UDL: Making online learning accessible for everyone

One key focus in higher education online is accessibility for students with disabilities. At the thought of revising our teaching methods and courses to comply seems so daunting that you might ask, “Why should I (or my class) comply?” There are a couple of ways to answer this question:

  • Because it’s the law, and the Department of Justice is conducting random audits of course, with failure to comply resulting in lawsuits and other consequences.
  • Because it’s the right thing to do. The ability for online classes to be flexible and provide options for all learners is one of online education’s greatest strengths; there are so many possibilities for meeting students’ needs (disabled or not) that there’s no reason (read: no excuse) for making courses inaccessible.

If you’re new to online teaching and ADA compliance remains a mystery, this article titled “College Students and Disability Law” provides an overview of the history of these laws, how one qualifies as disabled, related legal cases, and concludes with some guidelines for higher education practitioners.

One way I often help instructors reach this is through assistance in formatting documents. Word documents and PowerPoints, two very common resources I see quite often in online courses, often contain numerous accessibility issues. (As an example, I recently spent several hours editing a PowerPoint and the accompanying script for the narration to correct these issues.) While I’ll admit that there is a lot of work to be done to bring an entire course up to compliance, by starting your design at the basic level and building your courses with a few universal standards in mind, you can help ensure that all students, regardless of ability, have a better experience in your online courses.

Rather than going into specifics on formatting for ADA compliance (which frankly you can find plenty of guidelines for online), work on designing learning environments to meet Universal Design (UDL) standards. Universal Design for Learning is based on neuroscience research, and following a few basics can help all learners succeed:

  • Provide multiple means of representation: Many courses provide content in various formats, and both audio and images are quite common. However, to be accessible, we need to make sure we’re providing equal alternatives for the information we displayed. This standard is all about options, be it different modalities (visual vs auditory vs haptic), allowing for user adjustability and manipulation, and for clarity and comprehension.
    • For example, if you created a PowerPoint showing students how to navigate a website, this could mean capturing clear screen shots writing the script for the narration to provide detailed instructions that anyone could follow either with or without the visual.
    • More concretely, in your learning materials and instructions, rather than using vague directions such as “For help, refer to the link over there”, you might say, “Click on the link for ‘Help’ located under ‘School Resources’ to chat with a Moodle technician for support”.
    • You’ll also noticed that I mentioned the words “script” and “narration”; including equal alternatives for videos, audio, and presentations means providing these materials in alternative formats. The easiest thing to do? Start with your script, then record your narrations to ensure everything lines up!
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression: Give students various ways to interact with the course environment and to express their learning and skills. Not only does this apply to how students interact with the learning environment itself (such as designing tools that allow keyboard and mouse navigation), but it also applies to how students are actually demonstrating mastery of the outcomes.
    • If students need to do a final project, giving them the proper scaffolding throughout the course and then several options for how to showcase their learning would be ideal.
    • If you had an English class, for example, students might be asked to write a short play or may be asked to perform a short play from a given list or to visit a play and write an analysis of it following the show – but all could be ways to showcase what they know about drama as an art form, from the written to the performance aspects.
    • We’ve also seen business courses use a marketing interactive, completed over time (to provide options for feedback) and then a final reflection written.
    • Nursing courses often include multicultural activities, I’ve seen an instructor provide students with a choice of reviewing a cultural competency article, creating a PD on multicultural practice, or attending a cultural event from an immigrant population and writing a reflection all be an option for an assignment.
  • Provide Multiple Means of engagement: This standard deals specifically with motivation and engagement among students, and providing learners options for different motivations, ways of generating interest, and ways for students to self-regulate.
    • This might mean keeping your course up-to-date with current information and examples. During facilitation, an instructor might provide encouragement to students to encourage them, or perhaps provide new resources, tips, or tricks to help them out.
    • For example, in one course an instructor asked students to present a speech based on a scenario. Students first shared their speeches with the class, but following the week of the initial class review and discussions, he planned to create a screen captured lecture “on the fly” to showcase various things from the speeches that some students did really well and to give feedback to the class as a whole.
    • Here, it comes back to learners’ autonomy and making sure course materials are current and relevant, and giving them appropriate feedback to show them where they excel and where they can improve – keeping them challenged.

What do you think? Have you used UDL principles in your classes and if so, how did they influence the learning environment and impact students’ experiences? What are some other examples you can think of?


CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.


Student Evaluations and Quality Instruction – How Do You Create an Effective Online Teacher?

Measuring quality instruction is extremely difficult in any field, be it K12, higher ed or professional development.  We talk about learning as a science, but if it is, it has some of the most unpredictable variables I’ve ever seen.  With that in mind, I figured I’d pose a question to you this week.  What are the elements of a good online instructor, or just a good teacher in general?

Student feedback is one of the key measurements we use in evaluating college faculty.  I can’t tell you how many evaluations I’ve filled out in my six years of Higher Ed education.  That said, I’m not sure how much I, as an 18 year old kid, or as a 23 year old overworked teacher, could tell how good the professor was.  I could tell you who I hated and who I loved but how did that measure into their effectiveness as an instructor?

I say that because I’d like to share an NPR article with you this week about the use of student feedback in professor evaluations.  As always, I’d like you to read the article yourself, but here are some of the key take-aways.

  1. There’s a sampling bias at play in student surveys. We cannot guarantee the objectivity of the evaluator as they are part of the instructional process.
  2. They’re rarely based on hard evidence. A student doesn’t have to provide examples in his or her evaluation in order to fill it out, they just have to fill in the bubbles.
  3. There’s an issue with compiling the data, if somebody is consistently getting adequate reviews while his colleague is running the gamut between exemplary and abysmal, who is the better teacher on paper?
  4. Most telling, most important, is that the study outlined in this article established a correlation between low student evaluations and high achievement. That means the less a student liked the professor, the higher their performance on objective assessments.

Item four on that list is the most concerning to me.  Students like all other consumers vote with their feet and we now have (not conclusive, but worth considering) evidence that they are voting for the easy A.  If this were a consumer driven industry, I’d be happy to oblige them but the truth of the matter is there’s a reason students from schools like Harvard and Stanford have an edge in the job market – there’s an assumption (never mind how true) that they were pushed harder and forced to grow more, making them better assets to their employers.

We have an incentive to listen to our clients (the students), and we shouldn’t ignore that, but we also have an ethical obligation to give them the skills they need to make use of their degrees, and holding professors accountable to  a system that undermines that obligation sounds like a disservice to everybody involved to me.

I’m not suggesting students shouldn’t have a say in faculty evaluation, and the surveys definitely have their place.  I’m merely concerned that they are factoring too much into who’s being brought back.  K12 institutions (wisely deciding not to hold teachers accountable to the opinions of a 7 year old) have implemented several initiatives that could be adapted to create a more holistic evaluation of online faculty:

  1. There are established best practices backed by research regarding course facilitation and development. Holding faculty accountable to those might be more helpful.  Consider developing a facilitation rubric for your faculty that factors into their evaluation.
  2. Walkthroughs of courses in progress. In online this is as simple as a program director logging into a course and looking at the ways the professor is facilitating discussions, grading activities and providing feedback to students.
  3. We already measure the quality of a course’s design in our Quality Reviews. Communicating those with faculty and helping them move towards building the best course possible is a great step forward.  It’s objective and measurable and becomes the basis for identifying growth.
  4. If we really wanted to crunch some numbers, establishing pre and post assessments for each course would be a great way to measure student growth. I’m not advocating for high-stakes testing, but having an objective feedback mechanism may be helpful.

I realize I’m over generalizing the evaluation process of a school, but the question is worth posing.  What do you believe makes for a good online instructor and how do you go about creating those?

Gamification: Not Just For After-School

If you have kids, chances are you’ve seen them glued to a TV playing video games at some point in their lives.  Gaming has shifted quite a bit from the days of my youth, from a niche market populated by “geeks” and “nerds,” to a multi-billion dollar industry that has become just as mainstream as pro-sports. It’s gotten so popular that “gamification,” or the incorporation of game-based elements, is now a huge buzzword in the elearning industry.  That said, like all buzzwords, there’s a difference between saying it and executing on it.  The reality is that it’s not that hard to implement well and I wanted to share a few articles with you today on how to incorporate gaming elements using minimal effort.

Be forewarned, you’ll need a subscription to www.learningsolutionsmag.com to access a lot of what I’m sharing but that subscription is free and I’ve found the resource to be extremely helpful for my work so, if you don’t have one yet, I’d highly recommend it.

