Online Blogucation

Do you teach your subject? Or do you teach people?

x-ray of a brain

This is what you are teaching...

I've just gotten back from a whirlwind tour of the world again. In the past 4 months I've been in 3 countries and presented at 9 conferences, in addition to dozens of other consulting opportunities. During that time I have met with no less than 350 educators, mostly professors or department heads and I have begun asking them a few important questions that stem from something Dr. John Medina challenged me with when he spoke at our CiTE conference last April.

Dr. Medina, a brilliant cognitive scientist who has done nothing but study how the brain works for his entire career (I hope you've already read "Brain Rules" by now...), challenged us in several ways during the conference.  My personal favorite quote?  "As I was writing Brain Rules, it hit me [that] if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you would design something like a classroom."

However, there is another piece of information that I haven't been able to shake after reading it and then, after he said it to me personally before he went on stage... He explained, "I consistently read articles by educators who explain how the brain works in terms of learning, cognition, memory, focus, etc.  And every time I wonder how I possibly missed the research that proves it!  Then, after some digging, I realize that I missed nothing.  You see, cognitive scientists and educators never talk.  We don't have conferences together, we don't share journals, and we don't typically exist in the same buildings on campus.  So, what they observe behaviorally and we observe through experimentation never meet." (This is a pretty close quote - I wrote it down immediately after he said it, although it may not be 100% accurate.)

Does this bother anyone else?  I have to admit, I have read DOZENS of articles by education psychologists, seasoned veterans of the classroom, and even those from trusted educational think-tanks without really questioning the validity or science behind them.  So, as I have gone around the world talking with educators lately, I have simply asked them two questions:

  1. Do you read information about how the brain processes information, how the brain remembers, how the brain works, etc., in regard to learning?
  2. Does your school give you any kind of professional development around how people learn so as to enhance your teaching?

I'm sure you already see where I'm going...

With only a single exception, the answer has been "no" every time.  Typically, I hear that people are too busy keeping up with "their field" to worry about student learning.  However second place has to be that while everyone wants professional development, there are too few places giving it and nobody has the funds to pay for it.

So, for the past several months I have spent some time seeking out brain research.  No, I haven't gotten a subscription to Brain Science Quarterly.  But I have sought out some articles and interviews with some of the worlds leading thinkers and researchers with regard to how the brain works.  (It's also helped that I had 28 hours of on-demand documentaries while going to Australia.  Thank you United airlines...)

To that end, I wish to give you a few resources.  Why a few?  If you watch "Brain Games - Pay Attention" you will know exactly why.  This fantastic introduction to attention and the brain was created by National Geographic video.  It's only 1 hour long, but when you view "the brain" through a filter of the STUDENT brain, it becomes an even more fascinating study regarding how we teach.

What is great about the video is that they quote outstanding research scientists like Dan Simon and Daniel T. Levin who wrote, "Change Blindness."  This is a great article about just how little we can truly focus on and again, has some powerful implications for students of any age.

Then, I stumbled onto a BBC 5 show called, "Make Your Child Brilliant." And brilliant it was.  Even as a person who deals mostly with college students (although also with a 5 year old...) I could not help but be overwhelmed with excitement as Bernadette Tynan illustrated how to help students be creative, focused, and successful, regardless of the environment.  She shows how to take a normal, if not "weak" student and, using brain research and cognitive science applications turn them into a successful, "brilliant" student in an extremely short time.  It was also exciting to see how personalization, creativity, and curriculum integration were crucial to the strategies she employed.  (All things I speak about regularly...whew!)

So that's four great places to start.  (You didn't forget Medina's book yet, did you?  Again, the National Geographic video will help you understand why you might have.)  If you are looking for more, the cool thing is that every resource I just gave you should springboard into 5-20 more resources, etc., etc.

