Cognitively Optimized Online Course

active-learning-stratsMonday, I attended a regional conference hosted by the Harvard University Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning on active learning.  It was a good day of conversation with colleagues from some 35 institutions in the area.  I met Jim Lang of Assumption College, and he pointed out that “active learning” is a potential active learning problem for faculty in general.  Totally agree.

During the morning, we worked as small groups to identify both barriers to adoption and solutions:

Some barriers:

  • Faculty personal identity as “one who lectures”
  • Loss of control
  • Fear that experimentation will impact student evaluations
  • Classroom spaces not conducive to active learning
  • Lack of faculty knowledge as to active learning techniques

Some solutions:

  • Creating culture of active learning
  • Sharing of practices … and sharing evidence of efficacy
  • Spotlights on faculty doing it
  • Discipline journals including SoTL in addition to discipline research
  • Convene faculty development around shared problems
    • Start with small teaching activities
  • Understand the difference between “starting” versus “sustaining” active learning

minds_online2Yet, my best take-away from the conference came when Jim mentioned a new book he was reading on the train that morning:  Michelle Miller’s (2014) Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  I immediately went online and ordered my own copy, which arrived last night.  The book starts with the cognitive principles that could be applied to improved learning through technology, focusing on attention, memory and thinking.  It then provides practical applications of these principles to provide a “cognitively optimized, fully online course.”  That intrigued me!  Sixty-five pages in, I am excited enough to post this preliminary reaction.

Michelle noted in the preface that this book “…explains how principles of human cognition can inform the effective use of technology in college teaching”, noting:

  • “Technology enables frequent, low-stakes testing, an activity that powerfully promotes memory for material
  • Technology encourages better spacing of study over the time course of the class and helps prevent cramming.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material in ways that take advantage of learners’ existing knowledge about a topic.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material via multiple sensory modalities, which, if done in the right ways, can promote comprehension and memory.
  • Technology offers new methods for capturing and holding students’ attention, which is a necessary precursor for memory.
  • Technology supports frequent, varied practice that is a necessary precursor to the development of expertise.
  • Technology offers new avenues to connect students socially and fire them up emotionally.
  • Technology allows us to borrow from the techniques of gaming to promote practice, engagement, and motivation.” (p. xii)

She noted that technology does not promote learning by its mere presence … learning requires focused attention, effortful practice, and motivation (concepts that align with Susan Ambrose’s (2012) How Learning Works).

Michelle’s first chapter deals with whether online learning is here to stay.  She suggests factors such as economics, student demand, calls for measurable evidence of learning, new technologies and a drive to innovate as reasons why technology in higher education is now a given … and that we should invest in using it well.  She then looks at whether learning online works (noting that just by asking the question, we are holding technologically aided teaching to a higher standard than classroom teaching).  She charts out principles for optimal college teaching excerpted from four “best practice frameworks:

These best practices do suggest that online learning works…and some of what makes it work is active learning.

In Chapter 3, she tackles some of the prevailing myths about the psychology of computing:

  • Use of the web “rewires” the brain
  • Students today are “digital natives”
  • Social networking destroys real-life social relationships


While there are grains of truth, she provides some interesting analysis of the realities behind these myths and what that might mean for teaching.

So … I am through the first three chapters and stoked!  I will continue this as I move further through the book, and I will continue to find connections with the active learning session I attended this week.

If you are looking for a good book that applies the learning sciences to online teaching, I would recommend this book.

(…and thanks again to Jim Lang for the suggestion…)

{Graphics: Kenny, Barnes and Noble, Vogler}




A New Center and A New Seven

How Learning WorksI am excited to be headed to Boston next month to join the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research at Northeastern University.  CATLR, led by Cigdem  Talgar, was formed by Senior Vice Provost Susan Ambrose, lead author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.  Each member of CATLR works with faculty to explore ways to enhance learning that are firmly grounded in the learning sciences.  I am definitely joining a quality team … and “team” is relevant, as this appears to be a highly collaborative group.

I cannot wait!