This week, let’s start with an overview of gamification elements; although it’s somewhat a plug for a product (but these days what isn’t?), what’s important is that it’s a good listing of standard gamification elements which I’ll summarize here:

  1. Multi-Level Action: “Learners must be able to progress through levels of difficulty, which gives them a continuing sense of achievement.”
  2. Competitions: Students need to feel as though they are competing (hence game), which can be done either against each other, the professor or some automated device. Competition drives engagement, which makes the brain decide something’s worth learning.
  3. Rewards: These can be intangible (plot progression, badges, new levels or recognition) or tangible (grades, homework passes, actual money, etc.) but students need to feel as though their work is rewarding them in some way.
  4. Incorporation of a narrative: A lot of the video games your kids own have a story that progresses as they play. Even as grownups, we like to pretend.  Role-playing’s been a game element in face to face for decades; it’s used by the army to teach counter-insurgency, doctors to train their bedside manner, teachers to learn classroom management, and all sorts of other professions.
  5. Social Connectivity: I don’t, but some gamers like to gloat. In all honesty, providing an opportunity for gamers to connect and share their experience within it often leads to further growth in the subject we’re trying to teach.

Gamification’s a cool concept and very powerful if done well, but it’s not always a good idea to go full throttle into a new trend.  Certain traditional elements of instruction (tests, papers, etc) are important in any course as well and, like all things, we should focus on incorporating game elements in targeted ways as part of a larger purpose.  Some of the below strategies are extremely simple and might be helpful to run by your faculty if you’re interested in including gaming elements:

  1. Role playing is a great tool. Moodle lessons (a Moodle activity type) can be set up to act like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book from the 80s (yeah, I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid).  Multiple endings can be included with different feedback based off the students behavior and the students can then discuss their outcomes in a forum as a deliverable.
  2. Ratchet up the difficulty as students get through the course. Ideally setting the modules up to build on each other will do this already, but consider incorporating elements of previous learning as students advance through different courses as well (this is especially effective in linear programs).
  3. Establish a social network beyond the course. Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow for closed groups (thanks, FERPA) and give students an opportunity to share what they’re doing, ask questions, and establish connections outside of class.
  4. By simply adding a few game elements, you can breathe new life into an old activity. Set up a prize for students to achieve and a competition for them to get there.  This can work in a presentation assignment where students can vote on the best presenter (anonymously, of course).  Or consider a research assignment where the student who shares the highest number of relevant resources in a week is granted extra credit (a leaderboard could be kept updated in a discussion forum), an added badge, or an alternative assignment option the other students don’t have.
  5. Finally, there’s no shortage of educational resources out there that are games themselves. I’ve seen many marketing courses make use of Marketplace Live.  Political Science or Ethics courses can make use of NationStates and there’s a host of government media out there for educational use like this one about the Federal Reserve.  Build in a way for students to share their experience in the game with each other and derive a meaning associated with a learning objective, and you’re set.  Gameification is a Google search away.

This is a very basic view of Gamification and the majority of instructional designers who use it are in the corporate sector, not higher ed.  With that in mind, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how it could be implemented for students.  What are your concerns/questions, and what do you think would need to occur for game-based learning to take on a larger role at your institution?

One Man’s Dream – Higher Ed’s Mission

I think this week we can take a step out of the dry article shares and talk about a very personal story.  It’s not mine; it’s one my director shared with me.  Meet Ankit Khandelwal, a former chemical engineer from Northern India who, with the help of online education, hopes to become a “Global Manager” within the next 15 years.  Dreams are all well and good—if my former students all achieved what they dreamed of, we would have a ton of basketball players and rock stars—but I’m sharing this with you today because of how he plans to go about this.  Having run out funding to continue his education in Denmark, Ankit has decided to go “open source”, identifying the skills needed to excel in his chosen field and utilizing MOOCs and other open educational resources to achieve this goal.  He’s not going to pay a dime and, if he pulls it off, he’ll have the same qualifications as any MBA in this world.

Online education is, in many ways, a very American phenomenon.  Europeans are, give or take, 10 years behind the US in terms of their implementation of online education so a lot of what he’s talking about is the same buzz we felt with the advent of EdX and Udacity.  While I wish Mr. Khandelwal all the best, I’d like to take a look at the advances in education that are allowing him to move forward and consider how we can incorporate that into our programs.  What he’s doing is something I’ve harped on before: Competency Based Education (CBE).