Just remember, you might know more than anyone else about 17th century poetry, the evolution of teeth, or business statistics, but you aren't teaching lit, science, or math.  You're teaching people.  You are teaching brains which have propensities, wants, needs, and abilities that we understand better than we ever have before.  So even if you can't afford the PD at your institution, try these.  They are pretty cheap and/or free.  All it will cost you is some brain power and a bit of time.

Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy


Live from Pearson Cite 2012!

This is Rob Kadel, your on-the-scene reporter, coming to you live from the site of Cite! This is the Pearson Cite 2012 Conference, being held at the J.W. Marriott Grande Lakes in Orland, April 10-13. Distinguished lecturers and speakers, presenters from some 65 Pearson Education Partners, 500 attendees, and 200 Pearson employees have gathered together for four days of discussions and collaborations on online learning. And we’re loving it.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cite opened with a special, fun treat – an iBand composed of several Pearson employees (yours truly included) playing a medley of songs all from our iPhone and iPad instruments. Silly, yes, but we enjoyed getting the crowd revved up for the conference.

The highlight that afternoon, of course, was an excellent keynote presentation by Dr. Mark Milliron, and author and educational technology consultant currently working with Western Governors University. Dr. Milliron discussed technology as a solution toward increase college enrollments and matriculation, especially among those living in low-income households who need education to break out of the cycle of poverty. But he also challenged us to go further in our thinking, to recognize that simply fitting new technology into an old mold of education may not be the most effective way to deliver learning. We need new ideas about the actual structure of the educational experience to take advantage of technological tools and reach the students who need education the most.

With concurrent sessions focused on everything from mobile learning to assessment and analytics, there was no shortage of discussions around the trends in online higher education. Student want information not only when they need it, but also where they need it. And institutions are getting into a groove now recognizing the potential for data not only to describe their current students, but to prescribe new directions for future cohorts. Dr. Marilee Bresciani’s keynote address on Wednesday took such discussions further to show us how outcomes-based assessment can help to identify where true creativity and critical thinking are taking place.

On Thursday morning, Dr. John Medina treated us to a keynote presentation entitled Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Dr. Medina presented us with neurological research on how our brains actually process information as we learn and what the critical points are in instruction to ensure that students learn.

Dr. Medina Wows the Crowd at Pearson Cite 2012

Overall, it’s been a great conference and a great experience. I’m already looking forward to Pearson Cite 2013 in Chicago! (Look for additional information here in the coming months.) I hope to see you there!

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
Academic Training & Consulting Manager


Creativity – why should a business care?


I’ve had creativity on my mind the past few weeks. Maybe because I’m currently offering my students an assignment to create a class content-related sign, inspired by a 2009 article in National Geographic that included the sign shown here. (Who knew that dung beetles have the right of way?) This is a fun assignment that brings out some creative and funny work from my students. Anyway, regardless of the cause, I’ve been thinking about the importance of creativity in education, and I recently watched an interesting version of Ken Robinson’s talk on Changing Educational Paradigms (embedded above; you can also check out his famous TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity?).

As Ken Robinson discusses, there are many reasons to include creativity in education. But what I want to explore here are some of the “business” reasons that creativity is important. Specifically, I want to point out two interesting studies completed by IBM and the American Management Association (conducted in conjunction with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21) that demonstrate the value that the executive workforce puts on creativity.

The IBM study included more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, and found that 60% of CEOs cited creativity as the most important leadership quality over the next five years (IBM, 2010: 24). They feel that “creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers” (p. 10).

In another example, a survey of managers and business executives conducted by the American Management Association found that 75.7% of respondents felt that critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (the four Cs) “will become more important to their organizations in the next three to five years, particularly as the economy improves and organizations look to grow” (AMA 2010: 4). Those responding felt that the four Cs will be particularly important in keeping up with global competition and the pace of change.

