Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, Flower Darby joins us to explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.
- Flower Darby – Author of Small Teaching Online
- James Lang – Author of Small Teaching and Small Teaching Online
- “The apprenticeship of observation” by Dan Lortie
- Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- VoiceThread – iOS
- Slack – iOS Android Mac Windows Linux
- Flipgrid – iOS Windows
- Remind – iOS
- MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses
- Online Learning Consortium
- Quality Matters
- EDUCAUSE Center of Analysis and Research (ECAR) Survey
John: Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, we explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today our guest is Flower Darby an Instructional Designer an Adjunct Instructor in several disciplines and the author (with James Lang) of Small Teaching Online, which is scheduled for release in June 2019. Welcome Flower.
Flower: Hi John. Hi Rebecca. Thank you for having me. I appreciate that. It’s good to be here.
Rebecca: We’re really glad that you’re joining us as well. Today our teas are:
Flower: I am drinking Builders tea. Good, strong cuppa here.
Rebecca: Sounds yummy.
John: We have some of that next door. I am drinking ginger peach gree n tea.
Rebecca: I have my Golden Monkey again today.
John: We ran a faculty reading group here in the Fall semester of 2017 based on Small Teaching. Many faculty found that to be highly inspirational and we had over 100 people participate in that. One of the things that came up quite a bit is how this might be applied online. So there’s a lot of people interested in your forthcoming book. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book came about?
Flower: Sure. So Jim Lang came to my campus—Northern Arizona University—in January 2018 and delivered a talk on Small Teaching and as we know, the book has been very impactful for faculty around the country and around the world. And while he was at our campus, when it came time for the question and answers, somebody raised their hand and said, “Sure, but how do you do this online?” And Jim’s immediate response was, “That’s the first question I always get at every talk that I give,” and he said, “I don’t know. I would need a co-author because I don’t know how to do this online, but that would be a great book.” So I thought about that for a few days and then I approached him and I said, “Pick me. I would love write that book with you. I can see the value of it, I can see the need for it.” So that’s how the conversation began.
Rebecca: How does this extend the approach that was used in Small Teaching?
Flower: Well, it follows the same principles for certain that there is learning science that we can draw on to help us make the everyday decisions in our teaching and learning that have really an outsized impact on student learning and outcomes. So there are little things that we do on a day-to-day basis and we can draw from the research to discover what will have the most impact. Again, understanding that in order for faculty to really be able to implement something new, it’s got to be feasible. It must be doable. The daunting overhaul of a major course redesign is so off-putting that most faculty won’t get around to it, myself included. When I have gone to multiple workshops and conferences and sessions or read about an approach. And I, “That is a great idea,” and I spend about five minutes thinking about how I might incorporate that into my class and then I say, “Too much work. Too much time. I don’t have that time available. I don’t want to implement something that’s only half baked,” and the idea gets left out. So in our online classes, there are so many things that we can do that are on that small scale but will have that outsized impact on our students’ engagement and their learning. And so that’s what this book sets out to do, is to explain a lot of those principles and draw on the research that we have to show faculty how they can make these changes in their online classes.
Rebecca: We’ve talked many times on our podcast about the lack of preparation for faculty teaching in general and that’s certainly true for online teaching. You might have taught a face-to-face class, and then all of a sudden, now you’re teaching an online class and boom, you have to figure it out. Can you help us think through what are some things that faculty can do as they’re new or getting used to being an online teacher?
