How to Make Learning Matter to Online Students


“Classic Learning” by Alan Levine on Flickr

One of the core premises of “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” is to make learning matter to students (Brown, Rodediger & McDaniel, 2014). The authors emphasize that learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. Intuitively it’s a logical premise; of course we want learning to matter to students, where learning is relevant and applicable to their contexts. Yet how do we know if students perceive course concepts as relevant and meaningful? And even if they don’t, does this matter? The consensus is that it does. Evidence indicates that when learning is relevant, students are motivated and engaged→ learning is more effective and outcomes are more likely achieved. This phenomenon is described in “Make it Stick”  and in recent research (Bernard, 2010). In practice, I’ve seen how students are more likely to engage and participate in online courses when assignments encourage them to apply course concepts and ideas by building on their existing knowledge and experience.

Framework for Relevant Learning – Andragogy
The concept of making learning relevant to students is not new. Malcolm Knowles, creator of andragogy the theory of adult learning, outlines a set of assumptions of how adults learn; relevance is a core element (1984). Andragogy suggests adults learn differently than children, and learning programs tailored to characteristics of adult students, such as work experience, existing knowledge and life situations, are more likely to motivate and engage students in the learning process. Below are core assumptions of andragogy that serve as guidelines for making learning matter to students:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
2. Adults need to learn ‘experientially’
3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving
4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Online Student_ThinkingStrategies for Making Learning Matter
I’ve found that by applying adult learning principles to the design of online courses, assignments and learning activities for instance, payoffs are significant in terms of student participation. I’ve seen this time and again. Online students are sensitive to busy work—activities or assignments that don’t appear to have a purpose, don’t require critical analysis, don’t appear to align with course learning objectives, or have real world application. Granted, these are students’ perceptions, yet it is beneficial to explain the purpose of an assignment, to describe how it will further learning and be of value, or be applicable later in the course. Following are practical strategies that I’ve applied when designing courses in an effort to make learning matter. Comments highlighting my experiences are in blue.

  • Describe an assignment in three parts; 1) outline the purpose of an assignment: how it fits in with objectives, what students will gain from the assignment, why they are doing the assignment, 2) describe assignment details and logistics: provide a description of assignment, format, resources, due dates, rubrics, and 3) describe technical logistics and details, e.g. any platforms or software needed for the assignment, collaboration tools for group assignments, where and how to submit the assignment e.g. within the LMS, or Turn-it-In, etc.  Frequently I’ve seen assignments that lack detail in at least one of the three mentioned here. This creates confusion for students, potential for lower-quality assignments, need for frequent reminders/clarifications, more student questions, and it delays students getting on the path to learning.
  • Provide opportunity for students to apply and share their experience and knowledge of subject matter: encourage students to draw upon work experience or existing knowledge. For example in a discussion question activity, include opportunity for students to share their experiences as applicable to the topic. Doing so can be as simple as adding another component to a discussion question where students incorporate examples from their personal or work experience.
  • Create opportunities where students research and/or share how (select) course concepts apply to real world scenarios or situations. This can be done within a discussion forum activity, a blog post assignment, written reflection activity or other type of written assignment. Alternatively, assignments can be based upon a real world challenge or problem the student is facing within their work, community or personal situation. As discussed earlier, the key is to highlight to for students why they are doing the activity—even though it may seem obvious. An example of how a question might be framed—here’s how a question from an undergraduate course in nursing might read “…to demonstrate how (concepts) apply to current situation in clinical setting, describe how this would be integrated…”.

Closing Thoughts
Making learning matter to learners does matter; where learning is relevant and applicable, especially for adult students. Considering adult learner characteristics is good practice that can lead to motivated and engaged students. Yet online learning does require a different approach than used for face-to-face settings—one that considers characteristics not only of the students, but the medium. The strategies outlined here are a starting point.


Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

How much time does it take to teach an online course? Does teaching online take more or less time than teaching face-to-face? How much time does it take instructors to develop an online course? — Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses (Freeman, 2015)

Time business conceptA study released in March of this year set out to answer these burning questions that the majority of online educators would like answers to. There’s considerable anecdotal evidence that favors both sides—it takes more time versus less time to facilitate an online course when using a face-to-face course as benchmark. The purpose of this study was to nail down the facts—to measure the perceptions of and actual time spent developing and teaching online courses. The findings are significant for institutions and educators involved in online education for several reasons. Professional development for one. The report reveals areas where survey-respondents struggled during the course development phase, and where the majority of time was spent when facilitating (the conclusions are surprising). Secondly, results may be helpful for institutions when considering compensation and work-allocation models. Institutions can use the results as benchmark, at the very least the study may act as catalyst for constructive conversations about compensation and support for online course development and facilitation. And finally, it may help online instructors gain insight into their own teaching experiences by considering the experiences of  other educators that have experience with face-to-face and online courses.

This post highlights the findings and suggests factors for educators to consider when it comes to, 1) the time spent developing online versus face-to-face courses, and 2) how much time is invested in online facilitation, and how it compares to face-to-face instructions.

Survey Details
To put the results into context—the survey gathered data from 68 instructors from a total of 165 solicited from three universities across eight academic disciplines. Each respondent had developed an average of 2.13 online courses and had experience teaching an average of 2.03 online courses, and had been teaching at the university level for an average of 14.2 years (Freeman, 2015).

1) Course Development Time: Pedagogical Learning Curve Steepest
Survey results confirmed that developing online courses is indeed more time consuming than developing face-to-face courses. Though the time required declines when the same instructor develops a second or third online course. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they spend over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their (first) online course. This significant number of hours is likely due to the fact that 59% of respondents developed over 90% of the course without any assistance, which included developing content, assessments, assignments, and time associated with course design. The other 41% received course design support from instructional designer(s) and/or used ready-made content available through textbook publishers. Also significant is the technological learning curve which was found to be shorter than the pedagogical learning curve, in other words instructors required more time to determine how to implement pedagogical methods, how to create learning experiences and deliver content appropriate for the online format than they did learning about the features and nuances of the technology used to deliver the course. The learning curve is described as the time it takes to “get used to” the course elements [platform, tech features] and/or the method of teaching.

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(Freeman, 2015)

Developing a quality online course is complex due to the fact that technology adds yet another layer to course design and one that requires a unique skill set. In addition there is an interdependent relationship between technology and pedagogy specific to online courses—for instance the features of a LMS platform will determine and shape the course and the teaching methods. Using the discussion forum as an example—the flexibility of the forum feature—how easy it is to set up by the course designer for group assignments, and how it can be used by students for a group assignment whether it can facilitate the communication and collaboration that is required for the assignment will dictate how effectively the ‘method’ is executed in the course.

Online course design requires a breadth of skills that includes technical knowledge, not only familiarity with LMS features, but also outside tools including social media platforms that can enhance student learning.  Knowledge of user-focused design, or web design principles is also critical in delivering an intuitive, learning experience for students (How Five Web Design Principles Can Boost Student Learning). Second are the pedagogical methods, in other words how learning is sequenced, framed and presented to students.  This array of skills required is far beyond the scope of most faculty, who are experts in their field of study, not necessarily course design. Realistically creating an online course requires at least two or more individuals with specific skills sets working together to develop an engaging, intuitive and quality learning experience.

The onus is on institutions to provide not only professional development for faculty in course design principles and strategies, but to provide support in the technical and pedagogical aspects.

2) BIG Time Commitment Facilitating First Online Course — Levels Off After 2nd Time, But Grading Involves More Time Investment
Though respondents in the survey originally perceived that teaching online took more time than teaching face-to-face, by the third time facilitating respondents reported that it took them about the same amount of time as it did a similar face-to-face course.

There is supporting evidence to the earlier finding that teaching an online course the second and third time becomes about as time-consuming as teaching a face-to-face course the second and third time.  The factors that still remain more time-consuming for online teaching compared with face-to-face teaching, even after teaching the course three times, are Instructor-Student Interaction and Grading & Assessment, the two specific factors  that can not be prepared in advance for online courses (unlike Content Development and Pre-Semester Setup).

Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that it took ‘much more’ and ‘more’ time to facilitate an online class for the first time. Yet by the third time, it dropped to 25% in this same categories (table 4 below), which does support the learning curve theory. These findings suggest that acknowledging that more of the instructor’s time will be required the first and even the second time facilitating a course, is important for both the instructor and the institution. Though it does also suggest that professional development is needed for instructors—development focused on facilitation skills that will support skills specific to the uniqueness of online instruction. Such training can potentially reduce the learning curve for instructors, as well as reinforce the building of effective skills, best practices, and efficient use of time.