During the interview process, several members brought up the white paper that Jeff Nugent, Bud Deihl and I co-wrote back in 2009:  Building from Content to Community: [Re]Thinking the Transition to Online Teaching and Learning.  In the white paper, we wanted to state unequivocally that teaching online involved much more than simply posting content online.  I still think that is true, even given the rise in MOOCs over the past five years.  To make our case, we noted the amazing growth of open content (i.e., the content was already posted online).  We then noted:

“In reviewing the literature, many suggest that the while the content and the learning outcomes are the same, the manner in which that content is delivered and the interactions with students are quite different. Ko and Rosen (2008) suggest that developing an online course starts at the same place where one develops a face-to-face course. One sets the goals for the course, describes the specific learning objectives, defines the tasks necessary to meet those objectives, and then creates applicable assignments around these tasks. The fundamentals are the same, the technique is very different. So in many ways, the design of an online course mirrors the design of a face-to-face course. Both have clear learning objectives. Assessment of learning is critical in both. Yet the fundamental practices for delivering the instruction and facilitating learner interaction are quite different.”

To illustrate these differences, we used a series of vignettes based on Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice for Undergraduate Education.   Chickering and Gamson synthesized fifty years of research and developed the following seven principles that they viewed as core to effective teaching:

7 Principles

  1. Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
  2. Good Practice Encourages Cooperation among Students
  3. Good Practice Encourages Active Learning
  4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
  5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
  6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
  7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Many others have coupled the Seven Principles with online teaching, such as in Chickering and Ehrmann’s Technology as Lever article or the recent Faculty Focus article by Dreon.  As I move to CATLR, I have been thinking differently.  I have been reflecting on recasting our white paper using the seven research-based principles described in Susan Ambrose’s book:

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

In many ways, these are “Seven Principles Two Point Oh”.  🙂  The Chickering and Gamson Seven focused on good teaching.  The Ambrose Seven focus on good learning – a neat shift.

Prior Knowledge

The online environment offers the opportunity to tailor learning based on what each student brings to the course.  If prior knowledge is activated, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate (not always givens), then learning can be enhanced.  To do this, some form of assessment is needed to gauge and surface prior knowledge as part of the online learning process.

Knowledge Organization

This principle recognizes that novices and experts approach learning in different ways.  If one approaches online learning from a constructivist and connectivist view, then strategies should be applied that help students collaboratively build connections with the concepts they are learning, teaming experts and novices.  Online concept mapping exercises are a neat way to move this forward.


Ambrose discusses the interconnections between a supportive environment, student efficacy, and the value of a learning goal – and these align with the earlier Seven Principle on High Expectations.   Passion for the subject and surfacing the relevance of the learning go a long way to increasing student motivation.  Empowering students to connect learning to their own passions and relevant interests applies here as well.

Mastery / Goal-Directed Practice with Feedback

In his book, The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests the “10,000-Hour Rule” – that greatness requires the investment of time and practice.  In a normal semester online course, one does not have thousands of hours, but the concept of practice to develop skills is important.  I coupled two of Ambrose’s principles here, because they are aligned.  Goal-directed feedback coupled with timely formative and summative feedback helps mastery.  It also might suggest connections between courses so that mastery grows over time across programs.

Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Climate

Every online class that I have taught has a unique personality.  As the faculty teaching, I have a lot to do with the tone set for a class.  The same is true for anyone teaching.  Our role is be proactive about climate.  Our students need safe places to try and safely fail, and then try and succeed.  We need to ensure that no students feel marginalized.  For me, this is a huge reason that my own social presence as the faculty member is so necessary in an online class.

Self-Directed Learners

Self-directed learners think about their own thinking.  Ambrose describes a metacognitive process in which students assess tasks, evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, plan their approaches, monitor their performance, and adjust as necessary.  One of the best examples of faculty developing his students is in the blog journal of my colleague, Enoch Hale.  In “Visualizing Our Intellectual Journey,” Enoch describes his efforts “…to track their intellectual journeys in clear, explicit and visual ways: then, now and into the future.”

So, I am excited to be moving to Boston and joining a high energy team!  And I am excited to explore learning through a new set of lens provided by Susan’s book!