Flower: Sure, and I think that’s really the point here. Centuries, millennia, compared to the way that we teach and we coach and we mentor face to face, or even as we’re doing here using video conferencing software, but it’s a real-time interaction. Well, online teaching is very, very recent, say 20 years or so. And faculty don’t have the experience that they bring into the physical classroom. You may have heard of the phrase of the apprenticeship of observation coined by Dan Lortie. And this is the idea that by the time a teacher steps into a classroom to teach, he or she has had years and years of experience in a physical classroom being a student and observing what happens and how things go and thinking, if somebody chooses to be a teacher, then they’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how they want to teach. Well, we simply don’t have that for online. I do expect this to change in coming years. But the fact is right now that most of our faculty have either never taken an online class or if they have, it may be a very limited experience, not the years and years that they came out of K-12 with. And the same, quite frankly, is true for our students. They’re also pretty inexperienced at an online classroom. And the way this pans out is that literally faculty and students both don’t know what’s supposed to happen in an online class. They don’t have the social norms, they don’t know what the classroom looks like. If you think about it, when you walk into a physical classroom to start teaching, you know what’s in the room and you know what’s supposed to happen. You see the desks or the tables, you see a lectern at the front, you see a whiteboard or a projection screen, and students and faculty understand what is supposed to happen. Students go and sit in the desks, they face front, they wait for the faculty to come to the podium. It’s rare that a student would walk into a classroom and at the beginning of the hour, just step into the lectern. Students know that’s not what they do. But my argument is we don’t have that kind of social norming convention for online classes…yet. I think it’s coming, but right now many of the people who find themselves in our online learning environments go into that space, and they don’t know what things should look like, they don’t know where the light switch is, they don’t know where the desks are, where the whiteboard is. So just that whole lack of experience is rather disconcerting. And it’s hard to know what to do. Faculty don’t have experience—they have haven’t seen models, students are equally unprepared—so there’s a lot of work to be done here just to understand what should happen in an online class, what the furniture is, where it should be to facilitate learning. That’s where those gaps happen for faculty. You ask, “How can faculty prepare themselves?” I could talk for days about that question. It’s a growing need and some institutions are beginning to recognize the importance of doing a much more thorough job of preparing faculty to teach online. But I will argue that those institutions are still pretty few and far between. I would say, based on my research and my experience, the vast majority of faculty who are teaching online have not had specific development in that area. They have not observed peers’ classes. In fact, what can happen is a negative effect. Very commonly, when faculty begin teaching online, they are handed somebody else’s content. We’ve seen that happen and that’s a mercy in a way because that way faculty who are new to teaching online don’t also have to develop the course. But what can easily happen is that the content that might be given to a new faculty member might not actually be exemplary in the design and the delivery of that material. So then what happens is the only experience that faculty get is observing the content and the structure of a less than ideal example and then that’s the model that they have and they think, “Oh, I guess this is how it is”. So work can be done on developing better exemplars, better development programs. I believe, as faculty are coming out of online graduate programs down the line a little way, I believe, will have better experienced faculty and students. A lot of research going on in this area, but that work is all to be done.
Rebecca: As you were talking, I thought, you provide a nice model, it’s a nice way of thinking about it, you don’t know where the furniture is.
Rebecca: It sticks with me. I was thinking about that the experience that a lot of faculty and students have is more in the realm of social media and so they’re looking for cues that are similar to those kinds of environments. The activity that’s happening in those environments is really different than the kinds of activities we would expect to happen in an online platform for learning.
Flower: Right, that’s a great point. We interact with other people so much online and on our devices using social media and what’s interesting to me is that we can really engage with people in those online spaces. Somebody tweets something that’s a little bit incendiary or provocative and you get all kinds of people jumping in and commenting and you know, sometimes things get heated, or a really heartwarming moment is tweeted or shared on Instagram, and people are all over that post. But the opposite is kind of true in our online classes. Indeed, I feel like we could bring in some of the techniques from social media into online classes. I’m not saying that faculty should all have a component of Twitter or Instagram in their online classes, but what I’m saying is that it’s possible to deeply engage people in online interactions. And that’s not a feature that, I would say, generally characterizes online classes—we usually hear the opposite, that it’s not engaging, it’s difficult to drum up those discussion posts—and I feel like if we could draw some of those principles from how we interact with people online, in social media, of using our devices, if we could bring those into the online classes right away, we’ll see more engagement and engagement precedes learning. Students have to want to be there in order to learn when we’re engaging them and if you could imagine posting a discussion post and then you can’t wait to see what people are responding. We do that all the time on Facebook or Twitter sending something out and then, “Oh let me see! Did people like that? Did people say anything?” And we just naturally are drawn into those spaces to check and see what are people’s reactions? Well, if we could design that kind of a discussion board for online classes, where it’s so interesting and engaging that people want to rush back and see who’s talking to them, who’s replying to them, that would go away way to improving the online learning experience for both faculty and students.
John: That’s not an experience though that many people teaching online find in their discussion forums. Are there any hints or tips that you can give people to make their discussion forums a bit more engaging so that students don’t wait until the last minute to do the standard three posts or whatever is required in that course?
Flower: Great question, John, and a big one. And again, thinking about Small Teaching ways of making small changes, I heard of an example recently where faculty asked students to reply to their peers posts using a GIF that just represented—one of those funny moving little images that sort of expressed—their reaction. And that’s an example of bringing in new ways of engaging and it’s not rocket science. It’s also perhaps a little more fun, which is important to bring into an online class. A great way of sort of getting students to think differently. But if that idea doesn’t resonate with you, maybe you might want to try offering options in your discussion board questions. I’ve supported over 100 faculty, I might even say, hundreds of faculty in the design and development of their online courses and what I see sometimes is one question for students to answer and oftentimes it’s kind of black and white. It’s hard to discuss a question like that. So first of all, craft questions that are discussable, that there’s some debate around that you can make different arguments or points of view. Tie those questions to students’ experiences. How is the content impacting them personally? Where do they see these concepts in their own life and experience? And, even better, provide three or four different questions that students could choose to respond to and then ideally, everyone isn’t all talking about the same question, so that’s more of a natural way of fostering some conversation in an online discussion.
