Monday, May 1, 2017

Short Video Walk-Throughs Help Your Students

Each semester, we face the challenge of getting our students properly registered with their login credentials for their learning management system, adaptive quizzing platforms, course software or websites, and online textbook resources.

I think that most of us provide detailed instructions in our syllabi, on a course website or (even better) a no-password public web page. But despite our best efforts at providing fool-proof instructions, there always seems to be a large group of students who just can't seem to get off on the right foot and hit one or another snags in trying to get logged into everything and squared away.

I've found that supplementing your written instructions with a personalized video walk-through of all the steps necessary works wonders.  By simply going through each step as a I describe it out loud while it's all being captured by video capture software, students can see exactly which buttons to click, which forms to fill (and what data to fill in), and can be warned off of possible pitfalls during the registration procedure.

I usually sign up using an email I set up using the name of my pet fish, Clyde.  But sometimes that doesn't work if I need a purchased product code or need an official student email address or other credential.  In those cases, you can sometimes get a trial product code or fake student credential from the powers in charge of those things.  For example, at one college we had one fake student in the system—which allowed us to test our courses.

There are many free plugins out there that allow you capture your voice and your browser activity in real time as a video clip.  Here are a few that I've used:
By taking just a few minutes to walk (and talk) through the process while the browser screen is being captured, you can reduce student anxiety and give them a more positive "first impression" of your course. An added benefit is that you'll spend less time answering panicked calls and emails from frustrated students—giving you more time to prepare those brilliant class activities!

Here's a sample of a screencast in which I show my students how to get started with an online anatomy program that comes with their textbook. Notice that I start with a photo that's open in a viewer window that is in front of (overlaying) the browser window. After the introductory discussion, I close the photo viewer, revealing the browser, where I walk the student through the registration process.

Top photo: Raven3k
Bottome photo: theveravee

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Checklists For Online & Blended Course Rollovers

When it's time to roll the course in your LMS (learning management system) over to a new semester, do you just wing it?

Yeah, I've made that mistake. I always think that...

  1. I'm going to remember all the steps to copy my course contents from a prior course over to a course and 
  2. I'm going to remember to make all the tweaks needed within the new course.

I always missed something, though. And that something (or somethings) always messed with my students. Maybe my "this course is now over" message was broadcast halfway through the course. Oops. Or an online test closed before the course even started. Or something weird that unnecessarily confused or startled or panicked my students.

Rarely happens now, though. That's because I have a checklist. First, I find my "master" checklist template. Each time I roll over a course, I print out (or digitally copy) the master to make a new checklist marked with that course and semester. This helps me make sure that I don't miss something. Especially if I have to break the rolling-over process into several sessions.

Sometimes, I make the semester-specific list part-way through the previous semester. For example, I may want to add or delete a learning activity next time around. That goes on the list for next semester. I may want to change a link to a different resource in future courses—and that, too, goes on the list. There may be an upcoming change in school procedures, the textbook edition, some new thing I want to try, or who knows what, and I don't want to forget that when I'm doing my rollover processing.

Sometimes I update my master list template when I find some other aspect of the course that should always be checked after importing a prior course into a new course shell. Thus, my list becomes more and more effective over time.

Here are examples of thing that go on my list:
  • Specific steps to take, and the correct order of steps to export from the prior course and import to the new course. I include which options should be checked and which should remain unchecked. 

  • Change dates to the later dates of the new semester. Depending on your LMS, this may be a matter of telling your system to do that conversion automatically.

  • Check the dates to make sure they really are correct. I've never had the auto-dating feature of an LMS get all the dates exactly right. Their algorithms just aren't that sophisticated. But mostly, the problem is that your school's academic calendar is rarely identical, day-by-day, from one semester to the next.

  • Check the dates in specific areas. If I remember to change my online quiz dates, I may forget to change all the dates to release my course announcements. Or if I remember to do that, I may forget to read all the announcements to see if they reference dates that need to be changed.

  • Check hyperlinks to make sure they go where they need to go. For example, I may have an announcement that has an embedded hyperlink to a course file. But that file's URL will have changed because it points to the course files in the old course. This can be a big problem (I speak from experience) if your students are accessing files from old courses. Various LMSs handle such files differently, but it never hurts to check all links.

  • Make sure I've set up all my external resources. If I link to a publisher's learning platform or to any other external resource, I make sure that any setting up I have to do there is done. For example, I may have to set up a new "course" in my adaptive learning platform. Or create a new blank set in a wiki that I want my students to build. 

  • Copy course files. I have a folder for each new term on my hard drive. Each semester, I copy over the folder (all the contents) and give it a new name that identifies the new semester. Then I go in and delete all semester-specific files, such as gradebook backups, assignments I've downloaded, correspondence with students, etc. Then if I have updates to make to course documents (syllabus, handouts, etc.) I still have copies of all the documents of all past semesters.
The checklists make me happy for several reasons. I love, love, love checking tasks off a list. It is reassuring to see visible evidence of all the work I've done and that I really am ready for a new semester. And I can sleep better (like that's ever a problem) knowing that I've done everything possible to avoid glitches that have happened in past courses.

Art: AJC1 (top)
bredmaker (bottom)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Photos and Video Helps Connect Students and Teachers in Online Courses

A recent post at Extra Credit: The Canvas Blog discusses their findings that the use of video in online courses may help increase student retention—at least in larger courses. This reminded of a phenomenon that I noticed over the first few years I taught fully online courses: photos and video can help connect students and teachers.

After decades of teaching traditional face-to-face courses and web-enhanced courses, I transitioned to fully online courses. The first thing I struggled with was the seeming lack of personal connection with my students, and among my students.

