PBL/Authentic Course Example: Peter Leong’s ‘The Akamai Consulting PBL Scenario’

Updated 10/10/13

Lani Peter Webinar

Week 5 Panel Discussion Webinar: Using Problem-Based, Real-World Activities in Online Classes 10/9/13, featuring Lani Uyeno and Peter Leong, moderated by Leanne Riseley.

The following 4:20 video of Peter’s hybrid graduate course, quantitative research in ed tech, was added to YouTube by ikaikamiles on 2/16/13.

Website for Akamai Consulting Group - Market Research Scenario. Click image to visit site.

Website for Akamai Consulting Group – Market Research Scenario. Click image to visit site.


I watched the TOMOOC video of this webinar this afternoon. Both presentations provided excellent examples of authentic course designs for blended classrooms. The panel format was dynamic, with Leanne asking questions and panelists responding with quick replies. The Q&A segment following the panel was, as usual, very good, with some very tough questions re online features of their courses.

In this quick review, I’ve chosen to highlight Peter’s course instead of Lani’s only because I began my web search with him and quickly found a brief 4:20 YouTube video and a website clearly describing his course. (See above.) I haven’t had a chance to research Lani’s course, and I apologize for this especially since Lani is an old friend and former department colleague. She was at Kapiolani CC many years before transferring to Leeward.

The overriding impression that I got from both panelists is that successful authentic courses require planning, planning, planning, tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. But it seems to be a labor of love, and the quality of these courses testify to that. Their excitement about what they’re doing is infectious.

For the students, the learning experience seems very realistic and engaging — but the key is that this realism and interaction takes a lot of planning. Still, watching the webinar, I got the impression that this is all doable. Peter and Lani take the mystery and fear out of the process and expose the process for what it is: an imaginative and exciting student-centered alternative to traditional teacher-centered approaches that’s fun for both teachers and students.

The learning outcomes, I’m sure, must be outstanding, with students getting a holistic, hands-on, personally relevant view of the skills and concepts they’re not only studying but constructing.

The issue of adapting these approaches to completely online courses was beyond the scope of this panel so I won’t go into it — except to say that I believe it can be done very effectively. However, that’s another story. As blended approaches, these two are outstanding. Once again, thanks, Lani and Peter, and the TOMOOC team.

Update from Leanne (10/10/13): Lani developed [two scenarios] for English Composition: Ka Hui Ho’okolokolo (https://sites.google.com/a/hawaii.edu/ka-hui-ho-okolokolo/home) and Halia (https://sites.google.com/site/haliamemory/)…. If you are interested in other PBL scenarios, a library of them are available at: http://learnpbl.com/scenario-based-tasks/

Authentic Learning Isn’t More Common — Because It’s Too Common?

Leanne Riseley, in “Moving Toward Authentic Learning” (10/7/13), raises a question asked by Marilyn Lombardi in “Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview” (Educause, May 2007): “Why isn’t authentic learning more common?”

This is a good question because the approach has been around for a while — plenty of time to go viral. But it hasn’t, and perhaps its origins provide a clue. It began in the medical field and seems to thrive in similar highly technical settings. One of my writing courses is technical communications, and for this course I’ve naturally incorporated authentic features. In courses with less defined real-world counterparts, such as English and history, the incorporation may be tougher.

I don’t have a quick answer or even a good one, but I’ll take a shot and share a relatively long, twisting, and awkward one that may or may not be in the ballpark.

The theoretical underpinning for authentic learning is transfer. Schools are training grounds, and the assumption is that what students learn in classrooms will transfer to the real world. The obstacle to transfer is the gap between school and reality. Thus, the instructional issue is how to close the gap, and the assumption here is: the smaller the gap, the better the transfer.

From this perspective, on-the-job training, or apprenticeship, offers the smallest gap. In between lies a continuum of arrangements that are progressively removed from the real world. Thus, at the other end is a classroom in a school that has little in common with the authentic environment.

The question for schools, then, is how to close the gap — short of moving into apprenticeships. (It could be argued that apprenticeships aren’t fully authentic.) Authentic learning is the compromise. However, “authentic” in this context is a misnomer. This approach is actually a semi-simulation (or semi-real) or hybrid, part pretend and part real.

The real-to-school continuum leaves a lot of wiggle room in between, which translates to difficulty in assigning “authentic” to any strategy. In a sense, nearly all approaches are authentic to some extent. It’s similar to attempts to define “blended” learning. Since it’s difficult to imagine any course that’s not somehow connected to the internet, it’s probably safe to say that if a course isn’t fully online, then it’s blended.

Thus, an activity is authentic if students address problems or are exposed to readings or videos by or featuring practitioners in the field. We could argue that it’s not authentic because it’s missing real-world conditions, feedback, or collaboration, but the counter could be simulations, rubrics developed by experts in the field, and input from classmates in the role of practitioners.

If we question the absence of a finished product that’s shared with the public, we might hear that presentations were recorded and shared on YouTube or final reports were published in one of the school’s journals.

The point is that when a term such as “authentic” loses its capacity to discriminate, when it becomes too inclusive, it becomes less useful in the sense that it can be made to apply to almost any strategy.

Thus, to answer the question, I’d say “authentic learning” isn’t more common because people don’t know what it really means. On the one hand, nearly all learning is authentic; on the other, all learning, short of full engagement in the field, is not authentic. All that gray stuff, that terra incognita, in between is the problem.

Perhaps a better way to approach authentic learning is to say that it’s an attitude toward teaching that makes the most of the instructional environment to simulate real-world conditions. In this view, “instructional environment” is variable and comprises a wide range of factors.

OK, that’s my shot. I’d like to hear yours.

Quick Review of ‘Examples of Authentic Online Learning Activities’

Greg and TOMOOC staff, mahalo for “Examples of Authentic Online Learning Activities” (10/9/13). As a writing teacher, I naturally gravitated to “Composition I” and “Introduction to Creative Writing.” I reviewed the projects with the template that I describe in “Remixing Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver’s 10-Point Criteria for Authentic Activities” (10/8/13).

Composition I

I. Plan
A. Roles: Social forecasting team (4 members) for the state of Hawaii.
B. Problem: Publish a paper in an anthology, Hawaii 2050. Narrow the topic.

II. Development
A. Open: Conduct a survey.
B. Networking: Consult with two experts in the field.
C. Sustained: semester long

III. Implementation (tangible outcome)
Multimedia presentation to the “public.”
Submission of research paper.
Publication of all the groups’ papers and presentations in an anthology.

IV. Evaluation
Phase 3 and 5 in the report.
Consult with instructor in phases 1-4.
Dear Diary entries in phases 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Introduction to Creative Writing

I. Plan
A. Roles: Small group of “emerging” poets.
B. Problem: Publish a poem in Ka Mana’o, LCC’s fine-arts magazine.

II. Development
A. Open: “Consult an expert or editor as to whether piece is ‘ready’ for the world”; “Consult ‘experts’ to select model works to read”; “Search for, and explore, unfamiliar publications and/or performances/readings.”
B. Networking: “Group action plan to help each other”; see IIA above.
C. Sustained: 3 weeks

III. Implementation (tangible outcome)
Post/perform poem.

IV. Evaluation
Week 2 group meeting with coach (“in-person or virtual”).
Peer feedback to/from classmates.
“Individual, small-group, and full-class reflections.”
Submit poem to Ka Mana’o.


I’m impressed with the creativity in both designs, which place critical real-world decisions in the hands of students and provide procedures for real-world input and feedback to aid in those decisions. I’m especially impressed with the outcomes, publishing to a real-world audience.

This is a far cry from students working in isolation, receiving input from teacher-provided resources and feedback from their teacher only, and producing outcomes that are read and evaluated, again, by the teacher alone.

The choice is a no-brainer.

Remixing Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver’s 10-Point Criteria for Authentic Activities

I decided to remix the Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver criteria1 to better represent the phases and subphases in the overall process of developing authentic learning activities. This shrinks the list from ten to seven items, with the “extras” embedded in other items. The result, I think, is a more familiar and systematic problem-solving process.

I. Planning

A. Simulation of real world roles: “Authentic activities have real-world relevance.”

B. Problem definition: “Authentic activities are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.”

II. Development

A. Open approach: Authentic activities (1) “provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources”; (2) “can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes”; (3) “allow competing solutions and diversity of outcome.”

B. Networking: “Authentic activities provide the opportunity to collaborate.”

C. Sustained effort: “Authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.”

III. Implementation

A. Standalone outcome: “Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.”

IV. Evaluation

A. Review: Authentic activities (1) “provide the opportunity to reflect” and (2) “are seamlessly integrated with assessment.”


The wild card that runs through this entire process and makes it manageable for teachers in a wide range of instructional environments is scalability. The process has to be viewed as downwardly scalable, based on factors such as grade level, subject matter or field of study, ability/achievement levels, teacher-student ratio, instructional resources, time frame, etc.

Two other characteristics of this process is that the phases aren’t discrete and the progression is recursive rather than linear. The phases overlap in many interesting and dynamic ways, and students will return to and revise earlier phases based on formative evaluations.

Online technology can be an integral part of all phases, but its greatest advantage is probably in IIB, networking. With the web, opportunities for collaboration are expanded beyond space and time limitations, and this advantage can be applied to all four phases.
1 Thomas C. Reeves, Jan Herrington, and Ron Oliver, “Authentic Activities and Online Learning,” HERDSA 2002 conference.

Mshin: An Authentic Question at Last

Mshin, in “How to keep their attention during a video or voiceover?” (10/7/13), says:

I am having trouble paying attention and staying interested when having to watch the [TOMOOC] webinars. And if I, who am very invested to pay attention, am having trouble keeping interest and not being distracted, then I imagine this is a problem for the general student populace.

Mshin, trying to pinpoint the problem, says, “It is too slow for me most of the time,” and nails it. Sitting and listening for an hour as a lecturer moves from point A to point B is mindnumbing. One fact is that we, as educators, are excellent readers. And unless we’re reading a novel, we seldom ever begin at the beginning and slog through a book, one word at a time, from cover to cover. Even before we go to the contents, we go to the jacket blurbs, intro, or conclusion to see what’s new or “information.” We then go to the contents to find relevant sections and scan them for key paragraphs then sentences. In quick order, we get to the gist, the specks of gold hidden in the rubble of other material.

From there, if we feel it’s necessary, we backtrack to identify key background info. Again, we don’t read but we scan, knowing intuitively where and what the keys are. And we do this quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes, regardless of the size of the book. We use a similar process with articles. Given the transcript of a webinar presentation, we’d work the same way. In a few minutes we’d know what, if anything, is new and worth pursuing, and in a few more minutes we’d be able to pinpoint the key background info. If we’re watching a video recording instead, this process takes a lot longer. If we’re at the live presentation, we’re stuck in the presenter’s mindnumbing pace.

Thus, ironically, the simplest medium, text, is a lot more efficient and effective than a live or recorded presentation — at least for those with efficient and effective reading skills. (And maybe there’s the rub.)

Mshin says, “While someone is talking about a part that is on a totally different subject matter for me it is so tempting to toggle over to check my email.” Yes. With TV, we all turn off during commercials and do other things, or during portions where the content doesn’t interest us, we tune out and tune in to other things around us. To do otherwise would be insane.

If we were in a one-on-one conversation with the presenter, we’d begin with a question that matters to us re the general topic of the talk. If the response is useful, we ask more questions. If the response is a rehash of what we already know, we say thank you and leave. We don’t hang around for the hour-long presentation.