John: One of the nice things about tying it to personal things, I would think that that would also help build more of a sense of community within the group because the students get to know each other a little bit better, which may affect their engagement in other activities,
Flower: Right. Anything that we can do to increase the value and the relevance of what we’re asking students to do online is hugely impactful, and it doesn’t have to take much. I have a colleague who teaches an online First-Year Seminar course, which in a way is a bit of an oxymoron because First-Year Seminar courses are often designed to really hook in our first-year students who are transitioning to university life, but she was tasked with developing and teaching a really highly engaging and supportive Freshman First-Year Seminar class. And one of the things that she does is she brings in a discussion board and one of the prompts is, “If you could be a superhero, what would your superpowers be?” And again, maybe on the surface some people might think that’s a bit trivial, but what she’s doing is she’s getting students to talk about character traits and hero qualities and concepts that rely and relate to the material that they’re engaging with… yet in a fun and a more personal way. And it certainly does a lot to foster those relationships that are so important for online classes to build that community. Absolutely.
Rebecca: I think one of the methods that we hear a lot about in terms of online learning is the ability to do quizzing and retrieval practice and interleaving through quizzing. But are there some other ways that we can integrate some of these evidence-based practices that aren’t maybe the typical solutions that we tend to think of online?
Flower: I think one of the most underutilized functions of the Learning Management System is what we call adaptive release or conditional release. And I actually want to pause here and say that these Learning Management Systems have come a long way in recent years, and they still have a long way to go. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca and John: Yes. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: For many faculty and students, the functionality is lacking, the furniture is stark, they’re not attractive places to be and as I said earlier, engagement precedes learning. If you were to ask yourself for online faculty who are listening, “Do you want to be in your online class?” I suspect many faculty would struggle to answer with a resounding “Yes.” And so here’s a shoutout to our LMS developers to think about space design and the experience of students and faculty in these spaces. Having said that, there is some very interesting functionality that is oftentimes underutilized and I would argue that’s because, again, faculty may not have the preparation and the exemplars to begin teaching online. With adaptive or conditional release—it’s called different things in different systems—you can set a task that then opens up the rest of the content in that module. And I love to use this. You can use it equally effectively at the end of an online module or at the very beginning to open the next module. Now what you can do with this is you can embed retrieval practice exercise. Or, you know, drawing from Jim Lang’s book, Small Teaching, a predicting exercise works equally well. A curiosity provoking exercise, and all it really has to be is an assignment where students submit whatever it might be. A two sentence summary of what their big takeaways were from the previous module, or predicting what might be in the coming module or posing some questions… this can be written, it could be a recorded submission for students who might find it easier to talk through their ideas. Once students submit that element, then the rest of the module opens. Before they do that they can’t access any of the content. These things don’t even have to be graded, you can just set them to be worth zero points, but they are mandatory because the students can’t proceed with the content until they submit them. So when you think about that feature, there’s a lot of creative things that you can do that don’t impact faculty grading time. That’s a big tenet of the new book is we can’t overburden faculty with grading and yet tie into those practices that we know from the research are effective.
John: One of the chapters of your forthcoming book is on fostering student persistence and success. Could you give us perhaps a strategy or two that might be useful in encouraging student persistence? Because I know one of the problems in online classes is they often have higher drop, fail, and withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes. What are some techniques that faculty can do to help improve student persistence in the class and the program?
Flower: That’s right, great question. As you point out, the attrition rates in online classes are remarkably higher. And we also find that for students who are less prepared for higher education, if they don’t succeed in that class, then the odds increase dramatically that they won’t actually persist and attain a college degree, and that’s a problem. But as I was saying earlier, a global concern is that online classes are not nice places to be. And if your listeners have any pushback on that, please feel free to reach out and engage with me on that assertion. But what can we do to just make the place a little more pleasant? How can we be warm and friendly and supportive and encouraging? How can we allow our humanity—even our personality—to show through? I was speaking with a good friend and a colleague of mine just a few months ago when I was delivering a little talk about this book and he was telling me though he’s been teaching online for 10 years, that he’d never thought of just being himself in his online class. And he explained to me that he loves teaching in person—he’s quite a character, super dynamic, very engaging, funny, loves to interact with his students in the classroom—and yet, he told me when he goes into his online class, it’s like a robot. There is no trace of his personality. And other people are saying this too, just be yourself in those online classes and make a deliberate effort to infuse warmth. But a specific strategy that people might want to try is to assign a goals contract as one of the items that are due in the opening module—or the orientation module—and a goals contract, you’ll see different kinds of variations around, but here’s the two pieces that I really like. A lot of people are talking about assigning sort of a memo of understanding or a contract where students agree that in this online class, they should schedule set times, they should plan on X number of hours per week, they should reach out immediately if they have questions. People are doing that. I like to embed a different element as well, which is to require students to set a couple of goals and it can be literally two. What are two goals that you have for your learning, or your success, your ability to earn an A in this class? And then an interesting twist is to ask students to identify one potential challenge. It’s still the case, I have my students all the time saying, “Well, my computer is in the shop, [LAUGHTER] it’s sort of all of a sudden, it busted and now it’s at the technician and I can’t do my online tasks.” So helping students to think in advance about a scenario such as that and of course, in that particular case, many campuses have computer labs or libraries where students can go and access another way to get into the course but maybe they haven’t thought about it in advance. So in the goals contract, ask students to set two goals, identify one potential challenge that might come up, and identify a strategy for how they can address that particular challenge. And certainly, identifying one challenge is not going to cover the range of things that happen in life during the course of an online class, but I think it sets the tone to get students thinking that one little hiccup doesn’t mean that we’re all done with this online class and we just have to sort of fade away and stop participating. And then what you can also do, periodically throughout the class, is you can ask students to revisit those goals that they set for themselves. How are they doing with that? What kind of progress are they making? Are there some strategies that aren’t working for them? Do they need to recommit to the intentional and deliberate scheduling of their class time? Just helping students be very explicit about what their plan is to succeed and finish the course.
