Teaching Online: 5 Tips for Concise Writing

Tips for Concise Writing

In my last post, I discussed the importance of writing clear, concise instructions. Our online students are busy professionals, so we owe it to them to be as straightforward and unambiguous with our language as possible. Nonetheless, writing concisely can be a challenge. Even the most seasoned Instructional Designers wrestle with the balance of delivering succinct but comprehensive content. These are five of my go-to editing strategies for squishing unruly sentences: Focus on the who and the what. At the risk of sounding like an English teacher, I’m going to suggest that you focus on the subject and the verb. The subject is your who or what. The verb is your action, or what the what is doing. Everything else is decoration that should be used sparingly. When you use a specific subject and vivid action verb, you’ll find that many of the other words are unnecessary. Before: For the most part, individuals in graduate classes are appreciative of conciseness…. Read More >

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How to Read a Map of Education Levels Across America

Education Levels Across America

One of the guiding aspirations of online education is to reach across geographical (and cultural) boundaries. I love my field because I work to help make higher education more widely available to those who have limited access to it. The Educational Attainment in America map, developed by Kyle Walker at TCU, is a fascinating way to look at that challenge. He developed it with existing census data, so there isn’t any new information here. But what the map does very well is to immediately inform the ongoing conversation about the uneven distribution of academic attainment levels in our country. Just as an example, I suggest you try the “Generate chart for the current view” button in the upper left-half of the window. Click it over Boston, then try it over Detroit. Compare them with each other and with other parts of the country. The following percentiles are taken from the above lat/long/zoom links for Boston and Detroit: Boston Persons with graduate degrees (27%) Persons with bachelor degrees (25%)… Read More >

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WEBINAR - Providing Effective Student Feedback

Webinar Series

One of the keys to engaging online learners and facilitating critical thinking is providing students with timely, meaningful, and actionable feedback. Webinar: Providing Effective Student Feedback Good feedback is: Timely Instructional Consistent Good feedback also: Highlights a specific knowledge or skill Focuses on thinking (not writing mechanics) Moves a student’s work forward Provides a model or example Invites the student to give the instructor feedback Encourages the student to ask for the kind of feedback s/he needs Source: (Johnson, 2013) and (Orlando, 2016) In this webinar, UNE Online’s Instructional Design Team explores What is feedback? (And what isn’t it?) Purpose of feedback Strategies you can use right now Webinar handout Providing Effective Student Feedback WEBINAR – Handout References and Resources Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. Johnson, A. (2013). Excellent online teaching: effective strategies for… Read More >

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Writing Discussion Forum Prompts

Discussion Forum Prompts

Discussion forums are a hallmark of asynchronous online courses like those at UNE. Previous posts on this site have offered an excellent introduction to Best Practices for Discussion Board Facilitation, and an overview of current conversations around learning outcomes and instructional implications of online discussion forums. In this post, I aim to provide a closer look by offering practical tips for writing discussion forum prompts and instructor posts in relation to intended learning outcomes. In a future blog post, I will propose a two-level discussion model as a way to meet the competing goals of discussions as a space for creative exploration of ideas, versus discussions as a venue for more formal academic discourse. Before going on, I want to briefly address the importance of discussions in an online course. In addition to providing a way for students to engage with the content, discussions offer an opportunity for student-to-student engagement, thus adding a social element that is widely considered to… Read More >

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Looking at Student Privacy in 2017

Student Privacy

For more reasons than I can count, the 2016 presidential election has amplified our country’s ongoing debate on web privacy. The topic can grow tiresome, but if we stop to consider that the issue goes far beyond someone’s email server, it becomes a little more interesting. Take student privacy, for example. We expect faculty and staff to honor FERPA. Do we expect the same of tech companies? Just yesterday, the AP reported that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is suing Google. He claims the company is violating students’ privacy by using their data to sell targeted ads. Of course, Google is far from the only company to have a rocky relationship with privacy advocates. And, it often seems that when it comes to privacy on the web, schools and their students don’t have many good options. So what can be done? Here are a few places to start: Next week, on January 28, EDUCAUSE and StaySafeOnline.org are observing Data Privacy Day…. Read More >

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A Second Wind for MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses

Massive Open Online Courses have had a bumpy history. Their promise, when the idea was gaining full momentum a few years back, was that so long as a course was well designed it could scale infinitely to teach four thousand students as ably as it could teach twenty. Not only that, but some forward thinkers hypothesized that a MOOC would run better with more students than with less, effectively flipping the quality standards for student-to-teacher ratios on their heads. However, buzz around MOOCs quickly lost its steam due to unforeseen challenges. MOOC students seemed to lack motivation. Some MOOCs were built before best practices in online education were completely understood. Sometimes, even when everything in the MOOC functioned perfectly, the certificate or badge or grade a student received from such an experimental course was of dubious value to employers. It could be said that MOOCs were more or less abandoned while in beta. The souring of the initiative is explored further in Robert Zemsky’s 2014 piece for the… Read More >

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Good Sources, Academia, and Fake News

Good Sources, Academia, Fake News

Fake news is a hot topic, these days, for reasons that are too complicated to get into here. But just the other day I was in a meeting in which the legitimacy of student sources came up, and I was reminded of two things: Teaching students how to tell the difference between good and bad sources is a recurring challenge in education at all levels, including graduate school, and It is largely education’s responsibility – to society – to cultivate the “information fluency” skills necessary for distinguishing between good and bad sources. One of the education writers I follow – Mike Caulfield, through his blog Hapgood – recently wrote a compelling post on the subject of fake news and its manifestation in the classroom. To sum up his point – and I encourage you to read it yourself – Caulfield is skeptical of the universal effectiveness of heuristics like RADCAB and CRAAP because they do not require students to develop or exercise knowledge in a specific domain in order to judge the… Read More >

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Writing Great Assignment Instructions: Tips for Success

Writing Great Assignment Instructions

The development of creative, authentic assignments that align with course objectives is always an exciting process. However, guiding students with clearly written assignment instructions can be challenging. We owe it to our busy online students to provide clear, concise instructions that prepare them for success. This week’s blog will provide some tips to help you to do just that. Start with a Statement of Purpose Just as a great essay begins with a strong thesis statement that reveals something of the purpose and direction of the writing, great assignment instructions begin with a clear statement of purpose that provides a brief overview of the assignment. A strong statement of purpose will provide some indication of the context (where the assignment fits into the larger course) as well as a glimpse of what the completed assignment will look like. Here is an example from a recent literacy course: Successful literacy outcomes depend on content area teachers who are well prepared to support… Read More >

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The Different Hats of Course Development: SMEs and IDs

Different Hats of Course Development

Many factors result in new curriculum development processes in educational institutions. To name a few: Stricter regulations and legislation require institutions to exercise and document the effectiveness of the education they offer in different ways than in the past. The rise in online education and data analytics trends require that student learning outcomes are more concrete and measurable. Many institutions are moving from employing full-time faculty to a mostly adjunct faculty to lower labor costs and improve faculty to student ratios, among other reasons. As a result, in online education especially, there is movement towards pairing a Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with Instructional Designers (IDs) to develop courses. This collaboration hopefully results in courses robust in engaging content and interactive delivery. However, the roles in this type of development are often unclear, leading to questions of who is responsible for what. So what are guidelines for the roles? The SME is tasked with developing content that provides a strong foundation… Read More >

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Coordinating with OSASC for Student Success

Webinar Series

Henri Moser, the Online Learning Specialist, and Lori Rand, the Online Writing Specialist, joined us from the Online Student Academic Success Center to talk about how faculty and staff can best coordinate with them to foster student success in online courses. They covered a whole lot, from when best to connect students with their services to how OSASC can lend their unique perspective to the design of the learning activities themselves. Thanks to Henri and Lori for the work they put in on this excellent, informative webinar.

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Current Events and Relating Course Concepts

Relating Course Concepts

While I can get behind this quote – not in terms of judging what people discuss but rather in terms of what one may aspire to do ultimately, which is discuss ideas – I also think that it should be less of a tiered approach that may smack of elitism, and more of a pyramid of aspects. It’s going from ideas to their manifestation in the form of people and their actions and events as much as the other way around, going from events and people and getting to the eagle view by connecting them to ideas. This is where current events may illustrate a concept or a point and connect or ground an idea, as well as introduce it in a way that is easier to relate to. Why use current events? Of course, it will make the course livelier and bring to reality certain aspects. Here are some more benefits of incorporating current events: they are authentic and can be interprofessional, complex, and cross-discipline. they can… Read More >

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Video: How to Override a Grade

How to Override a Grade

This video will show you how to override a grade in Blackboard and what the student sees on their side.

