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A discussion forum is an excellent tool for student engagement. However, you don’t always have to use the question and answer format to engage students in a discussion forum.

comment bubbles outlined in orange

In the Faculty Focus article, “Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format,” professor Chris Laney gives his take on alternatives for Q&A discussions. Laney, who is professor of history and geography at Berkshire Community College, was having trouble engaging students in discussion forums in his online class and decided to rethink his use of online discussions. Professor Laney thinks of the discussion forum as a place to foster interaction between the students through a variety of means rather than just asking them questions. Specifically, he uses role-playing, debates, and WebQuest to foster interaction between his students.

Role-play

One example of how Professor Laney used role-play is a discussion forum activity that asks students to do some research on a person living in an urban Roman city in the first century CE. Each student creates a character and writes a diary entry or letter recording what he or she did in the course of a day or a series of days. To perform well in this activity the students need to research a few things about the professions and classes that would have existed during that time. The students end up talking back and forth in character and at no point does Professor Laney actually ask a question.

Debate

One example of how Professor Laney uses debates is he had students debate whether democracy in the Middle East would result in better or worse relations with nations in the region. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment; however, when having students debate it’s important to set clear ground rules to keep things cordial and to avoid simplistic arguments.

WebQuest

Professor Laney gives students a less intense discussion forum assignment in weeks when a major assignment is due. Rather than carrying on a discussion over the usual two-week period, he has students do a simple WebQuest and post their findings without having to respond to each other. For example, he may ask students to post an image, video, or music clip from the Romantic Period of art in the 19th century and write a brief description about why it’s considered an example of Romanticism.

Grading

In a class of 25 people there may be 75 messages in a week to grade. To keep the discussion forum assignments manageable, Professor Laney asks students to post their messages in a single thread. Having all the messages in a single thread makes it relatively easy to grade. When a discussion forum activity is over, Professor Laney can click on an individual student’s name and at a glance assign a grade.

Are you using an alternative to the Q&A format for discussion forums? If so, we would like to hear about it. Please leave a comment to share your alternative to the Q&A format.

If you are new to using discussions in Brightspace, you can find how-to resources for discussion forums on our blog.

Image credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

young woman staring at a computer screen with a look of frustration on her face

In an Edsurge article by Jenny Abamu, she notes that one of the biggest misconceptions following Millennials is that they are digital natives. Students at a New Media Consortium Summer Conference (NMC) pushed back on the generational generalizations, noting that assumptions regarding their attitudes, hobbies, and abilities are hurting them academically.

I did not know how to use headers, footers or page number in Microsoft Word, so I got five points off every essay for an entire semester. - Alyssa Foley, Student

Jenny goes on to say that Alexandra Pickett, the Director of New York State University’s Center for Online Teaching Excellence, noted that many of her students know how to use online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for fun, but have no idea how to leverage them for academic and professional use. This is a point the students at NMC echoed.

The students said that in order for their educational institutions to better serve them, it is important to challenge the assumption that students are digital natives.

While the EdSurge article's results were from surveying Millenials, anecdotal evidence shows that the same holds true for Gen Z students. That is, Gen Z is savvy about using social media personally. However, they are not as savvy about how to use tech tools academically or professionally.

Instructors can help students learn the basics for the tools that will be used in their course by providing them links to how-to resources.

Did you know that we have a list of Brightspace how-to resources for students on our CAT FooD blog? You can find the Brightspace how-to’s and other help resources at the following links:

Brightspace help for students
Brightspace video tutorials for students
Help students get started with Google Docs (video)
How to add headers and footers in Microsoft Word (video)
Using Google Drive Video Playlist
Using Google Docs Video Playlist
Using Gmail Video Playlist

Here's an example of how you might include how-to instructions for a discussion forum in your Brightspace course:

example of a Q&A discussion forum
Example of Q&A discussion forum with instructions on how to post to the forum

In this example, instructions for the Q&A forum are provided along with instructions on how to post to the forum as well as a link to a how-to video.

Including information on how to use course tools will go a long way to helping students to be successful in your course.

