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!

Course Design and Student Retention

I think I’ll go back to the trends in online education theme with this week’s article share if you don’t mind.  I think it’s safe for all of us to say that Online has become an entrenched institution in  Higher Ed.  With the growth of degree offerings and growth of students and employers willing to equate online degrees with their face to face counterparts, a lot of the original issues Online has been dealing with for the past decade can be safely said to be overcome.


With that in mind, there remain areas where I believe online can (if not done properly) be considered inferior to face to face.  The one I’d like to focus on this week is student retention.  In this case I’d like to focus on two articles outlining the problem and throw out some ways good course design can help.  I’ve also spoken with one of our Student Success Coaches who is putting together some resources we can share from a more strategic level, but for now I’d like to build a better mousetrap and those will be coming later on.  The articles I’m referencing this week are below:


The New York Times: The Trouble with Online College

NPR:  The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course


I’ll let you read the articles, but the two key challenges to student retention they mention are the difficulty in identifying and addressing student misconceptions and establishing an instructor presence in the classroom.  It’s common knowledge that feedback and interaction with a more knowledgeable other (be it a computer or person) are key elements of student success (Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory lays this out much better than I can) and finding ways to replicate those interactions online are important to developing an environment conducive to learning.  With that in mind, here’s some strategies I’ve advocated for with faculty and have seen faculty put into motion that serves to address those two issues.


  1. Chunking out major assignments and projects over a period of time so that students can receive feedback as they go.  This works really well for statistics projects and business plans, as well as large essays.
  2. Putting together group presentations (using Jing, Powerpoints with Audio or plain old videos) that allow students to become the teacher and share work with each other – creating a stronger community bond
  3. I know I complained last week about the misuse of automatically scoring assessments, but this is another place where they can shine.  Practice quizzes for students are a great and simple way for them to get feedback on their work without even having to contact the faculty.  Moodle allows for faculty to program in either answer specific or general feedback for each question which, if done properly can help them go back and review their learning resources.
  4. Having the instructor create a weekly video introduction using a webcam or screencast tool is helpful as well.  As soon as we see somebody’s face, we immediately start buying in more.  Just including audio-embedded powerpoints (so that we can hear voice) allows students to get some of that buy in.
  5. Using interactive (media, web tools, games) are great learning activities.  The great thing about games is that you get the feedback and can usually retake it to try and increase your score, which are good ways for students to engage with content and master it.
  6. Providing examples of proficient work and rubrics so that students understand faculty expectations from the get-go and don’t feel like they’re muddling about in the dark.
  7. Finally, and I’m sure you’ll agree because this is the same for face to face courses, online courses, and everything in between, there is no substitute for engaged, knowledgeable and well trained faculty that care about their students and spend time providing regular feedback and support to help them grow.  As an instructional designer, I can build you a Rolls-Royce of a course, but if your faculty can’t drive stick, we have a problem.  Placing the onus of learning on the student should not lessen the amount of time faculty spend teaching, it should break the shackles of the podium and enable them look over their student’s shoulders.


Hope this helps!  Let me know if you have any questions!

Best Practices in Auto-Scoring Assessments

My weekly share this week is a little more on the simple side and away from the strategic level, but equally important.  I see a lot of tests go through my servers (thousands and FSS sees more!) so I’ve always been worried about how they’re used.  Everybody’s always worried about fraud, but I’m more worried about application.  It’s a commonly held tenet in K-12 that extensive standardized testing is counterproductive to the mission of education.  I’m inclined to agree as well when I look at online higher ed.  There’s just no guarantee your student doesn’t have the book out or doesn’t have their friend taking it and frankly you can get the same assessment data with more authentic projects and activities.  As an professor that deals with instructional technology, I’m sure you have similar experience.


Where auto-scoring assessments truly shine, and I mean shine, is self-check activities.  You set up the expectation that students take the quiz prior to getting started on their other assessments (it’s as simple as making the visibility of all other assignments for a week contingent upon completion of the exam) and then they get feedback on where they stand in regards to that week’s learning objectives before they even have to do something graded.  That gives them the opportunity to go back to their learning resources and review.


“All well and good,” I often hear faculty say, “but what about rigorous questions?”  Well, the resource I want to share is an answer to that question.  This piece was shared with me by a colleague and it’s a good item to disseminate to your faculty (or review for yourself) if you’re interested in higher order thinking questions for quizzes at your institution.  Rigor, after all, is not how hard we’re making students work, but how hard we’re making them think.

Competency Based Education

As for my weekly share, I was on the phone with somebody yesterday and we got down to discussing what shape primarily technical courses should take.  One of the ideas I brought up was Competency Based Education (CBE), which is basically dividing a degree up into self-paced modules that students can pursue 100% asynchronously.  It steps away from the facilitation model in certain respects because it’s self-paced, so I wouldn’t advise it for more liberal arts oriented or discussion oriented courses, but at the same time it could be possible if done correctly.   Here are some cool articles I found on the subject you might enjoy looking over:


ELI: 7 Things You Should Know About Competency-Based Education

Meeting Students Where They Are: Profiles of Students in Competency-Based Degree Programs

All Hands On Deck: Ten Lessons From Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education


How would you consider this instructional method’s integration with your programs?  Do you feel like it has a place at all?  I see it really holding its own in technical and “one-right-answer” style programs such as accounting or learning how to operate computer programs.  You could charge a set rate, make the majority of the assignments automatically scoring, and take the burden off your faculty beyond looking at the necessary artifacts that prove proficiency and living in a more general discussion forum to facilitate conversations.