Back to Mshin’s question: “How to keep their attention during a video or voiceover?” The simple answer is “We don’t.” And the implication is that this isn’t the right question. Perhaps we ought to be asking, “How do we give students the information they need in a way that isn’t boring?”

If we insist on lectures, perhaps, as Mshin says, fear — fear of being caught dozing or checking email might keep them awake. Or jokes. Or moving randomly around the room or screen. Eye contact. Wild gestures. Costumes? Powerpoint! Or how about something simple like a digital text transcript — or even better, perhaps a clear, one-paragraph post-it-size summary of the gist of the talk with hyperlinks to relevant info.

As educators, we need to pick our battles. Do we use up all our students’ energy with hours of mindnumbing information consumption before they ever get to the front lines or do we simply toss them into the thick of the battle and say “Fight!”

The “jump in first and figure things out later” approach may sound crazy, but it won’t be boring. Students aren’t stupid. Heck, we were all once students. (And some of us still are.) They’ll quickly search for or devise weapons to win. And they’ll value anyone who can help. Since they’re all in “real” (OK, “authentic”) danger, it’s in everyone’s interest to work together and find the best possible weapons to, first, survive, then win.

The question, ultimately, may be, “How can we make learning so authentic that adrenaline takes over and learning becomes indistinguishable from living?”

TOMOOC Fishing in Week 4

Tanya, in Week 3 catch-up/ thank you’s & Techie Questions about Voice Messages (10/3/13), tested Veronica’s ideas re audio feedback on student papers/projects. She tried TurnItIn’s “new voice message tool,” “Adobe Pro’s voice embed tool,” and ScreenCastOMatic. Re the last, she says, “I’ve tried both ScreenCastOMatic options of QuickTimePlayer and WindowsMedia MP4s and AVI files. I’m also experimenting to find out if Laulima/Sakai limits the size of the attachment sent via Messages.  I think it does.”

Thanks, Tanya, for doing this! It saves me and others who are interested a lot of time and effort. My feelings re audio in this role is torn. On the one hand, I realize it does give a more human “face” to comments, but I’m not totally convinced that text doesn’t do the same, though in a different way via tone, persona, etc. On the other hand, part of the review process is to create a log of past performances to guide future growth and to measure growth, and for this, text is very efficient. The result is a performance continuum (or record) rather than isolated bits of feedback. I’d think audio comments, even if only a few minutes long, might take time to review — for the teacher as well as students. For example, I can scan a text transcript quickly for info I need, but searching a video or recording is a hassle. Thus, even if the technical issues could be worked out, audio recordings may not be worth the extra effort they require. When the purpose is to convey info on problems and strengths in a student’s paper, perhaps the best medium is the one that’s quickest, easiest, and most effective. However, this decision may be a matter of teacher preference, and buy-in may be a critical factor in student success.

Sara, in Week 4 Activity Post — 10/3/13, says, “I find that students don’t know how to think critically.” In the context of her post, I understand where she’s coming from. However, I don’t think she means that “students don’t know how to think critically.” Of course they do — but maybe not in the areas and in the ways that we deem important in our fields of study. The fact is, the vast majority of human beings are excellent critical thinkers. The key, for teachers, is to tap into that natural ability by helping students connect it to the teacher’s topics. Students may need to learn new labels for what they already do, and they may need to learn how to refine their thinking, but we shouldn’t forget that teaching is often reminding students about what they already know and showing them how to transfer prior learning to newer contexts. In short, ignorance is relative.

Sara mentions a problem in Dr. Elder’s session: “I felt like most of  [the] session was spent explaining what critical thinking was.  I was looking for specific examples about how to implement it into a training or class and how to engage student in that thinking.” Most teachers are familiar with critical thinking principles in F2F settings, so their interest is in implementation in online contexts. She leaves us with a comment that I’d like to echo: “I would still like to know what others do besides asking probing questions to encourage critical thinking in their students.  I know there must be more strategies out there that would reach out to a more varied audience of learners and I would love to hear about them.”

Ida Brandao, in “MOOC How to Teach Online” (9/28/13), says, “I must confess that I have great difficulty to follow synchronous communication, for professional reasons, for reasons that one forgets the timings. So, most of the synchronous events I watch as recorded sessions.” I’m like Ida. While I’m watching the linear real-time progression slowly unravel, I keep wondering, Couldn’t this have been provided in text, for me to review at my own leisure, at my own pace, in my own way? Then again, I may be asking all the wrong questions.

Julio C. Castro, in “Suggested Reflections (week 3)” (10/2/13), says, “It is a tricky situation when you have to put together teams of students who have not met before in a on-site course. But to do it in an online class, it is even more difficult. My take on this is that, even though many instructors practice this, the students have to figure out themselves how to pair up, the instructor only needs to create the right environment.” I agree that teamwork in an online class is “even more difficult.” I can’t help but feel that teamwork, like some other strategies (such as webinars), are carryovers from F2F learning contexts. In other words, in classrooms with 20-50 students, small groups or teams are a practical alternative to everyone shouting all at once. Online, the conditions are different, and the purposes for certain strategies that are useful in onground classes may not be as relevant online. Perhaps we ought to reverse engineer the practice of teams: begin with the purposes of teamwork then explore purely online strategies for achieving them. In this way, form follows function.

Julio, in “Activity Reflection (week 3)” (10/1/13), says, “It got me curious because I thought that maybe this is just some kind of resistance to the use of new technology or maybe there is indeed no foundation on the usefulness of this system in online learning. So, I think I have found a problem I liked to explore possible solutions to, that has really excited me.” Good point, Julio. My guess is that audio is simply not as efficient as text in forums. In discussion forums using text, we have a visual sense of the parts and the whole. If all were in audio, we’d lose that sense of location and finding and tracking individual posts would be baffling. Still, I applaud your spirit of inquiry and encourage your exploration.

Julio says, “I guess the big questions is whether discussion forums gain anything from implementing audio threads, here at UF there is no guidelines on how students use the tool, I think this time I will spend some effort on creating these guides to help students create a truly engaging community through voice and text.” I’d begin with this big question, too: Do “discussion forums gain anything from implementing audio threads”?

Leanne Riseley, in “Making Sense of Connecting with Learners and Creating Community” (10/1/13), says, “I created a new page with all of the technologies we use in the course on a single page. This page has video tutorials, resources, and links to tech support. In the past, I had the technology listed in my course syllabus and throughout the course modules, but now it is all in one place.” I slowly came to this “solution,” too. I use WordPress blogs for course info and developed a separate blog called “course resources,” a central location for info that’s repeated in all the separate course blogs. Course maintenance and info flow has become much more efficient.

Leanne says, “I’ve used teams in my online course for the last four years, constantly reviewing and revising the process each semester. A small change that I will be making –  I have always named my teams 1, 2, 3, etc. and encouraged the teams to pick their own names.” Please see my comment, above, to Julio re teams.

Mshin11, in “The best resources are your colleagues” (10/1/13), points to the Northern Arizona University site, an excellent resource for practical rubrics, for example:

Example 6: Wondering what you should do for the participation portion of our class?
What do I mean by a substantive post?

The following are some ideas to set the stage for substantive participation for the development of your critical thinking skills:

  • Ensure that the posting contributes to the overall discussion thread that is being developed. Your response must contain some reference back to the original discussion question.  Stay on track by always referring back to that original discussion question.
  • Try to use your posting to add value to the discussion. This is more effective than simply responding to meet a requirement.
  • Check to see that the posting expands on the main theme (in the discussion question, or assignment posting).
  • Make sure your posting is at least 75-150 words.

Other Ideas for Participation

  • Share a related experience.
  • Comment on others’ experiences.
  • Ask students questions about their ideas/experiences.
  • Consider an idea being discussed, and offer a different perspective on it.
  • Describe an interesting idea from the week’s reading, and explain what insights you gained from it.
  • Ask the group a question about the week’s reading.
  • Disagree (respectfully, of course) with a point that someone else has made.
  • Discuss a related issue on which you would like some feedback.
  • Describe how you have applied the recent course concepts to your personal/professional life.
  • Share another resource you have used as you explored the course topics.

A Gift from Pat — Vanessa Paz Dennen

Pat, in “Did we miss the point” (Online Learning, 9/30/13), shares an excellent resource on online discussions with a decided emphasis on online: Vanessa Paz Dennen’s “From Message Posting to Learning Dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion” (Distance Education, 2005). According to Pat, “The article has specific examples of what is being discussed and how it was being used in the discussion forums.”

Following are excerpts from Dennen — with my comments in italics:

Vanessa Paz Dennen

Vanessa Paz Dennen

The research question for this naturalistic study was: “How does the design and facilitation of different types of asynchronous discussion activities impact student participation in terms of quantity, quality, timing, and nature of messages posted?”

Asynchronous discussions are unique to online learning. There is no traditional instruction method that is truly an analogue to asynchronous discussion, and thus this medium needs to be examined closely in order to generate knowledge that will help online instructors learn and make informed decisions about how to design and facilitate asynchronous course interactions.

Interaction requires “two discussants.” Just because students were composing and posting messages within these classes did not mean that they were engaging in dialogue. In order for dialogue to be present there needed to be evidence of at least two discussants who were communicating in response to each other.

Feedback and assessment are not necessarily the same. Assessment here refers to the assignment of a grade; feedback is a related issue, although feedback and assessment are not quite the same thing. An instructor might provide feedback without assessing a grade, and a grade may be assessed without providing any other feedback than the numerical or letter rating.

The impact of discussions may be found in “other course assignments.” Intersubjectivity among students was evident in many of the transcripts; in courses where actual dialogue occurred students were negotiating meaning relative to course content with each other. By communicating and pooling their shared experiences, they created a wealth of perspectives from which to draw upon in their other course assignments. Students repeatedly hailed these forums as a good place for exchanging and learning about different viewpoints.

Instructor presence can be established outside of the discussion forum. Instructor presence affected how much, and to whom, students wrote their messages in these courses. It could be established either within, or outside of, the discussion forum, and the most favorable presence seemed to be one that let students know that their messages were being read without taking over the discussion. Instructor presence was related to feedback and assessment; when there was no feedback or assessment, there likely was no instructor presence.

More than one way for instructor to be present. Instructor presence, given these observations, seems to be something that is important in moderation, and that can be achieved in different ways. It was established when students knew in one way or another that their instructor was reading their discussion contributions. [emphasis added]

Instructor domination is a no-no. On one end of the continuum was Dr F, whose classes had a great deal of instructor– student dialogue (he posted about half of all messages) but little peer dialogue. Dr F began most of the discussion threads and monitored the Web boards closely when they were open. His level of attention to the Web boards was admirable, yet created an instructor-centered feeling within the discussions. He responded quickly to student messages, which ensured that they received a response but also shut down the potential for much peer interaction, since students would not likely feel the need to respond when the instructor already had. In this class, students looked to Dr F for confirmation; on the few occasions when he was not present, they were upset. Student comments on the post-course survey indicated that his facilitation strategies caused problems, specifically a feeling of abandonment one week when he was ill and less active and a feeling that peer interaction was not appropriate.

Work smart, not hard. More is not necessarily better in terms of presence, and, as Dr B demonstrated, an instructor need not be a frequent contributor to an online discussion in order to have a presence.

Many online students are nontraditional, and their expectations are different from their traditional counterparts. Many of the instructors and students involved in this study, however, responded that for the non-traditional student socialization in a pure or traditional sense may not be an adequate motivator for generating discussion. . . . Students should be told explicitly that knowing and interacting with classmates will be an important part of their course experience.