When looking specifically at creativity and innovation, 61.3% said that this was among the most important skills in helping grow their organization, and 31.8% said it was an important skill (p. 5). In terms of their employees, 46.9% felt their employees had average skills and competencies in the area of creativity and innovation, 14.2% were below average, and 31.6% were above average (p. 5).

These studies should provide food for thought on how creativity benefits business, and that students who are encouraged with creative approaches in education may have an advantage in the future job market. So get creative with the ways that you can include creativity in your own teaching or course design!

– Gail E. Krovitz, Ph.D. –
Director of Academic Training & Consulting

American Management Association and Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). AMA 2010 Critical Skills Survey. Accessed online at

IBM (2010). Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study. Accessed online at


Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Conference attendees sleeping

These people still clapped at the end of the session...

How low is your conference bar set these days?  What does it take to make your experience "worth it" anymore?  Is it 1 good keynote and 1 good session?  Is that enough?  Maybe it's a solid pre-conference workshop and two good sessions.  Or is it even less?

I go to 30-40 conferences (led by educators) each year.  Typically I present a keynote address, a few workshops, or possibly a pre-conference session, but I certainly have plenty of time to see and hear a lot of other presenters.  This also means that I end up eating lunch or an occasional dinner with dozens, if not hundreds of strangers.  So, I've been doing some research around the gambling that takes place at conferences. No, not dice in the back of the kitchen or inviting strangers back to a hotel room...(Those are the tech conferences.)  I'm talking about the conference session roulette that everyone takes part in.  Come on lucky session #4...daddy needs a new educational game!

Some conference attendees "double down" on their bets.  Good move.  I watch as more and more often, session participants sit in the back of the room.  They give the presenter(s) about 3 minutes to "hook" them.  If there is no "hook" then out the door and off to another session they go!  Two for one sessions - nice!  And, most conference presenters are making it hard too.  It seems that the "catchy title" is the order of the day, regardless of whether or not the session will actually provide value.  Sprinkle in Web 2.0, or YouTube, or Serious Game and you've got a session title that will make people do a double take!  Come on Serious Games for YouTube and Facebook via Web 2.0 in the Classroom...Daddy needs a new assessment idea!

In my extremely unscientific research, here is what I looked for.  Great sessions (regardless of the identified mode), meaning keynote addresses, workshops, pre-conference, poster, and panel sessions were all game.  I looked for a few simple indicators to determine a successful presentation.

  1. Great content - this is usually determined by the "buzz" after the session and often corresponds with the number of questioners who stick around to talk.  (My personal research seems to indicate that 3 people will stick around regardless of how good or bad a session is.)  This also includes "buzzing" conversations that follow the session to lunch.
  2. Great presenters - these are definitely harder to find, but my indicator here was pretty simple.  Who, or better, how many (in the audience) was paying attention to the presentation?
  3. Great interaction - this one is tough for me.  A lot of conferences are demanding audience "participation" these days.  My problem?  Often the audience members are not subject matter experts, they are simply professors who enjoy sharing their opinions (which is why we're professors, right?) or worse, they simply want to play devil's advocate throughout the session.  So, in both of those situations, other audience members come away feeling like the session was useless.  However, when interaction with multiple audience members takes place regularly (not simply because an audience member forced a question in), it should be noted.

So, after months of tallying on my iPad or iPhone -I love you Evernote - I have some informal numbers.  This is from 22 conferences, 103 sessions, and includes a lot of conference goers...I have no idea how many.  I should also mention that if I didn't go to the presentation, but simply heard about the presentation after the fact, it was not included here.  (I wonder sometimes if those conversations are's like the guy in high school who was always trying to convince you the swimsuit models showed up to every party JUST after you left...)  Anyway, here you go:

  • 92/103 sessions had poor content, which means 11 sessions had great content.
  • 99/103 sessions had poor presenters, which means 4 sessions had great presenters.
  • 99/103 sessions had no audience interaction, which means 4 session had great interaction.
  • 2 sessions had both a great presenter AND great content (although no interaction).