I found that if I used a clear and "happy" photo in my LMS (learning management system) profile, students started recognizing me around town and reported that they felt more "connected" to me than before.  And more connected to me than their other online teachers with no profile photo—or an unclear or "not happy" photo.

Then I started prodding all my students to post profile pictures. Face pictures, not vacation photos taken in front of Niagara Falls and not photos of their dog or favorite child. No avatars, either. And you know what? I felt more personally connected to THEM!  And they found they felt a bit more connected to each other.

Then something wonderful and unexpected happened. It was a course I teach in an online graduate program that trains anatomy and physiology professors. I had been using the iSpring plugin for PowerPoint to create short presentations that introduce each learning module in the course. There was a software upgrade that allowed me to embed a video of me narrating alongside the slides and outline. I thought I'd try it to see how it worked.

I got immediate feedback from nearly every student in the course! They loved, loved, loved it. Not because of my amazing face or resonant voice—they just loved finally seeing and hearing me as I presented the introduction. They reported feeling more connected to me. 

That program has a required summer seminar at the home campus near the end of the program. When I go there now, the students who have taken my course in previous terms tell me that they feel like they already know me well because of those videos. They tell me they can better pick up on my style of conversation, my sense of humor, what I think is important in the course, and my enthusiasm for my subject. And they appreciate that.

So now I'll never go back. I'll always find a way to include video of myself somewhere in each online course I teach. Because part of teaching is being there for students. And video helps me do that.

Want to know more?

Want Lower Dropout Rates? Use Video (Part 1)

  • Jared Stein. Extra Credit: The Canvas Blog. 24 Oct 2016
  • Blog post that interprets results of a study by Instructure on the use of video in Canvas courses.

iSpring for PowerPoint

10 Ways to Increase Student Engagement Online

  • Dr. Al-Malood. Faculty Workshop. 16 Feb 2014
  • Podcast and blog post, with point #5 explaining the importance of profile photos.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

When Answering Student Questions, Address ALL the Students

In classroom discussions, any question that gets asked is answered by me addressing the whole class. I don't ignore the questioner, but I make sure that the answer takes everyone into account—not just that individual. In my online courses, I like to have an open discussion forum that I usually call something like, Kevin's Virtual Office. Here, students can ask their questions and, again, I answer the whole class.

There are several reasons I've found this to be a successful strategy in online and on-ground courses:
  1. I can leverage many content questions into an effective forum for clarifying common misconceptions about the topic. If one student didn't quite "get it," you can safely assume there are others. And I can bring in related misconceptions that my experience tells me are likely to be out there.

  2. By addressing the whole class, you avoid losing student attention. Although student questions can breathe new life into a classroom activity, there's also the risk that students will notice your focus on only the questioner, and drift away—perhaps never to return to the fully engaged mode.

  3. Overarching themes and "big picture" concepts can be woven into the answer, thus giving students a better context for the topic at hand. Depending on the question, the answer can expressed in a way that brings many other ideas together to illustrate how the main themes of your discipline are being played out in this particular context.

  4. If it regards course policies or procedures, I can take the opportunity to explain my rationale. Many students embrace unfamiliar learning strategies if they understand the reasons you have adopted them.

  5. You can teach problem-solving skills. Some answers can be easily found in the syllabus, textbook, handout, or some other handy resource and you remind students of this fact for future questions they might have. By walking through a process to arrive at a not-so-obvious answer, however, you can teach additional skills. Perhaps by asking questions of several students during the process, or going through some logical steps, you can model how a student might answer their own questions that occur during study times. This is a well-known mechanism for teaching critical-thinking skills.

  6. You can trigger more questions. By addressing the whole class, you demonstrate that you want everyone to understand fully. This may provide an inviting atmosphere in which other misconceptions or confusions can be brought up and addressed—a sort of "just in time" teaching opportunity.
One thing that can throw us off is when a student asks a question in a public forum that really should be asked privately. This can be tricky. Depending on the exact nature of the question and/or answer, I may still use it as learning opportunity for all members of the class. But if sensitive, personal information is revealed, I assume that the student did not realize that the whole class can read it. So I usually take the student down from the forum (if I'm able) and respond privately (by email) to directly to the student.

One other issue that is important is making it clear that I expect students to regularly watch Kevin's Virtual Office and read all the threads posted there. I explain at the beginning of the course, that most questions help everyone and that I'll be responding to everyone when questions are asked. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Clicker Cheaters

I recently brought up the use of clickersstudent response systems—with my class of professors-in-training. The discussion mainly focused on how clickers can improve learning and participation, but I also mentioned how the data could be used secondarily as a way to record class attendance.

One of my students, having never had any experience of clickers, brought up  a good point: why not have a buddy work your clicker on your behalf while you are still snoozing away in your bed?

This thought occurs frequently to students.

Ultimately, there will always be students trying to game the system to slide through with less effort. 

But there are some ways to work around this that I've found helpful (and moderately successful).  Here they are:

1. Explain that colleges take attendance for the purpose of reporting to state and federal authorities.  Students therefore, may be committing fraud through click-cheating--especially if they receive any type of financial aid, scholarship, or grant.  That could apply to both students involved.

2. While the students are all scratching their heads over the first clicker question in class, take a quick head count.  Then check your response total.  If you count 25 and you're getting 30 responses, it's a good opportunity to have the fraud conversation again.  And the academic integrity conversation.  And the "do you really want to risk expulsion?" conversation.  If you have 300 students, get a TA, student, or colleague to sit in the back and count for you—perhaps holding up a card with the magic number at the back of the lecture hall.

3. If #2 occurs (and we all know that in life, #2 does happen), then start looking around at who might be managing two or more clickers.  Call them out on it—you only have to do that once to set a pretty solid boundary.  And they'll realize you are indeed looking for this behavior. Many students who try this won't think you're smart enough to look for it and thus are pretty brazen about it.