Prompts aimed at opinions rather than a correct answer are better. The classes that generated lively discussions, such as Drs B’s and D’s, used discussion prompts that were phrased in a way that allowed everyone to take a different perspective or share their own point of view. . . . For example, if an instructor were to post a question with one clear, expected answer on a discussion board, there would be little use for multiple students to reply once the correct answer was given. Additionally, there would be little reason for students to discuss this topic further. On the other hand, if a discussion question allowed for multiple perspectives to be presented, supported, and argued, there is greater opportunity for students to engage in the activity.

Degree of instructor domination is inversely proportional to student-student dialoguing. An instructor taking an “expert” role had a clear effect on the tone of the discussion, with students writing to the instructor rather than to their peers. . . . Conversational treatment by the instructor generated higher quality student contributions

Conclusion. Further complicating the matter, there does not appear to be one correct or better way to teach via an online medium . . . instead, one’s contextual factors should greatly affect the selection of teaching methods and activities, just as they should in a traditional classroom. . . . Clearly, some approaches to group communication on the Web will better serve instructional purposes than others. . . . The experiences of these classes suggest that it is indeed possible to generate principles of instructional design and facilitation that may apply broadly to online instruction, encouraging student participation that ideally will support learning processes.

Re your questions We have passed the midway…

Re your questions: We have passed the midway point of the course. Two questions for you this week.

1. First, are you interested in continuing this online community? Yes

2. Second, if so, what would that community look like? In other words, what are your suggestions to build an active online community?

Questions seem to be a natural focus in communities. The only threaded forums we have are our blogs. Perhaps individuals could pose questions in their blogs, which would be echoed here on the TOMOOC wall, and the rest of us could log in to reply. Also, if we could all set our blogs for anonymous comments and instant approval, maybe more would reply. Or maybe I’m the only one who is stynied by login requirements before posting and delays for comment approval.

This could also be good practice in creating questions that generate deep thought responses instead of competition for correct answers.

Perhaps the basic groundrule could be that there’s no dumb question.

Comments on Selected Week 4 Resources: ‘Natural Critical Learning Environment’

The following is a quick review of the following authors from the list of resources, including brief excerpts from each: Ken Bain, Debbie Morrison, Greg Walker, Hua Bai, Nega Debela & Berlin Fang, Erst Carmichael and Helen Farrell.

Greg Walker

Greg Walker

As expected, the packages are labeled “online” but the contents are pretty much standard onground material. The most difficult turn to make in online teaching is the one that separates the F2F mindset from the virtual. The medium is the message, but the message in the online medium is still the F2F instructional framework. But there’s one exception, and that’s Greg Walker, who attempts to match the message with the medium. He says, “Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking,” and the difference, he says, is that “learners have more time to process questions and develop responses.”

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight wasn’t included in the list, but she mentions this disconnect between online and F2F orientations: “The question is whether faculty can change their teaching strategies to use online communication tools effectively to help every member in the class go beyond being exposed to content to the point of critically interacting with it” (Teaching Critical Thinking Through Online Discussions, Educause Quarterly, 2000). This article is thirteen years old, and many today may not have a clue what MacKnight means by “bulletin board” in the following statement: “The bulletin board offers the possibility for coaching discussions to take students ideas to the next level to deeper, more intellectual, and reflective learning.” They’re the forerunners of today’s web-based discussion forums, and in the days before the web, they were accessed via modems run on telephone lines.

I like MacKnight’s plain wording in the following list: “Going online, students must have a clear understanding of the goal of the activity and have the necessary social skills to:

• ask the right questions,
• listen to each other,
• take turns and share work,
• help each other learn,
• respect each other’s ideas,
• build on each other’s ideas,
• construct their own understanding, and
• think in new ways.”

Still, the information in the readings is excellent and underscores strategies for incorporating critical thinking into discussions, F2F and online. I’m surprised that the context for critical thinking is limited to discussion outcomes and ignores project outcomes since discussions aren’t usually ends in themselves but tools or means to generate deeper thinking that’s reflected in papers or reports. Bain, however, does allude to this procedural function of discussions: “Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a series of intellectual developments through the course.”

The point is that we may not see the impact of critical thinking activities in the discussions themselves until the culminating project is completed. This final artifact, paper or presentation, is the summative outcome, and it should be factored into the equation (as an independent variable) for successful discussions.

Finally, I’m a writing teacher, and the philosophical background that I share with my colleagues is the classical field of rhetoric. In rhetoric, the study of logical fallacies is fundamental. These fallacies are a classification of the ways in which we, as human beings, fall short in critical thinking. In discussion forums, exercises in applying these fallacies to political arguments, TV commercials, or students’ own analyses could go a long way toward cultivating critical thinking.


Ken Bain

Ken Bain

Excerpts from Ken Bain’s “What Makes Great Teachers Great?” (Chronicle, 4/9/04):

[Main point:] Create a natural critical learning environment. “Natural” because what matters most is for students to tackle questions and tasks that they naturally find of interest, make decisions, defend their choices, sometimes come up short, receive feedback on their efforts, and try again. “Critical” because by thinking critically, students learn to reason from evidence and to examine the quality of their reasoning, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions.

Five essential elements that make up a good [natural] learning environment:

  1. An intriguing question or problem.
  2. Guidance in helping students understand the significance of the question…. The best teachers tend to embed the discipline’s issues in broader concerns, often taking an interdisciplinary approach…. Good teachers remind students how the current question relates to some larger issue that already interests them.
  3. Engages students in some higher-order intellectual activity: encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.
  4. Raise[s] important inquiries but challenge[s] students to develop their own explanations and defend them.
  5. Leaves students wondering: “What’s the next question?” and “What can we ask now?”

In all these examples [of optimal learning environments], students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summary evaluation. [emphasis added]

Teachers succeed in grabbing students’ attention by beginning a lecture with a provocative question or problem that raises issues in ways that students had never thought about before, or by using stimulating case studies or goal-based scenarios.

The best professors do in class what they think will best help their students to learn outside of class, between one meeting and the next.

Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a series of intellectual developments through the course….

The professors we studied assume that learning facts can occur only when students are simultaneously engaged in reasoning about those facts.

The very best teachers offered a balance of the systematic and the messy.


Debbie A. Morrison

Debbie A. Morrison

Excerpts from Debbie Morrison’s “Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom” (Online Learning Insights, 5/24/12):

Community of Inquiry (CoI) model: instructor presence, social presence, cognitive presence

From the educators perspective -  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence[:] discussion forums, small group activities, forum structured for a debate, reflection activities.

[Successful] cognitive building activities…. provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions.


Excerpts from Greg Walker’s “Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions” (International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, June 2005):

Strategies for using critical thinking in asynchronous discussions: writing activities, using subject matter experts, role playing , questioning (convergent, divergent, evaluative, Socratic).

Effective questioning strategies guide asynchronous discussions and promote critical interaction. Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking. Learners have more time to process questions and develop responses, and the learner’s cognitive level of response often matches the cognitive level of the questions asked. Higher level cognitive and affective questions encourage learners to interpret, analyze, evaluate, infer, explain and self regulate. According to Wilson (2002) there are four types of questions that encourage learners to use higher levels of cognitive, or affective, processes for critical thinking. They are convergent, divergent, and evaluative questions. Blanchette (2001) found that evaluative questions were asked most often in asynchronous discussions. Divergent and evaluative questions generated the most interaction, and evaluative questions provided the greatest motivation for discussion. [Blanchette, J. (2001). Questions in the online learning environment. Journal of Distance Education, 16, 2. Retrieved June 11, 2005.]


Hua Bai

Hua Bai

Excerpts from Hua Bai’s “Facilitating Students’ Critical Thinking in Online Discussion: An Instructor’s Experience” (Journal of Interactive Online Learning, summer 2009):

This study intended to examine whether introducing this inquiry model [see below] to students as a guide of online postings can facilitate students’ critical thinking.

Garison, Anderson and Archer (2000, 2001) … practical inquiry model …. According to this model, critical inquiry is presented in a sequence of four phases, which are triggering event, exploration, integration and resolution. In the phase of triggering event, students communicate a dilemma or a problem from an experience. In exploration phase, students brainstorm, search for clarification and exchange information. Students’ inquiry in integration phase is characterized by integrating knowledge and information into a concept and creating meaning from the ideas generated in the phase of exploration. In the phase of resolution, students test and implement solution to the problem or issue through real world application. [Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 20 (2-3), 87-105.]

[Results:] In this study, no evidence of resolution was found in the two threads, which may be due to the question that initiated the discussion. The question asked students to talk about their arguments and grounds. It was not designed to engage students in applying and testing the ideas or solutions, which in turn, did not promote students’ thinking in resolution phase. This suggested that to help students’ cognitive activity progress to resolution stage, thought-provoking question needs to be generated to guide and facilitate the discourse toward higher order thinking that involves practical application and problem solving. As King (1995) said, “the level of thinking that occurs is influenced by the level of questions asked. We can use particular questions to induce in students whatever specific thinking processes we wish” (p. 13). [King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 13-17.]

[Interesting quotes:]

Most important, text-based communication and asynchronous environment encourage reflective learning, in-depth thinking and meaningful processing of information.

McLoughlin and Luca (2000) found that most of the postings consisted of “comparing and sharing information”, with “little evidence of construction of new knowledge, critical analysis of peer ideas or instances of negotiation” [McLoughlin, C., & Luca, J. (2000). Cognitive engagement and higher order thinking through computer conferencing: We know why but do we know how? Teaching and Learning Forum 2000, Retrieved March 20, 2008.]

Angeli, Valanides and Bonk (2003) examined undergraduate student teachers’ communication in case-based instruction using asynchronous web-based conferencing tool. The results showed that students’ interactions primarily focused on sharing personal experiences and offering personal opinions without reasoning. Little evidence of in-depth discussion and critical thinking was found.[Angeli, C., Valanides, N., & Bonk, C. J. (2003). Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 34, 31-43.]

Swan, Schenker, Arnold and Kuo (2007) also found that students responded more often to others and discussed in greater depth after they were informed of evaluation criteria of online behaviors. [Swan, K., Schenker, J., Arnold, S., & Kuo, C. (2007). Shaping online discussion: Assessment matters. E-mentor, 1(18). Retrieved March 6, 2008.]

Ertmer et al. (2007) investigated the use of peer feedback in increasing the quality of students’ online discussion. They suggested that requiring students to provide feedback to one another may help to maintain the quality level of postings that has been reached. [Ertmer, P. A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, et al. (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2). Retrieved December 16, 2007.]

Debela & Fang

Nega Debela

Nega Debela

Excerpts from Nega Debela and Berlin Fang, “Using Discussions to Promote Critical Thinking in an Online Environment” (Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 2008):

Roberson (2006) states that “the medieval sacredness of information clashes with the modern deluge of information.” This results in what Roberson calls the “Insanity of the modern university course” in which we “press harder and harder to teach more and more information, while students achieve less and less.” [Roberson, B. (2006, August). Subverting the academic model……so learning can finally take place. Workshop conducted at Marshall University, Huntington, WV.]

Berlin Fang

Berlin Fang

Critical thinking skills can be grounded in all real world situations such as political analysis judgment about television reporting (Brookfield, 1987). [Brookfield, Stephen. (1987) Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey Bass]

However, “being critical” is only a small portion of what constitutes critical thinking. More importantly, it is a process to develop a rational position or attitude, to achieve a goal, or to solve a problem. Critical thinking helps us to become better problem solvers and more rational decision makers.

This study has very practical value for other teachers of the course because it explores what is critical thinking that is hailed to be of critical significance for educators, how it can be operationalized, and how it can be cultivated using tools that are already available to us.