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Annotated screenshot that shows two-thirds of  respondents by the third time facilitating online indicate that it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face (Freeman, 2015).

A startling (and significant) finding of this study is the time dedicated to grading and assessing online students. It appears that the time dedicated to grading students’ work actually increased from the first to third time of facilitating an online course (table 4). Two-thirds of the respondents indicated by the third time it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face.  I find these results encouraging since an instructor’s feedback of students’ work is a critical component that can motivate students, deepen their knowledge and push them to think critically (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Implications are that skill development in this area are needed and will benefit not only students but can help instructors to provide feedback more efficiently. There are several technology tools and applications that can help instructors achieve efficiency and to make the most of giving feedback using online tools that deliver meaningful, quality feedback for students (Morrison, 2014). Again professional development is needed in the area of grading and assessment to support instructors in their efforts.

By no means is this study the definitive answer on the time requirements for developing and facilitating online courses, but it is an excellent starting point for conversations about ‘time’ needed to create quality online learning experiences.


How Five Web Design Principles Boost Student Learning in an Online Course

“Our team realized quickly that we needed to do a better job cross referencing material on our course site. For example if we mention syllabus, we must link to it. Some students we have learned want a great deal of guidance” MOOC instructor, Karen Head (2013)

great-designIn the quote above, without realizing it, the instructor was referring to the concept of ‘user experience’. And it’s not guidance students wanted so much as an intuitive learning experience. Creating a user-friendly course site begins with incorporating web design principles. Even the most basic of principles customized to online course design reduces barriers associated with virtual learning by minimizing distractions, highlighting concepts and making resources readily accessible. Embedding a link into the phrase ‘assignment guidelines’ for instance, when the assignment is referred to within a course page, is an example of making resources readily available (if the assignment guidelines are within the syllabus, refer students to the page number). This reduces the amount of time students spend searching and frees up time for learning.

The challenge of designing online courses is not only pedagogical, but also technical, which is the category that ‘usability’ falls under. We are at the point with online learning where pedagogy and technology are interdependent; where a well-designed, user-friendly course with a clear learning path needs to adhere to technical principles as well as pedagogical ones. Technology is a new form of pedagogy. The course site design, how content is presented, is an aspect of online pedagogy. In this post I cover five principles of web design that are essential to online course design.

Retail sites frequently adhere to best practices for web design given customers (users) are more likely to spend time and money on an attractive, intuitive website. I suggest educators use similar web design principles to support their students.

Before we examine the principles, defining user experience (UX) is in order. There are numerous definitions of user experience but the one below specific to web design, incorporates key elements of the entire experience:

“User experience (UX) is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI) …. It also covers a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s performance, feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change…” All About UX

Five Principles of Web Design Applicable to Online Course Design

1. Design for the user
This seems obvious—design a course from the student’s perspective, yet it’s an atypical approach. When designing a web page for a course site, always ask ‘how will this look to the student’? Anyone involved in online course design needs to take an online course as a student. Completing at least one week of course work in a MOOC for example, gives one an entirely different perspective on course design—guaranteed. Design the course from the student’s perspective—always.

2. Consistency
For online course, consistency is probably the most under-utilized principle. Specifically in terms of how resources are titled, labeled and/or placed within the course site. I’ve taken many courses where the same resource, an article for instance, is referred to by two different names—in the syllabus it’s titled one way, and in the course site another. Confusing. Same goes for assignments, calling an assignment by slightly different names, even by one word suggests there are two assignments, not one. Another, posting the same document in two different locations within the site suggests there are two different documents. The time students spend searching, checking, comparing etc. is valuable learning time that is spent on logistics. Consistency is key.

3. White Space
Effective use of white space emphasizes key concepts, improves comprehension (up to 20%) and reduces cognitive overload (Lin, 2004). White space is the part of a web page that is left blank or unmarked. It’s the (white) space between columns, text, images, and margins on the page. This space provides visual relief to the reader and improves readability. Avoid using big blocks of text. Break it up with a graphic, or block of white space or increased line space. See examples below.


Example of text with little white space.


Same text as above but with increased line spacing. Effective use of white space improves readability.