Image credit: image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

syllabus graphic

In an Inside Higher Ed blog post, Travis Grandy, PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes,

Do you ever feel like you want to get more out of your syllabus? Sure, it plays center-stage during the first day of class, but does it really have to end there? Perhaps it’s a matter of presentation.

He goes on to express his frustration of writing a carefully detailed syllabus only to see his students tuck it away never to be seen again; assuming they read the syllabus in the first place.

After seeing an article on creative approaches to the syllabus, Travis felt his syllabus had a design problem as his syllabus had over the years ballooned to over two thousand words, single-spaced, with a few bullet points.

Travis redesigned his syllabus to not only make the content more useful for his style of teaching, but also easier to use and visually engaging. His revised syllabus ended up being full-color, using illustrations and visual metaphors to convey content, and was intentionally designed help students more easily find the information and get excited about the core purposes of the class. It is important to note that to make his syllabus accessible, Travis made his syllabus available in other formats as well.

Travis’ strategies for a syllabus redesign and ways to better integrate the syllabus into teaching and learning are:

Have Your Syllabus Reflect What You Value Most

Design elements to draw attention to the things about your course that you most want to stick with students. This should not come at the expense of being detailed about your classroom policies or meeting institutional requirements for what should be listed on a syllabus.

Tips for the Design Process

  1. Start from a Template: Templates can include great options like two-column newsletter style or a table of contents to make your syllabus easier to reference. MS Word and Google Docs are easy to intermediate skill level tools you can use to create your redesigned syllabus. A few intermediate to advanced skill level tools you can try are Smore and Populr.me.
  2. Get Visual: A visual doesn’t have to be elaborate, but strategically using images, shapes, or flow-charts can be an equally effective way of drawing attention to the most important parts of your syllabus.
  3. Design with Accessibility in Mind: You want to make sure your syllabus is accessible for all students. This should include providing your syllabus in multiple formats and also using easy to read fonts and high contrast colors.
  4. Build Your Design Knowledge: Educate yourself on effective design practices and visual rhetoric.

Beyond the First Day of Class

Use the syllabus at key moments: A great time to ask students to look at the syllabus is when you transition between major units or assignments of the course. You can turn this into a class activity such as having students write a short reflection about how their work in the previous unit helped them develop competencies or achieve course outcomes.

Reinforce concepts from your syllabus in assignments and grading: Use concepts from your syllabus consistently in other course documents including assignment prompts and grading rubrics.

If you do decide to redesign your syllabus keep in mind that accessibility is very important. Don’t assume that a full-color syllabus is accessible to all students. For accessibility, provide multiple options for students to access the content so they can choose what works best for them. This can include printing in color or black and white, sharing the syllabus as a PDF (with character recognition), and using alt-text and captions for images and diagrams.

For more information read the Inside Higher Ed blog post, Give Your Syllabus an Extreme Redesign for the New Year.

Other great articles on syllbus redesign are Writing Syllabi Worth Reading and the Chronicle of Higher Educations's How to Create a Syllabus: Advice Guide.

Additional resources you may find helpful:

Interactive syllabus examples:

Image credit: "27Apr09 ~ Planning" by grace_kat is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

keyboard with an accessibility key

Although there are legal mandates requiring institutions of higher education to make educational materials accessible (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), accessibility is fundamentally just good design. Content that is accessible is better organized and therefore more usable by all. Accessible content renders properly on a wide variety of devices, it is easier to navigate, and it conveys information in a consistent, logical manner. Moreover, changes in how we view the content are occurring. More and more content is being displayed on mobile devices. For content to appear properly on all devices, it must be well designed.

In my recent series of accessibility tips, I identified some things you can do now to design with accessibility in mind as you are creating content and setting up your courses. Designing with accessibility in mind will save you some time in the event you do have a student with a disability. Remember accessible content is not only for the impaired.

Just in case you missed my accessibility series of blog posts, I provided links to them here:

Image credit: "Accessibility First" by Poakpong is licensed under CC-BY 2.0


The good people at D2L Brightspace are offering a webinar on the use of contemplative pedagogy in an online course. No cost. Details below.

From Mitchell Deleplanque of D2L Brightspace:

According to the Contemplative Pedagogy Network, students can form deeper relationships with their peers, their communities, and the world around them when they are encouraged to connect learning to their own values and sense of meaning.