Rebecca: What I like about what you’re saying is, it switches from really having the faculty member impose everything, and have the students be co-authors of the class to some extent, and they have some ownership over the space, which generally means that they’ll probably commit more.
Flower: What we know about online learning is that students must have a higher degree of self regulation, self direction, they must be more motivated, and be able to manage their time well. And if students don’t have those things, it’s much less likely that they’ll persist and finish an online class. And yet, when you think about it, online classes work directly against a student’s ability to do those things and here’s what I mean. When you are teaching in person, when you’re a student in an in-person class, you know that every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 you’re supposed to be in the classroom and it’s a natural way to help students hold themselves accountable for doing the work. Now I know sometimes students come to classes and they’re not fully prepared, but there’s still that built in mechanism where they’re going to be in the same room with their faculty member with other students. There’s a social element of accountability that’s like, “Well I know I’m supposed to show up and I should have my stuff done,” or “There’s a test next week and I need to be ready.” Well those real time interactions and those interactions with physical people don’t tend to happen in the typical asynchronous online course. Very often—I would say 99% of the time, probably—an online student is sitting at home by himself or at the coffee shop by herself. If she has a quick question about something, she can’t do what she does in the classroom and say, “Hey, did you understand what we’re supposed to do on that particular assignment?” or “Hey, faculty member, can you just re-explain that? I’m not quite there yet.” There’s no way to get that immediate response, that immediate quick guidance that might take two minutes in a physical classroom. So, students don’t have the accountability, they don’t have the physical presence of the instructor or the student, and so we have to go above and beyond in our efforts to build in structures that help students develop the kinds of self-regulated skills, the kinds of self-directed learning skills. Many of our students are not coming in with those skills already but we know students who do have those skills will be much more successful, so let’s build that into our curriculum. Let’s help them develop some of those, let’s talk to them about the importance of monitoring their own learning, and let’s structure exercises that will help them to do this. I’m pulling a lot of this material from Linda Nilson’s book—It’s called Creating Self-Regulated Learners—Although that book is not necessarily focused for an online environment, I think it can be hugely helpful to our online students to be very transparent with them about the importance of developing these habits, these behaviors for success. And as I said, structuring exercises and graded assignments that help them to do that, to hold them accountable.
Rebecca: Following up with what you just said, there’s a chapter in your forthcoming book called “Creating Autonomy.” Can you talk a little bit about small ways that we can give students autonomy in the classroom and in an online space?
Flower: Sure. And again, let’s be sure to keep that focus on small, doable, feasible changes, things that you could do in maybe a 15-minute work session and have it rolled out for your online class. One thing that we could do is to develop a self-enroll group structure. Many online faculty like to bring in collaborative learning tasks to, again, foster that community and the peer to peer instruction and learning that is so important as we know, but I think oftentimes we sort of assume that what we should do is purposefully group students, and there’s certainly value to be found in designing purposeful groups. But what can also be very interesting is to allow students to enroll themselves in groups that might cover a range of different topics. For example, sometimes I teach Educational Technology online classes. And if I were teaching that class today, I might offer five different groups that students can sign up for on a first-come first-serve basis. And one might be virtual reality, and one might be mobile learning, and one might be writing in digital spaces. So students could naturally choose a topic that they’re more interested in pursuing and when students have that level of autonomy, to make that choice of what their going to focus on, that’s one way of embedding just an opportunity for students to exercise that autonomy. Another even easier way I’ve already mentioned here is to offer students a choice between whether they want to submit a written task or whether they prefer to record on video or audio. Students carry these amazing devices in their pockets all the time with high- tech recording equipment embedded right in them. And students love the freedom of just being able to talk through their ideas, their responses, you can get a much more authentic response from students. Teach them how to use the recording software, or how to upload the video or the audio clip into the LMS and now you’ve got an easy choice that you can give students. If you prefer to write this, go ahead. If you prefer to record it, do it that way.