4. Simplicity
In keeping with the idea of white space is simplicity. A cluttered page with three or more colors of font, sizes of font and images placed sporadically throughout that are of different type and size creates a chaotic-looking virtual classroom. It’s far easier to study and focus on learning in a physical classroom that is organized with minimal distractions. The same goes for an online classroom. Keep it simple, two colors of font, same size and style throughout, organized and consistent pages creates a Zen-like classroom where students can focus on course content and application of concepts. Learning is enhanced greatly.

“The way information is organized and presented to students affects not only the usability of information, but the usability of the course itself” (Young, 2014)

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Tabs grouped by category (Coursera)

5. Use Tabs Effectively
Imagine opening a file drawer that is full of file folders with inaccurate or missing labels. The same principles of file labels apply to web sites except rather than alphabetized listing, it’s an order that makes sense to the student. For example the ‘start here’ tab should be at the top of the menu not third or fourth down the list (which happens more often than you would think). Tabs should be two words (max 3 words), and with descriptive language, ‘Start Here’, ‘Week One, or ‘Student Support’ for example.  Use sub-tabs if possible, and if not group tabs into categories (screenshot right). Also avoid CAP LETTERS for titles of tabs. CAPITAL LETTERS can appear loud and abrasive on a website (there are exceptions as the screenshot above right demonstrates).

Developing an online course is a multidimensional process. Usability is one dimension often neglected; understandably so given that most educators approach online course design with little expertise in web design. Yet a little goes a long way—by implementing just the basic web design principles, educators can create an intuitive learning path that gives students the boost they need to invest more time in learning, not searching.


Five Alternatives to the Talking Head Video for MOOCs & Online Courses

VideoCameraCircleMost xMOOCs, and some for-credit online courses rely heavily upon what many refer to as the ‘talking head’ video format. The ‘talking head’ is usually the subject-matter expert delivering a lecture in his or her area of expertise. There’s great value in this format when used strategically and sparingly. Yet the effectiveness of lecture videos as a primary content source for online courses and MOOCs is difficult to determine. Thanks to a comprehensive study done via edX  we have data on student engagement patterns with videos specific to MOOCs to draw upon (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). Key findings include:

  • The optimal video length is six minutes or shorter
  • Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings
  • Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials (screencasts) are more engaging than PowerPoint slides

Video Viewing Patterns: A Non-MOOC Perspective
There is also data on student video engagement in non-MOOC courses to consider. The School of Continuing Education at Columbia University examined video viewing patterns of students using analytics from their video hosting platform and qualitative data from student interviews (Hibbert, 2014). Results were similar to Guo’s.  A significant takeaway from this study—videos are an excellent format in online courses to establish instructor presence; supporting a sense of connectedness for students.

One of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos”

Alternatives to Talking Heads
The focus of this post is on alternatives to the talking head. I chose this topic because the majority of xMOOCs I’ve experienced over the last two years do not reflect good practices for educational videos described in the latest research. Most xMOOCs rely upon the lecture video format, and though they have their place, there are several unique and creative format options that I want to share with readers.

1. Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent option for several reasons: 1) smaller file size for easier download, 2) the format uses less bandwidth when streaming and, 3) is a portable file format—allowing students to listen on the go.

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Screenshot of podcast from “Globalizing Higher Education Research for the Knowledge Economy” on Coursera

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Screen shot of collection of podcast links to interviews  with various experts sharing their definition of global competency. From “Globalizing Higher Education”.   This approach provides multiple perspectives on a topic, prompting students to analyze the topic from different viewpoints.

2.  Interviews This format is a variation of the traditional video lecture, except an interviewer poses questions to the subject-matter expert. The interviewer can be a non-expert as was the case in the “Saving our Schools” MOOC I completed recently on edX. In this MOOC graduate students interviewed the expert (the faculty member). Alternatively, the interviewer can be the MOOC instructor interviewing an expert or guest with a unique perspective on the topic.

 Another variation I’ve seen used frequently is a live interview conducted via a video conferencing platform, e.g. Google Hangout, with an interviewer and one or more experts. Students are encouraged to use Twitter as a back channel for questions and discussion.

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Screenshot of lecture video using interview-format in “Saving our Schools”.  A graduate student interviews the faculty member.  I prefer the format when the instructor interviews a guest or other subject-matter expert on a topic; it’s more interesting.