30 Day Challenge – Day 5 – New Principles


One of the “fundamental truths” that has informed my teaching for the past decade has been the seminal work by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson back in 1987 – “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” – in which they synthesize fifty years of research to develop their seven principles.

7 PrinciplesArthur Chickering and Stephen Ehrmann updated this in 1996 with their article “Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever.”  They noted:

“Since the Seven Principles of Good Practice were created in 1987, new communication and information technologies have become major resources for teaching and learning in higher education. If the power of the new technologies is to be fully realized, they should be employed in ways consistent with the Seven Principles. Such technologies are tools with multiple capabilities; it is misleading to make assertions like “Microcomputers will empower students” because that is only one way in which computers might be used.”

Fast forward to 2014.  In the past two decades, “new technologies” have moved from desktop computing to smartphones, iPads, and Google Glasses.  The web has become ubiquitous…I now get emails from my car.

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released “Digital Life in 2025.”  Based on survey responses from over 1,500 people, it suggests that the future world in which we will work and teach will have the web woven invisibly in our lives and those of our students; that global connectivity could lead to more relationships and less ignorance; and while a revolution might occur in education, the divide between “haves” and “have-nots” could grow.  Also, while networks might grow and become more complex, human nature is not changing as rapidly.  Fifteen themes were noted:

“More-hopeful theses

1) Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.

2) The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance.

3) The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.

4) Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially tied to personal health.

5) Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.

6) The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.

7) The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated.

8) An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.

Less-hopeful theses

9) Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.

10) Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography,dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them have new capacity to make life miserable for others.

11) Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power—and at times succeed—as they invoke security and cultural norms.

12) People will continue—sometimes grudgingly—to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.

13) Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.

14) Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

15) Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’”

As we continue our 30-Day Challenge sparked by Enoch Hale, my question really rolls out of number 14 above…Day 5: If today’s hyperconnected communication networks are bringing about fundamental changes to our work and study environments, are the Seven Principles of Good Practice still relevant or in need of update?

The Seven Principles have been my go-to lens for determining practical teaching applications, such as the use of blogs for reflection and commentary in the majority of my classes.  Encouraging social media opens up opportunities for faculty-student contact and reciprocity and cooperation between students.  The open, social and participatory web enables the provision of prompt feedback – from both faculty and students.  Time on tasks can be manifested both inside a classroom and on the cloud between classes.  Multiple pathways respect diverse talents and ways of learning.  The Seven Principles work for me.

But rather than viewing teaching through the lens of the Seven Principles, perhaps first I need to view the Seven Principles through the lens of digital life.  Are new principles suggested:

  • by the availability of big data?
  • by 24/7/365 access?
  • by “open”?
  • by … ?

Another Pew report from 2012 – “Networked and Hyperconnected: The New Social (and Work) Operating System” – asked if the brains of multi-tasking teens and young adults are wired differently {not a given}, will they be better (adept at finding answers and solving problems) or worse (lack deep-learning skills, social skills, and depend on the web in unhealthy ways).  Answering the question about the Seven Principles might better adapt us to creating learning situations that work to enhance learning rather than reinforcing poor practices.

Stowe Boyd in the Digital Life report noted that “we have already entered the post-normal.”  In this post-normal world, what are the principles we should use to guide our teaching?


(…and be sure to check out good questions being posed by Enoch Hale and Jeff Nugent as part of this 30-Day Challenge.  Join us!)


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The Facets of Social Networks

David Warlick was live blogging in David Gratton’s session, where he drew an interesting picture from Gene Smith of the features of social networks. David said:


“The Internet has been about community all along, Usenet, forums, chat rooms, geocities Home page and webring and e-mail. To say that things have changed is wrong. What’s changed is that the barriers are gone. What’s changed is the syndication process — RSS.”

Interestingly, I had just commented to Jon Becker in his blog post about “How To Digitally Supplement a PLC” that the key was using the power of RSS to bring the conversation to the faculty.