4. Perhaps this should have been #1.  Unbelievably, many students just aren't aware that such behavior is not acceptable.  Really.  More often than you think.  A LOT.  So be clear up front that you won't tolerate it and (most importantly) why you plan to be such a badass about it (integrity as a course objective).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Technology Will Revolutionize Education?

It's a trick question!  According to This Will Revolutionize Education, a new video just posted by Derek Muller at Veritasium, none of the technologies that have been predicted to revolutionize education really have done so.

Not radio, not movies, not television, not computers. So what will revolutionize education?  A better understanding of the learning process—what goes on inside the heads of learners.

Muller also points out that all of the previously predicted revolutions in education were predicated on a notion that technologies would eventually replace teachers.  But they haven't done so, have they?  That's because, Muller stipulates, teachers are needed for the social aspect of learning.  As long as you have a good teacher, the technology doesn't matter.

Watch Derek's brief and engaging This Will Revolutionize Education and see what you think.

For me, it supports a long-held theory that all these new electronic learning tools are just that—they are simply tools.  They need to be used by teachers and learners skillfully to be effective.  The tools alone—or the wrong tools for the wrong job—or the right tools used badly—just will not work.

So when I hear colleagues say that "lectures don't work" or "online learning doesn't work" or "PowerPoints don't work" I'm thinking it's like saying "hammers don't work" just because you've never learned how to use a hammer correctly or have never seen a hammer used effectively.  Like Derek, I think it's how a teacher uses the tools of education that is the key.

Watch This Will Revolutionize Education for yourself and tell me what you think!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Presentation Zen

I just ran across an article at the Cult of Pedagogy blog that reinforces some ideas that I've been sharing with my students who are in training to be anatomy and physiology professors. They're from a book by Garr Reynolds called Presentation Zen, which is all about improving presentations.

These include:
  • Tell a story: tell it, don't put it all on your slide
  • Use pictures: they help students "get it"
  • Keep each slide simple: do you want them reading the slide or listening to your story?

The blog article also includes this nifty video to summarize some of these points.

Want to know more?

The Cure for Bad PowerPoint: A Review of Presentation Zen

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery

  • Garr Reynolds. New Riders. 2011. 312 pages.
  • The book that oullines Reynold's ideas on PowerPoint presentations.

Presentation Zen

Are your students dodging bullets?

  • Kevin Patton. The Electronic Professor. JULY 28, 2011
  • My blog article on improving slide presentations.

Handling bullets safely

  • Kevin Patton. The Electronic Professor. AUG 3, 2012
  • Another of my blog articles on improving slide presentations.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Grading as teaching

In previous posts, I've shared several ideas for making grading of and feedback on assignments more helpful to students. This time, I want to share what may be a new way for you to think about the whole process of grading and providing feedback— It's part of the teaching and learning process!

I think we all know that correcting errors in student assignments is a form of teaching. As a published author, I encourage my reviewers and editors to be thorough so that I can learn where my weaknesses as an author are — and how to become better. I tell them that I view them as my teachers…my mentors in my lifelong quest to be a better writer.  So—yes—correcting a student’s mistakes is a form of teaching.

When providing feedback on a particular assignment to my students through electronic media, I usually start with a template. I paste that template into the LMS feedback window of each individual's assignment.

The template begins with a rubric, as I explained previously in my article Precision feedback.

I then follow with a paragraph or two or three that briefly outline some general advice or concept of which I’d like my student to take heed.  For example:
  • How to plan this type of project more efficiently.
  • Common pitfalls to avoid.
  • How to proofread their work before submitting.
  • Why certain formats help the reader avoid confusion.
  • Shortcuts and tips for future work.
I keep my list of templates all in one document file.  This way, I can easily plan out which “big idea” I want to share in the form of “personal mentoring” during grading in each module.  I often refer to “my previous comments” on a topic, upon which I build themes as students progress through course modules.

These little gems are things I’ve learned along the way and want my students to learn, too.  Some of these will go unheard or ignored if I present them in a list or in the syllabus or in the course outline.  But when included in one-on-one feedback—a personal message—I find that such advice is more welcome and more thoughtfully processed by students.

I tweak the wording of the template if needed, then add personalized feedback that relates to the particulars of the submitted work.  This process can be sped up using the tips outlined in my previous post Speed up your feedback.

When I encounter specific errors and issues, I can paste in one of my prepared list of snippets that fully explain the error and how to avoid it in the future—a process outlined in my previous article Precision feedback.

I find that my students begin to look forward to the comments and advice that I include in their grading feedback.  In fact, many of them email or message me to begin a brief dialog about some idea or suggestion that was included in the feedback template.  Dialog that would not have otherwise happened.
With very little extra effort, I can give students more
  • General advice
  • Mentoring
  • Specific corrections
  • Personal advice
  • Opportunities for student-teacher dialog
Thus, I have come to see grading online projects and assignments as more formative in nature than I had previously.  I now recognize grading as a personal teaching/learning experience.

Want to know more?

My article on using voice recognition software to speed up your feedback to students:
Speed up your feedback
A previous article on using rubrics to make your feedback faster and more precise:
Precision feedback
An introduction to formative assessment and how to embed it into your teaching:
Embedded formative assessment
Photo credit: lsiryan

Friday, November 23, 2012

Precision feedback

In a recent post, I shared my experience in using voice-recognition software to enhance the quantity and quality of feedback to students on their assignments.  Here's a method for further improving the value of our feedback to students by adding a bit of precision to our grading.

It's nothing new, really.  It's using grading rubrics.  However, I’ve found a way to use rubrics as kind of grading shortcut that also ends up maximizing the learning process.