Don’t miss out! Join us on December 10, 2019, for a webinar featuring Karen Nichols and Bart Everson from Xavier University of Louisiana. Our presenters will share how they are integrating contemplative exercises in their mentor-training program.

Participants will receive a link to exercises, resources, and a bibliography.

Registration Link

Individuals lined up to form the letters NDLW

November 4-8, 2019 is National Distance Learning Week (NDLW). In association with NDLW, the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) is offering free webinars on a variety of topics related to online teaching and learning. A few other organizations are offering free webinars during NDLW as well.

For more information on the activities and to register for the webinars visit NDLW 2019.

Infographics are likely a part of your everyday life. Infographics came into the graphic design scene about ten years ago. The increase of free, easy to use tools have made the creation of infographics available to many. They’ve become a staple for communication in classrooms, in the workplace, and across the web. Even if you haven’t jumped on the infographic bandwagon, it is likely that you have seen infographics as you scroll through social media and blogs.

Infographics are colorful and are very attractive to the eye. But what are they exactly, and how could you use them in your classroom? An infographic is a collection of imagery, charts, and minimal text that gives an easy-to-understand overview of a topic. They are more than a fad, infographics are useful tools to represent information in a compact way.

As in the example below, infographics use striking, engaging visuals to communicate information quickly and clearly.

Accessible PDF version of Course Design Zen infographic.

Visuals in an infographic must do more than excite and engage. They must help us understand and remember the content of the infographic. The best infographics have an equal balance of text and visuals.

Why should you use infographics? Infographics are great for making complex information easy to digest. They can be helpful anytime you want to:

  • Provide a quick overview of a topic
  • Explain a complex process
  • Display research findings or survey data
  • Summarize a long blog post or report
  • Compare and contrast multiple options
  • Raise awareness about an issue or cause

There are many options for using infographics that do not include creating them yourself. Found infographics (infographics created by others) can be much easier to integrate within instruction. Original infographics (graphics created by you or your learners) can be an excellent format for educators and students to synthesize complex concepts and data.

If you are interested in creating your own infographics, here are some tools you can try:

Whether you use an original or a found infographic, you should always ensure the infographic is accessible. For accessibility:

When you need to give someone a really quick rundown on something that can be hard to explain in words alone, an infographic is a good way to go. Remember, the best infographics use a combination of text, images, and data to inform and engage.

For more information about using infographics in education refer to this New York Times article: Data Visualized: More on Teaching With Infographics.

* Course Design Zen infographic was created using Canva.
Featured image by rawpixel from Pixabay

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film strip, film reel, and clap board

Traditional writing assignments are appropriate for many types of assessments, but there is no law that says traditional writing assignments are required for all.

In a Faculty Focus article, Dr. John Orlando explains how student videos can be used to demonstrate learning. He writes,

A good video assignment is to put students into small groups with instructions to make a video that teaches a key concept related to class. If done well, the video not only demonstrates students’ understanding of the concept, but also serves as a resource that can be used by others.

Recent technologies have made video creation remarkably easy and video assignments can be shared in Brightspace. However, you should opt to have the students upload their video files to a video sharing site like YouTube and just provide a link to the video inside Brightspace.

If you are interested in video assignments, you can read more in Dr. Orlando’s “Ask Your Students to Create Videos to Demonstrate Learning” article.

Additionally, I prepared some instructions for recording, uploading, and sharing video on YouTube that you should provide to your students to help them post a link to their video in Brightspace.

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Being prepared is a must for teaching online. In addition to using better practices for online teaching you should be thinking about how to deliver your online course for maximum success while avoiding the 7 deadly sins of online course design.

globe with oversized computer mouse draped over it

In an IDDblog blog post, Alex Joppie listed a few tips for keeping your online course running smoothly. I’ve combined his tips with a few of my own to provide you with suggestions to help your online course run smoothly. Those suggestions are as follows:

Before the semester starts—touch base with your students

Send an email to your students before the first day of class. In your email,

  • Make sure students know they’re enrolled in an online class. Some students take online classes because they think it will be easy. When in fact, some students struggle in online courses because they do not have the skills to be self-directed learners. You should let the students know that online classes take time and self-discipline.
  • Inform them of technology requirements, textbooks, and other required materials. This will help them hit the ground running.
  • Let the students know when your Brightspace course will be available.
  • Let the students know you’re there. This email can also serve to ensure to students that even though the entire course is going to facilitated by computers and networks, that there is a human being involved who cares about their success.
  • Make sure they got the email (and read it). Ask students to respond to the email. You may need to pursue other means of communication if a student doesn’t seem to be getting your email.