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Blackboard Releases Results from Usage Study


Blackboard Learn. North America. Spring 2016. 927 Institutions 70,000 Courses. 3,374,462 unique learners. The most recent Blackboard usage study casts a much wider net than has been their scope in the past. Titled “Patterns in Course Design,” the learning management system heavyweight released an interpretation on the current environment of course design. By crunching the aggregate data across their broad sample, they were able to classify every course into one of five “archetypes.” They accomplished this by analyzing the tools deployed within the courses and how they were utilized. The identified archetypes reflect larger patterns of course design and student experience. These five archetypes are telling of the primary use of the Blackboard learning management system. Three out of four Blackboard courses are used, likely in coordination with a face to face course, as a course content storage platform. In these types of courses, the majority of Blackboard’s tools go unused. Students are rarely assessed, interact, or are graded in Blackboard in the “Supplemental”… Read More >

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The Student Perspective

Student Perspective

When we design or teach an online course, we spend time thinking about how to reach our students. We consider their prior learning and such things as the cognitive load of the class. These are essential considerations, but perhaps we can do more. We can turn the tables and look at the class from the student perspective. However, it is sometimes hard to put ourselves in our students’ place because we are so familiar with our own course and its subject matter. How can we overcome that barrier in order to see the class through the eyes of a student? Put some distance between yourself and the material. Take a break from it for as long as possible. Before you log back into the class, imagine yourself as a student in the class. What is the first thing you want to find when you log in for the first time? The second? Look at your class and think about the… Read More >

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Report from ACTEM

Resource Articles

Today, the Instructional Design team is at ACTEM. Several of us are presenting, in fact. So, for our Vision post this week, we thought we’d post the synopses of our presentations here, and if you would like to you can follow up with the designers responsible for them. Please feel free to email them if you would like to hear more, or if you have a project in mind that would benefit from their expertise. And wish us all luck at ACTEM! The presentations (and presenters) are: Effective Discussion Board Strategies How do you entice students to exchange ideas in an online environment? How do you facilitate discussions when you’re not face-to-face with your class? Join in this interactive session to explore discussion board best practices. by Susan Barrett-Hyde (sbarretthyde@une.edu) & Susan Rent (sgrahamrent@une.edu) Online Course Gamification This is a 2-part presentation on gamifying online post-secondary courses. The first part will address the history and theory behind gamification and higher education. The second part will… Read More >

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How to stop your computer from ruining your sleep

macbook pro laptop

As phones and computers become more integrated into our daily lives, we’re spending more time staring into the harsh light of our screens. A while back, my colleague Corey Butler wrote for this blog about computer vision syndrome, a kind of eye strain that often accompanies frequent computer use. Well, it turns out that there’s another eye-related problem with routine computer use: interrupted sleep. It’s not just that people are staying up later because they don’t want to put down their phones or turn off the TV. Rather, a growing body of research is showing that exposure to blue light (especially in the evening) leads to a significant drop in sleep quality. It’s more of a biological response than a behavioral one. If you’re like me, using computers at night is a necessity. Often, the evening is the best time to get work done. But shutting the laptop and reading by candlelight isn’t the only solution to the negative effects… Read More >

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Webinar: Writing Effective Learning Outcomes

Webinar Series

As the first installation of an effective course design series of webinars, here is our presentation on writing effective learning outcomes. Sue Farris, our Assessment Specialist, and Olga LaPlante, the ID for MSW-O, led this webinar. Writing Effective Learning Outcomes We invite you to take this quiz (anonymous, but graded, and with feedback) – you can take it before and after you review the presentation. Or you can do it mid-way after the first few slides. If you would like to ask questions or add comments, please use the comment fields below. Supplemental materials include: Online Lecture Toolkit: Formulating Objectives Curriculum Mapping & Giving Direction to Learning For the Love of Rubrics Tips for Strengthening Your Course Narrative How to Write Compelling Final Project Prompts Why do it: Essential Questions for Learning Scaffolding for Learning

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The Scholar-Practitioner: Bridging the Gap between Research and Profession


Teaching teachers to teach is about as meta as it comes. But how do we best prepare professional educators to teach students who will likely work in jobs that haven’t yet been created? One answer to that question may very well lie in research. Research has long been a cornerstone of graduate education, but the rapidly changing 21st century job market demands that we move graduate level work beyond annotated bibliographies and research papers in favor of activities and assessments that provide students with opportunities to apply that research. The shift is an important one for authentic professional practice, as students craft portfolio-ready deliverables that not only showcase what they know but also reveal what they can do with that knowledge in a professional setting. This winter, we tasked three of our literacy instructors from the College of Graduate and Professional Studies — all talented scholar-practitioners in their own right — with an ambitious curriculum mapping project. In the first… Read More >