For a while, some of my online course assignments were worth a certain number of points.  If you did “A” work, you received 90% or more of the available points.  “B” work earned you 80%-89% of the available points. And so on.

But then I started getting inquiries from students

  • What can I do to improve my grade? 
  • How did I miss three points?
  • What went wrong?
  • I thought I did well.  Why did I receive a low grade.

Yikes.  I realized that a number alone wasn’t helping these students very much.  The whole point of my assignments is to improve competence in my students—but I wasn’t really doing anything but dinging them on points when their work did not meet my standards.

So I took a good look at how I expressed my expectations and found that it was pretty murky.  So I constructed a rubric for each type of assignment.

Each rubric is simply a short table that lists each expected element of the assignment and it’s point value.

I am careful to list EVERYTHING—including the “obvious” basic elements of the assignment as well as specific “enhanced features” that I’m hoping for.

I make my rubrics using the “table” format in a MS Word document.  You can use a small spreadsheet just as easily.  I simply copy and paste each type of rubric into my course documents (syllabus , webpage, etc.).  That way , my students can use them as handy guidelines as they design and execute their assignments.

For grading purposes, I keep a second version of each rubric in which I change the “Maximum points” for each element to “Points earned.” 

Then at grading time, I simply copy and paste the appropriate rubric into the feedback window for each student’s assignment.  As I evaluate the assignment, I change the maximum points listed to the actual points they earned for each element of the assignment.  I quickly total it up and change the maximum total to their actual total.

For added precision, I also keep a list of feedback responses for common mistakes.  For example, I have a short paragraph identifying a common formatting error.  This paragraph explains what went wrong, why it’s wrong, and how to do it right next time. When I encounter the error in an assignment I’m grading, I paste the paragraph into the feedback window. Then I insert, “For example, in your paragraph 5 . . . “ into the paragraph so that the student knows precisely where things went wrong in their assignment.

Whenever I encounter a particular type of mistake, I find the appropriate response in my list of “canned responses” and paste it into the feedback window.

This gives specific, precise feedback with minimal grading effort—but maximum benefit to student learning.

It takes longer to explain it than to actually do it!

Now, I can quickly and easily provide my students with more precise feedback than simply a grade.

In an upcoming post, I’ll extend this technique a bit to show how to leverage it into a bona fide teaching-learning moment!

Want to know more?

My previous article about speeding up your feedback process:

Speed up your feedback

For more about using rubrics, I recommend this book by my friend Dannelle Stevens:

Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback, and Promote Student Learning 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Future of Learning

Here's an interesting little video about the future of learning. Embedded within it is the role of electronic approaches and their rapid evolution as critical tools for learning effectively .

Monday, October 22, 2012

Speed up your feedback

One of the great things about using online tools in your web-enhanced, hybrid, or online course is that you can provide much more individual and group feedback to students.

Frequent feedback helps students correct misconceptions, learn new skills, get coaching on critical thinking, and become more connected to you, the course, and the subject.  Such feedback speeds up learning, allowing more progress in the time frame of a typical course than would otherwise be possible.  It is customized to some degree and thus more effective than not providing frequent feedback.

However, one of the worst things about giving individual and group feedback frequently is that it takes time.  And, as we know, time is something we are finding less and less of these days in the academy.  Increased expectations in record keeping and reporting, a rapidly expanding knowledge base in our disciplines to keep up with, and more time mentoring and managing the growing adjunct faculty pool, all make it harder to devote more time to interacting with students.

How can we improve the balance so that frequent, constructive feedback to students can grow rather than diminish?

One method that I've found to give me more time to give more helpful online feedback to my students is by using speech recognition software.

In the olden days, I tried this and the results were hilarious but ineffective.  Everything I said came out in a knee-slapping stream of nonsense.  In fact, I often laughed out loud, which produced even more "speech recognized" narrative.  So I gave up on it.

But the technology as progressed rapidly.  Now it is very accurate and efficient. With just a little practice— And training of the software — you can speak your feedback into any program quickly and easily.

There is satisfactory speech-recognition software built into many operating systems or other software without any extra expense. However, I have found that using a dedicated speech-recognition program provides improved accuracy and a whole toolbox of nifty features that make the whole experience more flexible, enjoyable, and fast.

I use speech recognition software when I am answering my daily emails. I find that I can get through my emails from students much more quickly using the speech-recognition approach. Not only that, I find that my answers to students are longer and more detailed — and thus hopefully more helpful to them.

I use speech recognition software when I am grading online assignments. When giving feedback on a project, for example, I can very quickly include a number of detailed comments. When keyboarding manually, the number and length of my comments is greatly reduced by both fatigue and the limits of time available.

I find that students really appreciate both the personal attention that such comments represent and the specific help and advice contained within these comments. They feel like they are making rapid progress… because they are.

Many colleges now provide individual installations of speech recognition software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking . This is the software that I use and find it to work very well for me.

I know that it is always daunting to face learning how to use a new technology, but this one is amazingly easy. And even if you have to pay for it yourself, it's not very expensive. And you will find it to be worth every penny — and then some.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What we can learn from online education

I recently watched a talk on online learning by Daphne Koller of Stanford University  on TED: Ideas worth spreading.  Her brief presentation outlines the revolution in online learning being pioneered at Stanford and other institutions.

I love this statement by Koller:
"We should spend less time at universities filling our students' minds with content by lecturing at them, and more time igniting their creativity … by actually talking with them."

A few major points made in her presentation:
1. Online methods of course delivery are cost effective in delivering high quality educational experiences to millions around the world that otherwise would not have access to such education.

2. Online methods of education, when used appropriately, can be a lot more effective than the traditional lecture methods.

3. Online learning can teach more people more effectively with far fewer faculty and lower infrastructure costs.

4. We can use what we learn from online education to improve how we teach and how we learn by using a data-driven approach.

