If you design or teach online courses, and the term Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) is unfamiliar to you, not to worry. It’s likely that you’ve already implemented some degree of RSI in your online courses. RSI is the US Department of Education (DoE) requirement for institutions receiving federal funds to “ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors” in their online courses. It was intended as a quality assurance and consumer protection measure, but it is also a key component of high-quality online learning. Simply put, student-teacher interactions must be consistent and meaningful throughout the delivery of an online course. There is a mountain of research supporting this idea by now, and we have long known that this type of interaction is an essential component of learning and has a deep impact on student experience and satisfaction with online learning.

word cloud containing high- frequency words from post
Word cloud created via WordItOut.com

Characteristics of RSI

You may be thinking that you already have plenty of quality interaction in your course. If you’re familiar with the Ecampus Essentials standards for course development (based on the Quality Matters course design rubric) or the Ecampus Online Teaching Principles, you know that teacher-student interaction is a basic component of effective online course design and delivery. You may also be thinking that “interaction” is a vague term. After all, interactions can occur synchronously or asynchronously via many different platforms. They can occur in response to student progress in a particular course or be an intentional aspect of the instructor’s course delivery plan. So, what exactly does quality interaction in the context of RSI entail? The DOE guidelines outline the main characteristics of regular and substantive interaction as follows: 

Instructor-initiated 

Instructor-student interaction should be an intentional component of the course design and delivery. While students should also be encouraged to reach out to the instructor as needed, interactions should be required and initiated by the instructor to be considered RSI. For example, ad hoc office hours and auto-graded objective quizzes would not be considered RSI, but requested office visits, individualized feedback on assignments or open-ended quizzes, and instructor-facilitated online discussion forums would qualify as regular and sustained interactions. Likewise, announcements tailored to the course content during the term of the delivery would also meet the guidelines for RSI.

Frequent and consistent 

Simply put, frequent and consistent interaction means that you are present in your course in an intentional manner regularly throughout the term. Instructor presence in online courses deeply impacts student learning, satisfaction, and motivation, so this is probably not a new idea for those who have taught online. Many online instructors maintain instructor presence through regular announcements or videos providing updates on student progress or feedback, adding to ideas presented in student discussions or other submissions, offering clarifications to questions regarding content or assignments, etc. There are many ways for instructors to be present in a course so that students feel that they are part of a community of learners. To meet the standards for RSI, the instructor presence should also be planned and occur regularly throughout the term.

Focused on the course subject

Interactions should be related to the academic content and help students to achieve the course outcomes. Assignments should provide a space for instructors to assess student learning through substantive feedback. Non-specific feedback (Good job!) or a grade entered without comments related to work on the assignment at hand would not count as RSI. However, communications providing reading guidance, posting examples with explanations, sending an announcement clarifying concepts students may have missed in a discussion are all good examples of interactions focused on the course subject. That’s not to say that sending a message of encouragement or celebration to students (Go Beavs!) would not be an important component of social presence in a course. 

Faculty member meets accreditation standards

This requirement presents a little bit of a murky area, and each institution will need to decide who would be considered a qualified subject matter expert based on their accrediting body standards. For example, Teaching Assistants (TAs) may or may not be considered qualified subject matter experts depending on where they are in their postgraduate journey. However, regardless of the level of expertise, the role of any TA or other course mentor can never be in lieu of the instructor interaction in a course. 

Increasing RSI in your course

Meaningful interaction may already be an integral part of your course design and delivery, or you may have some work to do in that area. Whatever your current level of RSI, there are many ways to increase or vary the interaction in your course. Some practitioners note that what constitutes “meaningful interaction” for the purposes of RSI compliance can be difficult to measure. In response, the DoE updated their definition of Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in 2021 to further clarify the issue for practitioners. To be considered regular and substantive, interaction, “…must engage students in teaching, learning, and assessment, as well as two of these five actions: 

  • providing direct instruction;
  • assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; 
  • providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; 
  • facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; 
  • or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.”

The good news is that the DoE definition is broad enough to include a huge range of activities giving course developers and instructors many options for choosing how and when interaction occurs in a course. While not an exhaustive list, a few recommendations to boost RSI in your course include: 

Set expectations

Make your plan for interaction clear to students, and include them in setting expectations for both the instructor and the students. Your communication policy stating the response time students can expect from you on emails and assignment feedback should be stated in the syllabus and posted in the course. You should also tell learners how to communicate with you. Make participation expectations clear through discussion guidelines and rubrics for participation. You might also create an introductory activity in which students and the instructor make their expectations explicit through a negotiated process. 

Provide timely and individualized feedback

There are many methods for delivering feedback (written, video, audio, conferences, etc). In fact, using a combination of methods is good practice for incorporating elements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Regardless of how you deliver feedback, it should add to or extend students’ understanding, make concrete suggestions for improvement, highlight what they are doing well, or provide models. 

Send regular announcements

Announcements are handy for sending reminders about due dates and other housekeeping items. As an RSI strategy, announcements present a useful vehicle for digging into course content and helping students to synthesize important information. You might use announcements to extend concepts from the previous week’s activities, contextualize content students will see in the coming week, or to identify sticky points or patterns seen in student work. While announcements can be used for on the fly reminders or clarifications, it is a good idea to establish a pattern for sending substantive announcements whether that be on Sunday evenings or at other intervals so that students know when to expect them. 

Incorporate tools for meaningful interaction

VoiceThread, Padlet, and Perusall are just a few examples of platforms that instructors can use to facilitate interaction. While it may be tempting to incorporate several tools to boost engagement, a more effective approach would be to avoid using technology for the sake of using technology. Instead, try incorporating one or two tools and create meaningful tasks around them. Use each two or more times during the term so that students spend their time engaging with each other and the content via the tool rather than learning how to use it. 

Conduct surveys and evaluations 

Midterm surveys on students’ experience in the course are helpful for second-half tweaks to stay on track toward the goals you set out to accomplish. They can also be useful for making adjustments for the next time you deliver the course. Ask students how they feel about the interactions with other students and the instructor. Ask how they could be improved, and encourage them to reflect on their own contributions. If there is group work involved, solicit opinions about how it is going and how you can support their collaborations. In doing so, you give learners the opportunity to ask for help where they need it, and you gain information to give you ideas for how to structure interactions for the next iteration of the course. A trusted colleague or an instructor designer can also be helpful in evaluating the level of RSI in your course. When you feel you have reached your goals around interaction and other markers of high-quality course design, consider asking for a formal review of your course to become Quality Matters certified. 

Hold regular office hours

In order to qualify as RSI, office hours must be predictable, scheduled, and required rather than an optional feature of the course. While synchronous sessions should be kept to a minimum to allow for student flexibility, you can also facilitate meaningful interaction via a virtual meetings. If you give mini-lectures or provide models for specific lessons, for example, you might consider recording your explanations so all students, including those who cannot attend a particular session, benefit from the extra guidance. 

Resources

Poulin, R. (2016) Interpreting what is Required for “Regular and Substantive Interaction”. WCET Frontiers. Retrieved from https://wcet.wiche.edu/frontiers/2016/09/30/interpreting-regular-and-substantive-interaction/

Regular and Substantive Interaction. SUNY Online. Retrieved from https://oscqr.suny.edu/rsi/

Regular & Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online Learning. Chemeketa Center for Academic Innovation. Retrieved from https://facultyhub.chemeketa.edu/instruction/rsi/

How to Increase Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online and Distance Learning. OLC Webinar 2021. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/webinar/how-to-increase-regular-and-substantive-interaction-rsi-in-online-and-distance-learning/

Quality Online Practices: Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI). University of Tennessee Knoxville. Retrieved from https://onlinelearning.utk.edu/online-teaching-learning-resources/quality-online-practices/rsi/

In Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s TED Talk “4 Pillars of College Success in Science”, he told the story of Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi’s mother’s famous question: Did you ask a good question today? Let’s pause for a minute and reflect: What is a good question? What questions do you ask most frequently? What questions do your students or children ask most?

Question
Question

Types of Questions

Teachers usually encourage students to ask questions. Dr. Peter Liljedahl, author of “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics” and professor of Mathematics Education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, however, points out that not all questions need and should be answered directly. According to Liljedahl, there are three types of questions and only one type of questions requires direct answers. Liljedahl categorizes questions in K-12 mathematics classrooms into the following three types:

  1. Proximity Questions
  2. Stop Thinking Questions
  3. Keep Thinking Questions (Liljedahl, 2020)
Building Thinking Classrooms Book Cover

Proximity questions refer to questions students ask when the teacher is close by, as the name suggests. Liljedahl’s research showed that the information gained from such proximity questions was not being used at all. Stop-Thinking Questions are questions students ask just to get the teacher to do the thinking for them, with the hope that the teacher will answer it and they can stop thinking, such as “Is this right?”, “Do we have to learn this?”, or “Is this going to be on the test?” Unlike the first two types of questions, keep-thinking questions are often clarification questions or about extensions the students want to pursue. According to to Liljedahl, if you have an authentic and level-appropriate task for students to work on, 90% of the questions being asked are proximity questions or stop-thinking questions and only 10% of questions students ask are keep-thinking questions. Liljedahl pointed out that answering proximity questions and stop-thinking questions are harmful to learning because it stops students from thinking.

Next, how could teachers differentiate the types of questions being asked? Liljedahl offers a simple solution to separate keep-thinking questions from the other two types of questions: Are they asking for more activity or less, more work or less, more thinking or less?

After differentiating the types of questions, what should teachers do with these proximity questions and stop-thinking question? Ignore them? No, not at all! Liljedahl emphasizes that there is a big difference between having students’ questions heard and not answered, and having their questions not heard. How should teachers answers these proximity questions and stop-thinking questions then?

Ten Things to Say to Proximity And Stop-Thinking Questions

Liljedahl provides the following list of ten responses to a proximity or stop-thinking question so that you are not giving away the answer and taking the thinking opportunity away from students. Basically, you turn the questions back to your students!

  1. Isn’t that interesting?
  2. Can you find something else?
  3. Can you show me how you did that?
  4. Is that always true?
  5. Why do you think that is?
  6. Are you sure?
  7. Does that make sense?
  8. Why don’t you try something else?
  9. Why don’t you try another one?
  10. Are you asking me or telling me? (Liljedahl, 2021, p. 90)

Cross-Discipline Nature of Good Questions

“Building Thinking Classrooms“  is recommended to me by some college biology  teachers in the US. Biology teachers recommending math teaching book, isn’t that interesting? The reasoning behind this recommendation is that the techniques being taught in this book could be easily applied to any other teaching context to get your students engaged in thinking, whether it is K12 education or college education, math teaching or teaching of another subject.

If this brief introduction got you interested in reading the rest of the book and find out the rest of what the author has to share, it is available at Oregon State University library as an ebook or you can purchase it online.

Asking Good Questions for Management and Education Administration

If you are not directly involved in teaching and learning, but in administrative or management role in an organization, Dr. Amy Edmondson has some practical suggestions for asking good questions to keep organization growing healthily. Dr. Amy Edmondson, author of  “The Fearless Organization”, Novartis professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, states that good questions focus on what matters, invite careful thought, and give people room to respond. Edmondson also suggests three strategies for framing good questions:

  1. To broaden the discussion. For example: What do others think?
  2. What are we missing? For example: What other options could we consider?
  3. How would XXX (such as our role model, our mentor, or our competitor) approach this? For example: Who has a different perspective?

With the above tips for asking questions, are you ready to ask a good question today?

References

Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hrabowski, F. (2013). 4 Pillars of College Success in Science. TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/freeman_hrabowski_4_pillars_of_college_success_in_science?language=en

Liljedahl, P. (2020). Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12 : 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2020

Illustration of educational items such as papers, ruler, glasses, formulas, grades.
Image by chenspec from Pixabay 

This post is the second installment in the series that describe the main characteristics, major benefits, design considerations, and practices and challenges of implementing an ungrading approach. This second blog presents the types of ungrading practices, challenges to implementation, and main takeaways derived from the book chapters and discussion with my colleagues in the Ungrading book club.  

Types of Ungrading Practices

To begin, it is important to recap that the underlying concept supporting ungrading is deep, extensive, and formative feedback. This means that instructors are expected to design low-stakes formative assessments and devote substantial time and effort to craft feedback that students can use to revise their work. This section summarizes several contributions the book chapters authors made in regards to pedagogical practices, strategies, tips, and resources to adopt ungrading. Instructors can combine the ungrading practices or use them as stand-alone activities. 

Approaches to Assignments

  • Portfolios: Students can build their portfolios with different digital tools that allow them to create personal or professional materials that are useful beyond the class (e.g., website, content curation). The critical element in a portfolio assignment is that there needs to be space for critical thinking and metacognitive work that can be shared with others. An additional element can include portfolio conferences. For these conferences, students meet with their instructors to review their course work and make annotations about their learning journey (they can also discuss their final grade).
  • Project-based Learning, Problem-based Learning, Inquiry-based Learning: Students work on activities that relate to their own experiences, real-life applications, and ill-structured scenarios. These activities encourage students to work with others, find solutions, investigate deeper, and apply concepts studied in the course to realistic situations. 
  • Staged Assignments: Students work on reviewing/redoing assignments to allow them to learn from the feedback they received from their peers and/or instructor.
  • Minimal Grading: Use of a holistic or simplified grading schema (e.g., pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak).

Student Participation

  • Contract Grading: Students can be graded over the labor completed. Students are responsible for reviewing their workload in the class and determining how they will accomplish it. Students will be in a process of understanding why grades matter to them and that the grade they give themselves will be attached to the amount of work they complete. Students sign a contract that clearly specifies the assignments and student responsibilities to achieve an A-C letter grade in the course. This grading system can allow students to negotiate their contracts with instructors. 
  • Process Letters: An activity where students describe their learning process and how they evolve in their work in the class. This can be multimodal (e.g., presentations, reflections that combine audio, video, and text) and/or accompany major assignments.
  • Student-made Rubrics: Students can develop their own rubrics, which can become a learning activity in itself. 
  • Participatory Voices: Students can contribute to course content by creating content, adding items to the syllabus, selecting the type/format of feedback they want to receive, evaluating peers, and developing an intellectual voice. Through self-evaluation and peer evaluation, students can reflect on their learning, understand the process of evaluating others, and focus on excellence and building confidence. Students are given a set of guiding questions to engage in self-and peer evaluation. At the end of the project or term, they recommend a grade for themselves and their peers.
  • Declaration Quiz: A quiz that asks students to select a checklist of the assignment requirements that they have completed. This can be a low-stakes assignment that helps students reflect on how they accomplished the task. Instructors can create declaration quizzes for each assignment and associate the number of points to the letter-based system.

Interaction

  • Peer Assessment: When students work in groups, they can evaluate each other. Students can write about their contributions to the group projects as well as their experiences with the team. This can give instructors a view of the team dynamics and activities that are not usually visible.
  • Grade-Free Zones: This involves reviewing major assignments and/or providing a sandbox space for students to experiment before they engage in completing formal assignments. Students can submit early assignments or portions of them for peer comments or the instructor’s early feedback. 

Mastery Orientation

  • Mastery Learning Artifacts: Students collect learning artifacts that they have developed to demonstrate their mastery of the learning concepts based on the exemplary work and expectations provided by the instructor. Students submit these artifacts at the end of the term. In addition, students describe the areas of growth based on the instructor’s feedback (e.g., revisions). 
  • Single-point Rubrics: This type of rubric includes criteria and fixed binary points  (done = 1; not done =0). Comments can be added to either point to note the improvements to be made (in case it is not done) and to highlight the aspects that go beyond expectations. A benefit of this type of rubric is that it encourages mastery of content and keeps students’ focus away from the grade itself. 
  • Feedback Logs: Students collect feedback and identify the areas in which they received more feedback, work out strategies to improve those areas, and reflect on the ways they are learning.
  • Feedback and Revisions: Students work on a series of drafts, and the instructor provides comments that students are expected to incorporate in the next revised draft. A grade can be added to the final draft.  
  • Self-Assessment: Consider metacognitive activities that engage students in their own evaluation of learning and in dialogue with the instructor. Encourage students to develop their own standards and self-scrutiny practices.  
  • Student Individual Plan: Students articulate goals and values for themselves about a class or a project. The instructor can help students by providing reflection guidelines and templates for developing their own goals. 

Challenges to Implementation

While ungrading encourages a shift from a focus on grades to a focus on feedback and metacognitive activities for student learning and success, its implementation is not without challenges. The challenges range from local critiques to structural and how-tos. 

  • One of the biggest challenges is the misunderstanding of what ungrading involves –an active activity that engages students and instructors with grades as a system, which is different from not grading. Without having a clear understanding of the concept itself, the rationale behind it, and how it will benefit students more than a grade-based system, using alternative means for grading may jeopardize the student learning experience. 
  • A second challenge is the structural system of grades that prioritizes performance over learning. If the focus continues to be on how students perform in a class rather than on their learning, Kohn and Stommel argue that using an ungrading system that gets rid of grades will not be sufficient to push toward a system that creates learning spaces for critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition. 
  • A third challenge involves the redefinition of the curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and how to assess learning. If the idea of content coverage and memorization of facts prevails, learning is treated more as information transfer –from the instructor or textbook to the students. In this transfer, students may not necessarily own their learning. Along with this is the way assessments are designed to emphasize judgment of students’ performance. If the teaching method does not allow room for real learning, ungrading will not make a difference. Thus, the convergence of changes to the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods is of utmost importance. 
  • A fourth challenge is more systemic and structural. Kohn argues that control, in many educational cases, prevents students’ choice and voice in their learning journeys. If ungrading is to have a way in educational contexts, instructors, and even administrators, will be invited to relinquish some of the control they exert over students’ performance to welcome students’ decisions related to their learning needs and interests. 
  • A fifth challenge is a deep and widespread belief that grades reflect learning and action. There is a great concern that if grades are to be eliminated, students will not complete their assignments, need to do more work, or even skip classes. Also, instructors will have to “grade” more and be overburdened. 
  • A final challenge is the over-reliance on rubrics that, according to Khon (foreword, p.xvii), is a system for “judging students…They offer umpteen different axes along which to make students think about their performance— often at the cost of becoming less immersed in what they’re doing.” It is not that ungrading does not provide guidance but it is important to avoid overcontrol evaluation practices. Instructors will need to analyze when and how rubrics help students focus on the learning process (and not solely on the points they get). 

Takeaways

The book offered clear rationales, experiences, and strategies that instructors could consider if they feel they want to move away from the grade-focused system. In addition, as a designer, I have a better understanding and collection of resources to use during my consultations with faculty who might be looking into authentic and alternative means for assessment and grading. 

Ungrading requires a reconceptualization of the curriculum, pedagogical, and assessment practices. If an alternative means of assessing student learning is to be implemented, the content, activities, and assignments need to open opportunities for students to engage in their own process of learning, reflection, and feedback. If we don’t level the playing field for students, no grading (or ungrading) system would be worth trying. 

Grades are considered to be problematic because they contribute to widening the educational equity gaps. Ungrading, as a student-centered approach, can help mitigate some of the inequalities that students experience for access to successful learning. Since not all students come with the same knowledge and skills, ungrading, as a system that personalizes learning and assessments, will orient each student to focus on the feedback that they need. 

Ungrading does not mean that instructors do not grade or that students have a free pass. Ungrading requires a deeper understanding of what learning means and how to design learning activities and contexts in which it can be evidenced. There is no universal magic approach to do it. If you are seriously considering moving to ungrading practices, start small, one step at a time. 

Have you ventured into ungrading? If so, how did it go? What works and what does not? If not, what are your thoughts about ungrading? I’d like to invite you to share comments or experiences. 

References

Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.

Stommel, J. (June 3, 2022). The word “ungrading. [Twitter post]. https://twitter.com/Jessifer/status/1532921663980986369 

Warner, J. (January 4, 2016). I Have Seen the Glories of the Grading Contract…and I’m not going back. Inside Higher Ed. [Blog post]. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/i-have-seen-glories-grading-contract

Introduction

Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.

Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.

Results

To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:

  • Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
  • Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
  • Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
  • Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
  • Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
  • Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
  • Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
  • Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
  • Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
  • Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
  • Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
  • Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
  • Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
  • Questions about the details of major assignments.
  • Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
  • Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
  • Advice about how to check assignment due dates.

Conclusions

Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.

References

  • Johnson. (2006). Best practices in syllabus writing: contents of a learner-centered syllabus. The Journal of Chiropractic Education, 20(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.7899/1042-5055-20.2.139
  • Lund Dean, & Fornaciari, C. J. (2014). The 21st-Century Syllabus. Journal of Management Education, 38(5), 724–732. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562913504764
  • Sager, Azzopardi, W., & Cross, H. (2008). Syllabus selection: innovative learning activity. The Journal of Nursing Education, 47(12), 576–576.
  • Stein, & Barton, M. H. (2019). The “Easter egg” syllabus: Using hidden content to engage online and blended classroom learners. Communication Teacher, 33(4), 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2019.1575440
  • Wagner, Smith, K. J., Johnson, C., Hilaire, M. L., & Medina, M. S. (2022). Best Practices in Syllabus Design. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 8995–8995. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe8995

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 vary 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 busy work 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 have the potential to add value in other areas by:

  • promoting community engagement.
  • fostering innovation. 
  • interrogating 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.  
  • increasing 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 ensure 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 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 

 

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

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. 

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.

The changes in higher education precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have reignited questions and misconceptions about online education.  This is a time that we should draw on the insights and experience of online faculty. At Oregon State University (OSU) we have a significant number of faculty who have been teaching online for over a decade. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the Ecampus Research Unit interviewed 33 OSU instructors who had taught online for 10 years or more. In a series of interviews, the instructors were asked to reflect on their experiences as an online educator and how their perspectives have changed over time. More information about the broader study can be found on the study website. The final question asked of the instructors was, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” We conducted a qualitative analysis of their responses to this question. The findings were recently published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Below, we discuss some of the key findings from this analysis.

Key finding #1: Online and blended learning will continue to grow

Two-thirds (22) of the instructors expected online learning to expand as higher education moves toward increased access and accessibility, and as employers show increased expectations of continuing education. They acknowledged that online learning would continue to be the choice of adult learners as they balance work and life responsibilities.

Key finding #2: Online learning will increase access and accessibility

More than half (18) of the instructors predicted that online learning would increase access to education. These instructors discussed how online learning increases accessibility because online courses can be taken anywhere (location flexibility) and online courses can be accessed anytime (time flexibility). While these instructors were interviewed before the COVID-19 pandemic, their responses are now particularly timely and relevant, as the pandemic shifted higher education’s focus to remote and online teaching.  

Key finding #3: Will online learning replace brick and mortar institutions?

One third (11) of the instructors discussed the possibility that online learning may grow to become the primary modality used in higher education, replacing face-to-face learning.  However, 13 instructors indicated that they did not think the face-to-face learning should be eliminated in the future. Many of these instructors hoped that online education could provide more options for students rather than replacing brick and mortar institutions.

Key finding #4: Technology development will increase

Nearly 40% of the instructors (13) discussed the role of technology development in the future of online education. Acknowledging that the development of technology has already made teaching online easier and more effective, many optimistically predicted this would continue to improve the teaching and learning experience. Others were more pessimistic about technology replacing elements like face-to-face communication.

Overall, instructors’ ideas of the future aligned with some themes in the broader field of higher education, such as diversity, opportunity, and access. These key findings have implications for the professional development of online instructors. As more faculty transition to online teaching, it is important that they be well prepared for the online learning landscape. As the population of students in online education continues to evolve, it is also important that instructors understand the diversity of their students and the needs of adult learners. As technology is rapidly changing, timely and accessible training that can be used across multiple modalities is needed for future faculty development. Enhancing instructors’ pedagogy and technology skills across a range of modalities will enhance the educational experience for online learners around the globe.

Educators and learning designers must seek to resolve societal shortcomings, including the inequity of education and opportunity; the lack of social justice; policy issues and their implications; implicit bias in terms of race or ability; as well as layers of equity and inclusion. Building community and bridging divides are goals for all education.”

Toward Inclusive Learning Design: Social Justice, Equity, and Community. AECT Research Symposium 2021.
Representation of diversity
Diversity

This was the underlying premise of a research symposium on learning design in which I participated in the summer of 2021. While this premise emphasizes our responsibility for designing learning experiences that are not only inclusive but just, there is an implicit idea that design alone is not a sufficient condition for inclusivity; we must examine the dynamics of teaching practices and how these can evolve to be truly inclusive.

In this blog post, I share the experience of navigating the intricate and complex dynamic between inclusive learning design and teaching while co-facilitating an asynchronous workshop for faculty on inclusive teaching online. I also provide some suggestions for engaging with faculty in conversations about inclusivity that goes beyond the design stage. My experience so far leads me to argue that as an instructional designer (ID), I share the responsibility for inclusive teaching practices implemented in the class. This is a strong position that I have come to embrace as faculty seek suggestions and advice from us not only during the course design process but also during the inclusive teaching workshop.

It is important to understand that as designers we also have boundaries in terms of faculty support. Shared responsibility in teaching online does not mean telling instructors how to teach but helping discover practices to be more effective in their teaching. 

Inclusive Teaching Online Workshop

Oregon State University Ecampus has a strong commitment to supporting the diversity and inclusivity of all members of the university community. In these efforts, instructors are guided not only in designing inclusive online/blended courses but are also supported in exploring and adopting inclusive teaching strategies. To this end, Ecampus developed a four-week asynchronous Inclusive Teaching Online workshop (ITO). This workshop serves as a space to expand the conversations that are already happening across campus about how to support the diversity of our student population. The nature of the workshop is discussion-based with plenty of opportunities for faculty to engage in deeper conversations with colleagues to examine topics including, but not limited to, identity and culture, social and institutional barriers, transparent assignments, and discussion facilitation.

As a co-facilitator of this workshop, I have noticed that our role involves more than just ID services; we have the responsibility to support faculty as they adopt and apply inclusive teaching practices. 

Co-facilitating the ITO Workshop

My interest in inclusive learning design and teaching is rooted in my personal and academic backgrounds. Coming from a diverse cultural and linguistic background (Ecuador) and through my academic experiences, I have realized that the instructor has a critical role in making students feel welcome, part of the class community, and above all seen, heard, and valued for who they are and what they bring into the learning spaces. However, I see the role of an ID as crucial in supporting the faculty’s instructional choices and facilitation strategies to ensure an inclusive learning space is created and sustained. 

My role in ITO is to co-facilitate the weekly activities, lead discussion groups, promote dialogue on inclusive strategies, and guide faculty in developing their inclusive teaching action plan. In co-facilitating this workshop, I recognize the need as an ID to be prepared, gather resources, contribute to the conversions, and even challenge some of the instructor’s perspectives, all with the goal to critically look at diversity and inclusion in its multiple aspects. Particularly for me, co-facilitating the workshop has been challenging yet rewarding. It requires me, among other things, to be more cognizant of the culture and nature of the U.S higher education system, aware of my own identity and its potential influence on my approach in the workshop, and my level of confidence in addressing sensitive topics.

Begin with Design

Gears, notes, stats
Design

As IDs, we collaborate with instructors in several ways. We provide ongoing instructional support to develop new online/blended courses or improve existing courses. We also discuss with faculty the challenges of the course and identify strategies to make the learning experience more engaging, relevant, meaningful and satisfying for students. At the same time, we help faculty identify opportunities to address diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns in the course. 

In preparing to support inclusive teaching practices, we begin at the design stage. For example, we can ask questions such as: 

  • What kind of content would need to be made more accessible (e.g., adding captions/subtitles to videos, describing images more explicitly, use of color). How UDL guidelines can be implemented?
  • What other relevant information/perspective is important to consider to achieve the learning outcomes?
  • How can the course activities promote students as contributors to the course?
  • Would the learning outcomes prepare students to interact and work with people from diverse backgrounds?
  • How do you envision DEI in the design of the course?
  • What resources can we include in the course to support students?

Then, we move to the facilitating stage. However, our role is not to tell faculty how to teach; instead, we help faculty think through inclusive actions that they can consider while teaching their courses. For example, when instructors create introduction forums, we can ask them about their approach to connecting with students, their level of comfort in sharing personal information, and ways to respond to students’ posts in order to make the connections more visible. Oftentimes instructors may not know how or when to establish connections with students beyond the introductions. At this point, we can suggest to faculty that sharing some personal experiences with students when discussing course content or when providing feedback in assignments is another strategy. Instructors don’t have to share many personal aspects upfront; as they teach their course, they can identify areas where it is pertinent to do so. These opportunities would make students notice the insttructors’ intention and action to building community. 

Another strategy to bring into the conversation about inclusive practices is the plan for supporting struggling students. For example, if instructors are concerned about students’ not completing assignments on time or being inactive in the course, they can reach out to these students through email, learning management system internal messages. Instructors can offer ways to support these students by considering flexibility in their assignment submission, providing additional resources, or directing students to student support services. 

It may seem that the preceding ideas relate more to the design stage than the actual facilitation. However, planning these strategies can happen during the design as faculty prepare for teaching in inclusive ways.

Examine Inclusive Teaching

To some extent, IDs also help with planning the facilitation of the course. Some considerations to support the facilitation stage relate to an examination of inclusive practices, social identities, structural barriers, self-awareness, and building connections. In assisting faculty with inclusive teaching approaches, IDs are challenged to see broader and detailed aspects of the learning experience. For one, it is critical for a truly inclusive course that the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are created by design. This means that we should not take these concepts as checklists that need to be checked off, plug-ins to be included, or band-aids to “cover” minor or temporary issues. We need to be clear on the definitions first to help instructors address them well in the design to be effective in the facilitation stage. An analogy to what DEI means is that of a dance where everyone is invited, contributes to the music, and has the opportunity to dance. In doing so, we need to examine inclusive teaching at deeper levels, with an understanding that inclusive teaching builds upon inclusive design.

A conversation with instructors about inclusive teaching practices can include the following aspects:

  • Forward-thinking: ask faculty about their teaching experience and what issues they faced that may need to be addressed during the design or facilitation of the course (e.g., flexibility in assignments, late work guidelines, assignment format).
  • Student-support resources: help faculty identify strategies or resources where they can reach out in case of need while taking the course (e.g., support coach, writing center, food and meant health services)
  • Sustaining instructor’s presence: help instructors with ideas about how they will keep their presence and connect with students throughout the course (e.g., discussion boards with personal/family photos, professional academic work, fun things). 
  • Assignment feedback: provide guidelines to instructors about leveraging technology to provide feedback.
  • Curate resources to support the design choices and to provide examples.  
  • Raciolinguistics-awarenes: help faculty identify and be cognizant of the use of language and cultural references that can promote or hinder developing community with students. 

We can also challenge preconceived perspectives on teaching and learning and promote inclusive teaching by engaging faculty in thinking about:

  • Whose voices are brought in the materials? 
  • How would students bring their knowledge, experiences, and contributions? 
  • How would the learning activities impact students’ learning in the class and their life outside the class? 
  • What is the language used in instructions, is it punitive or supportive? 
  • Who do the images in the course represent?
  • What is the language tone used to describe the course content?
  • Are the activities and assessments developed with a student deficit perspective?

Although it is the instructor’s decision to consider the diversification of their curricula, designers have the opportunity to advocate for students to see themselves represented in the course materials, especially those within minority groups.

Connections among people
Identity and community

I acknowledge that engaging in conversations with instructors about inclusive teaching is not an activity that happens easily. IDs should examine their own identities and the role these play in how they approach the design project and the working relationship with faculty. For instance, we could start by taking a step back and asking ourselves what social identities we hold and how these have shaped (or not) our experiences in life and work. In facilitating the ITO workshop, I have found myself constantly navigating through the intersection of these identities because these are complex, and at times, put me in vulnerable positions when working with faculty (e.g., language, gender, age, ethnicity). At the same time, these identities can also help us guide instructors about the best ways to provide support systems for all students. We can help instructors be more aware that students hold social identities too and may face micro- and macro-structural barriers that can impact their online presence and interaction. One aspect that I have encountered with many instructors is that they believe that once their online/hybrid course is developed, they can’t make changes. Here is where the question “can we have a conversation and a plan to support these students?” is critical to help faculty know that if needed, they can make adjustments to their instructional decisions. For example, instructors can consider flexibility and offer students some leeway to complete assignments at a later time.  

Further, I am aware that we don’t work in silos. For instance, at OSU Ecampus, the ID team is growing to incorporate more colleagues from different experiences and backgrounds. In providing support to faculty, it is important to engage with and rely on our colleagues (internal or external) for insights, practices, and resources to respond better to the demands of a course design, especially if there is interest in addressing inclusive excellence. In doing so, we reach out, we connect, we expand our ID toolkits to learn how best to provide ongoing instructional design support. Our course design enterprise becomes stronger when “we learn to professionally grow and design together” in a systematic way that allows us expand our skills and experiences; raise from our failures and cement our successes. 

We know that the instructional design field connects with many other disciplines and as such, we should observe and learn from other disciplines to support the work we do. Several instructors may have different worldviews and experiences about teaching and learning in their disciplines (e.g., STEM) and may be reluctant to consider alternative means of assessments. It may be worth talking with faculty about their guidelines and expectations for discussions and assignments as students from diverse cultural backgrounds may have different experiences that value more cosmovisions than traditional western perspectives. It is worth exploring with instructors how they would approach or address issues related to supporting these students during the course.   

Debrief for Reflection

Paper notes about creativity and reflection
Debrief

A practice that has been beneficial when facilitating the ITO workshop is holding debriefing sessions with the lead workshop facilitator. These sessions help us be on track, talk about any challenging or surprising situations, determine our plan of action for subsequent weeks, and observe the evolution of instructors’ ideas and perspectives on inclusive teaching. In a way, these debriefs promote self-reflection and forward-thinking. While it is not a common practice for many, IDs perhaps can have a midterm check-in with faculty to let them know that we are “with them” supporting their online/hybrid teaching. In addition, it can be beneficial to conduct debriefs after the instructor teaches the course to better understand their design and facilitation experience. Most importantly, it can be beneficial to identify what inclusive teaching practices worked well, how students responded to the inclusive strategies, and what areas need further development. IDs can document these experiences and gather data more intentionally to further enhance efforts for inclusive teaching.    

As a final comment, I would say that the ID role is multifaceted. We not only provide ongoing instructional and technological support but we also promote a student-centered experience where the needs and voices of all our students are considered throughout the design and facilitation of the educational experience. And we can do that by helping raise awareness of the layers of opportunities and barriers that many students face. We share the responsibility of inclusive teaching. 

References

  • American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Inclusive Language Guidelines. https://www.apa.org/about/apa/equity-diversity-inclusion/language-guidelines
  • Chatterjee, R., Juvale, D., & Jaramillo N. (2018). Experiences of Online Instructors through Debriefs: A Multi-Case Study. In AECT Proceedings.
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Mision, Vision and Values. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Online Teaching Workshops and Events. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d.). Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence. [Website]
  • Fiock, H., & Garcia, H. (2019). How to give your students better feedback with technology. [Advice guide]. 
  • CAST. (n.d.) UDL Guidelines. [Website] Robinson, M. (April 9, 2020). Approaches to Instructor Introductions. [Blog]. 
  • The University of Michigan. (n.d.). Defining DEI. [Website]