John: One thing that struck me is I used VoiceThread last year in an online class and I expected they’d actually use the video option with it very often. I gave them the choice of whether they use just voice or voice and video or use a video recording and yet none of them ever presented on video, which surprised me, given how common that is in social media. Why might that be?
Flower: Well, sure. I also require video discussions in some of my classes. And what I have learned is that people are nervous, especially in an academic setting about how they come across on camera. I feel like audio is a little bit less threatening, but sometimes people don’t like the way they look. And, you know, faculty too. [LAUGHTER] A lot of faculty are uncomfortable with recording on a video, and yet, it’s the way of the future. So right now, currently, I’m teaching my graduate level class on technological fluency and leadership. I require those video discussions and I say to them, “Are you nervous about doing this? Well, I want you to do it anyway,” because video interviews right, over Skype, or Zoom, as we’re doing here today, or video resumes. These are a thing that are happening and helping people to get more comfortable with showing their face on camera. I also talked to them a lot about the importance of seeing their peers faces and how much we can learn just from that. In the program that I teach now, students tend to take classes with the same people. But in my class, they always say, “I’ve never put a face to a name, how nice it is to see you,” and it makes a huge impact in terms of that community element. But I talk to my students very explicitly. Now, it’s also really important to think about situations where a student may not want to represent their face and there can be very good reasons. I had a tragic situation just last year where a student did not post the video, she posted a static picture of herself. I came to find out at the end of the semester. When she did that I was like, “Oh well, dock a few points, whatever. That was weird. Why’d she do that?” I later found out that she had been in a domestic abuse situation and she was ashamed of the way that her face looked because it was still very visible—the damage—and it just struck me to the core. An arbitrary decision that I made that it’s so important to talk to each other and look each other in the eye and she had a really, really strong reason for not wanting to do that. So back to that topic of offering a choice, what I do now is I tell my students, “If there’s a really good reason that you don’t want to show your face on the video, please send me a quick note. You don’t even have to tell me details, but just explain that you’re going to choose to do this other thing instead,” and posting a static picture is still pretty effective. So I think it’s very important to remember that our online students are people. They have lives and we need to be thinking about the decisions that we’re making in our teaching and how that might come across to a student… how it might induce anxiety in ways that we never anticipated.
Rebecca: One of the things that I wanted to follow up on and see discussed, the self-enrolling groups and collaborative work online. I think we have clear ideas about how that might work in a physical classroom, but not always a good clear way of how we can coach students through collaborative learning online. So even small, quick things that came up in Small Teaching, like Think-Pair-Share, you can envision how to do that in a classroom, but maybe have no idea how to do that in an online classroom.
Flower: It’s a great question, Rebecca. And I know that there’s actually a lot of pushback from online students and sometimes online faculty about the value of collaborative learning activities. It just so happens that my husband is in an online Master’s program right now and so I’m living with the student experience. And it’s frustrating to our online students—many of whom are not traditional 18 to 24 year olds, they might be returning adults—and one of the reasons (in fact, a primary reason) that our online students choose that modality is because they have busy lives. A big percentage of our students have jobs, families, obligations, and they need to do their work when they have time. That might be 8 pm, that might be 11 pm after all the kids are in bed. It might be 6 am, I like to do my online class at 6 am. When you require students to work in groups in an online setting, you’re removing that degree of scheduling flexibility that students value in an online class. So if you choose to require online activities, I have certainly moved towards lower stakes and opportunities that don’t require real-time meetings between students online. And you mentioned a great one. Think-Pair-Share can be set up in an online class. So there’s lots of ways that you can do this but the first thing that came to my mind is you could set up groups of two, and you could auto-enroll students in a group of two, and then they have their own individual discussion boards. In most Learning Management Systems when you have groups you can have kind of a private discussion board where students can interact with each other there, or I’m a big fan of letting some of the learning come outside of the Learning Management System. So let students know who their buddy is, have them exchange phone numbers, and they can just talk on the phone. Sometimes we forget those simple solutions. But a Think-Pair-Share—and so many ways that you could set this up, you could change it from module to module so people are always working with somebody else—just share an idea, discuss something, take it offline, come back and just write or record a quick summary of how that interaction went. When it’s not such a high stakes assignment, students can better engage in those opportunities. It’s so much easier to find 15 minutes to talk with one person than it is to find an hour with four working adults who all have family obligations. So I love the idea of lowering the stakes and embedding lots of little opportunities for students to work in pairs or in groups of three where it’s easier to coordinate. There’s less pressure about the online group member who never does the work—sorry, but that’s a thing—and just help students see other ways of interacting. Now, with my instructional designer hat on I want to remind us of the importance of making sure that online collaborative work aligns with the outcomes of the course. Very important to think about why you’re asking students to work together. Does this actually relate to what you want them to learn and get out of the course? Very important to pause, ask yourself some of those questions before you randomly assign group work because we should have group work, which I’m guilty of doing. [LAUGHTER] It’s an easy thing to do, “I guess we should have group work,” but really pausing to think carefully about the purpose of that. And then again, maybe thinking creatively about those lower stake ways of connecting students and facilitating some more authentic interactions. Maybe they’re going to text each other. That’s fine, they’re talking. We do a lot of talking on text these days. Help students connect in ways that are not so stilted, which is often what we see in the use of the discussion board and the LMS.
