Friday, February 24, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online Series – Part 2

Readiness to Learn and Self-Directed Learners - Does online learning help or hinder?

By Dr. Vanae E. Morris

Last time in this series, I introduced you to online teaching and learning and how this can no longer be an isolating process if it is to remain a viable teaching and learning environment. I also talked about adult learning principles and how using active learning strategies encourages and engages the adult learners in your class, especially in an online class.

Two of the principles mentioned were self-directed learning and readiness to learn. Are adults self-directors of their learning? Sometimes, this principle can be confusing because when you think of self-directed learning, you may think of self-teaching “. . . whereby learners are capable of taking control of the mechanics and techniques of teaching themselves in a particular subject” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005). Self-teaching reminds me of the independent study courses I talked about in part one of this series. However, the more prevalent understanding of self-directed learning is that of personal autonomy. “Autonomy means taking control of the goals and purposes of learning and assuming ownership of learning”(Knowles, Holton, & Swanson). So, this begs the question, does the online teaching and learning process meet the criteria of self-directed learning and autonomy? What do you think?

The principle of readiness to learn also brings with it the prior experiences of the learner. When you begin planning your course, do you take into consideration the situational factors that will affect your course design? Factors such as specific and general context of the teaching and learning situation, the nature of the subject, and the characteristics of the learners and instructor (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005; Fink 2003) are important to consider in the overall planning. Adults generally become ready to learn when their life situation creates a need to know something or they want or have a specific goal in mind they want to achieve. Going to school or learning a new skill can become that goal. Pratt (1988) talks about two core dimensions of adult learning, direction and support. Direction is how much assistance from other persons is needed in the learning process and support is how much encouragement a learner needs from others. Is readiness and knowing what situational factors (prior experience) exist, important to the teaching and learning online process?

This brings me to the next two best practices in online teaching and learning, which are creating a supportive online course community, and using a variety of learning approaches (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010; Ko, 2005). Creating a supportive online community helps to fulfill the support dimension of an adult learner and using a variety of learning approaches offers the direction (and self-direction) that adult learners need when they take online courses. In the online management system, Canvas that the University of Utah has adopted and will begin using exclusively in the Summer of 2012, instructors can create learning communities within the course. A learning community describes a collegial group who are united in their commitment to learning. They share a vision, and work and learn collaboratively. Allowing a space for students to meet, discuss assignments, practice skills within the course, and peer review assignments, creates that collegial group who can work and learn together collaboratively. This learning community also creates opportunities for the students to meet the criteria of the Phase II part of lesson planning (Guided Practice and Collaboration) and for the instructor to conduct formative assessments (Fisher & Frey, 2008). The second part of creating an online learning community is the involvement of the instructor. How involved does the instructor need to be in the course, the discussions, the course mail, or other aspects of the course to create this sense of a collegial group working and learning together? I feel that each individual instructor needs to determine this based on the course and the situational factors of the students; however, back to the first best practice of being present in the course, four or five days per week checking in, answering course mail and emails, creating course materials within Canvas, guiding and facilitating the discussions, and grading (to name a few) is a good best practice.

The next best practice is that of using a variety of learning approaches. What exactly does this mean, you ask? This means not doing the exact same thing for every Phase I (presentation of material), Phase II (Practice), and Phase III (Assessment), which are the main components of a lesson plan (with a warm-up and wrap-up as bookends) (Fisher & Frey, 2008). Using a variety of learning approaches means to use a variety of active learning activities mentioned in Part I of this series including such things as case studies, peer activities, project-based activities, think-pair-share, group projects, debates, guest speakers, and integrating multi-media, library, and web resources into your online course.

Online teaching and learning does not need to be boring and can be interactive and fun!

The next part in this series will include the importance of preparation and setting expectations.


Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2008) Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). New York: Elsevier.

Ko, S. (2005). Student-centered online teaching: Best practices. Retrieved from

Pratt, D. D. (1988). Andragogy as a relational construct. Adult Education Quarterly, 38(3), 160-181.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Small Groups, Large Class Series (Part II)

Wow! How time flies!

That's what I thought to myself at the end of class today, after our "team meetings" session for this week. I had been moving through the classroom, talking to groups of students and answering questions, when I turned to see that half the class had slipped out. My first reaction was "Oh no! They're not using their in-class group time effectively - have I made a huge mistake?" Then I looked at the clock and realized that indeed, class was over for the day. I guess time really does fly when you're having fun!

At some point I want to talk a little bit about the mechanics of how I'm managing the group work - both what goes into prep as well as what I do during class time - as there are certainly some practical considerations to take into account when attempting team projects in a large class. But today I am thinking about to particular issues that have come up over the past few weeks during team meetings.

The first came up a few weeks ago, and I wasn't actually made aware of it until after class had ended for the day, so I didn't see or hear firsthand what had happened. A student dropped by my office hours later in the day to let me know that there had been a conflict in her group. It seems as though there were several things going on, including different perspectives as to what topic the group should focus on, differences in opinion in how the group should work together, as well as some clashes between strong personalities. Upon reflection, I don't think I handled this situation as well as I could have. 

  • What I did: I listened to the student's side of the story, and asked her permission to speak to the other student involved. I then spoke to him and heard his side. The next time the teams met in class, I made sure to visit their group and made some suggestions about different directions they could take in their project, but I did not mention the previous conflict in the team setting, and no one brought it up.

  • What I think I could have done differently: As one of my objectives for the team projects is to provide students with opportunities to develop and practice skills required for successful collaboration, I suspect that in addition to working with the team on their content, I should also have drawn attention to the conflict, and used it as a teaching moment. I think perhaps I am guilty here of not just trying to avoid conflict rather than learn from it, but also of placing too much emphasis on the product of the team work at the expense of the process of working as a team. Moving forward, I'll be watching this group closely (I checked in with them again today) and taking my cues from the students as to whether or not we need to revisit this issue.

Another issue that arose in class today I think I handled more successfully. As I mentioned in my previous post,  I had created student teams based on the interests students had submitted early in the semester. Perhaps not surprisingly in a class of over 100, some students didn't submit their interests. Perhaps without intending to, these students were communicating to me that they fell into one or several of the following categories: they were not particularly invested in the course, they were not attending class, they were not reading instructions, they were likely to continue to miss deadlines, and ultimately, they may not be particularly reliable team members. So what to do with these students? 

I had a few options. One was to randomly assign these folks to other groups, spreading them out throughout the class. However, I felt that this would be enabling in a way, allowing them to continue to do less than the barre minimum, and furthermore, I felt it could possibly disadvantage the groups they were placed in (as they seemed to be at high risk to become "social loafers"). So what I chose to do was place all of these students in a group together, with a "note to self" that I would need to keep a close eye on them.

For the most part, this has worked out as I expected. Several of the students placed in this rag-tag bunch are no longer enrolled in the course (as they had not paid their tuition by the due date), and at least one has yet to attend class. There is a core group of students who are reliably in class, and they have worked together to choose a topic and get organized. They, understandably, are raising concerns about the others who are inconsistent in their attendance. They want to know if the students who are not contributing will receive the same grade as the rest of the group, and conversely, will they be docked for not having the contributions of the missing students?

Assigning grades on group projects is something I had prepared for well in advance (and had already explained to students, but keep in mind, these are the students who weren't completely on board at the beginning of the semester). There are several methods of doing this, but based on past experience, I prefer Fink's method, which basically involves having students consider a set of criteria and then distribute 100 points among their fellow team members, and leave feedback explaining their evaluation. I then use these peer evaluations and my assessment of the group project to calculate each individual student's grade. This method, and others like it (see also Michaelsen's method, in the same volume), allows students the flexibility to differentiate between team members who contributed and those who did not, and ensures that peer evaluations impact student's individual grades such that they are more likely to take both their contributions to the group, as well as the peer evaluation process, seriously. I typically ask students to complete peer evaluations both at midterm and at the end of the semester, so that students who are viewed by their group as not pulling their weight have time to consider this feedback and improve their performance.

By the next time you hear from me, I will have reviewed the midterm round of peer evaluations, and provided teams with feedback on a substantial part of their projects. I'm sure I'll have plenty more to rant and rave about! 

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Monday, February 13, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 2)

by Rai Farrelly
"While meeting everyone's needs sounds compassionate and student-centered, it is pedagogically unsound and psychologically demoralizing." (Brookfield, 1995, p. 21). 

Thank goodness!! From classes for undergraduate and graduate students to workshops for faculty, I have, from time to time, had the feeling that I didn't meet everyone's needs - as if it were possible; yet, I would still feel bad about it. That, I suppose, is in part  because my top strength (of 34 possible) as identified by a Strengths Finder test is Empathy! Oh boy. 

According to Brookfield (1995), being a critically reflective teacher is at the core of accepting that it's just not possible to meet everyone's needs - it is simply an assumption that we might carry around with us, but it is an assumption that we should shrug off - right along with our Atlas Complex.

Along with the long-held assumption that we should try to meet everyone's needs in the classroom is the assumption that we should have power in the classroom. Only, I'm sure that most would never articulate that assumption in such a way. Why would a teacher ever say out loud "I want to have power over my students." In fact, I would bet that most instructors who exude power over their students do so rather unknowingly. It might manifest in the design of a tightly wound syllabus riddled with policies, rules, grading criteria, explicitly outlined assignments, etc. It might appear in a delivery method for content that excludes the students from interacting with the material in a meaningful way (i.e., the traditional didactic lecture). It is likely subtle, but it's almost sure to exist. Why? Because it is one of the most commonly held assumptions in education - Father Knows Best? No, try Teacher Knows Best. But does she really?

In my experiment with sharing the power in the classroom this semester, I have found myself breathing easier. I am relying on my students - rather my fellow learning community members - to share in the co-construction of meaning related to our topic, which in this case is conveniently: teaching in higher education. I feel a sense of ease knowing that their knowledge is complimenting my knowledge and together we are teasing out the best approaches to teaching in higher education. Of course, my teaching experience and knowledge base serve as a guide when contextualizing comments, creating concrete examples or posing relevant thought-provoking questions. However, there is no indication that 'what I say goes' - I hope! My goal is that they take what we discuss in this class and assume a critically reflective stance about their teaching in relation to our discussions. They will test their own assumptions in their respective classes and allow their teaching philosophies to evolve against the backdrop of their experiences.

So, let's go back in time. In my last entry - I shared our experience with creating our classroom culture and exploring the assignments for this course. We agreed that the suggested assignments for the course were suitable to our overarching learning objectives for this class. As such, they will be required to write a teaching philosophy, complete a course design grid, an accompanying syllabus and one lesson plan for that course. This should all be relevant to them as they will each be teaching courses at the University in the coming semesters.

In addition, they will each be observed while teaching a class in their department. The exciting thing about this assignment is that most of them are not currently teaching, so this means that they must secure a teaching opportunity and collaborate with the lead instructor of that class to both meet that instructor's intended learning goals for that topic and also implement the lesson in such a way as to embrace the active learning approaches we discuss in our course. In addition to being observed by me, they will each observe one of their peers and a 'Master Teacher' (e.g., a recognized 'excellent' teacher at the U), providing feedback and analyzing that instructor's approach in relation to their individual teaching philosophies. 

The 'fun' part for the discussion on assignments came in Day Three of this course when we addressed the grading policy. How do you evaluate graduate students in a course entitled Teaching in Higher Education, which is designed to prepare them to be instructors on campus? Well, in this case - I let them tell me what seemed fair. I gave them some options to choose from and left the window open (for me to jump out) for them to design additional options. What do you think they did with this freedom? this power? I'll tell you what they didn't do. They didn't say, "Just give us all an A and call it good." No. In fact, at least one voice asked for the option of having scores divvied on a scale from A+ to F so that distinctions in quality of work could be honored. Rather than hash out the details of the discussion, I'll let you (with great trepidation and pride) read the final 'Grading' section of my syllabus - as constructed with the learners in this class.

We will use rubrics for product-oriented assignments (i.e., observed teaching experience, course design grid, syllabus, lesson plan and teaching philosophy). Credit for peer and master teacher observations will be given with evidence of reflection on the observed class (i.e., completed observation feedback form, reflection on observed teaching in relation to one’s own teaching philosophy and participation in class discussions).

Rubrics are not numerical, but have qualitative likert scales (i.e., completely, mostly, partially, not at all). Assignments will be graded as high pass, pass or fail. Assignments that receive a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark can be resubmitted to reach a higher standard (high pass or pass).

At the time of final grades, high pass is an A, pass is an A- and ‘fail’ will be negotiated in relation to the extent of the fail (i.e., reason for ‘fail’, number of ‘failed’ assignments, level of effort made to resubmit assignment, level of effort made to consult peers or instructor, and standard/quality of work in relation to peers).
I'm just as anxious as you to see how this works at the end of the semester! 

Now let me highlight one important point in our discussions around this approach to collaborative course design. The guiding consideration for sharing the power in the classroom is the set of situational factors that underscore your class (see p. 6 in this Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning by L. Dee Fink, PhD).  These situational factors help us make decisions about power sharing based on critical information related to who our students are, where we are teaching and what is expected of us as teachers. These situational factors include the values, expectations and assumptions of all involved. They ask us to consider big questions such as, "Can I let 150 Freshman decide how I grade them?" I think we all know the answer to that one. "Can the approach Rai is taking with her CTLE course work in my Physiology class?" Please, do let me know.

In my next entry, I'll elaborate on how we roll out each lesson and share the responsibility for delivering and exploring course content. Please, submit your questions, comments, shock and awe. We'd also love to hear about your experiences, successes and failed attempts with approaches you've tried in the classroom.   

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

~Rai Farrelly

Friday, February 3, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online Series - Part 1

Online Teaching and LearningIt can no longer be an isolating process!

By Dr. Vanae E. Morris

Have you taken an online classrecently? What was your experience? Did you love it, hate it, feel isolated? I have been teaching online courses for the past 11 years (and have been a student in several) and I have heard all of the chatter, both positive and negative. I have also read research studies that list the pros and cons of online classrooms and the online learning process.

Distant education and online learning has changed by leaps and bounds from the independent study days of taking a year to complete a class by using snail mail, email, and working alone with a sometimes present instructor.

Online teaching and learning can no longer be an isolating process for students or instructors if it is to survive as a viable teaching and learning environment. The shift from a face-to-face (f2f) classroom to an online classroom does take time and effort on the part of both the instructor and the students and does require a paradigm shift for both the instructor and the students. I would suppose it also depends on the willingness of the instructor to invest the time it takes to be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Being on the stage does take far less preparation than engaging the students in the course because you can just walk in and talk at the students for the hour plus of class or just post materials in your online course and never engage in the discussions and conversations with the students. It also depends on the willingness of the students to be actively engaged in the online course, which does take at least four to five days of visiting the course to post to discussions, check new materials, read the course materials, or ask questions for clarification.

However, what I have discovered, even with our current millennial students, is that if the instructor is effectively engaging the students in the process (f2f or online), the students will respond because as adult learners, they need to know why they should learn something, they need self-direction in their learning, they need to learn experientially, learn those things they need to know, approach learning as problem solving, and most of all, they need motivation to learn (Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2005). Using active learning rather than passive learning strategies in your classrooms, both face-to-face and online, encourages the adult learners in your class to respond.

In order for the online teaching and learning process to be effective, 10 best practice principles must be actively instigated in the online learning environment (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010; Ko, 2005). I find these best practices to be very effective in both a f2f and an online environment; however, these best practices become even more critical in the online learning environment.

The two most important best practices are taking the time to design your entire course, and then being present at the course site. In the online pedagogy class offered through the University of Utah’s Center for Teaching & Learning, the focus is on a backward course design, which requires an instructor to examine situational factors, goals, understandings, essential questions, course objectives, summative assessments, and the designing of a learning plan (to help students successfully meet the course objectives through activities and formative assessments) (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005; Fink, 2003). Designing the entire course before you start gives you a road map to work from when you design and construct your individual weekly lesson plans. Having this road map assists you and your students with clarity and organization.

Being present at the course site is “the most fundamental and important of all the practices” and according to students, “the best online faculty . . . are faculty who are present multiple times a week” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). However, that does not mean you or your students need to be online 24/7, which is a myth floating out there in the blogosphere! So what is considered multiple times a week? The students in my online courses have discovered (me included) that this means at least checking in and finding out what is going on at least four to five days per week. What online teachers and learners often forget is that they should schedule the same amount of time (including the time you would meet f2f) for an online course as they would for a f2f course. Being present is important to the teaching and learning process no matter the size, space, or environment of your classroom.

Stay tuned to find out about the other best practices of teaching and learning online!


Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). New York: Elsevier.

Ko, S. (2005). Student-centered online teaching: Best practices. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.