But she says all this in a more interesting and arresting way than I can, so take a few minutes to watch her video below.

When you've finished watching it, you may asking yourself this question (as I did):
Why do so many colleges and college faculty hesitate to experiment with and exploit this electronic revolution in education?

Want to learn more? 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Handling bullets safely

Recently, I was involved in reviewing a large of number of PowerPoint presentations created by professors (and a few professors in training) and found that there were a few folks struggling with some basics in using bullet points effectively.

For example, some professors don't even use bullet points to present a series of concepts.  Instead, they use either a paragraph or an unformatted list of sentences.  A list of key terms or phrases formatted as bullet points works much better in sketching out ideas for listeners as you talk about them.  But if you're not experienced with PowerPoint, or similar tools, then you may not realize that.

A few who were using bulleted lists were not effectively using indented levels to graphically organize concepts in a way that helps students see how it all hangs together.  Again, experience and training can help professors apply these principles that make their presentations much more effective.

To help out, I've created this 25 minute video show both basics on how to make bullet points and a few tricks on making bullet points more effective.  The second half of the video shows a bad example of a slide and then walks you through several tricks to fix it up into a much more effective slide.

This next video shows you how to animate bullet points so that they appear one at a time.  If have several different points on one slide, it is sometimes more effective to reveal them only as you get to them in your talk. If they all come up at the beginning, your students are reading ahead and not staying focused on your point.

Related blog post:  
Are your students dodging bullets?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Scantron inventor dies

The Scantron grading machine, a type of optical mark recognition (OMR) system used for grading tests and quizzes, has been used by countless professors over the years to make grading more efficient.  Especially in large classes or in courses with many assessments.

I'd like to take a moment to salute the Scantron's inventor, Michael Sokolski, who passed away recently.

Although there are still a few righteous professors out there who never learned how to create an effective test using Scantron scoring--and thus loudly declare such tests to be worthless--most 21st-century professors know how valuable a tool the Scantron is to have in one's toolbox. 

Here is an interesting article about Sokolski's contribution . . . and the whole topic of this type of testing.   If you want to know "why a No. 2 pencil?"  or "can my pencil-sharpening technique affect my grade?"  then you HAVE to read this!

Pencils Down: Scantron Inventor Michael Sokolski Has Died
by Chris Higgins
Mental Floss (online blog) - June 29, 2012 - 1:26 PM
[Entertaining blog post about the Scantron and its inventor]

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Boosting retention in online courses

Retention is an issue in online courses.  Sometimes, it's a huge problem.  Why is that and how can we fix it?

Yikes, that's too big a question for me . . . and even if I could answer it, it'd take more than a blog post to do it!

But you know me! As a former lion tamer, there isn't much I'm not willing to tackle, eh?

I think that dropping out of online courses is due mostly to three factors:
  1. Students, even the young tech-savvy ones, are just not prepared for the very different learning environment of an online course.  They find it difficult to manage their time properly and they find it hard to navigate their online courses.  Sometimes, they need more computer skills.
  2. Sometimes online courses are not designed well and that frustrates (or bores) students . . . so they leave the course before it's over.
  3. Often, students just forget. Then they're too far behind to catch up . . . and they have no choice but to drop the course.
I'll leave the preparation of students and good course design issues to another time . . . or, more likely, a series of later blog posts.  For now, I'll focus on the easiest problem to fix.  And it may be the solution that has the biggest impact on retention in your online course!

It's number 3 in my list: tackling the issue of students forgetting about their online course. 

I see this all the time in my online courses.  I even see it happening in the online part of my web-enhanced courses.  This makes sense, right?  If you have to be in a face-to-face class at a particular time in a particular place, we've all learned coping strategies that get us there.  But in an online course, you don't usually have a particular time or place to access your course . . . and therefore it can easily slip through the cracks of the self-management style we've developed over a lifetime.

The thing is, this is easy to fix.  All I have to do is make sure I watch for non-participation near the beginning of the course, then follow up with the laggers.

"Oh, I forgot about that online class!"
I know, I know.  We've all got that little voice inside us saying . . . I'm not teaching 2nd-graders, these are adults . . . I shouldn't have to go find them and tell them it's time for school.

Yeah, I know . . . and I agree.  However, I also want to improve retention in my online classes.  So if I can set aside the part of me that hates having to be a truant officer for folks old enough to be responsible on their own, I can greatly improve the success rate in my courses.

I've tried this and it works.  And it's not as hard as that little voice tells me it's gong to be.  Here's how I do it:
  1. I watch the online activity in my course closely, especially during the first week or so. 
  2. As soon as I see any lagging, I jump on it immediately. Lagging is failure to login, failure to get started on activities, or skipping activities.
  3. I use multiple media to contact them immediately.  I've been known to use these methods (or a combination of them):
    1. Email them.  From within the LMS system and using their "regular" email(s) of record.
    2. Text them.  Students sometimes have their mobile phones listed in the school system.
    3. Phone them. 
    4. Write a short note and mail it.
  4. When I contact them, I start with empathy. I let them know that it's perfectly understandable that they are having a hard time making it a practice to engage the online course. I tell them that this is common. Then I let them know that this must change if they expect to succeed in my course.  Then I finish by emphasizing that I'm contacting them because I care about their success.  I make sure they know that if they get confused, it's okay to ask for my help.  
Besides getting lagging students to get with the program and reduce the likelihood of dropping the course, this method improves overall student success by making positive and supportive contact with individual students. 

Despite that little voice in my head warning me otherwise, I've found that this method takes very little time or effort.  And I've found that it has had a dramatic effect on my retention rate.