Rebecca: I found that too, I use Slack a lot in my classes, because it’s a common platform for designers and people in that realm to communicate professionally, and they love it. It’s convenient, it’s on their phones, takes it away from a clunky interface…
Rebecca: .. some of the LMS’s have and it’s really productive. And they’re able to do that midnight chat with each other.
Flower: Yes, absolutely. Again, let’s think creatively about tools that students already have. I honestly believe that a lot of Learning Management Systems actually raise barriers to student learning because most of them—although this is getting better—most of them don’t have a super robust mobile app and so a student, really to engage with coursework, has to find a place where they can sit down and log into the computer and access the course and jump through a million hoops before they can even get to where the learning is. Whereas if we take some of that learning into apps that they’re already using or things that they’re doing on their phone anyway where it’s in their pocket, we can communicate in real time. Now I need to exercise caution here because many faculty think, “Oh great. I’ll do Slack, and I’ll do VoiceThread, and I’ll do Flipgrid, and I’ll do Twitter, and I’ll do Pinterest, and it’s just going to be so interesting and fun.” Well, if there’s a reason for using some of those tools, absolutely. If those tools are just shiny entertainment—bells and whistles—then you may want to think again. Another important consideration if you’re asking students to use tools that are not in the Learning Management System is whether those tools are fully accessible for students, whether there’s any fee that’s involved, whether students might have to set up a new account with a new password, that might just be a hassle. So really you want to think carefully about what you’re asking students to do. Are the tools fully accessible and usable and cost friendly? Do they support your learning outcomes? And yet, if a tool that you’re thinking about using passes all those tests, then by all means jump right in. This semester I’m using Remind which is the simplest tool on the planet and the most effective. [LAUGHTER] It’s more in use in K-12 currently than in higher ed. It’s simply a text app that anonymizes people’s phone numbers. So I invite my students to sign up for my Remind list. I don’t require it. But then I can easily send a quick little 140 character reminder, “Don’t forget this assessment is due on this particular day,” or “New content has just been released. Login when you get a chance.” The message goes right to where the students are and because I make it optional, nobody is required to have the annoying instructor on their phone all the time. But students who want some additional support with managing deadlines and the class experience really appreciate the use of the simple tool called Remind.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that we know from a lot of evidence-based practices and books that have come out—including Small Teaching—is that frequent feedback is useful. But we also know that frequent feedback can seem really daunting to a faculty member, and time consuming. So are there ways that you would suggest managing some feedback opportunities online, but keeping it easy, quick, and reasonable?
Flower: Sure. Another great question. Another underutilized approach—at least in my experience supporting the faculty that I work with—is the ability to embed feedback into auto-graded multiple choice or true- false types of quizzes within the Learning Management System. So in most of these systems you can design feedback that will show up for students as soon as they submit the quiz. You can set those quizzes to show students which questions they got right or wrong and in the wrong answers you can embed feedback that says, “Please review pages 32 to 35 of this chapter. That is where you’ll find this information.” Similarly, you could encourage or embed challenging feedback and by that I mean, “Great, you totally know this material. If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to check out this website or this resource,” to offer students a range of experiences and engage students at their different levels of experience with the content. To be fair, setting up that kind of embedded feedback takes a little bit of time in the first place, but many of us teach those online courses over and over again, and once you’ve done that work, you can benefit from it time and time again. If you’re not sure how to do that in your Learning Management System, just about every institution has a Learning Management System support team with instructional designers or system admins, help desk folks who can walk you through the creation of that kind of embedded feedback. And it’s timely, it’s right there when the students are thinking about that problem in the first place, it’s relevant, and it’s a great way to automate some useful feedback for student learning.