3. Simulations. Simulations, when done well are an effective method for illustrating course concepts and engaging students. A simulation can serve not only as content, but also provide an excellent topic for a discussion forum, or problem solving exercise via a structured assignment.  According to the study at Columbia University, videos that link to an assignment or learning activity receive more views than those that don’t.

The simulation presented here, “A Day in the Life of a Rural Homemaker” from the MOOC “Subsistence Marketplaces” illustrates a typical day of a homemaker in rural India and includes an interactive component.

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Screen shot from simulation from “Subsistence Marketplace” MOOC on Coursera.

4. ScreencastsA screen cast is a digital recording of the user’s screen with voice-over narration. This format allows the instructor to include power point slides, images, or motion— hand drawing on white board for instance (similar to Khan academy videos). This format requires little technical expertise, and is frequently used by instructors who prefer to record their own video content. The outcome is more informal.  The research suggests students respond well to an informal approach.  

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.” student(Hibbert, 2014)

A professor at UBC records all of her own content videos (screencasts and lectures) for her MOOC “Useful Genetics” even through she has access to a recording studio. She outlines her reasons in her YouTube video “How I record MOOC lecture videos“. She also describes how she films the MOOC content.

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Screenshot of a screencast created by the instructor for the MOOC, “Drugs and the Brain” on Coursera. The professor incorporates motion in his screencast. The red arrow highlights areas of focus during the narration.

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Screencasts are useful for showing a selection of images. In this screencast the professor shares images of vintage maps, from “Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach”

5.  Informal end-of-week Recorded Discussions:  In this format the instructor(s) delivers an informal end-of-week recap of the previous week’s student interactions and feedback within the MOOC or online course. I’ve experienced instructor’s using this format in three or four MOOCs; I find it effective in demonstrating the instructor’s presence, commitment and interest in the course. He or she will typically share highlights from the discussion forums, address frequently asked student questions, and encourage participation for the upcoming week.

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Screenshot features instructor in a weekly response video from “Configuring the World” MOOC on Coursera

There are other formats to the five presented here. One is not using any video content produced by the institution or instructor. Instead, content sources might include YouTube, TedTalks or even students. This approach was used in a Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”. The approach was quite controversial as described by one of the course creators in eLearn Magazine.  However, any format can be effective with a carefully planned instructional strategy that aligns with the learning outcomes and expectations for the course.


How Interactive is Your Online Course? Self-Assess with this Rubric

Online instructors and course designers can enhance existing online courses and create active, engaging courses by considering five elements included in an adapted version of Robyler and Ekhamil’s “Rubric for Assessing Interactive Qualities of Distance Courses” described (and embedded) below. 


Interactivity is a much discussed topic in online learning. It’s considered the essential ingredient for quality learning. It’s also considered the missing element in online learning—an element that critics claim make face-to-face learning superior. There is no question that interactivity is a necessary component of online, for-credit education. Three out of seven principles presented in Chickering and Gamson’s seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education(1987) stress interaction and active learning: Principle 1. encourage contact between students and faculty, 2. develop reciprocity and cooperation among students, and 3. encourage active learning. Chickering and Gamson’s principles are just as relevant to online education as they are to face-to-face instruction. Also worth noting is that several institutions use these same principles as a foundation for their best practices in both traditional and online education today.

Few would argue that interactivity is necessary for quality online education, yet many educators are unsure how to make an online course interactive. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are few resources outlining strategies and examples on how to go about developing a course that stresses active learning.

The Rubric
Fortunately there is an excellent, instructive tool that serves as a starting point, “How Interactive are YOUR Distance Courses? A Rubric for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning”.  I like this resource because of the clear language it uses, the specificity of behaviours and its self-scoring capabilities. The rubric below is based on concepts of the original rubric published in Robyler and Ekhamil’s paper. The revised rubric adds a fifth element ‘Evidence of Instructor Engagement’ to the existing four, where each element defines interactive qualities of an online course. The updated version further develops each element—an improvement over the original; the elements are now worded so they are specific to interactive qualities brought about by: 

  • course design (element 1 and 2)
  • technology support function (element 3)
  • facilitation of the course (element 4 and 5).

The three-page Rubric embedded below is a PDF in Google Docs (hover your cursor over the right corner to expand the Rubric). If unable to view the embedded file, click here to go directly to the doc on Google Drive.