[Conclusion:] Students in this qualitative research have liked the format currently being used to teach and enhance critical thinking. The respondents differ in their opinions about the level of the instructor involvement in the discussion. However, there seem to be a general consensus that faculty should be involved as long as they help students to develop skills in their higher-order thinking skills. This shows that faculty members can indeed play the role of helpers in the development of their cognitive skills.

Carmichael & Farrell

Excerpts from Erst Carmichael and Helen Farrell’s “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Online Resources in Developing Student Critical Thinking: Review of Literature and Case Study of a Critical Thinking Online Site” (Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 2012):

Guided discovery supports users’ construction of knowledge and their ability to apply this new knowledge to other contexts, and is therefore the architecture most suited to the development of critical thinking. Ideally, Keats and Schmidt (2007) argue, the social interactivity of technology – especially in relation to sharing and discussion of ideas – has the potential to connect HE students to the international community to create a wider socio-political learning environment. This wider environment should provide additional opportunities to develop critical thinking. This categorisation is considered to be appropriate for the case study to be examined in this paper.

This paper reports on a case study of an online Blackboard site at the University of Western Sydney, where analysis of patterns of usage of the online site and qualitative analysis of student feedback provide evidence to support its effectiveness for encouraging students’ critical thinking.

[Conclusion:] This case study demonstrates that many students find online learning about critical thinking to be helpful, stimulating and engaging. It verifies that some students enjoy learning in their own space and time and that this site contained suitable content,
sample texts, practice examples and timely feedback…. Findings in this case study indicate that stand-alone resources can achieve perceived benefits for students…. There is also potential to expand the current site into a freely accessible website, with opportunity for greater national and international interaction together with interesting research opportunities.

The Vulnerability Imperative in Online Learning: A Response to Julio

Julio C. Castro in “Essential question (week 3)” (Momenta Learning 9/24/13): “A great way to help my students [put] themselves out there and at the same time, help them generate creative and innovative solutions is by inviting them to create a blog where they can express their ideas and bounce around possible solutions and scenarios with others. The discussion forums I will create for the students to manage on their own while they work on their projects, will include directions on how to set up a blog and I will add that all of the participants interact with those blogs by visiting them and comment on the posts from the author. My hope is that some of them will eventually use the blog as a creative tool later on, on a permanent basis. I will also invite them to create a profile in systems similar to LinkedIn (professional associations) because this exposes you to others that can take a look at your work and provide feedback. Creating projects that can later be shared with others online is a great creative process, at least [it] is working for me so far”1 (emphasis added).


Greg and his staff posted a quote from Brené Brown in the activity description: “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief … that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.”

Courage, plain and simple, means risk taking. How do we teach courage? This is a tough question. Some would argue that it’s genetic — but I disagree. I think it’s teachable. It begins with parents, but if it’s neglected in the home, then schools and colleges have the responsibility.

When I say to my students, “Have the courage to risk new ideas and to question the status quo,” I’m also saying “Think!”

In my schooling, the best teachers encouraged and became excited by students who took risks in the world of ideas. For them, it wasn’t “my way or the highway” but “take us on the freeway for a ride in your car.” The goal in discussions wasn’t “how to figure out the answer in the teacher’s head” but “to share what’s new in all our heads.”

How do we teach courage? Perhaps the simplest answer is to model it. In an earlier post, I mentioned my freshman comp teacher, A. J. Alexander. He was my first encounter with an authentic teacher, and the impact on me was life changing. He didn’t say be courageous. He was courageous. (Some might even say he was crazy.) In our first session, he sat on the desk in front of the class. Behind him, above the chalkboard, was a “NO SMOKING” sign. He lit a cigarette, smoked it, killed it on the side of the desk, walked over to the waste basket and tossed it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his “Miss May, will you please shut up.” She sat in the front row and was quietly talking to the person next to her while Alexander was lecturing.

Shocking behavior for a teacher. But for a 17-year-old straight out of high school, it was mindblowing. And he was like this, consistently, in all phases of the course. He turned a bunch of us into English majors that fall — students who would’ve said “no way” if you asked us a few months earlier. Literature and writing suddenly became real, pulsing with life and energy — like rock ‘n’ roll — far from the dull gray words stained on yellowed paper in the outdated textbooks we used in high school.

I later learned that courage didn’t always come in piss and fire but also came in subtler packages. But the common denominator was the eyes that lit up when they heard authentic thinking from a student. That connection between student, idea, and teacher is powerful stuff.

We all have built-in crap detectors, and in students they’re probably cranked all the way up. They know BS when they hear it, and for many BS is synonymous with getting good grades. So the first step in courage making may be to be honest. Sounds simple, but hard to do when reward lies in the opposite direction.

When we’re honest, we allow others into the secret places in our minds, and we feel vulnerable. But the alternative is . . .

Being honest, taking risks, having courage — it doesn’t mean posting a photo, video, or bio or being outrageous for its own sake; and it doesn’t mean pouring your heart out or being stupid and putting yourself or others in danger. I think we all recognize it when we see it. We’re engineered by nature to value it. It’s in our DNA. So the answer is within each of us, i.e., if we care to take a look.

1 Julio is responding to the question related to the “Video of the Week“: “If vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change how can you teach your students to be more creative using the Internet?” The video: “Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, YouTube, 1/3/11.

‘Community’ As a Relative Structure: A Response to Rachael

Rachael in her reply (9/26) to Sarah’s “Week 3 – Activity Reflection“: “In another semester I used blogs instead of discussion boards. Students worked in teams to create an artifact (of individual artifacts) to answer an essential question that was general enough to allow them to choose how they wanted to approach it. They posted to their team blogs and commented on each other’s blogs. It worked out well because they were creating artifacts that were purposeful and contributing to the online community instead of it staying in a ‘closed garden’ in the LMS forums” (emphasis added).


I never actually thought about why I prefer to set up my courses in “public” WordPress blogs and ask my students to do the same for publishing and sharing their drafts. Thus, as I browsed the conversations in our TOMOOC community, Rachael’s comment above jumped out at me.

In a sense, communities are relative constructs without borders, at once a group of people sharing a single space and time as well as a network that’s linked to countless other networks that transcend space and time. It’s difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that the largest community of all is the web, which links billions of people throughout the world in a single Network that comprises all the networks on Earth.

The overwhelming image for me is the individual, via smartphones, tablets, and notebooks, connected to every one of the 2.5 billion people as well as the countless sources of information on the internet.

With this link to the world in our pockets and backpacks, I can’t help but feel that the “‘closed garden’ in the LMS forums” where we, as educators, construct our interactive sessions may be stifling for students and teachers. Why, I wonder, do we build walls around learning when the world’s resources are all around us.

Surely, to prepare our students for the 21st century, we need to make sure that they are capable of creating, sustaining, and leveraging their own presence in the worldwide online community. For them, to be is to be equally at home onground and online.

In a way, what we’re practicing in TOMOOC is a model for the power of learning when it’s open and connected to the internet. In the recent stats shared by the staff, we can see that our conversations are reaching a much wider audience from around the world. In last year’s MOOC, for example, I mentioned Dave Cormier1 in one of my posts and actually received a comment from Dave himself — who wasn’t directly connected to the MOOC.

In an earlier post, I responded to Rachael’s comment re authentic learning. The idea was that learning ought to be as “real” as possible for students, and Rachael’s comment here re “closed” versus “open” learning spaces is a another side of that same coin.

1 “The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08). CCK08 . . . was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council” (Wikipedia).

Authenticity in Online Class Discussions: A Response to Rachael

In her 9/26/13 TOMOOC response to Munwah, Rachael I. said: “. . . To support the needs and aspirations of adult learners, we need to help our students engage in collaborative and authentic learning so that learning is meaningful and purposeful and utilizes their previous experiences. I’m interested in learning more about authentic learning activities instructors incorporate in their college courses. Do you do any in your classes?”


The focus in TOMOOC’s third week1 is interaction in online discussion forums, and Moore’s2 classification may be a good place to start. He identifies three types of interaction: learner-learner, learner-teacher, and learner-content. In my mind, learner-content is not a true interaction and should perhaps be lumped together with learner-teacher. Thus, the two main categories are learner-learner and learner- teacher.

In VCU’s3, Weaver’s4, and Ragan’s5 rubrics, the overwhelming pattern seems to be student-teacher, with student-student receiving little or no attention. And even when student-student is mentioned, the standards appear to be vague, almost an afterthought. Here’s an example from the VCU rubric: “The best discussion posts are made in time for others to read and respond.” In Weaver’s scheme, a successful student “constructively responds to classmates postings” and “participates in all module discussions.” Ragan’s list reads like a bunch of criteria for an essay test, with interaction limited to student-teacher.

Thus, the implication is that discussions are primarily “tests” to indirectly measure learning, an evaluation tool rather than a student-student medium for building a community of learners.

The heart of an authentic discussion activity is real-world outcomes — and I don’t mean grades. That is, students need to know that they’re not simply posting whatevers that will earn them a good score from the teacher. They need to know that their ideas will be useful to others in their learning community, that they’re not engaging in busy work just to make the teacher happy.

A simple way to do this is to design (1) writing assignments that require quotes from classmates as well as from published sources and (2) forums that generate postings that could be quoted by classmates. In short, the discussion activities need to be tied to the writing in such a way that they provide a source of content.

The most critical element in the design is the topic.  It must have a built-in potential to grab every student at an affective level, and it must be in the realm of knowledge that is both familiar and new at the same time. Furthermore, the familiar can’t be so overdone that it’s dead, and the new can’t be so unfamiliar that it would take weeks to grasp the bare essentials. (Hint: Incorporate YouTube videos!)

The interaction in this scenario is student-student, students writing for classmates and quoting them in return. The authenticity is in the real-world purpose and consequences. Ideas are quoted and argued in papers, and papers are published in blogs for all to read. The sense of community is in the common purpose and value of everyone’s words in the creation of artifacts for sharing within the community.

1Week 3: Create community: Connect learners with each other (Sept. 23-29).”
2 M. G. Moore, “Editorial: Three types of interaction” (The American Journal of Distance Education, 1989) in Steve Wheeler’s “Interactions of the fourth kind” (Learning with ‘e’s, 4/8/12).
3Using Discussion Boards in Online Classes” (Virginia Commonwealth University, 09/22/2009).
4 Chris Weaver, “The Discussion Board Book” (2005).
5 Larry Ragan, “Best Practices in Online Teaching – During Teaching – Assess Messages in Online Discussions” (Connexions, 8/21/07).

Veronica thank you for your detailed post on…

Veronica, thank you for your detailed post on how you use audio recordings to provide feedback on student papers. The entire process and apps are new to me so I’ll need to try it out to see how I might adapt/adopt some or all. You mention tutors in the process as agents for the recordings so I’m assuming that the teachers themselves don’t need to review every paper and create recordings for each. Am I correct?

I agree that the teacher’s voice is a warmer touch than text comments alone, but my concern is that audio may have some critical disadvantages (to text) in the review process, but this isn’t the place to get into that so I’ll end by saying that I applaud your innovative use of technology to add the human touch to the evaluation process.

‘Lacking in Technical Details’ – A Response to Mshin

Mshin, in “Discussion Questions” (9/22/13): I haven’t taught online yet and don’t know yet if I want to. That’s the main reason I joined this MOOC. I knew absolutely nothing about teaching online before and now I feel I know a lot more about the philosophy and the type of student who signs up, but I feel very lacking in technical details: what are my resources? how do I use them? How do I grade? How do I manage the class? I have no idea!!!


Mshin, you’re asking good questions, which means you’re already identifying the critical issues for yourself. As it turns out, these are basic universal issues for anyone teaching or planning to teach online.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] what are my resources and how do I use them?