John: You have a chapter in this forthcoming book on developing as an online instructor. Are there some general suggestions that you can give to faculty who’d like to improve and develop new skills or improve skills as an online instructor? Besides buying the book, of course. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: Right. Great question. Again, what this comes down to for me is that it’s just new. It’s just new for a lot of people. And to be honest, I suspect that many online faculty didn’t really set out to be great online faculty and many faculty are not finding the experience quite as rewarding as they might find the classroom experience. In fact, I have some data to back me up on that. The 2017 survey of faculty and information technology from EDUCAUSE Center of Analysis and Research found that of over 13,000 faculty respondents, 91% said that they don’t prefer to teach online. 9% said, “Great, I love to teach online.” That’s 91% of us who would rather teach anywhere else. [LAUGHTER] So how can we cultivate that joy, that buzz that we get in the classroom? We love teaching. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it because we don’t get paid enough. How can we cultivate that for ourselves? Now a barrier or a common challenge is time. Who has time to go and learn how to do a whole new skill? It’s different than teaching in person. But there are, again, small things that we can do to increase our awareness. One of the most effective things that you can do as an instructor is to seek an experienced and a thriving online instructor and ask to shadow that class. Ask to be added into that class shell and just observe. How does that person interact with students? What are the structures? What is the teaching? What happens while the class is in session? That can be hugely impactful, it’s usually free, [LAUGHTER] and faculty can invest the amount of time that they have. In fact, this is how I first got started with online teaching over 10 years ago, is before I was going to teach a class. Luckily, this offer was made to me the semester prior to my first online class, just to observe another class and see what happens in there. Simple structure could easily be set up for faculty who are scheduled to teach a new class in the Fall, have them observe or shadow a class in the Spring or the Summer, and yet an often overlooked solution. Certainly there’s lots of online resources. There’s podcasts like this, there are blogs that people are writing about innovative things that they’re doing, but sometimes just finding a thriving online faculty to interact with, shadow, observe, be mentored by, can be the most effective way to learn how to do this better.
John: I even sometimes encourage faculty to join a MOOC, because often you can find some interesting practices there that scale without necessarily requiring much effort on the part of the instructor.
Flower: That’s right. That’s one of my other recommendations and I hope I haven’t given all of the book away here. [LAUGHTER] But one of the other recommendations in that chapter is just to take an online course in whatever form that you can. Whether it’s a MOOC, a lot of organizations like the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters, offer online professional development opportunities for faculty. Even if it’s not about teaching online, just go take a class that is online. Or maybe personal interest. Sign up and take Spanish online. And having the experience as an online student is hugely impactful to help you understand what your students are going through. Even as a faculty if you’re taking a course and you’re reading the instructions going: “Now, what am I supposed to do with that?” Immediately, you have much more clarity about what your students might be experiencing and then you can take steps to address those kinds of gaps or areas of concern that might be in your own class… that you may not have previously seen before.
Rebecca: I think the recommendation of taking a course outside of your normal domain or area of expertise is key because you’ve got students who are in an environment they’re not familiar with, with a topic they’re not familiar with. And so to kind of simulate that, I think is key.
Rebecca: I know I’ve done that in the past and it’s like, “Oh yes, I forgot what it was like to be a beginner.”
Flower: Absolutely. In fact, I had a really interesting process or experience this past fall semester where I was supporting a redesign in a large cap biology class of liberal studies—or general education biology class—large enrollment. My background is in English literature… the humanities. I don’t think I ever took a hard science class in college because I did an honors program where we could do more sort of ethical concerns related to science. But I went to that class frequently throughout that semester and I clearly remember the first day. 240 students and me and I was sitting in the lecture hall with the students and it was just very, very impactful. Putting me in a situation that was foreign to me—I don’t teach large cap classes, I don’t know a thing about biology—I do now, I know a little more [LAUGHTER]—But I was a novice learner in a very foreign environment and that’s what our students are in our online classes, which is really quite anxiety producing if you think about it. Going into an unknown space, not knowing what’s expected, you don’t know how to get ahold of your faculty member a lot of the time. So just being intentional about helping students be more comfortable and more at ease in our online classes—be more available to them—can make a big difference. And again, you get that insight differently when you choose to place yourself in a situation where you’re a novice, and you’re not really sure what to expect. That’s a great point.
John: Are there any other topics that we should address that we haven’t raised yet? Anything else you’d like to emphasize?