Are we measuring Interactivity or Interaction?
There is a critical distinction between interactivity and interaction in the context of online education. It’s important to clarify—one concept involves technology and the other human behaviors. Wagner in Interactivity: From Agents to Outcomes (1997) describes interactivity as involving attributes associated with a technological application that delivers an interactive experience to learners, e.g. an interactive timeline embedded within a course home site, or a multiple choice quiz that gives automated feedback. On the other hand interactions usually involve human behaviours of individuals or groups that influence one another (Wagner, 1997). Discussion within a forum where there is exchange between students is an example, an email exchange between student and instructor, or a live video conference chat are others. As Wagner discusses in her paper, the differences are noteworthy, and relevant today as the term interactive is often used without clarification when describing online education courses in discussions for assessment and accreditation purposes.

Creating and facilitating an online class that is interactive—that promotes student activity and engagement is challenging and complex. There are many variables involved; several beyond the control of the instructors and course development team. The rubric presented here does provide a good starting point for considering some of the factors that contribute to creating active and meaningful learning experiences for students. If you have or use resources or strategies that are helpful for creating active learning, consider sharing by leaving a comment so other readers may benefit. Thank you!


How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better for an Online Course: Case Study Using an edX MOOC

I’m enrolled as a student in the MOOC Saving Schools Mini-Course 1: History and Politics of U.S. Education on the edX platform and share in this post discussion questions used for assignment purposes from the course to illustrate what NOT to do when it comes to writing discussion questions. I use these for illustration purposes to help readers who teach online to further improve their own courses.  I share three questions from the MOOC, describe why they don’t work and include revised questions in better and best categories. I’ve incorporated guidelines from “Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions”, a webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium along with my experience.  In a later post I’ll review the entire course from an instructional design viewpoint, highlighting what worked and didn’t. 

First we examine (briefly) why discussions can be an effective method for learning, and second explore how to write better and best questions by looking at examples of not-so-good questions.

Discussion Questions – Two Layers of Pedagogy
It’s not uncommon for educators to believe that discussion forums are used primarily as a method to encourage student interaction. This is only partly true. There are two layers of pedagogy to the discussion method.

First layer:  Good discussion questions prompt students to evaluate course content, reflect, construct knowledge and articulate understanding through a written response. Scenarios or case studies are also effective where students are required to develop and provide a written solution demonstrating application of course concepts. Student responses are (typically) crafted individually then shared in a forum. This method encourages student to construct meaning and build knowledge by engaging with course materials, reflecting then applying concepts through written explanation.

Second layer:  Dialogue is more meaningful when students have a solid grasp of the concepts accomplished in the first layer.  Students continue to evaluate course concepts, construct knowledge, but also develop alternative perspectives, even critical thinking by engaging in discourse with classmates.  Students are exposed to others’ perspectives in this phase, ask questions, defend their own positions, evaluate alternative positions, challenge others’ positions, construct new knowledge and further develop communication skills. This is the ideal scenario. In reality what’s described will not always happen, but different levels of learning will occur depending upon the student’s motivation, confidence and trust level.

Guidelines for Developing Discussion Questions:
Discussion questions should closely align with course concepts and objectives. Below are guidelines to consider with developing questions for an online forum.

  • Frame the question as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
  • Ask students to provide support for their response with examples/references, e.g. personal experience, course materials or outside sources.
  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective or personal experience
  • Make specific reference to theories, diagrams, authors, and/or page numbers
  • Use words such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ to elicit deeper responses.
  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

Consider the above guidelines as you read the discussion questions below from the MOOC on edX. I realize that this is not perfect as the questions are out of context given you don’t have full access to the course. However the aim is to provide readers with ideas and tips for online discussion forums. Blue text highlights content from the MOOC. Following I explain why the question is ineffective—bad.  The rewritten questions follow the blue text in better and best categories.

Question One: The Challenge

Read “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests” by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann from the Fall 2014 issue of EducationNext: “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests”

Based on the results of this study and the lecture video, are you surprised to discover that the United States has two large gaps in its education — the gap within the country and the gap internationally?