At the same time, this model flies in the face of what I spoke about last week.  Liberal Arts is the grounding of my education, but it won’t be for everybody.  For those who are seeking endorsements and certificates, CBE may be a model worth toying with.

Online Learning and the Liberal Arts

That’s about where we stand this week.  For my weekly resource share, I hope you don’t mind if I stand on a soapbox for a bit.  I’m a biased person so feel free to ignore me as well.  There’s been talk for the past few decades about the decline and eventual death of the liberal arts in higher ed and I know may institutions are scrapping LA and Humanities Programs all together.  The logic, of course, is that there’s no money in this learning, for the institution or the student after graduation.  This isn’t surprising, in fact many employers complain that students are graduating ill prepared for the modern job market.


I don’t question this.  I was born on the front end of the lost generation, and I recognize the need for the students coming behind me to be trained as competitively as possible to fold into a career.  That said, I believe the skills that have carried me throughout my (burgeoning) career are rarely the ones I gained from my Master’s degree.  Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t do this job without my education degree, but when you see my interactions with you and your faculty, I believe my liberal arts grounding I received in undergrad shines more brightly.  Liberal arts gives students the ability to adapt to any career, to any situation – and if the current market trends continue, some worry that the skill set may be relegated to the economic classes of students that can afford to study it.


This isn’t really a new debate I suppose, LA programs have been on the decline for decades, and in online education they’re the lowest field in demand.   A professor of mine at U. Louisville’s School of Ed said something in grad school that stuck with me “so long as your students become readers, writers, mathematicians and processers of information, they’re going to be able to take anything you throw at them.”  To me, the future role of Liberal Arts is to instill those intangible skills that distinguish a school’s graduates from the fold and creates a reputation that follows future graduates.  But how do you integrate the liberal arts (if you should) with a program that will prepare students for their chosen career?


With that in mind, I thought I’d share some cool articles regarding how institutions are trying to redefine what liberal arts education means in the 21rst century.


Rebecca Chopp – President of Swarthmore College: Liberal Arts in the 21rst Century

Nannerl O. Keohane – A commentator for the Chronicle: The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century

Mauri Ditzler – President of Monmouth College: Faculty Triads


You’ve obviously wondering why I brought this up.  I’m wondering how you think LA education translates to the 21st century, do you feel that it has value, or do you feel as though it’s in the way of career oriented education that prepares students to make a return on their investment?  Something else?  Most importantly, how do you feel Liberal Arts can translate (if it can at all) to online?  I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.

Mobile Learning

As for my weekly resource share, check out this article.  I know I harp on Mobile Learning a lot these days, but it’s a passion of mine so please bear with me J.  This article is pointing out some of the key interactions that can take place on mobile.  I’m not saying it will ever replace the LMS, but at the same time it will probably become a way for students to access content.  One of the key takeaways I found is that mobile integration allows students to be constantly “immersed” in a learning environment.


I was the product of an immersive liberal arts college and one of the key building blocks of who I am now came from being able to eat, drink and breathe my education for four years.  One of my major concerns with online is that it’s something you just turn on a few times a week, with clear stopping and starting points.  While that’s fine for instruction, I find it hard to develop a sense of academic culture.  By the time I had graduated, I spoke Political Science like it was my mother tongue.  When I got my Masters, I was spending 10 hours a day in an inner city school and a lot more time working on my assignments from grad school.  That immersion is something that can’t always be replicated and I understand that, but I’m sure you agree that it’s a key factor in the college experience – one that’s hard to replicate online.


Imagine your faculty being able to push articles to your students through Twitter or Facebook, or keeping up a social network using LinkedIn that allows students to interact outside of their courses.  Imagine your students, instead of pulling up “Buzzfeed” when they need a break from work, pulling up mobile resources on their phone aligned with their program of study and interacting with each other beyond the prescribed discussion boards.  Good online education may no longer be the content delivery system, it may have to become the distraction as well.  What do you think?  Have you given any thought to how to provide an academic culture to online students?  What are the challenges and how can they be addressed moving forward?


Thanks for your time today, sorry I got long-winded, this stuff’s been on my mind a lot as of late and I appreciate your attention.

Survey of Potential Online Students

My weekly share this go round is more shameless self-promotion, but I definitely think it’s worth sharing.  Each year we partner with Aslanian Research to put together a study of the demands and preferences of the online education consumer.  We use this to drive our business and advise on the strategic planning of our partner institutions.  I figured I’d provide you with a few relevant takeaways for what schools are going to have to worry about to stay relevant in the shifting market.


  • Career Relevancy (pp. 8) – online students are almost always trying to further their career and prefer professionally oriented programs over the classic liberal arts.
  • Placement Rates and Reputation (pp. 6, 15) – tying back in with above, but building rigorous courses and gaining a reputation for strong students will be key as that translates into high job placement – a primary concern for online students.  The first thing students cared about was whether their institution was accredited so I obviously focused on what students cared about should the school already be accredited.
  • Students are looking further and further afield for their ideal institutions (pp. 12 – 13) – we may want to be cautious of geographically contingent instruction in the future (though I’m a sucker for hybrid courses)
  • The popularity of synchronous sessions is dropping (pp. 14) – this makes sense as students tend to take online for the flexibility, not the “face to face” aspect.  The more we focus on instilling faculty personality in other ways (video lectures, forums, authentic assessments) the better.


It’s an interesting read and, while it’s geared primarily towards how institutions are selecting and marketing their products, rigorous course design remains a cornerstone of that product.  Somebody has to build the things first after all.  That’s why I appreciate working with you so much.  Your commitment the quality of your school’s product is clear to me and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy my job.


Have a great day and let me know if you have any questions about the above!