You’re already publishing in a blog, mshinblog. Consider what that means. By sending its URL (mshinblog.wordpress.com) to colleagues and friends, you can easily share your essays beyond the TOMOOC audience. And this is the cool part: You could easily create another blog for, say, an English 200 class and call it mshin200 with mshin200.wordpress.com as the URL.

The moment you send the URL to your students, you create a teaching platform. You could publish a syllabus, schedule, assignments, activities, resources, etc., and each of these posts would have a unique URL (or permalink). Thus, in an email announcement to the entire class (more on this below), you could ask students to read the syllabus and turn the word syllabus into a hyperlink. Students would open the email, read the announcement, click on syllabus, and be taken directly to your syllabus.

You could insert the syllabus reading exercise into the course schedule in your blog. Students would click on the word syllabus and find themselves on the syllabus page. Apply this hyperlink principle to readings, guidelines, assignment descriptions, and the universe of online resources and you begin to realize the power of a “simple” blog.

For an example of what’s possible with blogs, consider that our TOMOOC hub, How to Teach Online, is a blog. It’s a lot more complex than yours, but that’s only in degrees. You could easily learn how to post photos and videos on your blog, creating multimedia learning resources for your students. You could also learn how to use the sidebar (area on the right of the mainpage) to insert additional info links.

One of the organizers’ strategies is to ask participants to create personal blogs devoted to TOMOOC activities. As a teacher, you could do the same with your students, i.e., ask them to create their own blogs to share their papers, projects, etc. with their classmates and you.

You mention Laulima, the University of Hawaii’s LMS (learning management system), and this means that you have access to its features. The mailtool allows you to quickly send eblasts (email announcements) via UH Mail to an entire class. If you’re teaching multiple sections of the same course, you can easily combine them into one so that you set up only one Laulima learning platform instead of, say, three. This means one eblast goes to students in all three classes; this also means only one blog for all three classes.

The other great feature of Laulima is the discussion forums. Once you get comfortable with it, you’ll learn how to set up interactive discussion forums for different activities that inform, support, or serve the writing process. TOMOOC’s week 3 is devoted to the problem of creating dynamic and educative discussions.

You’re already using UH email, and all your students will have UH accounts. This means you have a uniform, standard, and secure means of communicating with them privately, 24/7. Think of email as your office and hallway chats with individual students.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] how do I grade?

In your blog schedule, you can post assignments. For example, you could ask students to post preliminary drafts of a paper in their course blogs and to log in to their classmates’ blogs to review their drafts and leave comments. (The blog URLs would be shared in a Laulima discussion forum.) You could then ask them to use the peer comments to publish revised drafts that serve as their final drafts. You would then log in to their blogs to read and evaluate their final drafts as well as the preliminary draft and comments. You could then email your comments and scores to each.

You could also require certain levels of participation in Laulima discussions, and simple rubrics could be used to evaluate and grade student performance.

Mshin: [If I teach online,] how do I manage the class?

You could use an Excel spreadsheet to keep records, and email to contact individuals to praise or encourage. The amazing advantage of online classes is the “paper” trail. Everything is archived: all drafts, comments, posts, email, etc. You could mine this data for instructional purposes. For example, when reviewing a student’s current paper, you have instant access to all her/his previous drafts as well as your and her classmates’ comments on those drafts.

More on resources and how to use them:

With a Twitter account devoted to your online classes, you could easily tweet reminders and tips to students. This is also a quick and effective way to share interesting comments from discussions or memorable lines from student papers.

With YouTube, you and your students have access to literally millions of videos, and you can easily share them with one another for various purposes.

Technically, the whole wide world of the web is the classroom for you and your students, 24/7, and it makes even the grandest MOOC look like an ant in comparison.

In time, I think you’ll find that you no longer need a required text for your course, saving students a bundle. It’d be easier and even better to pull together resources from the web to form your own course text, and you could even ask students to contribute useful links to it.

Thus, re feeling “lacking in technical details,” I think you’re actually not lacking at all. You’re already using the basic technology and simply need to figure out how to remix and repurpose what you already know to develop and deliver an online course.

At this juncture in deciding whether or not to take the plunge, perhaps the most important question is “Why?” Why do you want to teach online? The fact that you’re taking this MOOC and participating in a big way (you’ve written a LOT in your blog!) tells me that you have a why, that you think this may be an important step for you.

I don’t know what your reason is, but I’m guessing it’s a gut feeling that online may be a better way to learn or at least it may offer advantages to strictly F2F approaches. I’d suggest taking the plunge in going completely online with a course — rather than going blended. Blended is like slowly entering the ocean. First a toe, then a foot, ankle, etc. but stopping short of diving in and getting completely wet. You’ll never experience the joy of swimming and diving, the graceful feeling of flight, the sense of weightlessness.

No matter what they say, those standing knee- or waist-deep in water are not swimming. Those teaching blended classes will never know or experience the freedom of completely online courses — freedom from the time and space constraints that have kept us chained to brick ‘n’ mortar campuses for hundreds of years.

Okay, swimming and education are like apples and oranges, and the analogy can only go so far. By the same token, comparisons between online and blended, too, are like apples and oranges. They can only go so far. These are different modes of teaching and learning. To argue the merits of one over the other is pointless. Perhaps the only sensible view is to say that they both have their merits, and leave it at that.

Thus, the most important question for online teaching may be: What are the truly authentic strategies for teaching online? And I think this is the question that you, Mshin, are asking.

Mshin: Online Classrooms seems like a lot of juggling plates in the air and having to remember to toggle between all of them. That part kind of blows my mind. Right now I am only juggling between checking my email and doing this blog!

I like this analogy! Blows my mind, too, and I’m guessing that this comparison isn’t completely negative for both of us. Multitasking — good or bad? I think good, despite “research” that seems to show that performance suffers when we try to do more than one thing at once. In my mind, thinking itself is a multitasking phenomenon, remixing and repurposing continually across wide ranges of data and information. Thus, tools that help us to multitask are aids to thinking — not obstacles.

In the context of online education, we’ve taken teaching and learning out of the single-tasking teacher-centric mode into the multitasking student-centric mode. Students can read their email while pausing in a jog at the beach, complete a class reading at Starbuck’s during a lunch break at work, post a draft to their blog while watching a football game, and participate in a class discussion while traveling in China.

Presence, ‘Mr. Miyagi Style’ (Artifact 2)

Jenny, in “Mr. Miyagi Style” (Working It Out in the Virtual World, 9/22/13), captures the art of teaching composition.

Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita in a scene from "The Karate Kid" (1984).

Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita in a scene from The Karate Kid (1984): “Wax on, wax off.”

She begins with an understanding that many teachers, even after many years, fail to grasp. Writing is a skill, a performance, an art — something that one does, not something that one knows. It’s more a running stream than a block of ice. Furthermore, it’s a communication skill, it’s interactive, it’s done with others. It’s rhetorical.

When we begin with this assumption, the implications re pedagogy become clear:

Students need a lot of practice learning how to write in a logical fashion. They need practice working with sources; they need practice presenting the works of others and practice responding to those ideas. They don’t show up with these skills, and why should I expect them to? (Jenny)

Jenny’s Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid, 1984) clip captures, in a fun and engaging way, the oneness of learning and teaching: practice, practice, practice; coaching, coaching, coaching. This is teaching as shaping rather than teaching as judging. Writing is a performing art, and through constant practice and feedback over a lifetime — not just a semester or even throughout college — one gradually grows.

In Asia, the arts are called “do” (pronounced dough) or “dao” (or “tao”) — the way. One can follow the way, but one can never own it or master it. Everyone is perpetually a student. But it doesn’t stop there. The path is defined by the travelers, the pilgrims. Those behind (kohai in Japanese) seek guidance from those ahead (senpai), and those ahead guide those behind. Thus, everyone is also perpetually a teacher, like yin and yang.

Like yin and yang, teaching is not separate from learning but an essential part. Teaching a skill reinforces, refines, and expands one’s learning. If a person doesn’t learn something new every time s/he teaches a skill, then he’s not growing as a teacher or a student.

In learning any art, failure and ignorance are givens. No one knows everything, and everyone fails at one point or another. The quest for perfection, not the perfection itself, is the way. From this perspective:

Confusion is okay. Students aren’t just allowed to get frustrated and confused- confusion is encouraged. As a matter of fact, I remind them repeatedly that when they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be- this is where learning happens. Just as a body builder lifts weights to tear muscles apart to make them stronger, we too must tear our old ways of thinking apart so that we can learn, build empathy, and discover solutions to real world problems. (Jenny)

Ignorance, failure, confusion are the doors to learning, and as Jenny says, “When they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be — this is where learning happens.” And this is the confluence of learning and teaching, the epiphanic moment when authentic question grasps meaningful answer.

The dao defines presence. As writing teachers, our students are fellow travelers. Thus:

Mutual respect is important. I call them by their first names, so I ask them to call me by mine. . . . I think that in today’s student/teacher climate, going out of my way to let students know it’s okay to call me by my first name will help them speak to me more easily. I hope it makes them more comfortable shooting me an email and asking questions. I think it’s working. (Jenny)

Teachers have to be accessible and respectful. In a word, they need “aloha.”

Teachers also have to love the dao. Jenny says, “I lucked out and get to teach composition.” This is a path she chose. Some of the writing teachers I know treat their courses as punishment to endure or hurdles to overcome to get to their first love, teaching Literature. The proof is in the doing. Jenny’s obviously a writer. She writes. And she loves doing it.

Students “get it” in her words — her enthusiasm for the way, the art of writing:

I want them to have communication skills. I want them to be able to listen to others closely, and I want them to have ways to respond. I want them to know that their ideas matter. I want them to have techniques for dealing with people they don’t necessarily agree with when they still have to find a solution to a problem. I want them to be eloquent, just as I want them to understand the beauty of clarity and brevity. (Jenny)

They also get it in her patience:

There’s a lot of repetition of skills on different topics. I have to repeat myself a lot. Some of them get it the first time, some of them might get it after 16 weeks. I hold on. I try not to get frustrated. We repeat. I think of it like building muscle memory so that when they go into other classes, or go to work, or even have to work out disagreements with their families, friends and neighbors . . . . So we repeat and wax on and wax off and wax on and wax off. (Jenny)

We can establish our presence in online classes with a photo or a video, but we can also do it with our words. Our words are who we are. They aren’t just words, but style, and, paraphrasing Buffon, style is the person. Katherine Anne Porter defines it this way: “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.”

Students read our words, and through our words, they know who we are, they sense our presence. We and our words are one and the same, inseparable, and getting to know one means getting to know the other.

To Produce Independent Learners, Schools Must Change

Greg Walker, 9/18/13: Stephen Downes in, Connectivism and the Primal Scream states, “At a certain point, we want people to stop being novices, and to start being self-motivated and self-managing learners. The idea that we are treating university students and adults as ‘novices’ is, to my mind, appalling. If a grown adult still requires a teacher to provide encouragement and support, positive role models, to select resources and scaffold learning experiences, then that speaks to the substantial failure of the traditional system of education. To my mind, it is as astonishing a failure as it would be if adults expected their teachers to read the lessons aloud to them.” Thoughts? Agree, why? Disagree, why?

Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes


This is a touchy subject, and Downes gets an A for courage.

If we begin with the outcome, independent learners, and reverse engineer the school system to produce students who are able to learn independently with educators as guides and facilitators rather than teachers, I think we’d end up with a completely different system.

