Creative Ways to Connect Online

Featured

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By Lurene Kelley 

Dr. Juliette Paul is no stranger to giving digital life to words on paper. As an assistant professor in the Department of Literature and Language at Christian Brothers University, she specializes in Digital Humanities — a form of scholarship and pedagogy that applies computational tools and methodologies to printed works.

For Dr. Paul, online teaching is just an extension of her interests.

“I enjoy the opportunity to reach students in a different way, to create a different learning experience for them,” said Paul. “I believe online courses enrich their semester’s face-to-face work. For myself, I’d lose something, even in depth and versatility of my own teaching, if I wasn’t teaching online.”

Paul’s first online teaching experience was at a community college in Chicago. Since arriving at CBU in 2016, she has taught an online course every semester. She has also participated in OLET’s faculty training. In this time, she’s developed practices that she believes enhance her students’ experiences, as well as her own.

Communicate Early and Often

The conversation in one of Paul’s online courses begins before it ever opens in Canvas. Two weeks before the start of class, Paul sends an email. She introduces herself, reminds students of the first day of class, sets expectations and shares information about resources they’ll need. Paul does this to let students know she’s already anticipating their arrival and to increase chances that students will have the resources they need once class begins. This is especially critical in abbreviated, 8-week courses where waiting for a book to arrive can mark early failures for a student.

But her proactive email relationship doesn’t end there. Throughout the semester, Paul sends an email out every weekend welcoming students to the upcoming week. She writes about what will happen that week and how it will build on what they’ve already learned. Paul says these regular class emails are written more personally than her instructions in the modules and that this constant, more informal style of communication helps build participation and relationships with students.

Getting Personal

The first few assignments in Paul’s “Introduction to Literature” online course this Fall have nothing to do with the assigned novel this semester. Her earliest ungraded assignments involve showing students how to navigate her course. She takes them through a checklist of looking at the first module, watching her “welcome video” and clicking on the course overview. Another early, ungraded assignment is one many professors require — a discussion forum encouraging students to introduce themselves. Paul gives detailed instructions regarding what she wants to see in the introduction and models that by introducing herself.

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Paul sees this seemingly mundane assignment as vital to building relationships over the course of the semester, because it can be mined for information that is important to the student. In the introduction, Paul learns the name the student prefers. Just as it happens in class, the name that is officially associated with CBU credentials may not be what the student uses. Paul says she makes sure to use that student’s preferred name in any responses throughout the semester.*

She believes that this simple introduction assignment and other early exchanges, if used intentionally by the professor, can produce more engagement.

“My goal early in the term is to make students feel really welcome,” said Paul. “And also let them know, ‘I see you’ – I see you logged in, you did the assignment. I also say things like ‘Did you hear that ‘so-and-so’ had a similar idea?’ to really work to create connection between myself and students and among students,  just like you would at a party! I look at it as a social environment.”

Paul also creates a graded assignment requiring each student to meet with her one-on-one – either in her office or via an email exchange. You could also add a WebEx meeting to this assignment.

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“Online learning can feel more depersonalized than face-to-face or advising,” said Paul. “I’ve come to learn that many of our students are even more eager in online to have regular contact with faculty members. Giving students feedback more frequently is more important to my teaching style online and important to the student’s success. When I teach online courses, I am engaged in a different way than face-to-face, but not less so.”

* Author’s note: Professors could also make it a practice to specifically ask all students for preferred pronouns in the introduction instructions. This could feel welcoming to students who identify as gender non-binary and would give the professor and classmates the opportunity to use the student’s correct pronoun throughout the semester.

Scaffolding for Online

Professors often worry that online students might feel less connected to each other and their professor, and also that the limitations of an online platform lessen the quality of the course. Paul believes the engagement and quality can be there, they’re just different.

For example, in a traditional classroom, Paul may require students to write an 8-10 page research paper. She may ask for less pages for her online students, but that doesn’t mean they’ve written less. That’s because she has “scaffolded” the project by requiring more pre-writing assignments on a rigorous schedule that are smaller, but actually enhance the final project.

“The assignments for online are different than face-to-face, but they’re the same quality,” said Paul. “I want students to demonstrate the same skills that face-to-face would lead them to, but by way of the social and research-based learning activities that digital environments tend to afford online learners. Although I don’t require less, in order for students to reach their potential, we all have to work more slowly and deliberately.”