Why it’s a Bad Question: The question is closed, “are you surprised?” •  It encourages no further dialogue or application/exploration of course content • Research suggests majority of MOOC students hold at least an undergraduate degree, this question would not be a surprise to MOOC students and could suggest to MOOC learners the course is shallow, superficial

Better:  “Consider the International PISA results presented in the article and discussed in the lecture video. Identify two or more reasons using course content and/or outside sources that could account for the United States performance. Explain.”

Best:  “1) Describe the impact of PISA scores on education policy in the United States. Identify one education policy designed to raise student performance. Describe the intended outcome(s). 2) Do you agree with the policy, why or why not?”   Note: The course materials would need to provide background information, including primary sources. The questions could be more focused by providing a time range for policy, or even identifying a list of policies.

Question Two: School Boards

Read Lost at Sea by Lisa Graham Keegan and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover, both from the Summer 2004 issue of Education Next: Lost at Sea   and  Steering a True Course.  Based on these readings and the lecture videos for this week,  discuss what you feel the role of the local school board should be in the 21st century.

Why it’s a Bad Question: Using the word ‘feel’ in questions does not encourage students to approach questions from an analytical perspective • The readings and videos in this module show only one (biased) perspective • Models a narrow point-of-view

Better:  “1) After reviewing the primary role of the school board as outlined in the materials (examples below) determine the role the school board has in the district where you reside. If there is not a school board in your district consider one from this list [provide list of 4 or more]. 2)  From your research do you think the school board is effective?  Why or why not.”

Best:  “1) After reading about the role of the school board as outlined and the other materials, and considering the poor performance of several districts within the United States as outlined in______,  do you think school boards should have a role in school districts?  Explain. 2)  What do you consider as a viable solution(s) to districts’ poor performance? Share any resources that may be of interest to other students.”

Question Three: The Progressive Movement

Read “Romancing the Child” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. from the 2001 issue of Education Next:  “Romancing the Child”.

Based on the lecture videos, do you feel Progressive political reforms have gone too far or do they still have an important place in 21st century education? Based on the required readings (both the above article and the this week’s chapter from Saving Schools), do you feel Progressive philosophy should still play a role in 21st century education?

Why it’s a Bad Question: Questions are closed • First question is leading — “Do you think reforms have gone too far“… (it’s better not to include options) •  There is little content or resources that describes the principles of progressive education or its characteristics thus (some) students won’t have the background to respond adequately  • The content is biased and suggests that progressive reform is ‘bad’ • The essay is overtly critical of the progressive education movement, which is fine if there were resources provided to portray additional perspectives

I would eliminate this question altogether. The question lacks purpose and focus.

Alternative question:  What are examples of education reforms put forth by John Dewey in the progressive era that are evident in policy of US public schools today? Discuss.  2) Are these policies still applicable to learners’ needs? Why or why not?”

 Further Resources:

How to Develop a Sense of Presence in Online and F2F Courses with Social Media

Social presence is a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the college online environment. Two effective interventions are recommended: establishing integrated social and learning communities;… (Liu, Gomez & Len, 2009)

Presence is considered a central concept in online learning. ‘Presence’ in the online course is understood as the ability of people “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’”. (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). One way of examining ‘presence’ online is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that outlines three interdependent dimensions of presence: social, teaching and cognitive. When all three elements interact, it’s then that students are able to experience deep and meaningful learning.

COI_model_adaptedCoI–is breaking through the social barriers that exist because of the transactional distance between students and instructors (Moore, 1993)…. These human qualities, established through personal sharing, help students develop a sense of trust in and connection with an instructor…foundational for cultivating the social presence needed for a healthy and productive [learning].

Other bodies of research suggest presence is a key factor to engagement, another metric for predicting student success in online coursework. Presence in this context also considers student perceptions of instructor involvement as a central factor. High levels of engagement, studies indicate, lead to higher levels of student achievement, greater likelihood of graduation, and deeper satisfaction (Oblinger, 2014, p 14).

Presence and Social Media
But describing presence in an online course is vague, slippery—hard to describe. It’s a challenge for instructors to figure out how to make presence happen. What does one do to create social and teaching presence in an online course? This post outlines examples that describe how faculty and instructors use social media to establish presence—that feeling of connectedness among students in online and F2F courses. What’s described here, social media as a vehicle for presence-development, is different however from using social media as a pedagogical tool, which I wrote about in a previous post, How to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments. Though there is some overlap. One of the aims of using social media platforms in this context is to bridge the distance gap that exists in online education, to overcome the disconnectedness student can feel when studying online.