David went on to note that social networks are all different. Using Gene Smith’s diagram, they are all about:

SN Facets

  • Identity,
  • Presence,
  • Relationships,
  • Conversations,
  • Groups,
  • Reputation, and
  • Sharing

I like this breakdown and am adding to David’s comments. Linkedin and Plaxo are all about identity. Wither and Bebo are about presence. Relationships are in many of the tools and conversations such as MySpace, Facebook, and Ning. Twitter is entirely about conversations (and can be addictive!). Groups are a major part of Flickr, Ning, Facebook and Basecamp. Reputation comes out of forums and followings – the number of posts, replies and ranking. Delicious and Diigo are built on sharing.

David asked how this might apply to education. He noted that students and teachers can ask questions and give directions, with other students and teachers responding. The whole thing turns into content, driving discussion which builds more content.

To me, the key lies in the learning outcomes. If one goes back to Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice, one sees connections between the seven principles and Smith’s building blocks:

Good practice in undergraduate education:

1. Encourages student-faculty contact.

– Tools that encourage relationships and communication work here, including Twitter, Facebook, and even learning management systems such as Blackboard or Desire2Learn. The key is the two-way routine contact.

2. Encourages cooperation among students.

– Groups and sharing help in the collaborative efforts needed for cooperation. Setting up a Ning site can be a useful way to not only build cooperation within a class, but with the global community as well.

3. Encourages active learning.

– The Read-Write web is not a passive environment. As students and teachers learn together through exploration of the web resources, they build knowledge and capacity to effectively compete in global markets.

4. Gives prompt feedback.

– The Read-Write web not only offers 24/7 connectivity, but fosters peer-review and formative assessment. Through the relationships build online, trust is developed and students learn to analyze and critique their own work and that of their peers, driving quality up.

5. Emphasizes time on task.

– The good news (and the bad) is that these technologies and processes expand the time for student work beyond the simple dictates of the course catalog. One of the challenges might become helping students find balance in this always on world, as Jeff Nugent noted last night.

6. Communicates high expectations.

– Through identity, presence, and reputation, faculty can model expected behavior and drive expectations. I have always found that students rise to the expectations set no matter how high, and the new social media gives students the tools to achieve those high expectations.

7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

– One of the positive aspects of social media is the exposure students receive to other cultures and other ways of thinking. This in turn can help drive their creativity and desire to explore new avenues outside the rigid curricula in place in most schools.

Much of the literature seems to paint social media with the same broad brush. David Warlick, David Gratton, and Gene Smith are helping me see the many facets that make up social media, and the multiple opportunities these open for students.

Blended Opportunities

A post this week by Wes Fryer caught my eye. He said: “I tire of dealing with folks who continue to not only cling to, but vigorously defend the anachronistic, 19th century teaching model of “asynchronous, non-interactive” face-to-face learning.” He had a draft matrix of teaching processes that specified activities as synchronous versus asynchronous and interactive versus non-interactive. I built on his framework and added some additions below:

As Will Richardson and Jeff Nugent noted this past week, we are in a transformative time. Will noted that some 75% of educators in this country do not realize that they can have a network. I would add that many of the 25% that do realize that they can have a network are blocked by their school systems from using that network…but that has been discussed before and hopefully will change as school board members die off. Both Will and Jeff talked about technology as a second language, with Jeff looking for ways to translate for the 75% who do not yet appreciate the transformation occurring around them.

In thinking about this language issue and Wes’s comment about the 19th Century model of teaching, it once again raises in my mind Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice. They noted that good practice in undergraduate education:

– Encouraged student-faculty contact
– Encouraged cooperation among students
– Encouraged active learning
– Gave prompt feedback
– Emphasized time on task
– Communicated high expectations
– Respected diverse talents and ways of learning

Non-interactive lecture violates the 7 Principles, and many faculty have worked hard to modify their lectures to add Classroom Assessment Techniques and other practices that make them more interactive. However, they miss many opportunities in which technology could play a role.

Many administrators and faculty equate technology as a point-to-point add-on to a class. For instance, they see adding a classroom capture system such as AnyStream as a vehicle for distance learning rather than an enhancement and study aid for local students. Some universities are adding YouTube Channels, but if it simply replicates passive delivery of lectures, an opportunity for learning is lost.