Blurring Digital and Physical Spaces

Paul also uses Canvas regularly in her traditional classroom courses. The Canvas shell in this case, becomes a repository for class readings and videos, as well as a place for her students to participate in graded online forums between class meetings and contribute to reflective journals. Even in her traditional classes, Canvas is a virtual environment to bring students, teacher and resources together.

Paul admits that teaching online has challenges and that, like in the classroom, her efforts aren’t always successful. But she believes that looking for new ways to engage with students in Canvas and in the online environment, as a whole, can open up our understanding of how and where students can learn and thrive.

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Lurene Kelley is the Online Student Success Specialist for Christian Brothers University’s Center for Digital Instruction. She holds a Ph.D in Organizational Communication from the University of Memphis and is a former college professor and journalist. 

That Time I Made My Own Course Video

Kyle Purpura's first teaching video.

Actual footage of Kyle Purpura’s first video!

By Kyle Purpura

In the early 90s, I began teaching accelerated economics courses in the international high school where I was employed. Although the language of instruction was English, over half of my students were non-native English speakers. This meant that I had to be cognizant that some of the course materials I inherited, such as the 600-page textbook, might not always be the best choice for a few of the members of the class. So from the outset of the year, I found myself on the lookout for relevant, suitable, palatable course materials to supplement what I had inherited.

Enter Phil Holden, the “Godfather of YouTube Economics.” Although we might be tempted to think otherwise, YouTube has only been with us since 2005. By 2006, Phil Holden, a charming economics teacher from a small, British international school in Greece, began publishing a series of straightforward, 5-20 minute videos focusing on various aspects of economic analysis. Filmed from a flip-cam mounted on a tripod, Phil’s videos consisted of him standing in front of a board, diagramming, explaining, and analyzing economic models and events.

The videos were technically simple, but Phil’s mastery of the content and his delightfully upbeat presentation made them something really special. They were obviously the product of a passion: making economics accessible to an audience that did not necessarily learn efficiently from reading economics textbooks. With permission, I downloaded every one of Phil’s videos and began sharing them with my classes. My students loved them.

There came a point where students would ask for a demonstration of something Phil’s videos hadn’t touched upon. So, I was motivated to make my first video (truth be told, I was also motivated by a desire to be just like Phil). So armed with a tripod and flip-cam, and wearing – for some inexplicable reason – a salmon-colored shirt, I shot the raw footage for my first video. I was nervous.

Don’t ask me why I was edgy, because it was just me, the whiteboard, and the camera. I hit the little red record button, and walked to my mark in front of the white board. I was awkward and felt wooden. I halted, stammered, and stuttered. Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I knew I could edit some of the stuttering out later. Finally, I finished! And then I edited (and edited, and edited), completing the process by publishing my very first YouTube video to my newly minted YouTube channel.

On Monday, I showed my students the video. The feedback was tough and hopeful all at the same time. Students didn’t love the piece as much as they loved Phil’s stuff, but they appreciated that I took the time to create and share something that could help them with the course. That was all I needed to hear.

Screenshot 2019-11-20 15.50.44Motivated to create better and better course content, I shot more and more videos, finding the process easier with each passing shoot and subsequent editing session. After the fifth video with me in front of the camera, I switched tactics, taking up screencasting instead of me in front of the camera. Through narrated, animated PowerPoints, I was able to focus more on the nitty gritty of the econ diagrams, while still providing “color commentary” with my recorded thoughts. Screencasting, as opposed to me on camera, allowed me to be more comfortable and to create better quality videos. I found that being behind the microphone was much more natural for me than being in front of the camera.

My students loved the new screencasts, every bit as much as they loved Phil’s stuff. Often they would tell me that they used both sets of videos – mine and Phil’s – in tandem with one another. Students also loved that they could ask me to create a video on a certain topic, and that I would have one finished within a day or two. And I certainly loved making them. The screencast format allowed me to easily fill in the skill and content gaps that students were sometimes experiencing. I could also tailor the video content to address the particular questions my students were asking.

But did this strategy produce positive outcomes? Now that I am no longer in the classroom, it’s a question I often ask myself. The answer is, “I think so.”

