More Essential and Helpful Resources for Online Instructors

This post features a collection of carefully selected resources specific to teaching online; geared to educators seeking skill development for creating meaningful online discussions, communicating effectively with students, and providing constructive feedback.

iStock_000018547848XSmallThis is the second article in a series featuring select instructional resources—I’m in the process of building a bank of resources accessible from this blog geared to educators seeking skill development in facilitating and designing online courses. Over time I’ll be adding to the Resources section with the goal of sharing high-quality, relevant and helpful resources. This post includes resources grouped by topic with a brief description of each, and an icon indicating its type. For the list of previously featured resources and/or for the icon legend please refer to the resources tab of this site.

IV. Personalized Instructor Feedback and Interactions with Online Students

The level of instructor involvement [or not] in online learning environments is a controversial topic in the education sector. With automated grading programs and LMS platforms that provide automated, yet ‘personalized’ feedback based on student response scores, log-on and key stroke patterns, a growing camp of educators are convinced that learning is not comprised in the absence of an instructor—and is even improved with programmed feedback. Intuitively, I disagree. I see the need for personal interaction and support from an experienced and interested educator. In this section I’ve included a collection of resources that support the premise that interaction and feedback are critical to student success.

pdf1. This literature review paper explores far more than instructor feedback and interaction in online learning spaces, yet it is worthy to include here given it addresses current research concerned with online learning effectiveness in terms of learners’ interactions with their instructors and classmates. The specifics can be found on pages five through eighteen: Learning Effectiveness Online: What the Research Tells Us, Swan, K (2003).

Videos2. Giving feedback and interacting with students in the online classroom is no less important in the virtual realm than in face-to-face; yet doing so requires instructors to be strategic and purposeful in their communication with students, and requires a different perspective. This three-minute clip, Interact with Students featuring the program chair from Penn State World Campus, summarizes how and why faculty involvement with students online differs from, and is just as crucial as in face-to-face classrooms.

blogicon3. I wrote a blog post, ‘Speaking’ to Students with Audio Feedback in Online Courses about providing feedback to online students using audio feedback for student assignments in place of written feedback. The idea came from a communications professor that I follow on Twitter who had great success with this method; her students loved it.  Apparently so do many other students [and instructors] based upon the feedback and reaction from readers. The post explains how-to give audio feedback and what tools to use. The comments within the post are also helpful.

Website Link4. This web article provides three solid strategies for communicating with online students, as a class and individually. Though not specific to skill development for educators, there is helpful information here including how to use a rubric for structuring feedback for students: How to Provide Fair and Effective Feedback in Asynchronous Courses, Gruenbaum, E. (2010).

V.  Fostering Asynchronous Student Discussions

pdf1. Asynchronous discussions that are incorporated into curriculum for online courses can build student engagement and support higher levels of achievement and learning. However in order that forum discussions are successful and not viewed as busy work by students, discussions must be thoughtfully planned before the course begins, and need to be facilitated and monitored once the course is underway. This peer-reviewed article provides the foundational knowledge that educators require to construct the conditions, parameters, and student guidelines for successful and meaningful synchronous discussions:  Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence — A Practical Experience.

Videos2.  This six-minute video, Conducting effective online discussions from the COFA series Learning to Teaching Online, provides educators with skill development and strategies for managing and facilitating effective online discussions and how to engage students in the process. I can’t say enough about this series from COFA—skill development in a concise format, honed to specific topics, that can be accessed easily by educators for their own skill development when needed.

Website Link3. There are several essential elements inherent to successful asynchronous discussions, and this web article, 5 Tips for Hosting Online Class Discussions,  summarizes the five core elements, including the need to grade student contributions. From my experience, assigning a grade for discussion contributions is necessary to foster participation in for-credit classes, including using a rubric that outlines expectations which increases the chances for a higher quality level of contributions.

As mentioned previously, this is the second post where I’ve shared a set of resources, and I’ve been encouraged by the number of positive responses and excellent suggestions. Thank you! There’s more to come, and in my next post that features resources, I’ll share ones specific to instructional design and pedagogy.

Giving Feedback to Students: Instructor vs. Machine

“edX, a nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will release automated software that uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.”  John Markoff, New York Times

T-Pain's Singing Teacher

There has been much discussion this week among educators about the idea of robo-grading, or machine grading, prompted by the New York Times article Essay Grading Software Gives Professors a Break of which the quote above is an excerpt. To date over 1,000 comments posted to the article, most vehemently opposing the idea of automated grading. Quite by coincidence, I posted an article on this blog, Four Reasons Why we Need Instructor Feedback in Online Courses that emphasizes the value of instructor feedback specifically in online courses—and I stressed why MOOCs won’t cut it. 