Try it and let me know how it works for you!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

iSpring for PowerPoint

I've recently been using iSpring Presenter plugin for PowerPoint to produce online versions of my lectures.  Alane, our campus instructional design guru, recommended that I try their free trial version . . . so I did.  And I like it!

You may have seen my online presentation Online Lectures using Hughes Presenter (aka Helius Presenter, PointeCast Presenter) in which I explained how I use such online lectures in my human anatomy & physiology course. I still like Hughes Presenter, but it has lagged behind the evolution of PowerPoint.  For example, Hughes Presenter is not supported for use with PowerPoint 2010 and they don't seem interested in keeping pace with the real world.  So I'm looking for alternatives.  And iSpring is powerful contender.

In my A&P course, I use online lecture presentations to cover some basic introductory material before each major topic.  By having students participate in an online introductory lecture before coming to class, I can spend time on the tougher, advanced aspects of each topic in class rather than spending a lot of time on the straightforward introductory material that really doesn't require any tricky explanations or Q-and-A interaction with students.

I also sometimes use online presentations instead of having a substitute professor cover my class when I cannot be there for class.  That not only frees up department resources, my students also appreciate the continuity of having the same professor all the way through.

I also sometimes use an online lecture to repeat what I've covered in class so that students can go back and repeat a particularly tough topic on their own.  This allows them to really "get it" by experiencing my explanations again (and again, if they need to).

And online lecture presentations allow me record professional development presentations that I give, so that folks who can't make it to my workshops can still have access to what I have to share.

In an online course I teach, I use brief online presentations to introduce each week's discussion topic and weekly activities. 

My colleague Mary Ann,  who is delivering an online Human Biology course, uses  iSpring Presenter to provide complete online lectures on each topic of her course.

iSpring  is more than just a narrated PowerPoint producer.  It also has these interesting and useful features:
  • You can use your webcam to record your image as you deliver your presentation.  This can increase your viewer's engagement with you and your presentation.

  • The iSpring plugin allows you to easily create and embed quizzes in your presentation.  This can further improve retention of material by making sure the viewer understands the content.  It can also be used to get viewers to begin applying what they have learned.  The quiz feature is SCORM compliant, so results can be linked your LMS.

  • Because the iSpring program converts your PowerPoint to a Flash presentation that runs its own onscreen player, viewers don't have to download huge PowerPoint files before they can start viewing your presentation.  The first slide begins playing while the later slides are downloading in the background.

  • The iSpring player allows you to show a customizable outline alongside the slides, allowing viewers to skip ahead or back to review particular slides.

  • The iSpring player also allows you to show your notes, which could be transcripts for each slide narration . . . a really nice accessibility feature.
There are a lot more features to iSpring, but this gives you the general idea.  To get an even better idea of how iSpring works, check out this brief video.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Are Your Students Dodging Bullets?

In a discussion forum for anatomy and physiology teachers, I'm participating in a thread concerning whether using PowerPoint presentations are really all that effective in lecturing.

How many times have we heard from students they they just can't take another barrage of "bullets" in class . . . PowerPoint bullets, that is.  They're used to professors showing slide after slide of nothing but bulleted notes.  Often simply reading off the slides and nothing more.

Ouch!  Talk about bullet wounds.  I'd be gun shy after an hour of that, too!

So no wonder the PowerPoint approach is often condemned.

But really, is this fair?  Just because there are a lot of folks out there using PowerPoints ineffectively, does that mean the whole approach sucks?  I don't think so.

To me, this is a matter of using the right tool for the right job, and using that tool properly. You wouldn't use a hammer to drive a screw, right?  Well, I guess you could . . . but it would not be a job well done. I think that's what you're doing when your slides simply present your notes. If you want your students to have an outline, then print them out an outline!

Use PowerPoint slides for what PowerPoints do best.  That's images and multimedia.  OK, the occasional short list of brief bulleted items to serve as a visual organizer of your presentation is fine, too.

For example, here's a slide that visually presents a topic in a way that a bulleted outline simply cannot.  Keep in mind that this slide does not include my explanation of it, which is critical.  But isn't that what we want a slide to do?  That is, don't we want the slide to support our story, not replace it?

To drive a screw, you need a screwdriver . . . and you need to move it clockwise to drive the screw, with enough pressure to keep the driver engage with the head of the screw.  If not used properly, a screwdriver can make a mess of your building project.  If you use images (an appropriate use of PowerPoint) but make them too small to be seen, then you're using the proper tool but using that tool improperly.

PowerPoint for Teachers: Dynamic Presentations and Interactive Classroom Projects (Grades K-12) (Jossey-Bass Teacher)So if you use PowerPoint slides to teach, you need to learn to use them for their proper purpose and use them in the proper manner.

If you're in my generation, not having grown up with PowerPoints, you may not have seen enough good examples to be comfortable with this tool.  So what to do to get comfortable, eh? My suggestions include:
  1. Many colleges offer courses in the use of PowerPoint.  Take a course!  Or talk to the instructor about sitting in on all or part of the course.  If not your college, maybe another local college or high school.

  2. Show up for faculty development.  At my college, our business and computer professors often offer in-service workshops that distill the main elements of effective PowerPoint design.  If that doesn't happen at your school, then make it happen! Invite these experts to share their wisdom at the next faculty development event.

  3. Sit at the feet of masters (and mistresses).  Find out who in your school is really great at using PowerPoint to teach effectively.  Just ask your students . . . they know.  Then ask that person to let you sit in one or two of their classes.  Take them out for lunch afterwards and pick their brains about what has worked well for them  . . . and what hasn't.

  4. Find online videos, books, and other resources for ideas.  PowerPoint is ubiquitous in education and business and there are a lot of folks out there eager to share what they've learned.