When I consider my students’ average scores on externally moderated exams, their scores increased after 2007/08, which is about the time I began to shoot my own vid-casts. This makes sense to me, as many of my students were kids whose first language was not English and had a fairly difficult time with advanced level textbooks. The videos distilled complex information and ideas so that they could better follow along; plus, if students were viewing at home, they could pause and go back back to information to hear and see for a second or a third time.

On the other hand, the increase in students’ median scores could have also been the result of other factors: changes in examination formats, a teacher who felt more engaged now that he was creating his own content, differences in class sizes, differences in international schools, etc.

Nonetheless, I believe that my strategy paid off – that better outcomes were attributable to my created video content. Students benefited because they could modify the speed of the course content at home to suit their different abilities to process information. They could also copy down and repeat in writing the step-by-step analysis that I highlighted in my videos. And they could show me – by pausing a video in class – where they were having problems in their understanding of the material. And students knew that they could request a new video of me at any time … which I delighted in accommodating.

Over ten years and almost a million channel views later, econ students from all over the world still contact me. “Mr. P, could you maybe make a video on …”

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Kyle Purpura is an Instructional Designer and Trainer for Christian Brothers University’s Center for Digital Instruction. He holds an Educational Technology Master’s Degree from Boise State University and has served as a technology trainer and content developer in higher education overseas, as well as a high school administrator. 

Encourage Reflection, Improve Involvement, and Sharpen Writing Skills with Student Blogging (in Canvas)

By Tyler Isbell 

Are you looking for different ways to incorporate more student writing in your classroom? Consider student blogs.

Students blogs can provide:

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  • A way to have your students write frequently in your classroom without having to assign (and grade) more term papers or essays.
  • A creative means to have your students reflect upon their thoughts, experiences, and course content in a space they can design.
  • A platform for students share their ideas on a course topic, work with their peers, and connect with an authentic audience.

If you are unsure what a blog is, check out this four minute YouTube video.  Essentially, we understand that a blog is a collection of one’s “thoughts, ideas, experiences, and more” presented in one place online (WPMU DEV, 2013).  The creation of this collection will allow students to practice writing and improve their communication skills, while also sharpening their brain’s performance and boosting their confidence.

All of this is in a space that students can design to be their own and be shared with more than an audience of one instructor (Thomson, 2018). Furthermore, students work with and learn from both their instructors and peers virtually. Blogs provide chances for students to see others’ perspectives and to explore other resources included in posts.  These opportunities promote active learning, student ownership, and reflective practices, provided that the purpose of and expectations for blogging in the classroom is clearly defined to the students (Chawinga, 2017).

How Do I Create Student Blogs (in Canvas)?

A quick search of the Canvas Guides for student blogs will turn up no results.  Although I did find three interesting videos from previous InstructureCons (the Canvas annual conference – See the list at the bottom) regarding the benefits of student blogging, Canvas currently does not have a native blog feature or tool.  However, instructors have developed a few options that others may adopt in order to include student blog posts within their Canvas courses.  I will highlight two main solutions in the table below:

Solution 1:
Native Tool Substitution – Discussions
Solution 2:
Third-Party Tools – Blog + Aggregator
Individual discussion boards are set up for each student as a ‘blog.’ Students use a third-party tools such as WordPress, Blogspot, or Tumblr to create their own blog.  Another third-party tool knowns as an aggregator is then embedded into Canvas in order to present student blog posts within a Canvas page.
Example Examples
Canvas Discussion Example Blogspot/Inoreader Feed (Gibb’s Example)Tumblr/Inoreader Feed
PRO
Benefits of using the Canvas discussion tool
PRO
Benefits of using third party tools
  • Easier setup for faculty.
  • No third party app to learn, use, and teach to students.
  • Administrative rights over blog content — Faculty will retain owner access to student work.
  • Speedgrader integration
  • Students control content and design; picking colors, style, etc.
  • Lives after course — Students can reference their work and/or continue to contribute to their blog even after the course is over.  This could make it more authentic and meaningful to the students.
  • Unique – Blogging will be less confusing because it won’t look like a Canvas discussion board.
CON –
Setbacks for using the Canvas discussion tool
CON –
Setbacks for using third party tools
  • Less customization and features — It’s a discussion board, so it looks like a discussion board.
  • Students lose access when the course is over (unless they save the content externally).
  • Could be confusing to students when trying to use the same platform for blogs and/or journals and/or discussions.
  • Learning curve for faculty and students.  Integrating third party tools — training and supporting students in the creation of their blogs goes BEYOND Canvas support.
  • Faculty does not retain owner access of the student work.  Faculty can remove posts from course feed, but cannot directly edit/remove a student post from the web.
  • Speedgrader integration is NOT automatic (but there is a work around!)