Additionally, take advantage of intelligent agents to automate sending email.

The first week—setting the tone

Follow these steps to set a healthy culture for the course and make sure everyone gets off to a good start.

  • Make sure students log in to your course. Use the Class Progress Tool to check to make sure everyone has logged in sometime within the first few days of class.
  • Create a welcome video for your course. Using a short video clip of yourself helps the students to have a picture of you in their mind. This video will help you to become a “real” person to your students.
  • Add a profile picture to humanize your course. Humanized learning increases the relevance of course content and improves students’ motivation to log-in to your course week-after-week. Your profile picture will create an inviting space for your students.
  • Create a more personalized learning environment in your course by using Replace Strings. Replace Strings allow you to create personalized messages for your students. A personalized welcome message, for example, will make your course feel more inviting to your students.
  • Be active in introductory discussions. Your introductory discussions will set the tone for the entire course. Make sure there’s a positive culture in your discussions by being engaging in the first one.
  • Encourage students to select their Brightspace personal preferences by configuring their account settings and notifications. Also encourage students to use the Brightspace Pulse app to keep up with critical and timely course related information and assignments.
  • Utilize the Brightspace Class Progress, Completion Tracking, and Checklists tools to help students stay on track. Students are more likely to be successful in an online course when they check-in regularly and keep up with their coursework. If a student falls behind early, they may never catch up.

Mid-course—checking in

  • Give your students an anonymous survey to get feedback from them on how the course is going. Do this sometime after you feel your students should have gotten a sense of the rhythm of the course but you still have time to make meaningful course corrections based on the feedback. This is especially important the first time you teach a new course.

Every week—the routine

Provide students with weekly communications that recap the previous week’s activities and prime students for the following week:

  • Highlight insightful discussion posts – Draw students’ attention to important points made by their classmates. It’s positive reinforcement for students and shows that you’re engaged.
  • Respond to gaps in student learning – Did everyone miss a question on the quiz, or skip over an important point in a discussion? If so, address it.
  • Contextualize the week’s main topics – Tie the week’s activities back to the learning goals of the course. Why is what we did this week important?
  • Prime the students for the next week’s main topic – Give some context about why they should care about what’s coming up next.

Consider presenting your weekly communications in the form of video announcements. Doing so will give your students more exposure to you as a "real" person speaking to them while giving them a presentation of material or virtual tour of the week's lesson.

Here are a few more ideas to keep your online course interesting.

End-of-semester evaluation—develop your teaching persona

  • An end-of-semester evaluation is a good opportunity to get feedback from your students to help you develop your teaching persona. Getting a “learner-sighted” view of the course-experience can add to your understanding of the learning environment, including aspects of your teaching persona that have framed it.

Studies show that students withdraw from online courses at a higher rate than in face-to-face courses. There are many reasons for students withdrawing from an online course. Some reasons are beyond the instructor’s control. Educators do not like to see students withdraw from courses for the wrong reasons. The suggestions in this blog post will help you to improve retention and reduce attrition by making sure that your students are prepared, that they get off to a good start, and that they’re engaged.

Image credit: image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

CAT+FD Online Teaching Resources logo

In a US News and World Report article, Ian Quillen identified six signs of a bad online instructor. The list included things like a syllabus that is unclear, no set timetable for responding to emails, and simply converting print resources used in the face-to-face class. Ian’s article was intended to help students access the quality of an online class and be able to withdraw if necessary. However, this list can also be used to help online/hybrid instructors recognize where their course may be in need of improvement.

Additionally, we developed an online teaching resource to help faculty develop or improve their online and hybrid courses. Check out our updated CAT+FD Online/Hybrid Teaching Resources and let us know what you think.