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Web Annotation with Highly

Web Annotation

I’ve called attention to web annotation tools in the past, the reason being that I am among those internet weirdos who thinks there are conversations to be had across domains that, right now, are difficult to maintain because commenting functionality is largely restricted to the domain in which any particular resource is published. Aggregators like Reddit and Imzy show the need for environments that allow us to talk about web resources in new contexts, as do scholarly research tools like Zotero and Mendeley. Web annotation allow those types of conversations to bounce more nimbly between these constructed contexts and the context of the article itself. My work in education has led me to think that this kind of engagement with online resources is important to foster in lifelong learners, and can indeed be used for research in online courses. Highly is a new web annotation tool that lives in your browser and allows you to save, share and organize quotes from online resources. Because… Read More >

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The first week of your course - Webinar

Webinar Series

We know that courses start for the instructor days before they start for the students and that those few days both before and after the beginning of a term can be spent wisely to make the next eight or sixteen weeks as efficient and enjoyable as possible. So, we put together this webinar detailing steps to take in the first week of your course to make the rest of the course as successful as possible:   In the video, we mention both a supplemental tools and tutorials doc and a supplemental outline doc. Additionally, you may find the notes we used for the presentation useful. Do you have a process for getting ready for and managing the first days of your course? Do you have questions about what we covered? Please make your observations and post your questions in the comments field below.

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Easier Reading with Beeline Reader

Beeline Reader

One of the most exciting aspects of online education is how the environment, with its quickly evolving technologies, is making content easier to consume. Some of these developments are more exciting than others, and many are more well-intentioned than they are actually helpful, but I thought I would take the opportunity to show you one that I’ve heard a little bit about and, having tried, I found to be quite impressive. Beeline is a browser-based extension that automatically applies a color spectrum to online text to make it easier to read. The shifting colors (editable colors, by the way) guide the eye from one line to the next, and—according to the group behind Beeline—actually allow people to read faster. I’m not sure about that argument, though perhaps the increase in speed comes from decreasing the frequency of people losing their place, which I actually believe. Beeline is built using Readability (Readability is no longer around, but an Alternative, Mercury Reader, is… Read More >

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As Term Start Approaches

Term Start

I found myself mildly freaking out about what to write this week for the blog post. We are nearing term start and most of us are focused on finishing up our courses. The building is filled with stress. My favorite way to deal with stress is cake. Who doesn’t become excited and giddy, like a small child, when cake is mentioned? That is when it hit me… Designing a course is like baking a cake! It takes time, patience, and skill to create both. A cake, just like a course, needs to be balanced. You don’t want your cake to be overly sweet, but too bland is just as bad. Both need to be easily consumed. Finally, if both a course and a cake are really good they will remain in someone’s memory forever. I am no baker by any stretch of the imagination, but here are the steps I remember from my one home economics class: Find a recipe… Read More >

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Online Access for Students with Disabilities

orange key

Sixteen years ago, I met a blind professor who was an early adopter of what we now call the flipped classroom; students completed assignments online and class-time was reserved for collaborative projects and discussions. Early on in one of his flipped courses, he began receiving multiple emails from a student asking questions about everything from course content to his experiences as a historian. After a couple of weeks, he became curious about why she wasn’t talking with him during class. Her response was that she was deaf, and this was the first course in which she was able to communicate with the teacher without an interpreter. It took a minute for what he said to register with me: Email had eliminated a communication barrier between a blind professor and a deaf student. This was a defining moment for me as I realized that online learning can be a powerful equalizer for students with disabilities. Because insight into our learners informs our… Read More >

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Tips for Strengthening Your Course Narrative

Course Narrative

A good story generally contains the following elements: Protagonist: The hero (or anti-hero) of the narrative. Central premise: The argument or thesis of the story. Backstory: The context of the story. Conflict: The challenges faced by the protagonist. Narrative arc: The chronological movement of the story. Should any of these be missing, readers will find the story lacking, though they may not be able to say why. The same thing holds true for courses. A course is also a type of story. The narrative unfolds through readings, assignments, lectures, and other materials. And as with a story, a course will seem inadequate should major narrative elements be missing. More often than not, the effects of badly designed courses and badly written stories are the same: students, and readers, feel that nothing is at stake. They are not compelled to continue studying How do narrative elements translate to a course? Imperfectly but a rough translation is possible. In a course on… Read More >

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