Solution 1 GuideCanvas menu

  1. Go to ‘Discussions’ on your Course navigation.
  2. To create a student blog, click the +Discussion button.
  3. Input the name of the blog.
  4. Use the Rich Content Editor box to add a description of the blog.You may also include instructions for the author and/or guidelines for replying to a post.
  5. Choose ‘Options’ – Allow Threaded replies should be checked.
  6. Click the ‘Save’ or ‘Save and Publish’ buttons.

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*In your course ‘Settings’, it is recommended that you uncheck ‘Let students create discussion topics’ and check ‘Let students attach files to discussions’ and ‘Let students edit or delete their own discussion posts.’

courses setting

Solution 2 Guide

DIY Instructions

Step 1: Student creating blogs and aggregating their feeds into Inoreader
Instructions on collecting student blog posts into Inoreader for easy instructor access.

Step 2: Embedding Inoreader feed into Canvas
Instructions on embedding Inoreader feed in Canvas in order to share/publish student blogs in Canvas.

Tested Third-Party Tools

Here are a few tools tested to work well for student blogging and Canvas integration.

Learn more on our ‘Exploring Student Blogs’ Canvas Page: https://cbu.instructure.com/courses/3988/pages/blogs-in-canvas

Note:  Whether you wish to use solution 1 or 2, feel free to contact our team if you have any questions, concerns, or difficulties setting up or facilitating an activity in your course!

OLET@cbu.edu             (901) 321-4004

Extra Canvas Resources:

References:

Chawinga, W. D. (2017). Taking social media to a university classroom: teaching and learning using Twitter and blogs. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 14(1). doi: 10.1186/s41239-017-0041-6 https://educationaltechnologyjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41239-017-0041-6

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Tyler Isbell is an Instructional Designer and Trainer for the Center for Digital Instruction at Christian Brothers University. He holds an Educational Technology Master’s Degree from Boise State University and masters-level certification in Technology Integration and Online Teaching. Before coming to CBU, Tyler was a trainer and instructional specialist in secondary education. 
 

Designing Online for Student Success

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By Lurene Kelley

Retention. It’s a hot buzzword at CBU and every university in this country. But student retention is not your typical academic trend. It is part of the promise we make as institutions of higher learning – that we will attract, retain and produce college graduates and is at the core of why universities exist. As new CBU President Jack Shannon has stated, it is our “moral obligation” to ensure that the students we admit will graduate on time.

That’s a heavy lift, especially considering the many barriers to graduation students face. Our students work (some full time), many have family obligations, financial struggles, health issues, learning disabilities and just the everyday activities and lifestyle that go with being college students. And then you add online education to the mix — a learning modality that is still new to both students and faculty.

The research on online learning retention rates can vary dramatically, however, due to definitions of what “retention” actually means for online learning, and the dramatic differences in the quality of online courses across programs. Just as it is in traditional teaching environments – not all online earning experiences are created equal. As it turns out, how you design your online course could make a big difference in how well students perform, despite other obstacles.

Variables that Affect Student Retention

In research focused specifically on retention in online programs, Berge and Huang (2004) designed a comprehensive model that identified and categorized why students drop out of online courses. They focused on three clusters: personal, institutional and circumstantial.

Personal: These variables include demographics, individual traits (like academic skills and motivation) and past educational experiences. These variables are unique to each student and largely involve who the student is when they come to us.

Institutional: These include university mission, policy, structure, institutional attitudes and how the system is structured in ways that either help or hurt individual students. It is this cluster in which the institution holds the greatest ability to control.

Circumstantial: These are things that happen to the student, both by the institution and outside of it. These include institutional variables, such as interactions a student has with the university, professors and fellow students. It also involves external variables, such as work, family life, stress and health. These are things that happen while a student is with us and can be challenging to predict, control or alleviate.

