May 4, 2015

​Here are some thoughts on the top 5 sessions I attended at the recent Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium in Dallas, TX. You can also read my general thoughts about the conference here. I'm hoping to listen to many of the others now that the recordings are posted. 

How to Humanize your Online Courses

With Michelle Pacansky-Brock @brokansky, Jill Leafstedt, @JLeafstedt, and Kristi O'Neil-Gonzalez, @Kristi_ONeil

For a summary of the session and access to the gorgeous infographic, please check out:

The session was a practical demonstration of a few ways to humanize online classes, including creating an interactive syllabus, making an intriguing introductory video, and incorporating video discussions.

I've been working on this for the past year or two without giving the process a name. "Humanizing" really sums it up so nicely. I've been thinking of it as making my courses feel like me rather than like a textbook or a "course in a box." Humanizing has nothing to do with the tools you use - although certainly some interesting ones were presented. Instead it's about the concept that online courses should feel like there are humans involved.

When students relate to an online instructor as something more than a subject matter expert and begin to conceive of themselves as part of a larger community, they are more likely to be motivated, to be satisfied with their learning, and success in achieving the course objectives (Picciano, 2002; Rovai & Barnum, 2003; Richardson & Swan, 2003).

from the How to Humanize Your Online Course Handout

In some ways I feel like I've been struggling with both admin and our tech/ID folks about this. My courses have been gradually diverging away from most others being taught at MUIH, while at the same time I feel an increasing pressure to have courses, syllabi and other documents standardized into a box dictated by "best practices" and (perceived?) accrediting requirements. To me, standardizing all courses to look alike - right down to a common background on PowerPoint presentations - is a marketing tool, not a teaching tool. We need to be giving faculty more freedom to express themselves and their interests in online courses rather than standardizing them and making them as stuffy and "professional" as possible.

As a side note, I do think it's possible - and even preferable in my case - to be both professional and informal. Some faculty prefer a formal style, which is fine. Let those folks be formal. I'm not. 

Although it was a beast at the time, developing my own courses means that I have a reasonable amount of control over their content and overall feel. After talking to other faculty members at the conference, I know that not everyone has this luxury. Even so, how do we play with the idea that courses are human-driven? How do I create "humanized" courses while also taking into account that other faculty will be also be teaching the courses I develop? How do we capitalize on the fact that courses are taught and taken by real people who exist outside of but within the context of academia? Can online course development be seen as a form of creative self-expression? (I vote yes on that one.) Can you humanize a course in a box? Looking forward to exploring these ideas.

The problem with "best practices" - critical thinking for online teaching

with Steven Weiland from MSU

This may have been my favorite session at the conference. Weiland started with the shocking - simply shocking! 🙂 - announcement that he and his students find old-fashioned lectures valuable and that he does not use mandatory student-to-student discussion or voice-over ppt in his well-reviewed online courses. He compared lectures to books, noting that with both you are being asked to sit quietly and hear about one person's point of view or philosophy for an extended period of time. Obviously there is a robust body of literature pointing out the flaws with lecture-based-teaching. However, is it possible that for some students, some subjects and some faculty, lectures do work?

There was a lovely, snarky and funny-in-a-horrifyingly-true-way rant about the vendors at the conference, with ambition that "you can see in their eyes." Are we letting these folks control teaching and learning? Why do they get to say what are "best practices"? Are some "best practices" really just the things that are easy to monetize or measure? Maybe. Weiland noted that online learning is really in its teen years. We're in an impulsive phase and the research hasn't caught up with what we're doing just yet. We may be right. We may not be.

Another important point: when we require student-student interaction in the form of discussion boards, we are giving up the ability to have a truly self-paced course. (I actually think there are ways around this, but more on that a different time).

His course design includes written lectures, with lots of images, links and annotations so that students are interacting with the material extensively as well as plenty of student-faculty interaction. No voice-over lectures. No mandatory discussion boards. (Weiland mentioned that his responses to student posts are generally as long as the content the student posts). He feels that the students are experiencing deep learning and meeting the course outcomes with this set up, and points out that they will experience different course design in other classes. It's fine to have diversity; they may enjoy one over another, but that will be true of any program in any institution.

The takeaway for me - and again this is something I've been thinking for a while without expressing it properly - was that we don't all have to do it the same way. It seems only natural that each professor or faculty member will have different strengths & weaknesses. Some will effectively use lecture - written or otherwise, some will produce amazing voice-overs, others excel in discussion-based courses, some will do a bit of everything and all of these are likely okay. Should we push ourselves? Yes. Should we examine whether what we're doing is working? Absolutely. But it is possible to run a successful online course where learning does happen without using the "best practices" format that in many cases means all courses essentially look the same?


The unconference was an optional, informal gathering after the conference ended. Participants proposed topics, voted and split into groups to discuss/work on the top ideas. I attended sessions on messy learning and meta-conference (discussing the conference itself and ideas for improvement). Other sessions included "fixing education,"edtech garage" (ideas for tinkering in the garage and sharing projects), and "fork this book" (how to use open ed resources on Git Hub to create your own textbook).