The framework above lists numerous tools and web applications that can add interactivity to learning environments. One of the more compelling aspects of many of these tools is the ability by students and the larger world to comment on and interact with student work. Wes has demonstrated some amazing uses of VoiceThread to connect students and their global audiences. I am amazed at comments I receive through SlideShare. The Google family of applications have collaboration at their heart. I am a junkie and feed off the new learning I see everyday from my very rich and global network. RSS feeds have opened up the blogosphere and provided new avenues for instruction.

Wes has some nice resources at his Blended Learning Wiki, and learning is increasingly blended. Jeff blew me away about six months ago as we debated “What is online learning?”. His answer – all learning today is at least in part online learning – you cannot separate online from offline. As part of translating for the faculty with which we work, we need to expand on their desire to add interactivity by introducing and modeling the uses of Web 2.0 applications and help them see that the world indeed is online.

Building Engagement Online

The latest issue of Innovate ezine contains an interesting article by Pu-Shih Chen, Robert Gonyea, and George Kuh entitled, “Learning at a Distance: Engaged or Not?”  My first thought on reviewing it was that this was yet another “no significant difference” study…but I was wrong.  While noting initially that many senior academic officers expressed the belief that online learning is inferior to campus-based learning, these three questioned these assumptions through a fairly robust study that used the well-established database in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

The authors of the study hoped to answer three questions:

  1.   1.  Why do distance learners take online courses?
  2.   2.  What are the engagement patterns, self-reported learning and personal development outcomes, and satisfaction levels of distance learners versus campus-based learners?
  3.   3.  What are the engagement patterns, self-reported learning and personal development outcomes, and satisfaction levels of traditional-age (24 years old and younger) versus adult (older than 25 years) distance learners?

For purposes of their study, distance learners were defined as first-year or senior undergraduate students who took all of their courses via the Internet in the spring term of the 2005-2006 academic year.  They reported three findings:

  1. “For distance learners, postsecondary education is but one of many priorities in their lives. Distance learners tend to be older; most work and care for dependents and enroll in online courses because such classes fit more easily into busy, demanding schedules. The top three reasons cited for pursuing learning at a distance—convenience, self-pacing, and self-directed learning—suggest that many of these students were looking to advance their education in the context of their current lifestyles. It is possible that without a distance learning option, many of these students would not be enrolled in postsecondary education at all.
  2. The engagement of distance education learners compares favorably with that of campus-based learners. Distance learners are generally as engaged and often more engaged than their campus-based counterparts, with the exception of engagement in active and collaborative learning activities. In addition, the self-reported gains of distance learners tend to be greater than those reported by their campus-based counterparts.
  3. Older distance learners differ from younger online students in noteworthy ways. Older students report greater gains and are more likely to engage in higher order mental activities such as analysis and synthesis as part of their studies. However, they are less involved in activities that depend on interacting with others, such as working with other students on problems or assignments.”

The authors concluded that their results suggest that distance learning was comparable to face-to-face learning, at least in terms of student engagement in effective educational practices.  I took a slightly different message away.  First, a mantra I have said for several years, the delivery method (online versus face-to-face) is less important than the activities undertaken by the teacher and students.  Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education work equally well on campus or online, and those principles presuppose active engagement by the teacher as well as the students. 

Second, the differences noted in this study between older students and younger students to me aligns with the growth in social interactions of the Web 2.0 generation.  

The authors stated:

“Student engagement takes many forms—intellectual challenge, active and collaborative learning, meaningful interactions with faculty, and the perception that the learning environment is supportive of the student’s efforts to overcome obstacles to learning.  Active and collaborative learning is the one area in which distance learners fell short of their campus-based counterparts.  {my italics} In part, this seems to be an artifact of activities related to group-based interactions such as working on projects during class or outside of class. These kinds of experiences are associated with desired outcomes of college such as satisfaction, persistence, and intellectual and social development.” 

 I would suggest that active use by faculty of the many new web-based social tools could provide the avenues for the types of active and collaborative engagement that these authors found missing from many online courses today.   The digital natives entering our colleges and universities already use socially engaging applications for personal use, and adoption and use by faculty could spread the engagement from the younger students to older students.  It will require thoughtfully designed online activities, but engagement is and should be a two-way street!

As always, I would be interested in my colleagues thoughts and responses.