The Difference that Online Course Design Can Make

It is impossible to help a student navigate all of these challenges while at CBU. Berge and Huang’s (2004) set of Institutional variables is a good place to start, because these are the policies and structures set by our private university. At various levels of our administration, it is critical to examine and bring change to policies and other structures that are frustrating or even stopping student progress.

On the individual level, you already know that as a professor, you can have a significant effect on a student’s satisfaction with their college experience. Dietz-Uhler (2007) took a more granular approach to how professors can impact student retention – by considering the design of online courses.

In their article, Dietz-Uhuler designed and revised two courses according to national standards set by the online course assessment nonprofit, Quality Matters. They found that across multiple semesters, retention rates in these individual classes each exceeded 90%!

You can read the full article here to assess the quality of their methodology and conclusions, but the authors maintain that applying these eight Quality Matters standards to their course design increased student retention:

1.     Course Overview and Introduction: Detailed information in the syllabus about course navigation, expectations  and information about the instructor. An “Introduction to Online Learning” was also included in one course, which is something the OLET team will be rolling out in the next few months.

2.     Learning Objectives and Competencies: “Clearly defined and measurable learning objectives” were included in both the course overview and at the module level. Learning activities that contributed to learning outcomes were included in each of the course modules and the connection to the learning objectives were made explicit through rubrics and other explanations.

3.     Assessment and Measurement: The courses included activities that were connected to the learning objectives, such as lecture note reviews, watching videos, interactive puzzles and simulations. The students were required to follow these activities by answering questions intended to stimulate reflection. The student reflections were given detailed feedback via email by instructors. The authors felt it was critical that all activities connect back to the learning objectives and that students were made explicitly aware of the connection.

4.     Resources and Materials: Students were supported with instructional material related to resources required for the course. For example, in a course using graphing calculators, the professor provided video tutorials on how to program it. In another class, screen captures were used to create PPT tutorials on how to use a particular program. Another effective tool is a FAQ sheet to address commonly asked questions about resources, material or the course.

5.     Learner Interaction: This pertains to meaningful interaction between the professor and the student. This could take place in email exchanges, discussion boards, video conferencing or videos submitted for back-and-forth visual conversations!. This standard also includes interaction between students in the class, all of which can be facilitated with the aforementioned modalities.

6.     Course Technology: This standard was met by including “technology that enhances student learning and fosters learner interactivity.” Again, this involved discussion boards, video conferencing and email. The course syllabi in these courses also contained detailed information about downloading or installing any software or plug-ins required for the course. This could also mean instructions in the syllabus about technology and tech assistance provided by the university.

7.     Learner Support: The professors provided information about technical, academic and student support offered by the university. Here at CBU, that could include adding our Online Student Success Resource Guide to your syllabus and encouraging students to utilize it.

8.     Accessibility: Meeting this standard involved information about disability accommodations for students in the syllabus. CBU has a resource link for faculty with information about how to provide assistance for students with disabilities. One of the authors of this article also designed her coursework to be accessible to student with visual or hearing impairment.

Reading these standards can feel overwhelming but know that building a high-quality online course does not have to happen all at once. It can be done by revising or building your course with what you feel are the most important or simplest changes first, and then continually improving your course each semester. You can also contact one of the Instructional Designers on the OLET team to evaluate and recommend changes to your course (Email: olet@cbu.edu; Call: (901) 321-4004.)

Any change that moves your online course closer to these standards can result in students feeling less frustrated and better prepared to learn. Despite the myriad of personal, institutional and circumstantial barriers that my come their way – your online classroom could be the one place where they feel well supported to thrive.

Want to Learn More About Designing Online for Student Success?

If you are interested, you can check out the Showcase of Best Practices on the Quality Matters website that demonstrates how professors across the country are making changes to their online courses to increase student success.

You can also read this brief post about tweaking your course to be more student-friendly: 7 Ways to Improve Your Online Course Retention Rate via Learning Revolution.

SOURCES

Berge, Zane & Huang, Yi-Ping. (2004). A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS. 13. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/y2tseub3

Dietz, Beth & Fisher, Amy & Han, Andrea. (2007). Designing Online Courses to Promote Student Retention. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 36. 105-112. 10.2190/ET.36.1.g. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249233937_Designing_Online_Courses_to_Promote_Student_Retention

 Lurene Kelley is the Online Learning Specialist for CBU