A system that’s cultivating students who become increasingly responsible for their own learning from P-12 would gradually replace the lockstep age groupings, standardized curricula, and teacher-led classrooms in the lower grades with open learning environments in the upper grades. The educator’s role changes, too, gradually shifting from teacher to guide, advisor, facilitator, coach, etc.

The open environments would cover a wide range of options, including blended and online, but the primary change would be toward anytime-anywhere learning, with students becoming increasingly skillful in managing their own schedules to complete learning projects on and off campus.

Students would learn from peer tutors and also serve as tutors for other classmates. They would also incorporate MOOCs into their individualized programs. (Yes, MOOCs will become a huge part of secondary education.) School program advisors would play a critical role in the upper grades, guiding students toward objectives that would facilitate transfer to postsecondary programs.

Throughout the model, the focus is on the student, not the school or teacher. The question is always What’s best for the student? and the school’s resources are geared toward guiding her/him toward her goals.

The measure of success for the school and its staff is the percentage of students who enter postsecondary programs prepared to learn independently.

Comment on Thompson Video: Human Touch

I viewed the John Thompson webinar recording last night and really enjoyed it. Brent, Greg, and Rachael are masters at creating an environment that’s more like friends sitting around a table chatting over coffee, and Thompson has an easygoing style that’s more conversational than lecture. Lori, a participant, asked some great questions. The following are points that rang true for me. The graphics are from the talk.


Teaching online literally means communicating with students 24/7. Obviously not every minute of every day but logging on to review and respond in email, discussion forums, course sites, etc. throughout the day, everyday. Thompson apparently gives his cellphone number to students, but this is a practice that I wouldn’t adopt for myself.

When he sent an eblast to the class, a student responded, assuming that it was a private message to him alone. This happens often, even when the “to” line suggests otherwise. A purely online phenomenon. LOL!


Depth of comments varies, and Thompson found that, in grad courses, student responses were longer and more thoughtful than in undergrad courses. I also find variations in type of course and student class levels and age in a given cohort.

In response to a question about peer-to-peer learning, he said that in one of his classes, students said they learned just as much from peers as from the teacher. In my mind, this is one of the most important goals of online learning.


Re collaborative group work, he said that 90-95% of his students don’t want it. I’ve found exactly the same.

This quote is perhaps the most important in his presentation: “Anytime you go away from that 24/7 flexibility, you’re at odds with what the students really like to do.” I refer to this as the anytime-anywhere advantage of online learning. For him, this means that, for online courses, set office hours and F2F optional sessions don’t work. He had zero drop-ins with the former and only 25-50% participation with the latter.

Furthermore, his experience with hybrid (aka blended) teaching didn’t work out. He and his students decided that they “would never do that again.” The fact that it was an intense summer course might have been a critical factor. However, this was my experience, too, with full semester hybrid courses. Part way through, we decided to move all meetings online. I kept the F2F sessions going for drop-ins, but few if any showed up, and none hung around for the entire session. I never did hybrids after that.


Some students never read emails. I now use Twitter to signal important email, both eblasts and private mail. For example, “John, check your UH email for an urgent message from me.”

Thompson’s comments on “trickery” hit home. He inserted an offer of bonus points in some of his email and discussion posts for a rough gauge on whether his messages were getting through. All they had to do was email him back within a certain period of time. He says that he’s always surprised at how low the returns are. He mentions 50% as a general figure.

I, too, have been embedding “tests” in some of the readings, announcements, and guidelines, and the 50% result is generally true. Within the text, I embed a brief statement asking students to email me, within a specified period of time, a keyword in the subject header and leave the content blank. I record an “X” for each response. The number of Xs for a student is a pretty good indicator of how well s/he will do in an assignment and in the course. I also use these reading test scores to determine my response in student drafts and email requests for help. I know when to say “carefully review the guidelines” and when to provide additional explanations.

Thompson didn’t spend much time talking about course design as an indirect measure of human touch. For example, he said that when it comes to explanations, more is better than less. I disagree. All too often, more simply expands confusion, and even more will expand confusion exponentially. The key is simplicity and clarity, and posting key information in only one location and linking to it as often as necessary from varied pages, sites, and media. Students shouldn’t see variations of the same info in different places. This forces them to review it multiple times to discern the differences and leaves them confused about which is the most complete or up-to-date. A well-designed course (including writing style features such as voice) also communicates the human touch of caring.

Value of TOMOOC Webinars?

Anonymous 9/13/13: Another perspective on the webinars is that they have been largely informal and questions are welcomed at any time. Similar to live class, the presentation is only as good as the questions asked. It is one step better than watching a recorded session or TED video because it is a chance for participants to engage each other.


Hi, and thanks for your thoughtful comment on Responses to Veronica, Ida, Sara: 9/13/13. I agree with you re the potential for webinars to be very effective. The better ones are, as you say, less formal and focused on questions from the audience rather than on straight delivery — the idea of flipped classroom transferred to a live web platform (btw, Bates had originally planned his seminar as a flip).

My concern is neither antithetical to nor critical of webinars. It’s more a question.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of online learning is the anytime-anywhere factor. This elimination of time and space barriers to learning is, in my mind, the greatest invention since schools and the printing press.

At once, online classes even the playing field for those who can’t and can afford to be in a classroom or hall located at a specific place at a specific time. And with MOOCs, the gap between the have-nots and haves is also eliminated.

This is the online advantage, and I’m reluctant to give it up. It’s disruptive, opening the doors of higher ed to a whole new population of learners. However, when we insert time-bound activities into the online learning environment, we automatically lose the anytime advantage and eliminate all those who can’t be there. The medium is the message, and when a MOOC devoted to How to Teach Online, such as this, emphasizes live webinars, then the message seems to be that webinars are best practice.

I guess I’d like to see the delivery emphasis shift, even a little, to using asynchronous methods to create engaging learning experiences.

I think the planners of this MOOC are moving in this direction by archiving recordings of sessions. Perhaps another kind of “flip” might be to ask the presenters to, first, post their presentations in TOMOOC and, second, to participate in a week-long asynch forum on their topic. All of this would be asynch. Would this non-live version be less dynamic than a live webinar? My guess is it would be just as if not more dynamic — but in a different way that doesn’t disparage synch modes.

The point is that each approach, synch and asynch, has its strengths. The asynch forum I’m suggesting may be better for online learners with varying schedule demands, but it also changes the burden on the presenter, requiring a week-long commitment to participating in a forum with course participants. An interesting variation may the posting of video responses by the presenter to questions and comments in the forum. The short videos could be posted once a day, covering posts up to a certain date and time.

In the interest of more dynamic asynch MOOC learning activities, perhaps the planners could add a new dimension of forums, a discussion board with different forums, some ongoing and others for specific periods of time. Each forum could be devoted to important topics aligned with each week’s objectives. Other forums could be devoted to special interest groups. Some webinars could be presented as forums or both. Just a thought . . .

By exploring and experimenting with asynch strategies for online learning, we increase the range and value of common tools that are available to all online teachers.

Teacher Response to Language in Student Writing: Implications for Online Courses

Veronica 9/14/13: Maybe I need to review whether the reflective report (in which I mark the language as well as content/task achievement) should in fact be part of the student’s SDL grade. In favour is the fact that the report is usually an enlightening (for the student) overall reflection on the process/outcomes of his/her SDL and hence a valuable task. But something still bugs me about it!


Hi Veronica.

Your question (in Responses to Veronica, Ida, Sara: 9/13/13) re when to mark language in student writing forces us to address a tough issue. There aren’t any easy answers — except “It all depends,” which isn’t an answer at all.

It’s especially relevant in the online learning environment where communication style is critical. For example, Which set of standards should we use? Should there be just one standard across the range of onground and online platforms? If we use different standards for online, What are they for communications in social media? When we take the broader perspective of rhetoric, which taps all the means of persuasion that’s readily available to writer and reader, What role should multimedia technology play? and, perhaps more importantly, How do we evaluate its use in student artifacts?

As a writing teacher, I find myself increasingly questioning the role of traditional documentation (APA, MLA, Chicago) style in online digital writing. Much of the rules seems irrelevant with the advent of digital media and URL links. And it doesn’t stop there.

I do know that the whole idea of readability has been radically altered by the new rhetoric of online social engagement and that traditional formal academic prose is going the way of landlines — at least in the real world of virtual communications.

So the whole notion of marking papers may be changing, and one of the new indices for readability may be the idea of “hits,” i.e., How often is an artifact read or viewed? How do readers rate it? and How extensive and dynamic is the attached discussion among readers and author?

In this scenario, the teacher as sole evaluator is replaced by the concept of real world audience, and the ultimate test of correctness may be reader response. But this may create disconnects. For example, a work receives a top grade from a teacher, but no one or only a handful view it. Another work receives a mediocre grade but goes viral online as much for the content as the style. Which is the more effective? Or, more important, How should we define effectiveness?

When the potential feedback is the world rather than a single teacher, I think we need to rethink the role of teacher in the writing process. For example, her/his task may be to explore and establish the most useful platforms for facilitating audience feedback on student works and guiding students in interpreting the results and exploring implications. In this role, the teacher becomes a coach, guide, consultant, advisor, and her task is defined as much by her knowledge of the student as her mastery of the new rhetoric with an emphasis on audience response.

In addition, her job doesn’t end there. She is further tasked with the need to empower students so that they leave the course with the the ability to independently understand and use reader feedback to guide their own writing development.

Online isn’t just a bunch of new technology but whole new sets of challenges that force us to reexamine our roles as teacher.

Artifact: Life Is Making Sense

Video, Quick Clip – Sunrise from Outer Space, YouTube, 11/10/11.
Audio, 2001 A Space Odyssey Opening in 1080 HD, YouTube, 9/22/10.
Video, Memory – Okuribito (Departures) Soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, YouTube, 2/9/10.
Graphic of Big Bang, Paul Laurendeau, “De Nihilo Nihil…… (nothing comes out of nothing),” Nothing Out of Nothing, May 2010.
Photo of lightbulb, “Improving Light Bulb Energy Efficiency,” NHPR, 9/4/11.
Video, Infant in Garden
Video, The Living Art of Ikebana, YouTube, 4/10/08.
Video, Picasso Painting Live, YouTube, 7/19/08.
Video, Shodo Japanese Calligraphy Demonstration – Senri no Doumo Ippokara, YouTube, 12/22/12.
Photo of Fallingwater in Western Pennsylvania, “Featured Artist: Frank Lloyd Wright—American Architect,” Arizona Experience, n.d.
Video, Sunset from space, YouTube, 12/12/10.

Responses to Veronica, Ida, Sara: 9/13/13

Veronica, “My week 1 journey of discovery” (9/13/13).

My issue/question: One thing I’ve always had a problem with is whether I should really be marking their English in the report – is this really part of their SDL [self-directed learning]. Part of me says yes – they should learn/be able to express their reflections in decent English (the report constitutes 15% max. of the final SDL grade). But part of me says no – the language in the report (as long as I can understand what they’re trying to convey) has nothing to do with their SDL. I’d be really interested to hear your views on this bearing in mind that this is an EFL/ESP class.

Response: I like the way you’ve set off your key points in red. I also really like your question about what to mark up and what not to (and to what extent) — a constant issue with English and perhaps other teachers. My rough rule of thumb is to mark up when the goal is publication — in the student’s blog and possibly in course or campus journals. When the goal is interaction or communication related to the writing process, I don’t mark up. That is, I treat writing related to but outside the perimeters of the actual paper as “talk” about or for the paper and not the paper itself.

Refering to the article we should have read before this webinar – TB [Tony Bates]: Don’t take for granted that students have actually read through assigned materials or done tasks! Question: Should we then spend/waste time on going over it again? Will this not just encourage students NOT to prepare? Or is it a good revision activity?