My argument is that undergraduate students need constructive and specific feedback to develop their writing and critical thinking skills, and a massive course such as a MOOC cannot provide it. My view contrasts starkly with the president of edX, Dr. Agarwal.  Agarwal is convinced that students can learn from, and develop writing skills in a MOOC setting with feedback via automated grading.  It’s the immediate feedback that is useful states Agarwal, and that students are able to “take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers” (Markoff, 2013). Hmmm—while I do agree that immediate feedback supports the conditions required for learning, I don’t see students being motivated to rewrite an essay again and again.

How Does Automated Grading Affect Student Motivation?

In response to the NYT article, Elijah Mayfield, founder of LightSIDE Labs, developed a computer program that uses “machine learning to automatically assess written text“.  Mayfield wrote a post for e-Literate discounting the claims outlined in the NYT article which generated over 50 comments, mostly from university professors opposing the robo-grader concept. I have minimal experience with machine grading, and my comments to Mayfield’s post took a different (perhaps less informed) approach, focusing more on the conditions of learning. The concerns I have focus on students perception and their willingness to consider automated grading as valuable. Also its effect on student motivation, thus potential learning. Two of my recent posts, here and here, reference research studies that support explanatory and constructive feedback from instructors.

Below is the comment I posted in response to Mayfield’s post Six Way the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong on e-Literate.

Thank you Elijah for this in depth post. Questions I have-how do students perceive machine grading? And how much research has been done on the impact on learning performance and motivation?

I wonder what the implications are (or will be) on students’ motivation, and quality of their effort and work? Students spend time on writing essays, some more than others, yet for students to know that a real person will not be reading their essay, could impact many processes. My teenagers have been exposed to automated grading periodically at their high school and they both strongly dislike it (despise it is a more fitting term). They discount its value completely. I predict that teenagers and young college students will not be receptive to this type of grading. Why should they spend hours researching, writing and re-writing an essay when they know no one ( a real person) will even read it? Even more so in a MOOC that is not for credit, why on earth would you write an essay for an automated grader?

For large-scale classes, as you discuss in your post, peer grading would be a far more valuable exercise and learning experience for students than machine grading. Two studies I have read show that there is 20 to 25% grade inflation with peer grading, but the learning for sides, peer and student is far more meaningful in my opinion.

I am all for technological advancements, yet at some point are we not going too far, and when will that be? (A rhetorical question). However, I do look forward to reading further and learning more about this method. Thank you for the thought-provoking post. Debbie

Response from Elijah Mayfield:

Debbie – There are mixed results in the literature, but most of all they point to a negative impression from students if they’re working purely alone, even if writing skill does go up. However, if automated technology is being used in a collaborative setting, scaffolding the interaction, we see almost the opposite effect – compared to a control it increases student satisfaction with the learning experience, and their own self-efficacy, even if the learning gains on top of that collaborative process are modest…

Mayfield’s response is fair and honest, and I appreciate his willingness to engage in discussion with readers that commented and expressed skepticism, if not criticism of his program. I encourage readers that are interested in learning more about the topic to read the post and the discussion that follows it.

Let’s Think about This More…

I want to learn more about the idea of machine grading, and am eager to review feedback from students after edX implements its grading software that Agarwal speaks of in the NYT article. Though I remain skeptical—I’m keeping my mind open. As mentioned, I am most concerned about its implications on student motivation, and the potential long-term effects on learning should machine grading become the norm. There is an emotional side to this story, the idea of students making personal connections and feel that their writing is of value when writing to a real person. Can the joy of writing be fostered when writing for a machine?

Further Reading:

Image credit: Mike Licht,’s photostream (Flickr)

‘Speaking to Students’ with Audio Feedback in Online Courses

In this post I’ll share how to give meaningful and constructive feedback to students on assignments, presentations, and other works by using voice recorded files.

imagesResearch suggests that students want specific and detailed feedback from their instructors (Balaji & Chakrabarti, 2010 ). Who wouldn’t? It is disappointing to students to receive few or no comments from their instructor after investing hours researching and writing a paper.  Even more disconcerting to some students, is receiving a below par grade with little explanation or constructive feedback—in online classes even more so given the lack of personal contact. Which is why in online classes voice feedback is much appreciated by students; most students welcome this type of response. I had one professor in grad school that provided audio feedback on our assignments, which I appreciated, and looked forward to very much even if it was not all positive. Not only did five minutes of feedback pack a lot of punch, but it felt personal, and I found myself putting extra effort into all assignments in his class. This is not to say written feedback is not valued, but voice is particularly impactful in our text-based world. Given the value to students, the time-saving  benefits to instructors, and the new tools that are easy to use, I suggest all instructors consider speaking feedback to students using recorded voice files. I’ll share how here.

Results of ‘Explanatory Feedback’ Study at Duke University
I won’t elaborate here about the value of feedback, as I delved into this topic in my last post. However before I identify feedback tools and methods I would like to share a study published recently in the Journal of Educational Psychology regarding the transfer of learning that occurs with certain types of feedback (Butler, Godbole & Marsh, 2012). The study examined the transfer of learning that occurred (or lack thereof) with three types of feedback, 1) correct answer, 2) no feedback, and 3) explanatory feedback. The learning that students absorbed was measured in three steps, recognition, recall, and application.  Results demonstrated that correct answer and explanatory feedback provided the recall level of learning among students, but explanation feedback enabled learners to better comprehend the concepts, and facilitate deeper comprehension by being able to apply the knowledge to new contexts. Next we cover how to give explanatory feedback that is rich and detailed, and goes beyond the robot grader.

The Method to Giving Audio Feedback
There may be a short learning curve to providing this type of feedback to students, but it’s very short. One might feel self-conscious at first,  but after one or two recordings, it becomes far more comfortable (Using Audio Feedback Case Study, 2010, YouTube). And the voice recording does not need to be polished or perfect—pauses are okay according to a professor at the University of New South Wales who describes the method and tool he uses in the case study video [ Learning to Teach Online series]. Though the tool he uses in the video is outdated, the method is not. In this scenario, the professor provides feedback in a voice recording after he reviews the student assignment, usually the assignment is read online or onscreen—no hard copies. The professor makes a few notes, while reviewing the student’s work, records his feedback immediately, and sends it to the student.

The Tools for Providing Audio Feedback
What better way then to provide personalized feedback than with audio. I’ve reviewed two tools below, though there are several more, the ones here are easy to use — record and send.

1) Voice Recorder App on Smart Phone. There are many apps available that are free.  I chose Voice Record Pro, form the iTunes store as it has a 4.5/5 rating. It’s easy to use. I simply open the app, hit record, then stop when I’m done, and send.

Before sending the file, I can listen to it, delete it, or save it in Dropbox, SkyDrive [other options available}.  When ready, with one click it can be sent to the student. The file is in a mp4 format which the student can download and then listen to. Easy. And the copy of the file is saved, though I suggest emailing yourself a copy in order to archive it accordingly. There are also other options available for editing and/or changing the file format.

Evernote-Logo2)  Evernote—an excellent, free app that is a favorite of mine—it does much more than provide audio feedback, but I’ll focus on using it for audio feedback in this post. One of the educators I follow on Twitter, a professor, introduced me to Evernote, in a Tweet where she explained how she discovered using the app to record a feedback for students that could be sent via email. Brilliant! The prof wrote about Evernote on her blog here.

I’ve also included screen shots of how to record a note in three easy steps.

Three Steps to Audio Feedback with Evernote:

Screen Shot
Step 1: After creating a new note for a student (sample student here is Nina),  click the mic icon, as highlighted here

Step Two:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 11.25.40 AM
Step 2: Once you click the mic button you can record, then click ‘save’. You can also pause during the recording process and resume again.

Step Three:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 11.26.16 AM
Step 3: This is what the message will look like after the voice recording is saved, then click on the arrow in top right hand corner.

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 11.26.28 AMAfter clicking the arrow, there are choices (see image); in this case email note is the method. Note the other options available that can be used for alternative instructional methods, i.e. sending a recorded message [reminder or announcement] to the class via Twitter by using the class #hashtag (if you have one).

Audio feedback is an excellent method to connect with students and provide feedback that is both constructive and meaningful, and can promote intellectual development and critical thinking. For those readers that are instructors, I do suggest giving this method a try.  You’ll see how easy it is, and how much students appreciate it.

If you have methods that have worked for you, or comments on audio feedback that might benefit others, please share!


Explanation Feedback Is Better Than Correct Answer Feedback for Promoting Transfer of Learning.  Butler, Andrew C.; Godbole, Namrata; Marsh, Elizabeth J.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Dec 17 , 2012, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0031026