In a lot of ways CBE is a throwback to the classical method of education (before Carnegie Mellon and the Credit Hour System) akin to the original way Oxford was set up, how Aristotle and Socrates taught, or the University of Sankore.  Instead of planned out degrees, there were experts who you (as the student) hired to teach you specific skills.  You left with an endorsement for your ability to do certain things.  We had to get away from this in the early 1900s because, as the number of students increased, we needed a way to keep track of them all and, limited by a proto-industrial era level of technology, creating these categories of A, B, C, D and F was the way to do it.  I’m not knocking the system; I’m merely suggesting that technology has finally caught up with demand to the extent that we no longer have to mass-produce our students with cut-and-dried degrees.

Instead of diluting education, online technology has democratized it in the most dramatic way since the GI Bill scholarship program.  Finally, thanks to innovations like badging and CBE, we are closer than ever to offering the customized education that used to be considered normal.  We shouldn’t be afraid of these innovations because, at their core, they are a return to what education was supposed to be in the first place, an open forum that gives people like Mr. Khandelwal the opportunity to plan his own education and grow his own skills in a way that best aligns with who he wants to be.

My dream for education is an institution where the main question we ask isn’t “what’s your major?” it’s “what do you want to do with your life?”

What you think of his plan?  Will it work?  What do you like/disagree with?  Do you think there are elements we could incorporate in our programs and, if so, how would we go about doing it?

Group Projects: Why Students Hate Them, How To Do Them Well, and How to Take Them Online

While discussion forums are generally everybody’s first thought when it comes to peer-to-peer interactions, I thought I’d spend some time this week tackling that bear of instruction known as the group project.  I’ll start of by saying that I’m normally very skittish about designing group project in online as it’s very hard to do well.  With that in mind, the first piece I’ll share is a USNEWS article that summarizes the challenges of this instructional method.  The major complaint being made is that bringing these projects online makes it harder to hold project members accountable as the logistics of coordination and transparency become more difficult.  More importantly, though, is that it’s harder to get people to do their jobs.  As the article states, “it’s easier not to be accountable to someone you never see.”

While all of that seems discouraging at first, I’ll tell you that none of the complaints being listed by the article are different from those made by the 13 year olds I used to teach.  There’s always that one guy who never does his work, and this will be real in a career as it is in a class.  So before we get into the online-specific strategies that can be used to facilitate group assignments, I thought I’d share some simple strategies for facilitating any group project, offline or online.

  1. Keep it small: I would be skittish about more than 4 people to a group. The more humans, the more variables and machines with a lot of moving parts have a tendency to break.
  2. Set Expectations: Group projects fail when faculty assume that students don’t need something explained. With so many moving parts, idiot proofing the assignment isn’t just saving us headaches later; it’s doing right by our students.  When in doubt, put it in writing and rubrics should be mandatory.
  3. Establish Accountability: While self-reviews are likely to produce self-serving results, I’ve found that peer-reviews can be helpful, especially if they’re tied to a grade. You have to make the criteria as specific as possible and require examples but students are more likely to pull their weight if they know their peers are going to call them out.
  4. Start early and chunk it out. I say this about every single summative assignment and I’m never going to stop.  If students are going to submit something in 8 weeks, they need to start on day one and they need clear guideposts for how to move forward.  By breaking projects into chunks and establishing a schedule, it’s easier to hold people accountable.
  5. Create a sample plan and make that the first deliverable: the more structured something is, the more likely people are to follow it. Build a plan for how you would accomplish the project.  Set up an ideal timeline (see suggestion 1) and a list of items that need to be completed to meet it.  Chances are, if they know what it needs to look like, the group members can come up with a way to fill that plan out.

Also, and I’d really like you to look at this, Faculty Focus has a great checklist for evaluating the effectiveness of an online group project and I strongly suggest you read it and share it with your faculty.  Finally, Moodle doesn’t really lend itself to group projects the way blackboard does.  We can build group forums and threads in the shell but the interactivity is missing.  With that in mind we should look elsewhere.  Here are some webtools that can be used to help facilitate group work:

  1. Skype: Scheduling skype conferences are simple, skype is free and skype uses the same hardware students are using to access moodle. Worst case scenario?  They can call into a conference.  This is a great tool for hosting meetings.
  2. GoogleDocs: Students can view the work being created in real time, track access and make edits. Not only can they collaborate, they can hold each other accountable.
  3. Creately: Building charts and diagrams becomes a lot easier and it’s also quite similar to googledocs.
  4. Voicethread: Think Skype, but asynchronous. It allows students to have a conversation but similar to a discussion forum and show things as well.