Presence in F2F classes: Numerous educators have found that social media tools support a sense of community, or connectedness in face-to-face (F2F) courses as well. One faculty member shares his experience in the Prof Hacker column over at The Chronicle, “Twitter adds to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester” (Sample, 2010).

Examples of Instructors Using Social Media
Below are examples of how instructors use social media platforms to create a sense of being ‘there’.  Note: the methods described here facilitate informal learning; to foster a learning community. Social media used in structured (or formal) learning activities is used as a method to bring about targeted learning outcomes as mentioned earlier.

1) Twitter 
The paper “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence” describes how the Twitter platform creates a sense of community among students. In 140 characters or less, learners share ideas and resources, ask and answer questions, collaborate on problems of practice, participate in discussions at conferences, webinars, or lectures.  A hashtag (a.k.a.the pound sign ‘#’) for a class aggregates all ‘Tweets’ (messages) sent on platform when the hashtag is used as a tag for all class-related messages. For example a professor at Trinity College created a tag #eng685 for his face-to-face English class (Sample, 2010). Hashtags are also used to aggregate tweets on specific topics, e.g. #onlinelearning, #highered.

“Twitter’s just-in-time design allowed students and instructors to engage in sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. Participants noted that using Twitter for socializing and learning purposes felt more “natural and immediate” than did using a formal learning management system.” (Dunlap & Lowenthal, n.d.)

Examples of how Twitter is used:

  • To post news and share resources relevant to the class
  • To ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings
  • Professor Sample allows and encourages students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to class discussion but admits, “This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference” (Sample, 2010).
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Screen shot of the Twitter exchanges between students and instructor for F2F class #eng685

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Screen shot of a current course, ‘Indian Epics’, #ou3043, an online course taught by Professor Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma.

2) Pinterest
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board, and holds great potential for education settings. It’s visual, flexible, customizable by using images, and text to create themed boards that can be templates for projects; individual and group—a tool to support instructional activities. Yet Pinterest also has tremendous potential for increasing presence and interactivity. Professor Gibbs is experimenting with Twitter and Pinterest as vehicles for socializing in two of her online courses this semester:

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Screen shot from Professor Gibbs’ course web page for students describing how to socialize in Indian Epics and Myth & Folklore undergraduate online courses.  Retrieved from

Gibbs shares links to students’ Pinterest boards on a webpage within the course site on the Pinterest Class Directory. Students can comment on one another’s boards, re-pin to their own board and/or ‘like’ a pin. Students do need sign up for a Pinterest account using an email address.

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Screen shot of a student’s Pinterest board ‘Epics of India Portfolio’. Retrieved from

3)  Google+ Hangouts/Video Conferencing
Real-time meetings, seminar discussions even watching panel discussions over video conferencing platforms are excellent methods to create a feeling being there and together. I’ve participated in several online courses (MOOCs & closed, small online courses) where the Google+ Hangout platform (or similar) has been used in a variety of ways that do create feeling of being in a learning community. Even if students can’t engage in the active discussion on the platform, Twitter is frequently used as the back channel for questions and discussion. Sessions are usually recorded, then posted for students that can’t participate live.

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Screen shot of Google Hangout of a seminar discussion around a class reading with five students and professor of a Massive Open Online Course. Other students’ watching live, asked questions and discussed via Twitter.

4) Instagram
searchInstagram is one of the most popular social media platforms used by high school and college students in North America. It’s similar to Twitter, as the platform uses hashtags, though it’s billed as a photo sharing platform. Yet it has more potential than Twitter since character limit for Instagram captions is 2200, considerably more than Twitter’s 140 limit. Instagram comments have a limit of 240 characters.

I’ve not yet come across examples of educators using Instagram to create social presence for courses, though numerous institutions use Instagram as a marketing vehicle. There is considerable potential in online courses for Instagram as a presence-building tool given its popularity with the younger set—it’s just a matter of time.

Technology is shaping culture. Alternatively, one could say that culture is shaping technology. Whichever viewpoint one takes, social media is central to the change, to the shift in how we communicate, socialize and learn. Educators have an opportunity to help students (and ourselves) blur the lines between informal and formal learning—creating life-long learners.