Flower: You know, really only one thing comes to mind and that is an insight that I had literally this past week, which is that I feel like sometimes online faculty—myself included—have somehow developed the notion that we don’t really need to talk with our students. And let me explain what I mean by that. Again, I’m teaching an eight week—it’s an accelerated graduate level course right now—I’m busy. My students are busy. And on a whim a couple of weeks ago, I said, “Well, I know you have this assignment coming up by Sunday night, I’ll be available on Saturday between the hours of 1 to 5pm.” I don’t like to work on Sundays. I tell my students that if you want to just pick up the phone and call me on Saturday, go ahead. So that weekend, I did. I had a student who called me and she was a chatty Cathy, and we stayed on the phone for quite some time, but she got a better understanding of the assignment and how to be successful. Well two weeks later, which was this past weekend, it was my daughter’s 11th birthday and I was right in the middle of finalizing all the food preparation and everything else. And lo and behold, there’s my phone ringing and I can tell that it’s not a connection of mine. And I went, “Uh-oh, it’s one of my students,” [LAUGHTER] because I had said Saturdays 1 to five and that same student who had called me a couple of weeks prior called and we had a great conversation. 15 minutes, I was able to keep chopping the carrots while I was talking with her. And it just occurred to me, that wasn’t really a convenient time for me personally because I was doing that final party prep, but so what? The student needed help in that moment and just taking the time to answer the phone and talking through a couple of quick questions, it was helpful for her, and it just got me thinking about how, you know what, I don’t think a lot of us really talk to our online students, like, literally talk on the phone. I know some faculty have the online office hours, I know people are using video conferencing systems, I’m available, but one of the things I’ve started doing is just saying, “Hey, if you have a quick question, just call me. We’ll talk it through.” And sometimes a five-minute conversation can ease that student’s anxiety and answer a few questions. This happened to me again yesterday where a student was like, “Before I submit tonight, can I please just check in with you?” I talked with her while I was commuting to campus and it’s just a way of talking person-to-person, humanizing the online learning experience. But like I said, I think somewhere along the line personally I had formed this opinion that we don’t actually talk to our online students. And I don’t know why that’s a perception because if you’re teaching in person you talk with your students. If there’s somebody who has a question after class, you stay a few minutes after and answer those questions. But I think for online faculty somehow we’ve missed that connection and it can be a powerful and so simple solution to helping our students thrive and succeed. I think faculty and students both overlook some of those simple solutions. It doesn’t have to be a long, tedious, written interaction in a discussion forum. It could be a phone call, and so much can be conveyed through the tone of voice and emphasis, just as I’m doing here today. And as we all do, when we’re teaching live. Just picking up the phone and calling the students or inviting them to call you. Simple, powerful.
Rebecca: I think you’re pointing to something that I know I’ve experienced even though I don’t teach online regularly. It’s just online communication is always written and it feels daunting and it feels really time consuming. And it feels like, “Oh I got to sit down and dedicate time to do this.” So it’s nice to be reminded that there’s other ways to respond.
Flower: Just in my own work somewhere along the line, I forgot about the phone in my day-to-day job. My full-time job is as an instructional designer and it seems like we never just pick up the phone anymore. It’s always email. And as you said, it just takes longer, especially if you have a little bit of confusion and you’re going back and forth on email. I literally in the past few months, I’ve just remembered how to pick up the phone and call somebody. Have a five-minute conversation, you get your questions answered. And just reminding ourselves of the importance of real- time interactions sometimes, and moving away from the requirement that everything needs to be written all the time. I’m a big fan of video announcements, I do that all the time in my online classes and again, the reason I do it is because tone of voice, inflection, emphasis, and funny faces sometimes, or just emphasis where I might just kind of widen my eyes a little bit to explain that, you know, “This is really important. Pay attention and focus.” Just finding these other forms of communication apart from writing can make a big difference in the online learning experience as well.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?
Flower: Well, I’m not quite done with this project. [LAUGHTER] So I’m wrapping up this book development. But what’s really making me passionate now is to really focus on being a crusader for online education. It’s undervalued. It’s under-supported. I know that faculty don’t see the joy of teaching online and I know that students approach it the same way like, “Well, I have to get this degree and I guess this is a convenient way to do it.” I just want to advocate for how online learning and teaching can be impactful, can be rewarding, and joy giving, and you don’t see that reflected even in the coverage of teaching in higher education. Most of the time, the focus is on what we’re doing in the classroom and that’s so important, but there’s a big gap. What are we doing in our online classrooms? I just want to move into that space and encourage people to think about how they teach in person, and how to do those things in their online classes in ways that are not so daunting that they never get around to it.
Rebecca: This has been really great. I’m looking forward to picking up your book and maybe thinking about teaching online. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: That’s right. And if you don’t mind, Rebecca, I’ll just pick up on that, which is that again, I think a lot of faculty don’t say, “Hey, wow, what a cool opportunity. I totally want to teach online.” For many faculty it’s a daunting prospect, “I don’t know how to do this.” But it can be a really great way to reinvigorate your teaching—to find new ways of finding and addressing those challenges. Keep in mind institutions have the support professionals, instructional designers and such, who can help if you’re thinking about moving into online teaching. Talk with some of those faculty support folks, talk with your colleagues, and jump right in. It’s more fun than a lot of people think.
Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today.
John: Thank you.
Flower: Thank you. What an absolute privilege and honor to be here. Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, and Jacob Alverson.