What do you think?  What has worked for you in the past and what concerns do you have about online group project?  They are tricky, but with the majority of businesses moving to a web 2.0 model and group work being done online at work, I think modeling proper execution in school will help us create a competitive edge for our students.

Education and Social Mobility: Thoughts on How Curriculum Design can Provide Students With a Return on Their Investment

Given the current employment levels and the mounting student debt crisis, I think it’s a safe thing to say that our industry is under fire.  So today I figured I’d share this article by Dan Berrett from the Chronicle.  I’ll let you read it for yourself before you continue on.

The focus of the article was about a study two economists made trying to assess factors in the post college success of their students.  The funny thing occurred when they compared two students.  They couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that the college degree both students earned was a deciding factor in their employment outcomes.  They couldn’t even correlate the college experience with the skills that got them their job.

That’s startling news seeing as higher ed in this country is touted as the last bastion of social mobility.  But if you really think about it, we are working with an outdated model of higher education.  Think about it, how much has education really changed since the 1900s?  Sure, we have coeducation, online education and a more egalitarian method of providing people with access to these vehicles of social mobility, but have we actually kicked the tires of the curriculum we’re using?  Is there a particular reason we’re doing things like the Carnegie-Mellon grading system or Credit Hours?  How does an “4.0” translate to success in the modern job market?

My question for the week is, if we are going to market ourselves as a vehicle of social mobility, how can we, as educators, make sure that our instructional methods, as well as our instructional content is provided in a way that is conducive to a student achieving that end? 

I hate to beat a dead horse but when I think of innovation in higher ed, I think of the Minerva Project and (if you don’t mind my soapbox) these are the main reasons that I believe we should be considering as we develop curriculum:

  1. A focus in coursework on rigor and creative problem solving skills as opposed to rote learning (high level blooms vs low level)
  2. Experiential learning through projects, externships and internships and service opportunities
  3. Assignments that require students to grow beyond the classroom and apply their learning to real world applications.

As educators we tend to balk at the idea of real world applications, of getting our hands dirty.  I can’t tell you how many instructors I work with still demand 50-100 question exams when the truth is that no employer is going to ask them to take a test.   That said, the best part about the majority of online programs is that your students are usually taking them to grow in a field they have already gotten started in.  Think about it, instead of asking an RN to BSN student to write a paper about key needs in professional development at his institution, why not actually have him develop and lead a professional development experience for his peers and coworkers and evaluate his effectiveness?  Instead of asking a teacher to identify leadership needs and talk about how to fill them in her institution, why not actually assign her to design a solution to a problem and own a project at her place of work that makes that solution real? 

Wouldn’t that be rigorous (remember our definition of rigor from before) and wouldn’t an employer prefer to see it on a student’s resume?

I just want to leave you with one final thought before you delete this email.  In the article, Beth points out that, after college, she just needed a chance to prove that she could be a valuable employee.  She just needed somebody to take a chance on her.  If we make an effort to include relevant, real-world experience as a part of our curriculum, she would have been be one step closer to having the proof before she graduated. 

Engaging Students – Interaction is key.

I got an email from a professor this week which really stuck with me.  Essentially he was concerned about the fact that students can take a rigorous course, but if they don’t feel engaged by it, they aren’t going to learn anything.  To quote him “we are our emotions, it’s what drives us, creates change and stimulates learning.”  He couldn’t be more right and in the age of scientific education (that we take a clinical approach to how we foster student success) I find it hard to disagree with him that we are straying away from one of the key factors in what makes students take our courses.

So the question I sought to answer this week is how do we create engagement in online courses?  There are a hundred different approaches to this questions and frankly I won’t be able to answer it in any definitive way.  There are entire sub-fields of education research that focus on it so, instead of making a long discussion today, I figured I’d share two articles (one scholarly and one for scholars) about what drives engagement in online education.