Response: Good question! I’ve recorded the Bates webinar with plans to extract clips for a brief video of highlights for TOMOOC sharing, but it’s still sitting on my desktop. I’ve already published my take on the 9-steps article and am wondering if I should devote any more time to the video. The issue, for me, is information. What’s new? In her 9/13/13 blog post, “Week 1 Activity Reflection –,” Sara wrote, “While I didn’t necessarily find anything new in much of the information [in the various activities], I did discover that there was more research out there that I thought to back up what I already knew.” I feel the same way about the Bates info. Not enough that’s “new,” at least for me. I’ve also observed Bates at a recent (June 2013) conference

Ida Brandao, “MOOC How to Teach Online” (9/12/13).

I hope next webinars will be more interesting than those of this week. I think that they are too extensive and boring (my black hat). What was told in this first presentation could be reduced to a max. 15min long screencast. As for the blogging tools you get short tutorials in Youtube that are much more efficient to get you to the objective than a webinar of over 1 hour.

Response: I agree. As far as content delivery, these could have been remixed and repurposed for more efficient learning. However, my guess is that, for the MOOC planning team, these webinars are for more than just content. I think they want to create a “live” and more engaging learning environment, and by that they probably mean one that is as close to F2F seminars as possible. Thus, they’re placing a high premium on synchronous and real-time lectures and discussions.

The issue, as far as I’m concerned, is whether or not these “just like F2F” efforts are worthwhile in online courses. On the one hand, it may be necessary for those new to online learning who may need a familiar analog bridge from the old to the new. On the other, it seems to run counter to the anytime-anywhere digital world of virtual learning.

On yet another level, the issue is one of best practice. Are live webinars best practice for online learning? Put another way, is technical sophistication the end all? In other words, would a course (including MOOCs) be less without live webinars? From a purely technical perspective, the technology behind live webinars is complicated and not widely used by or accessible to classroom teachers. Thus, it’s cutting edge for those whose domain is technology. They see their task as demonstrating to the mass of teachers the technology that is still out of reach for most teachers. I’d probably feel as they do if I were an IT specialist.

This technology imperative is understandable, but it may sometimes be in conflict with what’s really best practice for online learning.

Sdreisbach (Sara) “Week 1 Activity Reflection –” (9/13/13).

I’m not sure I will make any changes.  At the school where I currently work we have a very strong online program that provides blank course shells to instructors.  This ensures that all students are getting the same information.  Because of this though, the instructor is actually more of a facilitator and many times is just grading assignments that have already been created for them.  The main thing I can do is present what I’ve learned to our designers and hope that they will incorporate some of these skills into the courses that they are designing.

Response: “Blank course shells” to ensure “that all students are getting the same information” and teachers “just grading assignments that have already been created for them” seems like a nightmare scenario for online teaching — at least to me. I wouldn’t want to, couldn’t, teach in an environment such as this. But then I realize that, perhaps for some teachers, this rote, linear, and formulaic approach to teaching is comforting and maybe even effective. Still, I really don’t think cookie-cutter course designing will work. This is just another version of teacher-proofing as so-called best practice, replacing variation with uniformity and reducing teacher to technician.

The problem centers on the nature of the course designing process. Maslow’s law of instrument seems applicable. If all the designer has is a one-size-fits-all solution, then every pedagogical problem will receive the same fix. In a word (and repeating what Bates says in his 9 steps), the design process must be flexible. Or put another way, the designer must be flexible — and the teacher, too.

Response to Jennyrw2013′s ‘How Do I Facilitate Students…’

Update 9/13/13: Replaced “First Syndication Post” with “Jennyrw2013″.

Jennyrw2013, “How Do I Facilitate Students Trying to Create Their Own Learning Experience?” (9/11/13).

Jennyrw2013, nicely put. My perception, too, re focus on skills:

I’m an English comp instructor.  I see my class as a space where students learn new skills rather than absorb content.  I feel like a coach, and I want to create an atmosphere where we think of writing as practice.  I want my students to try new things, make mistakes, wrestle with their gators, open their minds to new ways of thinking, and then walk away with skills they can apply in their other classes and in the outside world.  Thus, I’ve always thought of composition as a skills-based class rather than a content-based course.

Good question re discussion forums:

Because my online students don’t get the benefit of class discussion, I have to find a way to create a forum online.  I’ve used Laulima for blog posts, but I haven’t required students to respond to each other yet.  I just couldn’t figure out how to organize it.  Do I have them make an original post by one date and then have them make one of more responses to classmates by another?  ( I think I just answered my question.)

Yes, you’ve answered your own question. As a follow-up to posting, I ask students to comment on at least three classmates’ posts. (I created a simple and brief [3:30] video tutorial to introduce students to Laulima forums.) Also, the “conversation” doesn’t have to stop at the borders of the forum. I ask students to include quotes from classmates’ forum posts in their papers, with all the necessary documentation. Thus, students see peers as sources of quotable opinions and observations, and the discussion takes on an authentic dimension — what they say matters since they may be quoted by classmates in their papers. 

Responding to student drafts is a critical issue for all online comp teachers:

This idea about letting students go at their own pace scares me some.  I need papers in by certain dates; otherwise, my work load becomes impossible.  How can I be more flexible for online students? Ugh. I have to give them feedback on their papers, so if they turn in assignments at different times, I’ll lose my marbles.

It’s taken me years to figure out a way to technically manage this, and I’m still working on it. I think the key is to minimize the number of steps or conversions in the process. My students publish their drafts in their personal WordPress blogs. They follow up by posting the title and URL in Laulima forums devoted to submitting drafts. In this setup, the teacher’s tasks are:

  • Link to the student’s draft.
  • Review it.
  • Comment on it.
  • Send a report to the student.

In the past, to evaluate each draft, I worked with four windows (Laulima, MSWord, Excel, Gmail) over two monitors. I

  1. Logged in to the Laulima forum for submitting the draft.
  2. Clicked on the student’s thread and clicked on the link to her/his draft.
  3. Copied the draft to memory.
  4. Opened a blank MSWord file and pasted the draft.
  5. Inserted comments in the paper as I reviewed, using a macro app. (One or two keystrokes inserts boilerplate comments.)
  6. Opened the class spreadsheet to record the score.
  7. Copied the draft to memory and saved it in a folder on my desktop.
  8. Opened an email compose window, pasted the draft, inserted the student’s email address on the message, and sent it.

A lot of little steps. Time consuming. Now, I still use multiple windows, but I’ve eliminated the steps associated with MSWord. I

  1. Take the same steps as 1 and 2 above.
  2. Review the draft in the student’s blog.
  3. Open a Gmail compose window and post macro comments in it.
  4. Open the class spreadsheet to record the score.
  5. Insert the student’s email address on the message and click on send.

The key is Gmail. It now serves as my commenting platform and “cloud” archive for all student drafts. I can quickly record comments on current drafts and retrieve/view my comments from past drafts. Also, the Gmail composer automatically renders URLs hot, so I include URLs to course resources in my macroed comments. (My macro app doesn’t allow hot URLs.) When recording comments on a student’s draft, I can open a second Gmail window to view my comments on previous drafts. This way, I quickly see if students are addressing issues flagged in earlier drafts. I use the difference as a measure of learning.

Eliminating MSWord file juggling from the process and shifting the tasks to Gmail saves a lot of time and, thus, facilitates the review.

Good question re timing:

Also, if the class discussions are to help them brainstorm and pre-write, how can they work ahead?  Being more flexible on timing sounds a little impossible right now.

In my classes, the students have the paper requirements from day one of a given assignment. Thus, they’re already planning their papers, often subconsciously, before the main corridor of writing process activities. The activities help to solidify critical parts of the plan as they go. Thus, even before they sit down to write preliminary drafts, the plan has been incubating in their mind. I guess the point is that, even though the process appears to be linear in the schedule, there’s a lot of recursion going on in the student’s head.

Good question re flexibility in assignments:

This idea about letting students create their own learning experience is throwing me a little. too.  Can I create a course where students get to pick and choose which assignments they want to do?  Is that possible?  Perhaps I can create multiple assignments that would satisfy the learning outcomes.  Then, students could pick which assignments to complete.  Is that what it means to let them create their own learning experience?

One option is to design assignments that are flexible vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, instead of two or more different assignments, you’d have one assignment that’s designed to be flexible or more open. The idea is to offer a topic that’s broad enough to allow students to select subjects that appeal to their individual interests. For example, if the topic is “beauty,” you could ask them to explore different categories: people, activities, natural phenomena or artifacts, places, etc. To encourage remixing and repurposing, you could ask them to create a thesis that’s surprising or controversial.

My Takeaways from Tony Bates’s ‘Nine Steps’

I’ve been teaching online college composition courses for many years, so my takeaways may not be the same as yours. I also have pedagogical preferences that have influenced my choices. As expected, much of the information pertains to both online and onground environments. I’ve made an effort to zero in on those that are relevant to online. For your reference, I’ve included the titles of the nine steps plus the intro and “Designing online learning for the 21st century” as clickable links. According to Bates, the nine steps are for beginners and “Designing” is for experienced online teachers. I’ve omitted quotations, but keep in mind that all the statements are direct quotes.

Nine steps to quality online learning: Introduction

Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online 

  • Moving your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures.
  • It is important to design online teaching in such a way that it best suits online learners…. A key requirement for most online learners [is] flexibility…. Online students need to feel that the instructor is ‘present’ online, i.e. interacting with students in discussion forums, directing them to recent relevant articles or events, and responding promptly to questions.
  • Synchronous tools tend to be instructor-dominated (delivering lectures and controlling the discussion)…. asynchronous tools such as an LMS provide online learners with more flexibility than synchronous tools, and enable them to work more independently.
  • Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University [and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learn Initiative] have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. Much of this material can be found at Apple’s iTunesU.

Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

  • Online learning, particularly fully online, requires good self-discipline and good generic study skills.
  • Developing skills online can be more of a challenge…. This would mean identifying the skills needed, working out how to develop such skills (including opportunities for practice) online, and how to assess such skills online.

Step 3: Work in a Team

  • Good course design is essential to achieve quality.
  • Particular attention has to be paid to providing appropriate online activities for students, and to structuring content in ways that facilitate learning in an asynchronous online environment.
  • Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design.

Step 4: Build on existing resources

  • Cut down on ‘conversion time’ by using existing online resources…. specifically developed for online teaching.

Step 5: Master the technology

Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals

  • In terms of online learning design [teach students how to use] the Internet increasingly as a major resource for learning.
  • Students now need to be able to communicate in a variety of ways in the 21st century. Writing and speaking skills remain critical, but increasingly the ability to communicate through modern media such as social media, YouTube, blogs and wikis are particularly important.
  • Online learning, by its nature, requires students to take increasing responsibility for managing their learning.
  •  A key learning goal may be for every student to leave the course competent in the selection and use of relevant digital tools.
  • One great characteristic of teaching online is the opportunity to bring in the world to your teaching.
  • Assessment drives student behaviour. If they are not to be assessed on 21st century skills, they won’t make the effort to develop them. The main challenge may not be in setting appropriate goals for online learning, but ensuring that you have the tools and means to assess whether students have achieved those goals.
  • It is necessary to communicate very clearly to students these new learning goals and how they will be assessed.
  • In some ways, with the Internet (as with other media), the medium is the message. Knowledge is not completely neutral…. Each medium brings another way of knowing. We can either fight the medium, and try to force old content into new bottles, or we can shape the content to the form of the medium.

Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities

  • In a strong teaching structure, students know exactly what they need to learn, what they are supposed to do to learn this, and when and where they are supposed to do it.
  • I [Bates] much prefer asynchronous communication for two reasons. Students are often working and have busy lives; asynchronous messages are more convenient for them. They are permanent and can be accessed at any time. Also, they are much more convenient for me as an instructor.
  • [My] synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format).
  • It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment. This prevents other students from making their own contribution; they will wait until they see your reaction.

Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate

  • Research has clearly indicated that ‘perceived instructor presence’ is a critical factor for online student success and satisfaction.
  • Research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion. I always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to non-respondents in this first week, and ensure that each student is following the guidelines.

Step 9: Evaluate and innovate

  • There is a range of resources you can draw on to [evaluate factors contributing to or inhibiting learning on an online course], much more in fact than for evaluating classroom courses, because online learning leaves a traceable digital trail of evidence.

Designing online learning for the 21st century.

  • 21st century skills… a handy way of describing the kind of skills that need to be embedded within a discipline area, if learners are to function effectively in 21st century society.
  • Despite these changes [development of a knowledge-based society; rapid technological development and adoption outside the academy] though our campus-based teaching has changed very little, mainly adding new technologies such as lecture capture to the traditional model of teaching, thus increasing costs: we’ve added GPS and stereo sound to a horse and cart, but it’s still a horse and cart.
  • The core 21st century skill is knowledge management, the ability to find, evaluate, analyse and apply information, although almost as important is independent learning. These are skills that can be taught, or perhaps more accurately, facilitated.
  • Changes in technologies…. WordPress, blogs, wikis and e-portfolios for learner-generated content; video and audio to help learners move between the concrete and abstract and back again; open educational resources, which challenge our conception of curriculum and ownership of content
  • A new paradigm for learning…. Stephen Downes’ articulation of e-learning 2.0: learning managed by the learner[;] peer-to-peer collaboration[;] access to open content[;] learning demonstrated by online multimedia assignments (e.g. e-portfolios)[;] development of 21st century skills.
  • We know how to teach well online; follow best practice[;] however, we also need to innovate: incrementally and evaluate…. innovation in teaching needs to be rewarded more.

Response to Jserpa’s “‘Online’ Isn’t a Magic Word”

In her 9 Sep. 2013 post, Jserpa says:

Certain traits/characteristics/methods . . . made my favorite teachers so good. I strongly believe successful online teaching ultimately uses the same principles even if altered for the online format. What say you?


I’ve hesitated to respond to the best teacher prompt, but I haven’t thought why.

I’ve had my favorite teachers, and I now know that they’re the ones who helped me realize that writing, English, and teaching would be my passion. The first was A. J. Alexander, my freshman comp teacher who helped me discover authentic writing. He helped me to grasp the connection between thinking and writing, to understand that writing is a tool for thinking, that writing is a means to know who I am by understanding how and what I think. He had the uncanny ability to separate the crap from the genuine in my own writing and taught me how to recognize the difference between the two.

The second was Barry Menikoff. I took every Lit course he taught, even when they weren’t required for my program. I never fully understood why. I think it’s because he seemed to be saying, in all his lectures and our class discussions, that Lit wasn’t about the authors and their works or his knowledge of them. It was about us, the students, and our experience of Lit, about how we repurposed (he didn’t use that word) it for our own constructs (he didn’t use that word either). He never set himself up as the last word and didn’t seem to be concerned about being popular with students. He just seemed to be genuinely interested in what we, his students, thought in our discussions and papers. His demeanor made us want to dig deeper into ourselves for words that meant something to us.

The third was a couple, Julie and Dick Alm. After my BA in English, I entered the Ed program for a certificate in secondary English. They were my English methods profs. (They were also a big reason why I later pursued grad degrees in the Ed dept.) They, too, listened. Very carefully. To their students. This made us think before speaking or writing, and as a result we took our own learning seriously. The gift they gave us was a simple one: teaching is about the students. Listen to them, and they’ll teach us how to help them.

This is a roundabout way of saying that, yes, I agree. The qualities of successful teaching probably remain constant across ongound and online platforms. I taught traditional F2F classes for many years before switching to online classes, and in both my approach has always been to “listen” to my students, to make them the true focus of my courses, to move them toward clearer thinking and  genuine voices. In online courses, listening is in the form of comments in forums and in papers. Through my comments on drafts, I try to convey that I’m there, listening. To underscore my focus on students, I’ve also begun to publish select papers in course journals and to tweet thoughtful discussion posts.

Response to ‘Uncomfortable with MOOC’

Online Teacher, in her 9/9/13 post, “Uncomfortable With MOOC” (TOMOOC), says:

I’m an experienced online learner and teacher, but seem to be having difficulty understanding WHAT to do in this course so far. Anyone feeling a little lost? Are we supposed to post here? On our individual blogs? Where does the interaction take place? When we find out how to comment on others’ blogs? Do we need a gmail address (someone mentioned Google+)? It looked like things were organized until I started trying to DO them.


The web is ultimately a massive publishing platform. Thus, one way I get a feel for a particular course (MOOC or whatever) is to quickly scan the publishing footprint. Let’s take your post, for example.

As a TOMOOC participant, you published ”Uncomfortable With MOOC” in your Teach Online Course blog:

Online Teacher's blog post.

Online Teacher’s post in her blog.

It was automatically fed via RSS to the TOMOOC site . . .

Your post on the HowTOL site.

Your post on the TOMOOC site.

. . . and FlipBoard . . .

Your post on FlipBoard

Your post on FlipBoard

. . . and shared via email:

Your post in a HowTOL email announcement.

Your post in a TOMOOC email announcement.

It could also be mentioned in the TOMOOC Twitter feed via the #tomooc hashtag:


Twitter feed option.

When your post is mentioned by fellow participants in their blogs (and other social media platforms), it is further distributed. When it’s absorbed by search engines and listed in searches, the circle expands exponentially.  And this process is ongoing.

Thus, when you ask, Where does the interaction take place?, most would find it tough to answer. I suppose one answer is that it takes place on the TOMOOC site, but that answer would be misleading. The site is the hub for the MOOC, but the action takes place throughout the fluid and ever-expanding network (and embedded subnetworks) that forms the course.

In a sense, the answer is in the word “MOOC.” TOMOOC is a massive, open, and online course. Like a massive open superhighway, you decide when and where to onramp and offramp. Destination and speed differs for everyone, determined by personal needs, resources, and preferences.

Greg and his team are showing us strategies that we might consider incorporating into our online courses. By doing, by jumping in, we’re learning. “Real” learning is by definition challenging, and at its best, scary. It’s a departure from the familiar, from our old constructs of reality, and it invariably involves failure and confusion, stumbling and mistakes. We could save ourselves a lot of misery by simply dropping out or sitting on the sidelines, but we also wouldn’t learn.

You’ve asked a good question: What’s in it for me?

The problem is that you‘re the only one who can answer that. This answer may sound like a copout, but it’s the only one that makes sense. You have to decide if this process, which is frustrating to some extent for everyone, is worthwhile.

Is this MOOC approach effective pedagogy?

If you’ve worked with technology for a while, you know that an important part of the “best” approach or practice to learning is determined by the task. The problem is that, in the world of technology, tasks worth learning are complex, and we quickly realize that simple linear or rote approaches just won’t work. Thus, instead of giving students fish for a day, best practice is to teach them how to fish.

Learning how to learn is the pedagogy, and the bottom line is constructivism. Jump in and see what happens. Build your version (repurpose) of the course with your posts — posts that reflect who you are and what you’re learning. Add or remove (deconstruct) features as you go. This is all part of the active learning process.

I think you’re already far ahead of most of us in constructing your presence, sharing your thoughts, generating discourse, shaping others’ thinking, contributing your expertise and experience, etc. You’ve made me question MOOCs and why I’m here, and you’re changing my construct of the course.

How Much Time Should We Spend on Online Classes?

Steve, in “Have I spent enough time?” in an online class (9/6/13), says,

I know when I’ve “spent my time” in a face-to-face class: the bell rings and the hour / 90 minutes is up for our meeting. But how do I know how much is “enough” for an online class?


Good question. The answer is it all depends.

Most learning manage systems (LMSs) provide a basic mold with a smorgasbord of features, and the teacher’s task is to simply pick and choose, fill in some blanks, and “pour” her/his material into the mold. Most of the intense work will be in preparation. Once the barebones structure is set up and the term begins, she could, at her own pace, refine the activities and resources.

This tweaking is open ended and is limited only by the teacher’s technical skills. The general rule is that the more skilled she becomes with instructional technology, the more she’s capable of doing and the more time she’ll choose to devote to the task of course construction.  

Thus, with the passing of every term and the gradual accumulation and honing of technical skills, time requirements could increase — rather than decrease — dramatically. In a sense, this is a natural progression in teaching online. There’s just so much more the teacher can do! And with innovations and upgrades coming at ever faster rates, the possibilities are growing exponentially.

Think of this progression as a kind of layering. With every layer of new technology, the course becomes a more efficient and effective environment for learning. The teacher gradually learns how to use the latest technology to improve interactive learning and to maximize self-directed and peer-facilitated learning.

The constant challenge for all online teachers is managing the time they have for one-on-one interactions, either in communicating with students or in evaluating their work. Without an efficient plan, they could quickly and easily feel overwhelmed.

Just because teachers can interact 24/7 with students and their work doesn’t mean they should. In fact, they shouldn’t. Teachers run on an internal clock that tells them when enough is enough. They know when to stop, when to continue, how much they can and cannot do. Like running the marathon, they know they have to pace themselves or they won’t finish.

In online teaching, technology is the primary time management tool. And the key is learning how to use it. For example, if a teacher finds that much of her time is spent helping students to complete a particular task in her course, she could cut down or even eliminate that bottleneck by implementing a technical solution.

The problem may be that textual directions on how to participate in her online discussions may be too confusing, and the teacher finds herself spending hours repeatedly explaining the process to individual students. In time, she may learn how to design and produce brief videos that show students exactly how to do it. Students can then view them 24/7, as often as necessary, to master the process, freeing her from the need to intervene.

Another example: Students may be having difficulty quoting sources in their research papers. Peer review procedures fail to alleviate this problem. The teacher ends up devoting countless hours to the task of repeatedly flagging these errors and offering suggestions on how to correct them.

In time, she may design a system of links to self-learning resources. Using a boilerplate app, she can, with a single click, instantly insert comments with hot links into their text. The student clicks the link and is taken to a webpage or video that addresses the problem.

Technical strategies for improving peer feedback or self-evaluation activities have the potential to save the teacher even more time, but they take time to develop and implement. Thus, teachers need time, at least initially, to save time.

Aloha, everyone!

I registered for the “How to Teach Online 2013″ MOOC a few days ago. Opening day is Monday, September 2, 2013, and I’m looking forward to working with all of you.

I’ve been teaching completely online courses at KapCC for a while, and I’m interested in both the MOOC movement and the emphases and approach in the LCC MOOC workshops.

I took the previous workshop and thoroughly enjoyed it. The resources and activities were not only thought-provoking and informative but practical and relevant. The staff and other participants treated everyone like colleagues and fellow learners rather than neophytes, and this approach proved engaging.

I learned that MOOCs aren’t like traditional workshops where all I have to do is show up. To get the most out of it, I had to participate, and in the online environment, this meant not only reading the material posted by others but actually posting in discussions and in colleagues’ blogs as well as in my own blog.

I’d suggest signing up for the “Letter of Completion and Badge” option. For me, it was the motivation I needed to regularly log in and participate.


P.S. Here’s a TED Talks video that I found inspiring: