, some students may be resistant to the exposure and the vulnerability inherent in creating open content for broad use. In such cases, instructors must provide alternative assignments or options not to share. Because student generated content requires substantial metacognitive skills, instructors must insure that NDAs involve significant scaffolding at multiples stages in the learning process (Zimmerman, 1990; Zimmerman, 2002). Furthermore, the open nature of student-generated content presents a quality control challenge that instructors must anticipate and address by providing multiple opportunities for revision and peer review

NDA Design and Students as Producers

Implementing assignments that have the potential for broad impact beyond the typical instructor-student dyad can seem daunting. After all, conceptualizing and creating tasks that effectively revise the role of student from a passive one to actual content creators is no small feat. However, it is important to remember that the scope can vary widely. Indeed a well-crafted discussion between two students might form the basis for a renewable assignment. Other examples may include experiential connections such as student-generated podcasts; the production of flyers, guidelines, or materials for local community organizations; or even collaboratively created and maintained global resources such as wikis like the Chemistry Library. Whatever the scope, NDAs can—and arguably should—be iterative allowing for innovation and adaptation to various contexts. 

With the role of the student as producer in mind and an understanding of the potential pitfalls that an open assignment might present, faculty can then turn to the conventional principles of backward design to develop meaningful student learning experiences that add value for learners and their peers while also promoting community engagement. . 

[Instructors should consider the the role of students as they develop non-disposable assignments to put students in the role of content creators. Source: The Non-Disposable Assignment: Enhancing Personalised Learning – Session 1 Slideshare, CC Attribution-ShareAlike]

Examples & Resources 

References 

 

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


Whether a pedagogical approach is affirmed by research and/or practical evidence intentional design and effective deployment of pedagogical strategies are essential. We will begin with an exploration of evidence-based design components, which build upon the characteristics of Project-based Learning (PjBL), as discussed in Project-based Learning (Part 1) – Architecture for Authenticity.

Getting Started

Begin with the end in mind. Take a moment to establish the outcomes, goals, and real-world connections that will underpin the project. Consider using the following elements as your guide.  

  • Identify the Course Learning Outcomes (CLO) students should be able to demonstrate upon successful completion of the course
  • Identify the intended project outcomes and the alignment to the course learning outcomes
  • Identify skills students will practice and master while engaging with the project 
  • Articulate the purpose of the project within the contexts of the course, academic program, field of study, and profession
  • Articulate authentic connections between the project, across academic disciplines, and professional practice
  • Connect the project to an authentic purpose that extends beyond the confines of the course

Course Design Elements

Next, reflect on how you can design your project to incorporate most of the following PjBL core design elements.  

Project-based learning process

Image credit: Gold Standard Project Based Learning by PBLWorks is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Authentic Challenge

Initially, consider creating an opportunity for students to self-select a challenge. This can be anything from finding a solution to existing problems, a remedy for historical barriers, answers for disciplinary relevant questions, or asking new questions. Whatever the challenge may be, a best practice is to contextualize it within a real-world context. Affirm student voice and choice by explicitly sharing how the project connects to the academic discipline, professional field of practice, and real issues by providing feedback. Lastly, help students to see how they can connect the challenge to themselves.

Authentic Product

Development of an artifact that is relevant, timely, impactful, and piques personal interest help to bridge the concepts to the real world. To effectively create an artifact that produces a public good, students should engage in an iterative process that includes: planning, prototyping, seeking and applying feedback from diverse stakeholders (i.e., public, target audience, instructor, peers, Subject Matter Expert), personal reflection, and revisions. To determine whether your project is authentic, consider whether the product(s) create a lasting and meaningful impact beyond the classroom. Examples of authentic products could include a business plan to innovate an existing accessibility tool, a podcast to share about (DEI) Diversity Equity and Inclusion practices or to generate oral histories (i.e., audio interviews) of underrepresented populations. 

Sustained Inquiry

Incorporation of formal and informal opportunities for students to question, research, gather information, conduct analysis, apply new knowledge, generate additional inquiries, and highlight evidence is key to the design. These opportunities should be integrated into the architecture of the project, but the actions should be student-driven. This strategy will help promote knowledge construction.

Student Autonomy

Create varied opportunities for students to make their own choices, both collectively and individually. Student-driven choice can extend to such elements as question development, selection of public a product, identification of target audiences, establishment of collaboration protocols, application of knowledge and feedback, and prototype revision methods. Doing so situates students as the diver of their own learning process and creates space for students to hone their metacognitive skills (i.e., self-regulation, monitoring, and self-directed learning).

Reflection

Due to its roots in constructivism, reflection is commonly used in PjBL. Reflection is used as a strategy to foster deep learning, personal ownership of learning, assimilation of new knowledge, integration of lived experiences, effective inquiry, assessment of quality, and the navigation of challenges. While serving as a guide on the side, consider integrating activities to foster ongoing reflection of critical questions. Such questions may include:

  • What is known?
  • What needs to be known?
  • What evidence exists?
  • Will the product have an impact on the world outside of the course? How?
  • Do I/we bring any personal biases to the project which impacts the design of the product?
  • Does the design of the product represent the diversity of the target audiences?  
  • What works or does not work? Why?
  • How can the product be improved? What is the rationale behind the recommended changes?
  • How can the quality and efficacy of the product be tested?
  • Does the project extend on what the academic domain and professional field have established? If not, how can the project be modified to contribute additional knowledge or insights?
  • How does the project connect to my life, my lived experiences, and that of others?
  • How will the project help me to develop my professional skills?

An example of a PjBL reflective activity is a design journal. Design journals can include text, visualization, and media elements. Each entry can be structured to cover the following: knowledge gained, ideas, sustained inquiry (i.e., questions, additional research needed), the rationale for product changes, and next steps.

Critique & Revision

Integrating activities, such as a design journal, provides students the opportunity to actively critique, revise, and obtain feedback throughout the duration of the project. There is a multitude of scenarios that may call for critique. Students may find their initial idea to be too broad or specific. The original line of inquiry may have been faulty. One may find the product does not generate the intended public good or service. Therefore, revising the goal and creating a new product may be necessary. Alternatively, situations can arise where students learn of a product’s unintended harm, so a new prototype may need to be created. The goal is to create a course climate that is psychologically safe enough to encourage iteration.

Success Tips

Please note that these best practices and design elements offer a framework. Your course is unique. There is an unending list of potential factors that can impact the design of your course and project (e.g., accreditation, professional competencies, academic rigor, program outcomes, administrative expectations, etc.).

  • Keep in mind that you do not have to incorporate everything and the kitchen sink. Take what you can from existing literature, practitioner testimonials, industry needs, professional practices, real-world examples, and lessons learned from your own lived experiences.
  • Begin with small additions to your course, assess the impact of those changes, and revise as you deem appropriate.
  • Remember that nothing will be perfect, and there are always opportunities to improve. Design with the best fit in mind!

Looking Ahead!

You are cordially invited to revisit the Ecampus Course Development and Training Blog for Project-based Learning (Part 3) – Practical Preparation. In the final installment of this series, we will explore additional project-based learning activities, identify opportunities to integrate technology and examine actual project samples.

References

Over the last couple of terms, I joined a series of reading sessions with instructional design colleagues to read Alfie Khon and Susan Blum’s book Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) and discuss the practices and implications of this approach to reconceptualize assessment design and the place of grading. This two-part blog aims to capture the takeaways from those discussions including the main concepts, approaches, types of activities, implications, and challenges of adopting ungrading practices. This first part of the blog covers a brief overview of the concept of ungrading, its major benefits, and design considerations; and the second blog will include a summary of the types of ungrading practices and challenges to implementation ––all derived from the authors’ extensive arguments and examples. For a detailed review and summary of the book chapters, you can also check the blog Assessment Design: Ideas from Ungrading Book.

Overview of Ungrading

The concept of ungrading is sparking widespread interest only recently even though educators have been studying and using ungrading approaches for quite some time. The foundational premise of ungrading is to move away from a focus on grades that judge, rank, sort, and quantify student learning to adopting an approach that focuses on using alternative and authentic means to assess learning such as self-evaluation, reflection, student-generated questions, peer feedback, to name a few. Along with that premise is the questionable ranking that comes with grading which makes students compete with one another in an artificial way. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) sees ungrading as a conversational method that facilitates the communication between instructors and students about how students perform in the class. If, as underscored by the authors, grading and the fact of assigning point values to students’ performance makes more harm than good, then, why use grading? Considering that grading is rooted in our educational systems, many of these authors conclude that it becomes inevitable to grade student learning as it is currently done today.  

A clock and a checklist

Several scholars and instructors consider grading to be problematic. First, grades are not good indicators of learning. Blum (chapter 3) argues that grading assumes all students are the same, does not provide accurate information about student learning gains, is consequential, adds fear and avoidance of negative consequences, and is arbitrary and instructor-led. Second, the overemphasis on grades can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation, students’ excessive anxiety, and the complexity of quantifying how learning happens (Stommel, chapter 1). Third, it can also decrease interest in learning, students may feel inclined for easier tasks, and critical thinking is lacking (Alfie Khon, foreword). Fourth, grading makes students be fixated more on their grades than on the process of learning, leading them to believe that grades are all that matters in school (Khon & Blum; Talbert, 2020). And finally, too much focus on grades can be detrimental to students’ mental health (Eyler, 2022). However, ungrading does not mean dismissing grades altogether. Instead, Stommel proposes creating a learning space that fosters critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition– all skills that are valuable for 21st-century education. Likewise, Alfie Khon contends that grading can be participatory since it does not require a unilateral decision, and thus, students can also propose their own grades (with the instructor’s reservation to accept them). 

“Ultimately ungrading— eliminating the control-based function of grades, with all its attendant harms— means that, as long as the noxious institutional requirement to submit a final grade remains in place, whatever grade each student decides on is the grade we turn in, period.”

(Khon, 2020, p. xv)

While ungrading may be an innovative approach to assessments, it should be thought of carefully and adopted with a clear objective. Ungrading, as pointed out by Katopodis and Davison (chapter 7), needs a structure to be effective, allowing students to envision themselves as authoritative, creative, confident, and active, thus achieving a high impactful goal. As ungrading requires instructors to evolve in their approach to assessment, it does too for students who are expected to engage in a process of self-evaluation, self-assessment, and reflection. This requires engagement in metacognitive practices that many students might not be ready to embark on or don’t know how to do it. In addition, while ungrading is believed to be student-centered, it can deepen equity gaps if guideposts are entirely removed. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) believes that ungrading is a matter of social justice –going beyond the expected student agency and aiming at having students exercise their voice and participate in assessment decisions. 

As a whole, Blum (introduction chapter) provokes us all to rethink the nature of grading considering that students’ learning conditions vary, with many enduring inequities at many levels. Blum wants us to keep focused on how “varying assessment and feedback methods contribute to the real learning of real individual learners, rather than imposing an arbitrary method of sorting.” (p. xxii); all for the sake of healthy learning. 

These are a few key points about the arguments for ungrading. While this assessment practice is taking force in higher education, there are also many critics and skeptics. The purpose of this blog is not to enter into the discussion and controversy of ungrading, but to share a few perspectives and takeaways after an intense and well-structured book club discussion. In the following section of this part-one blog, I will share considerations for designing for ungrading. 

Assessment Design Considerations

Tasks and activities from a laptop computer

The educational system requires all instructors to submit grades at the end of every term. There is dissatisfaction with the current grading practices among many instructors and students as explained at large in the book. Here is where the ungrading movement takes force to provide alternative ways to account for evidence of student learning. Riesbeck (chapter 8) argued that by implementing ungrading practices, students can focus more on the content and feedback than on the grades. The use of critique-driven learning allows for more easily quantifiable efforts, progress, and accomplishment. Each ungrading consideration is dependent on a myriad of factors that may or not apply to each instructor’s context. The bottom line in ungrading is re-envisioning the teaching and learning process, engaging students in active learning, and active self-assessment through feedback. The following are design considerations:

Decenter grading and communicate (un)grading practices

Instructors can encourage students to focus on the process of learning, instead of talking about grades, Blums says, we should talk about the purpose and goals of the activities with students. These conversations can help develop relationships with students to encourage them to own their learning and have a voice in that process. Decentering grades also involves having an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues, and administrators about assessment decisions. Although each instructor exercises their academic freedom, it is also essential to share assessment practices that work and possible changes to implement.  In these conversations, it is also important to carefully use language that conveys a clear understanding of the concept and practice of ungrading to avoid confusion, anxiety, misunderstandings, and reactions that prevent its implementation. Having these kinds of conversations can help shift the mind from a grade-focused to a learning-focused approach. A key element in these conversations is to ensure that the pedagogical reason behind the adoption of ungrading practices is not only clear but well understood (and this may take time).

Set a structure for ungrading

As with other elements of exemplary course design considerations, the structure of assessment practices is necessary. Adding a structure for ungrading assignments gives students a clear objective, steps, and flow that allow them to be consistent and accountable to their own learning goals and strategies. 

Reflect on pedagogical and assessment practices

Instructors are invited to examine more in-depth their grading policies, why they grade in the way they do, what they are grading, and how they grade. In many cases, the path to ungrading is a response to dissatisfaction with grading policies. Aaron Blackwelder (chapter 2) says that, over time, he turned into a gatekeeper; he lost focus and was more interested in meeting institutional and “rigor” requirements than building relationships with students. His students had turned into competitive grade seekers. He questioned what a grade really suggests and posits that grades fail to communicate learning. The fact that grading allocates a specific number or letter that can bring some negative feelings to students, can also negatively affect the potential for learning. Sackstein (chapter 4) calls for a change in mindset to identify the way in which learning can be communicated and understood beyond the traditional use of numbers and letters.  While Blum also argues for assessing the entire learning experience (with portfolios, for example), Sacksatein suggests considering changes in the language of grading which can provide students with an opportunity to shift the way they feel and think about their own learning. 

Teach students to view mistakes as a necessary step in the learning process

Instructors are invited to reflect on how traditional grading practices are punitive, dehumanizing, and demotivating. Gibbs (chapter 6) points out that a system that punishes students for making mistakes reinforces the notion that all learning is flawless and therefore mistakes need to be avoided. Ungrading, on the other hand, aims to implement and cement the idea that learning is a process that needs constant feedback for that learning to be consolidated. Therefore, students need to be given opportunities not only to learn from their mistakes but to act on them in an interactive way. This requires instructors to plan for assessments that include steps for review (e.g., self, peer) to help the student build their skills, and knowledge over time.

Care for students and their learning

Instructors are also invited to demonstrate more explicitly that they care and validate students’ work. Further, Gibbs (Chapter 6) argues that her teaching philosophy is better summarized by the word “freedom”, the freedom that learners have to learn and grow at their rhythm and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The role of the instructor is then to be supportive in that process through feedback and empathy. Ungrading, as it is overall discussed throughout the book, does not mean that there are no assessments or grading at all. On the contrary, the assessments should focus on helping students build their knowledge and understanding in less stressful ways, allowing students to build learning habits, develop creativity, become better communicators, and connect to their lived experiences and contexts. Caring for students also involves valuing their identity as learners and what they bring into the learning environment.  

Be aware that ungrading can increase student anxiety and uncertainty

It is critical that instructors who are considering ungrading be cognizant that it involves a high level of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of students. Let’s recognize that students are so used and “conditioned” to grades that they will find it confusing not to have a grade associated with each assignment in the course. Many students consider being successful if they score a perfect grade which can be overwhelming and obscure the value of learning. Instructors who adopt ungrading should explain why and how ungrading will be done in certain classes. This will add transparency to the expectations and assumptions that instructors have about students.

Implement student voice and choice supported with personalized feedback

Instructors can help students take ownership of their learning through hands-on, real-life activities that allow students to use the content they are learning in projects of their interest, conduct research, and solve problems. Students can choose their topics and projects and the instructors can guide them to narrow topics and ensure the projects are feasible within the course timeframe. Consider feedback as a formative assessment approach that enables students to make choices about their learning strategies and needs to improve their learning tasks. Sackstein (chapter 4 ) suggests teaching students to collect feedback and identify the strategies that work for different kinds of assignment revisions. This way, students can develop better strategies that move them from lower-thinking to higher-thinking processes. 

Since ungrading promotes the use of student-self assessment and reflection practices, it implies that instructors will need to personalize and tailor feedback to meet students where they are. In addition, instructors can consider setting a culture of feedback (Gibbs, chapter 6) where instructors teach students to use feedback to improve their work, provide peer feedback effectively, and see the value of learning from their mistakes. 

Promote peer support

Authors of several chapters in this book have posited that students are more likely to give each other better feedback in the absence of grades. This kind of feedback can allow students to help each other, learn from one another, expand their awareness of their own understanding, and develop skills for life. Peer support will also help students build their confidence and autonomy to learn from each other. 

Trust students

One critical aspect of assessment is trust –trust that students do the work they are expected to do by themselves. Instructors have legitimate reasons to express their concerns and create course policies about academic integrity that lead them to adopt plagiarism systems and surveillance tools to monitor and proctor students’ work. In adopting ungrading, trust is fundamental to change the way learning and performances are assessed. It involves helping students think differently about what it means to learn. Instructors can help students evolve in their approach to learning to move away from grades to focus on their learning by including in assessments strategies for building capacity for metacognition, confidence in their skills, life-long learning goals, and owning their learning. 

Ungrading does not mean instructors don’t grade and students don’t receive grades on their work. Ungrading, as posited by the authors in the Ungrading book, is a mindset to approach student learning differently. In the second part of this blog, I will share the types of ungrading practices, implications, and challenges as presented in the book. 

References

Project

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

Did you know a pedagogical approach exists that positively impacts student academic achievement and engages them as active participants in learning? Great news…there is! Let me introduce you to the world of Project Based Learning (PBL). 

What is PBL?

PBL is a student-centered pedagogical approach where students, both individually and within small groups, engage with meaningful, relevant, and authentic projects which result in a product. Oftentimes, PBL is commonly associated and/or thought to be interchangeable with Problem Based Learning. However, there is a distinction between the two. The principal focus of PBL is on the active construction of knowledge. Additionally, student autonomy, beliefs, values, and motivations are situated as a fundamental driving force of the instructional approach.

What are the characteristics of PBL?

The essence of PBL is anchored in attributes, which foster high-quality learning experiences. Direct instruction is no longer the principal mechanism for delivery. Negotiation of knowledge between the educator and the students occurs through an exchange of ideas, questioning, inquiry, considerations, and perspectives. PBL often engages students in an ongoing process consisting of investigation, collection, analysis, prototyping, testing, peer/instructor feedback, revisions, and reflection. Learner autonomy is key in that students make their own decisions about various aspects of the projects (i.e., line of inquiry, collaborative processes, application of feedback, types of revisions, solutions).

Is it effective? Prove it!

As reported by Chen and Yang (2019), a positive impact on student achievement has been observed across 20 years (i.e. 1998-2017) of PBL peer-reviewed literature. The researcher’s principal investigation was to compare traditional instruction with that of PBL. Traditional instructional delivery was found to prompt students to apply low-level cognitive processes (e.g., understand, remember). Whereas, PBL can encourage the development of (HOTS) Higher Order Thinking Skills (i.e., analysis synthesis) and metacognitive skills (i.e., regulation, monitoring, self-directed learning, evaluation, assessment). According to the meta-analysis, the aforementioned benefits were found not to be impacted by academic discipline, educational stage (undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, graduate), or geographic location. This is great news for our distance and hybrid learners!

How do I get started?

When considering PBL there are a few questions to reflect on before implementing this practice. First, ask yourself, is this a best-fit approach? Consider the academic discipline, subject content, course learning outcomes, your instructional style, student attributes, and the intended goals to answer this foundational question. A word of caution is to use PBL in a way that is relevant, authentic, and collaborative in nature. Steel clear of using projects as a shiny solution. Lastly, contextualize the project. Doing so will help students connect the project to their academic career, professional development, and personal growth. Remember to share the ‘why’!

Project Examples

Here are a few project examples to spark some ideas: 

  • solve a problem (e.g., uninformed voting) 
  • generate a plan (e.g., foster sustainability)
  • create a product (e.g., computer/mobile application, oral history interviews)
  • seek valid answers and recommend solutions (e.g., electing national officials) 
  • engage with a persistent issue in a tangible way (e.g., advocating, protesting, public speech) 

Do you have an example to share?

Respond in the comments if you currently use, have used, or intend to incorporate PBL in your course. Do you have any tried and true strategies for effective projects? Have you experienced any wins or challenges? Share with the community and join the discussion. Make sure to return to read Project-Based Learning (Part 2) – Mindful Design for practical implementation tips! 

References

Intro

The concept of the ‘right to repair’ has been on my mind recently, both as a user of tech products and as a designer of online courses. Electronics are notorious these days for their enigmatic design. The user is not trusted to make repairs or is restricted in the ways they can interact with device components. This is a choice made by manufacturers to limit access to approved vendors or repair shops. Instructional Designers have a similar choice when building courses. Do we follow a restrictive approach to modifications, or open up courses by anticipating, welcoming, and providing the resources for modifications?

Difficult by design

I recently experienced the restrictive side myself as I needed to fix an air purifier that had an unfortunate run-in with my youngest child and her colorful stickers. Apparently, the inside of the machine was not pretty enough, and the stickers were now stuck inside the machine, not quite clogging up the fan, but making a noticeable noise when the purifier was running. Realizing that I should probably remove them from the mechanism, and the partially obstructed fan, I grabbed my handy screwdriver, and rotated the cylindrical case to find where to begin.

And then I saw it – nothing. There were no screws on the outer shell. I turned it around a few more times, holding on to some hope that there was another way in – some switch to press or clasp to unhook. Nothing. The company designed the device to prevent a consumer from taking it apart. The only thing I had access to was the filter opening. No screws inside there either, and the manual had no sections on repairing the device.

I was put into a situation where I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it, but had no way of accomplishing it. If I tried to open it in a way it was not designed to be (whatever that was), I risked breaking the device even further, and voiding the warranty.

This is the situation many technology users find themselves in these days, which has led to a push for the right to repair one’s own devices.

Right to repair principles

Had the manufacturer made the air purifier with the consumer in mind, it may have been more closely aligned with right to repair principles, which are given by The Repair Association through their Policy Objectives. Some more relevant ones are currently paraphrased on the Right to repair – Wikipedia article:

  1. the device should be constructed and designed in a manner that allows repairs to be made easily;
  2. end users and independent repair providers should be able to access original spare parts and tools (software as well as physical tools) needed to repair the device at fair market conditions;
  3. repairs should by design be possible and not hindered by software programming;
  4. the repairability of a device should be clearly communicated by the manufacturer.

Applicability to Instructional Design

This whole endeavor got me thinking: What is the best choice for designers and developers who create courses and complex elements for our users? It seems that it falls into the same design philosophy choices that we see with other products like computer hardware or electronics today. For simplicity’s sake, let’s narrow it down to these two opposite choices designers have when making course components:

  1. Modifying course elements is made difficult because the designer is either not confident in the instructor’s abilities to properly work with the design, actively discouraging changes, thus resulting in no change until the user approaches the designer(s) again.
  2. Course elements are designed with user modifications in mind, and the user is left with sufficient instructions, access, and ability to make changes when necessary.

I prefer to use technology that closely follows the second choice, as this is more aligned with the ‘right to repair’, and results in more user-friendly practices. That is not to say that everyone would want to modify courses, but the option should be there.

Or, in other words:

It is the philosophical difference between engineering things to make them harder for the end user because you don’t trust them and documenting things to educate the end user so you know you can trust them.  

Linus Sebastian, talking about the design choices of a pro-repair consumer laptop

If the previous main points of “right to repair” were to be re-written with online education in mind, how would these look? Perhaps something like this:

  1. The course and its objects should be constructed and designed in a manner that allows edits to be made easily.
  2. Instructors and SMEs should be able to access course components and tools needed to modify the course and its elements.
  3. Revisions and additions should be possible and not hindered by design choices.
  4. The Instructional Designer should clearly communicate the ability to modify the course, and how to do it.

How we could do it

What could we do as course designers to inform and empower faculty? Here are a few ideas:

General Documentation for Course Elements

By far one of the simplest ways to provide support to users is through basic documentation pages. If located on the course site itself, they can remain unpublished so learners do not see them. For those who would like more autonomy over their course structure and design, detailed documentation pages provide an excellent way to take the initiative and make the desired edits. Well-written documentation may also reduce the need for Instructional Designer support after the course is running. Plus, if you, as the designer, are worried about things breaking, you can always have a backup of all materials ready to revert pages.

Side by Side Code Blocks Tutorials

I use these all the time with fellow designers. On a Learning Management System (LMS), these function as a tutorial page where the page is split into two columns. Users can see the HTML/CSS code on the left and how it is displayed on the right. Then it’s a matter of copying the code from the code block and pasting it where they want it to go. This practice is very useful when it comes to the more advanced features of your LMS. This makes it easier to choose which element a user wants to incorporate or edit.

Side by side code tutorial blocks provide a quick way to show off how elements work, and a quick way to copy elements into other parts of the course.

Learner Journey and Alignment

If an instructor wants to change the course a few terms after it has been running, how do we achieve a similar look and feel to the one created by the Instructional Designer long after the project has been developed? Mapping the expected learner journey, and how the content aligns with learning outcomes, can help with this. For example, imagine the learner is expected to interact with a week-long module by completing the following tasks in this order:

  • Step A (Fulfills Learning Outcomes 1, 3. Informs Steps C and D)
  • Step B (Fulfills Learning Outcome 2. Informs Steps C and D)
  • Step C (Fulfills Learning Outcomes 3, 4)
  • Step D (Fulfills Learning Outcome 1, 4)

Each step may include reading or watching learning materials, completing an assignment, participating in a discussion, and so on. How would this expected behavior change if, later on, an instructor added an additional assessment between C and D? What about removing Step B entirely (which in this example would remove alignment to Learning Outcome 2 from the module). Would a learner on this new version of the course still have the required information to complete the remaining parts of the module? Would they interact with the content in the same order as initially expected (and how the course was likely designed to be completed)?

These are things Instructional Designers plan and check during the initial development which can be shared to ensure that the same methods are followed in subsequent iterations of the course.

Conclusion

Some may prefer to leave everything in the hands of an experienced Instructional Design team, and use their expertise whenever a change is required. For others who have enough technical skills to edit content, the desire to learn more, or would like more autonomy and ownership over course content, an open course design provides the same user-friendly approach that at ‘right to repair’ would have for general electronics.

References

  1. Right to Repair, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_repair
  2. Policy Objectives, The Repair Organization: https://www.repair.org/policy
  3. Linus Tech Tips: https://www.youtube.com/c/LinusTechTips

This blog post is an Instructor Spotlight authored by Xiaohui Chang. Xiaohui is a Toomey Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Business Analytics in the College of Business. This post is a follow up to Improving Student Engagement and Connection in Online Learning: Part I, Proactive Support.


Introduction

Since the first post in the series appeared a few months ago, we have received plenty of feedback from other instructors who are actively engaged in online education. Some of the stories shared by them reiterate the points we discussed, and others included tips and techniques that have worked particularly well for them. Almost all of them agreed that teaching well online remains a challenging task.

“I love the notes on proactive student support … especially the notes on checking in with those who are behind. Sometimes all they need is a little empathy!”

Vic Matta, Associate Professor, College of Business, Ohio University 

“I regularly incorporate each of these in my relationships with my students, to include weekly zoom “what’s up” meetings with my students. I check in on them if they’re behind on assignments…Yes, it takes effort; but my mission is to help these students find the greatness within themselves to succeed.”

To quickly recap what we have discussed in Part 1, we touched on how to employ empathy statements in communications with students, restructure and promote the office hours, provide personal feedback for students, and periodically check in with students who are behind. You may also refer to the first article here: Improving Student Engagement and Connection in Online Learning: Part I, Proactive Support.

Continuing from the first post, Part II will revolve around six specific practices that I have found particularly helpful for online teaching and learning.

Practice 1: Adopt a variety of communication methods

I provide assignment instructions and guidance using a variety of communication methods including texts, diagrams, images, and short video clips. I have learned that instructions with screenshots and videos tend to be better in explaining complicated procedures than text alone.

Video Tutorial Example: Creating a random sample using XLSTAT

Practice 2: Create a Q&A Discussion Board

I have a separate discussion on Canvas for students to address issues with the class in general (content questions, technical issues, deadlines). Instead of emailing the instructor regarding issues other students may also have questions about, students are encouraged to use this forum so that all can benefit from the questions and answers. I usually wait for a few hours for students to answer each other’s questions first before I provide mine.

When students email me questions that are a good fit for the Q&A Discussion Board, I’d respond through email first and then recommend the students submit the questions to the discussion board so that other students can learn from the questions and answers. This discussion board also creates an inviting and engaging learning environment for the students who don’t get to meet their classmates in a face-to-face setting.

Practice 3: Estimate the amount of time taken for each assignment

I was skeptical of this at first as the time taken would vary drastically for each individual. However, student feedback indicates that estimated times helped them plan for the week and set aside an appropriate amount of time. We don’t need to worry too much about making the estimates accurate for everyone as students will automatically adjust given their own work styles. A workload calculator that I have found helpful is developed by the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, called the Workload Estimator 2.0.

For more information about estimation rates, see the explanation here – Workload Estimator: How We Calculated.

Practice 4: Ensure timely replies

This practice is obvious, but difficult to do when one is teaching multiple sessions with hundreds of students. For online classes, timely replies make students feel as though they are taking an in-person class with all of the built-in support and resources. I understand that we all have different teaching priorities and schedules, however, it all comes down to figuring out how to most efficiently organize our days so that we can be available to students.

Setting aside a couple of times a day for handling emails has worked quite well for me, e.g., the first thing in the morning, after noon, and before the end of the day. I try my best to respond to students’ emails within 24 hours and check my mailbox at least once every day on the weekends.

The timely replies in discussions were super helpful. It really felt as though I took this in person with all of the built-in help and support.

Student quote

Practice 5: Synchronize assignments with Canvas calendar

I have also synced all assignments and my office hours (renamed as Ask Me Anything Hours) on Canvas so that there are office hours available around when assignments are due. This proves to be incredibly convenient and useful for both students and instructors.

Practice 6: Reorganize course content

Here are several Canvas LMS tips that have helped in organizing the course content and saved my time. I try to organize everything in modules. Under each module, all items are split into two main components: resources and to-do lists, so students know exactly what assignments they would need to complete for each module. I also adopt a fixed set of systems for titling Canvas items. Items within modules are indented to help with organization.

Weekly agenda and announcements are also hyperlinked to guide students with the course navigation. I could not emphasize enough how much I value the internal messaging in the Canvas grade book that was briefly discussed in my previous post. This feature allows instructors to message students who haven’t submitted yet or who scored less than a certain point. Definitely a slick way to send quick emails to a target group.

Recently, I have been experimenting with a range of visual cues (e.g., emojis) to categorize course content. An example is provided below.

Screenshot of the module view of the course, demonstrating using of emojis as visual cues next to assignments. A written assignment has a pencil and paper emoji, a quiz has a question mark emoji, etc.

There was also a recent post on using emojis for visual way finding and fostering a friendly tone in online classes here: My Experience with Emojis in Online Courses: Affordances and Considerations.

Conclusion

It’s always best to keep an open mind when trying out new teaching practices and adapt them to your individual style and subject matter.

If you have any online teaching practices that you’re fond of, please feel free to contact me at Xiaohui.Chang@oregonstate.edu as I will be very excited to hear them and test them out. 

In this post I’m returning to an important topic: accessibility. In a previous blog my colleague Susan Fein explained how everyone benefits from more accessible materials and that a large number of our students have some degree of disability.

Word documents are ubiquitous in our courses, as well as for other work-related activities. If a Word document is designed for digital consumption – such as posting in the Learning Management System or on a website – it needs to comply with accessibility standards. Fortunately, Word includes excellent tools for making your file accessible! I will first go over the main accessibility features, and then show you how to implement them in the video below.

  • Accessibility checker: Word includes a tool that helps you check your work. It is useful but it doesn’t catch all the errors.
  • Structure: headings, spacing, lists: Marking these properly will let screen reader users skim the content and understand its organization easily. Structure a document in a hierarchical manner: the title should be Heading 1 (NOT the “Title” style – that one just gets read as simple text). The next major sections should be Heading 2, subsections of a Heading 2 are Heading 3, and so on. Do not skip levels. You can change the appearance of all these styles to match your aesthetic. If you wish, you can also save style sets to have them ready to use.
  • Images: There are two main things to take care of here: adding alt text (so screen reader users can listen to the description) and making sure that the image is in line with the text (to keep the reading order clear).
  • Colors: If you use colors, make sure there is enough contrast between text and background.  Even people with good eyesight can struggle to read something if the contrast is not strong. In addition, remember that many people are color blind, so do not rely on color to convey essential information. For example, avoid something like “The readings in blue are very important, make sure you read them carefully! The optional resources are in green”. Use other means of signaling instead, such as bold or italics.
  • Links: Links need to include meaningful text rather than the URL. A screen reader will read the URL one letter at a time, which is not very helpful. In addition, descriptive links help both screen reader users and sighted users skim the document to get an idea of the content or find specific information.
  • Tables: Tables can cause trouble to screen reader users – do not use them for layout! Only use them for actual tabulated information. When you use tables, the main rule is to keep them simple and avoid split cells, merged cells and nested tables. Then, make sure you have a designated header row, which helps screen reader users navigate the data.
  • Document properties: The document needs to have a title set in its properties. This title is helpful for blind users because the screen reader announces it as the document is loaded in the program.

Save to PDF – yay or nay? Avoid turning your document into a PDF file, if the document is meant for online reading. PDFs are hard to make accessible. If you must make a PDF, start with a fully accessible Word file. It is recommended to use PDFs only when the design includes complex or unusual elements (for example special/technical fonts, musical notes etc.). If you are using a PDF because you have a complex layout, consider posting both the PDF and a simplified Word file, in case someone needs the fully accessible version.

Watch this 10-minute video that walks you through an example of making a document accessible. I’m using Microsoft 365 on Windows – if you’re using another version of Word or platform, things may look slightly different. Timestamps:

  • Accessibility checker – 00:38
  • Headings – 01:46
  • Lists – 04:56
  • Spacing – 05:27
  • Images – 06:16
  • Colors – 07:29
  • Links – 08:09
  • Tables – 08:49
  • Title Property – 09:33

As you can see, the process of creating accessible Word documents is straightforward. Turning this into a standard practice will greatly help people who access information electronically, with or without assistive devices. Let’s make it happen!

References:

team collaboration

According to the 2020 Brandon Hall Group Team Development Pulse Survey findings (Werder, 2021), at least half of work is currently done in teams in over seventy percent of companies. Global Human Capital Trends (2016) confirmed that this trend is continuing, with over 7000 organizations moving towards more team-based designs. However, the success of team collaboration is not a guarantee and requires diligent planning and hard work. Tannenbaum and Salas (2020) suggest that there are seven “Cs” (or drivers) of teamwork, namely: capability, cooperation, coordination, communication, cognition, coaching, and conditions.

To contextualize and apply each of these 7 “Cs”, I’ll use a recent team collaboration I participated in as an example. A team of four staff from Oregon State University Ecampus gave a virtual presentation on the role of instructional designers in research. Speaking of the first C – capacity, thanks to the selection of team members, this team had the perfect mix: the facilitator was in charge of setting up the stage and engaging the audience with an opening poll and scenario. A second team member was assigned to cover the institutional level, a third team member was assigned to cover the team level and the last team member was assigned to cover at the individual level. Capability: checked ✅!

Cooperation: During the preparation for the presentation, each of the four team members worked individually on our own parts. When we met again, we reviewed each other’s parts, felt comfortable voicing any concern or areas that could use improvement. We each revised our individual parts and met again to review. At this point, we felt we had the content nailed down. Laurie, Tianhong and Heather already know each other very well since we all work in the same instructional design team at Ecampus. Naomi opened herself up and welcomed us to give her feedback and ideas for improvement up front, which is very helpful for Laurie, Tianhong and Heather to connect with her, and built trust for working together on this project. Viola, Cooperation: checked ✅!

Coordination: During the two rounds of peer review sessions, we made many changes, based on feedback from team members. Naomi opened up with a poll of attendee roles and a scenario to illustrate why instructional designers need to be involved in research. Laurie demonstrated diligence and surveyed the entire instructional design team at Ecampus and was able to present some solid data on our team composition in terms of degree/education, and years of career in instructional design. Laurie also provided Tianhong with two prepared slides on areas to be covered as a suggestion. Tianhong conducted comprehensive research and her findings demonstrated that over 50% of instructional designers at Ecampus have participated in research activities with support from Ecampus. Heather’s storytelling of her research involvement was rich and fascinating. So she had the pleasant struggle of cutting down her content to fit within a nine minutes time frame. And we all put scripts of what we plan to say in the notes area of the google slide we were collaborating on, which help us to stay within the limited time and allow us to have discussion time with all participants. Since each of us diligently completed our individual work as planned, the whole presentation is full of data and stories. Coordination: accomplished✅!

Communication within the team of four presenters was relatively easy since we use slack as a communication tool internally and we used calendar invites and emails for scheduling purposes. Our slack messages were quite active throughout the preparation and on the day of the presentation and after the presentation with many suggestions, encouragement, and compliments! Communication: accomplished✅!

Cognition or shared understanding among the team members is vital. In my opinion, this should be the first C on the list! For our team project, Naomi hand-picked the three panelists to join her on this collaboration because she sensed that all three of us share a common understanding on the value of instructional designers being involved with educational research. This common understanding and vision is visible the entire time while we worked on this project. Cognition: checked✅!

Coaching: Does leader and/or team members demonstrate leadership behaviors? Yes, Naomi is a great leader in this project. It was a pleasure to work under her leadership since the role of each panelist is very clear, and we started the collaboration early enough so that we have plenty of time to review, revise, practice and practice again before the actual presentation. Laurie also demonstrated leadership by offering help to cohesively formatting and beautifying each of our slide decks into one presentation file. Coaching: accomplished✅!

Conditions: Does the team have favorable conditions such as resources and culture? Yes, each team member brought with them expertise in their own roles, we were also able to use existing tools such as slack and google slides, and ecampus presentation template for this collaborative presentation. Naomi could have done it all by herself. But she invited a panel of three instructional designers to collaborate with her on this presentation. Our combined effort makes our story stronger, richer and more impressive because we work as instructional designers and we have experience doing research as instructional designers. Conditions: checked✅!

On the day of the virtual presentation, Laurie and Tianhong were presenting from campus offices housed inside the campus library while Heather and Naomi were presenting from their remote offices. In the middle of the presentation, there was a 🔥fire alarm in the library which required everyone to evacuate from the library. Laurie and Tianhong moved to a nearby building and logged back online and re-joined the presentation within 10 minutes. We are so thankful that the four of us are presenting from different locations so that the fire alarm did not stop us from presenting. This is how virtual team collaboration saved our work during a fire alarm emergency. And this is how the 7 Cs led us to a great team collaboration. The next time you sit down to plan a team project or initiative, you might benefit from reflecting on these following questions:

  1. Does the team have the right people with the right mix? (Capability)
  2. Does each team member have constructive attitudes about their team? (Cooperation)
  3. Does each team member demonstrate necessary teamwork behaviors? (Coordination)
  4. Does each team member exchange information effectively with each other and outside? (Communication)
  5. Does each team member possess a shared understanding? (Cognition)
  6. Does leader and/or team members demonstrate leadership behaviors? (Coaching)
  7. Does the team have favorable conditions such as resources and culture? (Conditions)

I hope I have encouraged and convinced you a tiny bit in your next decision for teamwork and have fun collaborating and doing effective teamwork!😊

References:
Werder, C. (2021). How to develop a winning team. Brandon Hall Group. Retrieved from https://www.brandonhall.com/blogs/how-to-develop-a-winning-team/

Global Human Capital Trends. (2016). The new organization: Different by design. Deloitte University Press. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/gx-dup-global-human-capital-trends-2016.pdf

Tannenbaum,S.I. & Salas, E. (2020). Teams that work : the seven drivers of team effectiveness. Oxford University Press.


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

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

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

One of the colleagues I had asked for feedback responded:

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

That question inspired this blog post.

What is Markdown?

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

What Are the Advantages of Writing in Markdown?

It Is Easy to Learn and Fast to Write

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

**bold**
__bold__

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

*italics*
_italics_

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

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

which in my document becomes: OSU Canvas Dashboard.

It Is Just a Text File

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

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

Markdown is Highly Portable

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

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

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

It Is Easier to Read and Write Than HTML

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

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

Here is what that list looks like in Markdown:

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

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

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

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

You Can Write Without Distraction

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

What Do You Need to Get Started?

A Text Editor

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

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

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

Learning the Syntax

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

Headings

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

Level Two Heading

In Markdown, you would write it like this:

## Level Two Heading

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

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

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

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

Lists

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

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

which in Markdown is:

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

and an unordered list:

  • cymbal
  • drum
  • marimba
  • tambourine
  • xylophone

looks like this in Markdown:

- cymbal
- drum
- marimba
- tambourine
- xylophone

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

* string instruments
    * cello
    * violin
    * harp

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

  • string instruments
    • cello
    • violin
    • harp

Hyperlinks

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

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

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

MultiMarkdown: An Expansion of the Language

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

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

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

Advanced Tools and Applications

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

Yes, But What Are the Cons?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

By Susan Fein, Ecampus instructional designer

If you use slide presentations to deliver information and then provide a digital version of the slides to support learners, this post is for you!

Instructors teaching online or who use a companion LMS or website to accompany in-person classes often upload the slide file to aid students in notetaking. However, you may not be aware that digital files are not automatically accessible to those using assistive technologies, such as screen readers. Following a few simple and easy guidelines will improve accessibility of your materials for all students and demonstrate your thoughtful attention to inclusivity and equity.

Who Benefits from Accessibility?

Everyone, not only those with disabilities, benefit from accessible learning materials. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 40 million people in the U.S. with a disability, so odds are good that some of them will be in your courses.

Accessibility practices support all learners, not just those who require them. In 2016, the OSU Ecampus Research Unit conducted a nationwide survey about student use of video closed captions. In that study, 70% of respondents who did not self-identify as having a disability used captions at least some of the time.

I asked OSU’s disability access center how many online students request disability-related accommodations. So far this year, 23.9% of those served by their office are Ecampus students. Last year, nearly 40% of all Ecampus courses had at least one student with an accommodation, and nearly 15% of all online-only students used a disability-related accommodation.

To ensure equity, regardless of who does or does not depend on accessibility support, it is vital to make all learning materials compliant with accessibility standards. When educators intentionally create fully accessible materials, we more equitably serve all online learners.

What Can You Do?

Here are five easy-to-follow tips that elevate your commitment and ability to create accessible materials.

Tip #1. Use a template. Templates are important because basic formatting for accessibility is already built in. By inserting your content into designated sections, you preempt some accessibility issues without any extra effort. For example, when you insert the topic of each slide into the designated title field, the slide structure maintains the correct sequence in which a screen reader encounters the various elements on the slide. If you are concerned about being too constrained or predictable, these designated fields accommodate your creativity! It is okay to reshape, resize, or reposition a field if you do not like its default appearance or location.

Regardless of which end of the design spectrum you lean, always start with a template. If you are not fond of colorful designs or fancy formats, there is a basic, unadorned template you can use. If you are a fan of fun, frivolity, or fabulous, select one of many free template options found online to suit your theme or topic. Check out the different templates Ecampus has developed with college-specific themes. One of them might be a good fit for you.

Tip #2. Enter a unique title on each slide. Each slide in your presentation must have a unique title. This permits a screen reader to navigate easily from one slide to the next. What happens when you have segments of the presentation that require two or more slides to fully deliver the information? No problem! There are various ways to address this.

When several slides focus on a different aspect of the primary topic, use that in the title. For example, you are creating a presentation about Health and Wellness and have multiple slides on the topic of Cooking. You want to introduce the topic, describe meal preparation, and offer ideas for healthy snacks. Since these are three distinct subtopics, a good approach is to label the slides as Cooking: Overview, Cooking: Meal Preparation, and Cooking: Healthy Snacks. Repeating the main topic in the title helps the learner connect each segment but still delineates separate subtopics.

If the subject matter does not neatly break into clear subgroups, it is fine to use a sequential number, such as Cooking Part 1, Cooking Part 2, etc. Since most creators develop a presentation’s content, sequence, and flow thoughtfully and logically, if you take a moment to consider why you grouped together specific ideas, the unique titles will likely emerge.

Tip #3. Follow best practices. If you search online for guidance about how to create effective slide presentations, you will discover that many sources offer similar suggestions. Most of these include recommendations about text (contrast, font size, font style), use of images, page structure, and so on. Use this short list as a helpful reminder of these other accessible-friendly best practices.

  • Text should be easy to read, with good contrast. Black text on a white background is ideal and classic. Be cautious of templates with too subtle contrast. They might not meet accessibility guidance for visually disabled learners. Use 18-point (or larger) sans serif font for readability.
  • Use images judiciously. Pictures convey themes, present an idea, or evoke a mood. However, too many can detract from the message, be confusing, or appear unprofessional. Aim for a “less is more” approach. (Learn more about accessibility for images in the next tip.)
  • Include adequate white space to separate and group content. Bullets are optional. Keep slide structure simple. Use phrases or a few words rather than full sentences. Break up content into multiple slides to avoid crowding.

Tip #4. Create alt-tags for images. A screen reader recognizes the presence of an image but it cannot discern the content. To be accessible, that information is provided as a text description or alt-tag.

If you have images in your slide deck, each must have an alternate text description. The alt-tag describes and explains the content of an image. Usually it is not accessible or helpful to use the file name. And beware of tools that try to divine the content of an image and insert descriptions. These are usually wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.

The majority of images in an effective presentation should be essential to the learner’s experience; the image is required for accurate comprehension of the content. The are images such as charts, graphs, photos, maps, or data. Other images may be optional or decorative; nice to have but not essential to the learning and, if not seen by the student, do not impede the learner’s ability to grasp the material.

For essential images, write a brief (1-3 sentences) text description. No need to include lead-in words like “this is an image of…” Describe the key educational value of that image. What about it is important to the learner? What is the essence of the information you want the learner to know about that chart, graph, or photo?

Screen shot of alt text box for an image from Office 365 PowerPoint
Screen image from Office 365 PowerPoint

Decorative images have two options: enter a description or skip over the image. To skip, enter null text (“ ”) as the alt tag or, if available in your version of PowerPoint, select the “decorative” option. Both choices direct the screen reader to ignore the image. If you prefer to tag a non-essential image, use a simple description, such as “team logo” or “Professor Kumar.”

Understand that writing good alt tags is a challenging skill that takes time and practice to master, so do your best. You may want to confer with the Disability Access Center, an instructional designer, or other faculty support group if you need assistance.

For more information about how to write effective alt tags, refer to these or other resources.

Tip #5. Use meaningful text to format links. Please do not insert a full URL on your slide. Screen readers recognize a URL link and read aloud every individual letter and symbol, often in a monotone mechanical voice, depending on the specific assistive tool. Think about how frustrating, confusing, and unhelpful that is. Instead, format each link using meaningful text, as demonstrated in this post. For example, the two resources linked above use the article’s full title as the meaningful text. Also, avoid the over-used, too generic “Click here for more information,” with the word “here” formatted as the hyperlink. Instead, select text that specifically identifies the URL content, such as “Visit the Disability Access Services web page for more information.”

Accessibility Supports Equity

Demonstrate your commitment to equity! With just a few extra minutes, you can easily meet minimum accessibility standards by following these tips and using the accessibility checker tool built right into PowerPoint!

Reference

Linder, K. (2016). Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.