The first, and less scholarly, is this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It’s pretty boiled down already, but it reminds us that student engagement is always a two way street.  In face to face courses, we get engaged because the professor is fired up and passionate about what they’re teaching (or, the inverse, we check out when we get the talking head on the podium).  The same responsibility exists in online.  Students won’t engage in a course if the faculty aren’t there either and instructor presence is a key factor in whether or not students care.

From a design perspective though, I thought would be interesting to share this article.  We often talk about differentiation of instruction for K12, the idea that there should be multiple methods of assessment and multiple ways to learn for students.  It’s not a concept I see practiced consistently in higher ed, either in face to face or online.  The article actually comes to the conclusion that there aren’t activities that foster engagement more than others (reading from a textbook isn’t inherently better than a discussion forum) but it’s more about the way students interact with the content that fosters engagement.  Engagement in online starts with providing students with a multitude of opportunities to interact with your faculty and each other as well as the content. 

Of course this is just a small sliver of the pie and I’m wondering what you think the key elements of engagement in online are.  What has worked for you in the past?  How do you focus on student engagement in the programs you manage?  What do you think still needs to be answered about this topic?  I seem to find that no matter what I do, each attempt I make to answer questions only leaves more questions to answer.  Sisyphus would approve.

Rigor: It’s Not About How Hard You Work

Rigor is a word I hear a lot these days in higher ed, but I’m not always sure it’s one that is well understood.  There tends to be a lot of talk about what makes curriculum rigorous and a lot of people say that they have built a “tough” course to take. Defining rigor is difficult though.  It’s also very common when I’m pushing faculty to develop more rigorous courses that they worry about drowning their students in work.  They are worried about making courses that are too tough for students to take.  On the other end, there are those who say that a lack of rigor is killing academia.

The thing is, from an education standpoint, rigor doesn’t mean “tough.”

Think of it this way.  If I drown a student in a hundred multiplication tables it’s tough, but it’s not rigorous.  If students are given a five page chapter summary where they are expected to outline the key points, the professor has issued a time intensive assignment to complete, but how hard is it to summarize? 

Rigor, as applied to education, is less about how hard students are working, and more about how hard students are thinking.  Check out this publication for a good overview (pages 1-5)  Think about Bloom’s taxonomy: For instance, if students are always working at the lower depths of knowledge (remembering information and demonstrating understanding of facts), how will they become critical thinkers?  If we spend all day asking students to describe how nurses should interact with patients and doctors, what will happen when we ask them to evaluate a nurse’s actions in a case study of hypothetical interactions in a hospital? 

Rigor is about dragging students out of their comfort zones, putting them in situations where they have to solve problems and challenging them to grow beyond the curriculum as they do it.

I bring this up because colleges are all different and, when employers are looking at a resume, the reputation of the institution that awarded the candidate’s degree matters.  Rigor is becoming a huge selling point for a lot of institutions, and online programs should be no different.  Frankly, successful students are the best marketing program any school can have, and it’s the variable we have the most control over because we decide the curriculum, design the learning environment, and influence how the knowledge and skills grow inside them.

With that in mind, I pulled together a few ideas for things that faculty can do to help drive rigor you could consider sharing as you see appropriate:

  • Ensure that there is a summative assignment that assesses learning objectives throughout the course, challenges students with higher-level cognitive skills, and design the activity to be practical and relevant to the real world so students can apply what they’ve learned to broader problems.
  • Make students take a stand on something and defend it in a discussion forum using relevant data – forcing them to evaluate and analyze multiple sources.  If you’re lucky, somebody’s going to change their minds on a topic too, always a win.
  • Have students plan out and manage broad projects, evaluate the actions of others in their field, provide feedback to their peers. They’ll be doing this in the workspace, why not get started now?
  • Instead of a final exam, give students a final case study where they’re asked to solve a problem with no right answer. By forcing students to find their own way (while communicating clear expectations) you’ll get them out of their comfort zone and you might get some interesting responses along the way.

I’m sure you’d agree that students can – and want to – do the work, as long as it is worthwhile.  What do you think are the biggest challenges to pushing for rigor in higher ed?  How do you coach your faculty towards more rigorous instruction?

Teaching to the Textbook

One thing I notice as a course designer amongst a large group of faculty is a heavy reliance on textbooks as the sole learning resource for their online classrooms. While there is certainly educational value in requiring readings from a textbook, textbooks are more often than not the center of the course. In many cases, the only learning resources instructors use are assigned readings from the required course text, though sometimes they’ll take a baby step further and include the textbook’s accompanying PowerPoints as an extra learning aid. 

Do you see anything wrong with this?

I do – it’s lack of authenticity in the course. By structuring a course solely around a textbook and using only publisher-supplied content for student resources and assessments, instructors are neglecting their audience, the students. Schools have a brand that’s used to attract a certain kind of student, but what happens when a school’s brand and what makes an institution unique doesn’t extend to the products (courses) being delivered to the consumer (the students)?  Students may begin to wonder why they are paying for the course, when they could by the textbook and access to resources from the publisher and complete their learning on their own; or worse yet, fail to see how a school’s mission extends into its curriculum.

Now, to clarify one thing, I’m not out to dismiss textbooks as a learning resource for students. In fact, when used appropriately, textbooks can definitely aid instructors in teaching content; some benefits include:

  • Textbooks can foster student interaction with content
  • Textbooks can provide a background of knowledge to help students progress towards meeting the outcomes for a given lesson
  • Textbooks give students the chance to engage with the material in a longer format and encounter multiple viewpoints.
  • The supplemental content from textbooks when used as a starting point can provide opportunities to create learning experiences

In short, they’re great for teaching facts and concepts but, on their own, aren’t so great at facilitating opportunities for real learning (which is why many major publishers are building course packages with supplemental book resources and activities). What can faculty do to make sure their programs are giving students the information they need in a way that’s meaningful and relevant? What can faculty do to customize their courses for their institution and their students?


Here are a few suggest I’ve found to get started:

  • Encourage faculty to develop their own set of unique learning resources. Even by selecting current research articles or educational videos to go along with the textbook readings they can easily create a more customized set of learning resources for students. Instructors might even explore MOOCs as a good alternative to a traditional textbook or a complementary teaching resource.
  • Encourage faculty to develop the assessments. Spotlight faculty who create authentic or practical assessments for students instead of relying on publisher test banks and textbook questions.
  • Encourage faculty to design learning environments that foster independent student exploration and research. Give students the tools they need to be successful, and let them take an active role in their learning. You might consider a scaffolding approach across courses as a way to build students’ skills in self-directed learning.


What’s your thoughts on the subject: How do you think your institution’s courses stand out? What are some ways your faculty are creating custom courses designed with your school’s students in mind?

Student Retention and Course Design – Part II

For the second part of my segment on student retention and course design I checked in with Ken Farrell, a friend of mine in TLH’s Student Success team.  Basically the guy spends all day helping students complete their online degrees and I figured it would be interesting to see how what we do translates into a student perspective.  So check out these resources, courtesy of Ken, we have a whole section of retention and buy-in oriented data on the TLH site free for perusing.  A lot are only indirectly related to retention, but it’s a start.



Ken also pointed out this piece in particular which I think is a bit dated but definitely points out the importance of good course design in keeping students enrolled.  However, I’d like to quote his final words to you:

“My purely unscientific anecdotal working hypothesis is:  students are more likely to persist to graduation when they can see clear connections between their classes and their work.  I have no data to back that up, but my impression is that programs which demonstrate their relevance in day-to-day class activities help students stay focused on school. “

A lot of what we do in developing courses is finding ways to work in the “real world.”  Be it through an experiential learning piece, case studies, or what I call “authentic assessments” where students are executing what they have learned in a real way (lesson plans, nursing professional developments, business plans etc) finding ways to learn “beyond the text” is going to be key to keeping any student involved and engaged.  

Essentially, the more unique and relevant an institution’s curriculum is, the more likely it is to have high levels of degree completion.  This is especially true in online, where so much of the usual support matrices (writing centers, academic advisers, friend groups) are harder to integrate into the student experience.  By Ken’s logic, instead of covering the standards, we should be finding ways to address them in ways that students can connect to their present and future lives.  Would you agree with that thought?  Or do you think there’s better ways to keep students moving forward?

I know a lot of this was preachy, but I hope it serves to generate ideas or thoughts to share with your faculty as they develop courses because it definitely informs how I approach them when I’m helping them plan out their visions.  I think that’s everything for this week.  Let me know if you have any questions or concerns!