  5. Practice. Practice. Practice. Experiment with different approaches and designs.  Ask for honest feedback.  The only way to get good at something is to keep at it!
The one thing you do not want to do is just plug away at what you know isn't working.  If can't use PowerPoint effectively . . . and aren't willing to get good at it . . . then do not use it!

In upcoming blogs, I'll share some specific methods for avoiding bullet wounds while using your PowerPoints by making full use of the program's visualization features.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Using video to reinvent education

When I saw this video from TED, I was intrigued:

In fact, I use some of what Khan is advocating in my human anatomy & physiology course.  I use a modification of Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) by having students watch slide presentations that I narrate before class.  This allows me time for discussion (using clickers) when I see them in class.  The clicker questions allow us to solve problems together so students can learn how its done and get some practice doing it.

I see Khan's proposals as similar in nature to the JiTT approach.

And I"m all for it.  What I've used in my courses works much better than I'd hoped it would.

But the down side is this, as I see it:

Some colleagues of mine recently attended a conference in which they heard that college presidents were getting behind this approach.  Which sound great, right?  But get this.  They envision the ideal situation as one in which students watch videos, work on computer quizzes, and visit the learning center for tutoring as needed.  Period.  In other words, this allows colleges to get by with few or any professors teaching students.

I'm all about reinventing paradigms when the old ones aren't working as well as we like . . . but YIKES!

I'm hoping that this nefarious plan was misinterpreted or otherwise mistaken by my friends . . . or that I mistook what my friends were trying to tell me. After all, this is not what Khan is advocating . . . at all.

What I'd like to see is college presidents, and everyone else, getting behind the idea that we can use educational technology creatively to enhance the process of teaching.  And in that regard, Khan certainly is on to something here.

What do YOU think?

Monday, March 14, 2011


Understanding almost any subject or discipline begins with building a foundation of basic terminology.  You can't think in new ways without new language.  Yikes, that means memorization.  

A lot of folks dread memorization tasks because they simply don't know how to do it in a quick, pain-free manner. Once students know the tricks of memorization, it's not that bad. The essential trick is to practice, practice, practice. That means every day, several times a day, if possible.However, this will only work if we can get our students to spend just a few minutes at a time practicing.

One of the easiest ways we can help students memorize terminology or other basic facts painlessly is to make and use flashcards. 

My friend Monica Hall-Woods (another "electronic professor") reminded me recently of a website called where students and professors can easily make a set of flashcards online (for FREE) and use it to quickly learn the basic terms or other facts needed in a course.  In fact, gives users several alternative methods for students to quiz themselves, including some fun, game-like activities.

The more practice sessions theyt do on, the more your students will almost effortlessly pick up the basic facts they need to learn before they can move on to higher-order thinking. helps them keep track of what they've studied and how they are doing.

They (or you) can also upload photos from . . . which means that you can take photos of your models, specimens, maps, locations, etc., with your smartphone, then upload the images into a set of flashcards!

Another great feature of is that your students can form study groups.  This allows one or more users to post and share sets of flashcards related to a particular topic. Or you can use it to share flashcards you've prepared with the students in your courses. also lets students use flashcard stacks that others have created.  (Warning: they need to be careful those they adopt are accurate before using them to study.)  Here's a stack of cards that I created simply by cutting and pasting a list I already had into the editor:

Try it!  Use different options for quizzing yourself and playing games. I think you'll have fun with it. Which is the point . . . the less pain, the more gain.  At least in this case.

A simpler variation of this service, but with less features, is Word Stash. With this service, professors can set up a "class" if they register a free "teacher account" then you can load in word lists for your students to practice.  You can either copy in the terms and definitions or you can create them in the system, opting to borrow existing definitions from their database for any or all of the terms.

I created a class called, you guessed it, The A&P Student . . . and loaded in a word list to show you how it works. Join this "class" to see how Word Stash works:

Password: theapstudent


Here are some other sites you may want to check out to help your students learn the language of your course quickly:
Kevin's New Terms study tip
Kevin's Flash Card video
 Have any more like this?  Share them with us by commenting!

[Some of this material was also used in my blog The A&P Student]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The clicker commandment I always violate

I generally agree with the Clicker Commandments, those hard-and-fast rules for success when using clickers (student response systems).  But sometimes, the temptation to break this one is irresistible:

Thou shalt not use more than a few clicker questions per class session.

Like any good commandment, this one often must be followed if we are to stay on the path of righteousness.  But, like any good commandment, there are in fact times when it's best to break the rules.

A good example of my straying from this clicker commandment was previously discussed in the article  Practicing . . . some more in my blog Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching.  The point of that article was the need to practice basic facts frequently in order to become deeply familiar with them.  And I used the example of how I use clickers to provide rapid reviews of basic human anatomy structures in my Anatomy & Physiology course.

I set these up like a game show.  Without the fabulous prizes. Each item has a timer animation and the buzzer sounds after 10 seconds, and reveals the correct identification.  So polling is open for only ten seconds and students who have studied their anatomy are forced to recall it quickly . . . or get "buzzed."  Hmm, maybe a GONG would be more appropriate, eh?  Nah . . . do any of my students have a clue as to what the Gong Show was?!

This works great for facts that need to be memorized . . . if you have the time in class to practice with your students.  The class I use this in is my A&P Supplement course, which is specifically for reviewing and advising.  It's not the "main content" course, but an optional supplement students can take to get extra help in what is a rigorous, fact-filled course.

In my regular courses, I do stick with the notion that a few clicker questions scattered here and there is the best approach.  But for those "quick review" sessions, nothing beats the occasional rule-breaking, fast-paced "practice round" of important facts.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do you Prezi?

One of the many alternatives to the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation is Prezi.

