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}




Roundtable Discussion on Assessment

Last week in GRAD-602, Jeff Nugent led an exploration on assessment.  We noted that a distinction can be made between learning for mastery versus the traditional approach that typically leads to sorting and sifting students.  This provided a segway to the evening’s focus on formative and summative assessment.

Assessment WordleIn class, we brainstormed ways in which we have experienced assessment within our disciplines, and tests, quizzes, papers and performance observations were the traditional practices that came to the surface. These forms of assessment, while very important, are often the only means used in teaching for demonstrating what students are learning. They are audits of learning.  What is often overlooked, or given less consideration, are assessment techniques that are aimed at improving student performance and understanding about “how” they are learning. This latter type of assessment, sometimes called formative, provides learners with important feedback about how they are learning and how they can improve what they are doing. This kind of assessment is not an audit of learning, like a test or quiz, but rather an approach to assessment that values learning as an iterative process of growth through loops of practice, performance, and feedback. As Jeanette noted, formative assessment allows students to fail forward.

To illustrate these two notions, Jeff modeled a traditional approach to learning with a quick lesson on “the montilization of Traxoline.”  No talking was allowed, instruction was delivered in a jargon-heavy manner, and then rote memorization was assessed without determining understanding.

The alternate model involved a classic physical science exploration of mass, weight, volume, and displacement with the floating ice cube problem.  A problem was explained, understanding was diagnosed, opportunity was provided for discussion, and prior knowledge was surfaced and made visible using Poll Everywhere.  This process would allow an instructor the opportunity to adjust her or his instruction to ensure mastery.

Our classes only last 100 minutes, and so we (as always) were left with feelings that we did not discuss all that we desired.  So, we sat down around my office table this morning to record another podcast.  In this session, Jeff, David McLeod, and I discuss aspects of power that arise from assessments, the problem with assessing higher order thinking with multiple-choice tests, and dip our toes into the idea of tests as “objective” measures.


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Which Word is Emphasized in “Active Learning”?

This week in our Teaching, Learning and Technology course, GRAD-602, we will explore active learning.  I was delighted that one of our students jumped in to the topic early with her post, “Educators Against Active Learning.” Now, EvoAcademic is not against active learning herself.  Rather, she is commenting about Kevin Mattson‘s 2005 article, “Why ‘Active Learning’ Can Be Perilous To The Profession.”

Mattson’s article appeared to be a rallying cry against administrators for pushing changes in how the professoriate teaches while blaming faculty for poor student performance, particularly when administration does not provide faculty with the resources needed to make substantive change.  He seemed to suggest that calls for active learning such as those by Dee Fink or John Tagg “…illustrates how the burden of active learning is clearly placed on the shoulders of the professoriate.”

The Burden of Active Learning?



I always thought the whole point of active learning was to shift the focus of activity off of the professor and on to the students.  Active learning is about having students solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm during class – thereby increasing their engagement with learning.  I certainly saw active learning being modeled when we met at the Future of Education conference and created the poster to the left.  We were “doing”…and the focus was on the learning!  This is just one active learning technique, and Richard Felder illustrates many more in his excellent resources at his website on Student-Centered Teaching and Learning.

I am looking forward to the discussion in class, as I hope to bridge Jeff Nugent’s exploration of How People Learn in the last class with Dee Fink’s concept of Significant Learning.  As EvoAcademic points out:

“[Felder’s definition of active learning as] “…anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes.”  So… active learning is anything EXCEPT what many higher education classrooms are currently doing…” 

Linking HPL to Active Learning may help keep the focus off “active” and on to where it belongs, “learning.”  We shall see.

I am wondering if any of you have good advice for new faculty on active learning?

{Photo Credit: NMC}


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Web Conferencing as Wireless Projection

It has been a while since I blogged, partly due to semester start-up and partly due to spending a lot of time in Twitter and Facebook.  However, yesterday we did something rather neat that takes more than 140 characters to share.


There has been a lot of buzz this week about the iPad and tablet PC‘s.  Tablets have been around for  awhile and they give you the ability to use s tyllus for drawing or inking on documents and virtual whiteboards.  Here at VCU, Jeff Nugent has run a faculty development project for several years that equips faculty participants with Lenova ThinkPads to use instructionally.  These cohorts meet periodically to share lessons learned and look for innovative ways of using tablets in the classroom.  Giving faculty the ability to draw out and explain their computations real time is a big plus for tablets.  However, in most teaching situations, the faculty member is shackled to the podium, in that we have not found a good system that allows for wireless projection from the tablet to the older mounted LCD projectors in the classrooms.

Jeff had a brainstorm earlier this week, and together, we tested it – and it worked!

We used our licensed web conferencing system – Wimba Classroom – to act as a wireless projector.  As shown below, we added a fictitious student account to our Blackboard class.  We then logged into Blackboard on the podium computer as this student, and then entered the Wimba room we had set up.  On the tablet, we logged in as the instructor, entered the Wimba room and then shifted to sharing the desktop of the tablet.  The podium computer then projected what we had showing on our tablet.



This gave us the ability to freely move around the room, hand off the tablet to students and let them work problems from their desks, and even capture the screen as it unfolded using the archive feature of Wimba.  In computational classes like math, physics, or other sciences, your students can now become more actively engaged with lessons.

None of us likes being tied to a podium, so this workaround opens up lots of possibilities in our classroom teaching!  Our current cohort of tablet users were excited about the opportunities this affords them.

{Photo Credits: Oliver Regelmann, Wm Chamberlain}

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