You can explore some of the session notes on the unconference website here. 

This made my top 5 list not specifically because of the content discussed - which was noteworthy in and of itself - but for the very idea of the unconference. I've never seen anything like it, but it was one of the most valuable pieces of the conference for me. Having some control over the topics, being part of a more intimate group with deep discussions and no "instructor-led" lecture was a welcome change of pace.

Side note: The very fact that so many conference sessions were unidirectional - "let me tell you how to do it/how we do it" with no participant involvement whatsoever - even though we are a whole bunch of people who know that's not ideal, speaks to how difficult it is to craft a truly interactive experience.

I'd love to see the unconference format at other conferences and perhaps even unconference offerings in occasional workshop or session slots scattered throughout the conference itself. The unconference is a low-stakes way for newbies to get in there and discuss these concepts with more experienced folks, it breaks up the monotony of sitting and listening. I always leave conferences with lots of ideas swirling around. The unconference was a place to process those, and a place for thinking, application and experiential learning that didn't prioritize a particular speaker or viewpoint. It truly a place where emergent ideas show up. 

It's the Process - assessing learning where it happens: in the middle

with William Moseley from Bakersfield College

Moseley used an analogy in this session that really stuck with me. He stated that learning should be more like a road trip and less like an airplane flight. Road trips focus on the journey, airplane flights focus on getting from a to b. Road trips allow for spontaneous deviation from the plan whereas deviations in air travel schedules usually = nightmare. The people wanting to travel are in control of the road trip, while they're just passive passengers on an airplane flight.

The presenter highlighted the importance of assessing the process, not the product. This allows students to find their own limits, gives them some agency and allows for creativity and fun. It was extraordinarily useful to be reminded that students NEED TO BE ABLE TO FAIL. We have to build that in. If the assessments mean failing = a bad grade, then they are focused on not failing rather than learning.

I love this concept, and I really struggle with how to apply it to my physiology classes. I'm sure I sound like my students when they miss a deadline, but seriously… I have 100+ students a trimester and content that they *really* need to know when the finish the course. I think the process is important, and at the same time I have to assess the specific outcomes that they need for licensing exams.

Moseley provided a whole list of activities that focus on process-driven learning (e.g. reverse engineering, gamification, discussion/debate, creativity/inventing - making a commercial, etc). Even after hearing this list, I still wasn't sure how I could make this work given my particular courses, which tend to be large and which are prerequisites for both future courses and for licensing.

After the session the presenter was kind enough to brainstorm for a few minutes and I came up with this idea for starting slowly: I'm going to ask students to create an artistic representation of a concept from a module and post a picture of their work online. This could include drawing a sketch of a negative feedback loop, using play-doh to model the differences between parasympathetic and sympathetic neurons, etc. I'll be testing this out as an optional extra activity this trimester and may apply it more widely depending on how it turns out.

Open Badges and the Future of Custom Credentials

with Kyle Bowen and Megan Kohler from Penn State University

UPDATE: I just listened to another session on badging, where the instructors shared this page of resources, ideas and videos. Worth checking out!

I hesitated when deciding which session to attend in one slot, and wound up at a presentation on badging. Knowing nothing about it going in, it sounded a bit gimmicky to me.

To get a feel for badging, think Girl/Boy Scouts. The school/program/instructor sets out a menu of badge offerings, each with distinct criteria. Students then work to earn badges of interest, which may span across several courses or across the curriculum. The badge is a literal icon with meta information about the criteria that is then associated with the student's profile.

The presentation covered some handy resources for how to create badges (mostly here and here), but the session mostly got me thinking about whether and how badges might be useful at MUIH.

I'm still very much a novice in this area, and I can appreciate the idea that knowledge or skills/competencies sometimes may not fit neatly into one course; they cross courses and even institutions. Badging may be a more accurate way to mark competency in some areas.

One important question in my mind is whether and how grades and badges are distinct.  Some of the preliminary ideas I'm tossing around include:

  • Student nutritionists applying physiology in ob practice v. ortho practice may have different needs - would badging allow us to have the same course but with different empahses?
  • Or within a program/certificate, might badging be a way to shift the emphasis to match students' individual interests? 
  • Do badges increase motivation? When I use PeerWise my students seem to enjoy the badges, although they don't earn any credit for them.
  • If I choose to make physiology a self-paced, choose-your-own-adventure course, I wonder if it would be reasonable to have the students collect badges for each system or topic and that the requirement for passing the course would be a collection of all 15 badges.

Badges can be motivators to learn and collaborate, act as currency to enable further experiences and to recognize achievement. When the learning experiences behind a badge are appropriately designed and sized, they can enable small successes, encouraging learners that may be discouraged or overwhelmed by the length of commitment in other delivery methods compared to the timing of feedback. This is particularly critical in the case of adult learners or underserved groups who may be facing particular time constraints as well as identity issues relating to ability or pressure for success or failure.

from the Penn State Badging website

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About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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