Prezi is a presentation platform that organizes a presentation a more nonlinear way than PowerPoint . . . a feature that can be useful when using a presentation in more informal discussion format, rather than a traditional lecture format.  That's because Prezi gives you more options for unplanned movement back and forth in your projected material.

One of the coolest features it's unique ability to zoom in and out on different parts of your material.  This gives Prezi a unique visual quality not found in other presenters.

Prezi presentations can be easily narrated and can be embedded in a webpage, email, or blog . . . or in your learning management system.

The best way to introduce yourself to Prezi is to try it out.  Oh, did I mention that it's FREE?  Just go to the Prezi website and get a free account and start playing around!

And be sure to hit the Explore tab, to see all the crazy kinds of Prezi presentations that can be created.

In the mean time, you may want to watch this video to get a feel for the whole Prezi concept.

In a nutshell, here's how Prezi works.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 dropped dead!

MediaFire - Free File Hosting Made Simple
I've gushed about the service for a while to my colleagues and in another blog.  I was actually getting ready to gush about it here, now that I've had some time to use it and be more specific about ways to use it for teaching and learning.

It was a great service for educators, allowing us to post large media files (podcasts, slide presentations, images, videos) in password protected "drops."  But as of mid-December 2010, is dead!

As I've lamented before, the downside of using third-party (meaning not you) software and websites to build resources for teaching and learning is that sometimes they change drastically or disappear completely with no warning.  Leaving one up the proverbial creek.

Apparently, the founder of got a better offer from Facebook, which also bought the rights to the technology.  Pulling the rug out from under the rest of us.  They couldn't have known the drop-dead date is two days before the end of my semester. But it is . . . and so what do I do now?

Unlike many other services, who recommend clients to another service, declined to do that.  Perhaps they were obligated by contract (is Facebook planning to unveil their own version of  They even disabled the comment feature on their blog, so stranded users cannot share with each other possible solutions. I cannot wait for the next incarnation, if that's what's planned, because my students need access to files now.

The solution I found, at least for now his Mediafire. This is a similar "drop" site.I've just started using it and because it is organized in a different way than I am used to, it is taking some time to become familiar with all of the possibilities. But I wanted to post this option now so that others who are stranded can find a place to land quickly.

Mediafire is a free service that allows you to upload files, even very large files, into folders that can be private or that can be shared publicly. The public folders may contain files that are password-protected. This is very useful to me because I have files that include images and other materials that I have permission to use in my course but do not have permission to distribute publicly. The password protection allows me to post the files for my students in a way that prevents others from accessing them.

I found that the uploading process in Mediafire is much simpler than it was in Organizing my files into groups is also easier. Because I have a very large collection of files to post, I've opted for the "pro" upgrade. There is a small charge for this upgrade. But it also comes with some very handy features, such as the ability to create a custom URL for each folder. Thus, I can use one URL for one course and a different URL for another course. That prevents students from getting mixed up and using the wrong files.

On the other hand, there were some nifty features in that I have not yet been able to find in Mediafire.

So I'm really glad to have another place to drop files for my students. If you are looking for a alternative, you may want to check out Mediafire.

If any of you have some experience using Mediafire, I'd love to hear from you. or if you have some other drop sites that you have been using an education, let us know about those.

If you want to see how it works, go to and see what I've posted for you there.  To download a file, you must use the password JohnDewey  (FYI, passwords are attached to files--not folders--so you can have some files that are password-protected and some files that are not).

Want to take a quick tour of Mediafire? Try this video.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More on my WebCT to Moodle conversion

In my last post, I outlined an easy way to convert online tests and quizzes formatted for WebCT into files formatted for Moodle.

Well, it's a few weeks later and our crew has a done a great job of helping me convert my files using the method described.

However, there are few items they found during the conversion process that I thought I'd pass along . . . in case any of you find yourselves in the same situation.

When converting from WebCT to Moodle be aware of these translation issues:
  • In some of my randomized Question Sets (called Random Blocks in Moodle), I used fractional points for scoring.  That is, for "review items" from previous tests I typically give .5 points per correct response (rather than 1.0 points).  However, one cannot do this in Moodle.  All items must be scored in whole points. 
    • To solve this issue, Dave (our Moodle Master) suggests changing all point values to whole numbers.  For example, my .5-pt items all become 1.0-pt items.  Then, all the items that were previously 1.0 point each should be converted to 2 points . . . to keep the ratio of scores the same as the original test.  Then, you can either likewise adjust your course's total points to account for this shift or you can count the test for half of the number of points scored.
  • I have some items that are in the "Matching item" format that have only two possible matches.  For example, I have a list of six functions and ask students to select either "steroid hormone" or "nonsteroid hormone" for each of the six items.  However, in Moodle one must have a minimum of THREE matching items. 
    • Moodle For Dummies (For Dummies (Computer/Tech))
    • So Dave's suggestion is to simply add "Ignore this selection" as the third choice for such items. 
      • I think for some of them, I'll modify that a bit so that it's a more viable distractor based on the content. 
    • And when I get some extra time, I may change the items in question so that there really are three possible answers.
  • In WebCT, some "Multiple Response" items graded as partial credit for selecting each correct item sometimes assigned 33.3% to each of three correct answers.  That meant that WebCT really only have .99 points for a 1-point item.  But WebCT then rounded up so that it really didn't make much difference in the long run.  However, when converting to Moodle, each 33.3% designation became 33.333... instead.  So it's actually more precise that WebCT.  FYI.
  • Short answer items (such as "fill in the blank") were not always case sensitive in WebCT (unless you specified that in the scoring).  In Moodle, such items are always scored with case sensitivity. 
    • So if you want to accept either Eustachian tube or eustachian tube, you have to program in both answers as possible correct responses.
Do you have other WebCT to Moodle conversion advice to share?  If so, please comment!