For those of you scoring at home, that does not even begin to approach an 'F'. Even in aggregate, less than 16% of the presentations I attended were...well, quite frankly they were pretty bad.

Conference attendees paying attention to everything but the speaker

At least I got all of my email answered during this session

Let me give you one fresh example from a conference I attended in December.  There were 75-100 people in the lecture style, tiered room.  I was in the very back, at the top, looking down on the presenters and audience members (I was preparing for my session in that same room, which was next.)  Let me describe for you the middle row of about 25 people.

  • 3 were visibly asleep
  • 4 were checking email on their laptops
  • 6 were checking sports sites - mostly fantasy football on their laptops
  • 10 were using their phones (texting for help perhaps?)
  • 1 was writing on a notepad
  • 2 were passing notes back and forth to each other

It doesn't seem to matter what the topic is, what kind of conference it is, or who the speaker / audience members are, these sessions don't seem to be very helpful.  When I attended my own discipline's Communication conference last year, with people who explain to college students how to effectively communicate a message, there was no difference. When I went to a K-12 conference with teachers who certainly need more energy and enthusiasm to reach younger people, it was no different.  When I went to International conferences, it was no different.  (In fact, it was often worse as many of those conferences are made up of "conference papers" - essentially a person sitting in front of the audience reading a research paper out loud...seriously.), enough of the agonizing landscape.  You get it.  In fact, many of you are probably starting to develop a twitch as I've reminded you of things you would prefer to forget.  But here is my big question.

Why is it a surprise that education is having such trouble reaching students?

Apparently, we (educators) have a difficult time communicating with each other.  How can we possibly expect to communicate effectively with our 1, 2, and sometimes 3 generations younger students?  Why don't we apply what we know to work?  Why don't we use what we know to be helpful?

Tell, Show, Do, Review, and Ask in a multi-modal, multi-nodal way and we'll reach a LOT of people.  Why don't we do that?  Use ethos, pathos, logos, and mythos (if you're dying to think about it old-school) and we'll reach a LOT of people.  Why don't we do that?  Incorporate serious games, focus shifts, multimedia, and interactive strategies and we'll reach a LOT of people.  Why don't we do that?

I truly believe that we are our own enemy here.  I KNOW that there are some really creative, innovative, strategic instructors out there who are doing great things...but when they get to a conference to share it, they get very uptight.  The idea of presenting to peers is quite intimidating for many, so those ideas never really get a chance to shine.

Then, there are the conference submission boards who miss out on great stuff.  They don't seem to read or review survey results from previous conferences, giving preference to people who get super positive comments, having thereby illustrated that they have great content, are a great presenter, or include interaction effectively.  I watched a professor at Online-Educa Berlin present a fantastic workshop on rubrics.  She was poised, dynamic, and her content was top notch.  When I told her that she should give that session at some conferences back in the USA, she explained that she tried over a dozen times and never got accepted.  Something about the presentation just wasn't "sexy" enough for the committees, even though I watched her knock it out of the park in Germany.

So let me finish with this.  Let's change the way conference presentations currently run.  Let's all take a pact.  When we're given the opportunity to share our clever, creative, innovative, effective, or useful ideas from our classes with our colleagues...let's not blow off the performance until the plane rideLet's not forget what goes into a good presentation - effective nonverbals, logical reasoning, and passionate verbals.  Let's include some of the "cool" factor when we can, to illustrate the concept.  Let's not forget the power of storyLet's agree to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances READ our notes or (worse) READ our PowerPoint to the audience again!

We can do this.  It's not like we don't know how audiences respond most effectively.  We know that the lecture is one of the poorest ways we can communicate if we want our audience to retain, comprehend, and be engaged.  We KNOW what it takes.  So, let's just change it.  Yes, that simply, let's change our conference behavior.  Let us never again imply that what we say and what we do are not supposed to be joined at the hip.

Good luck and good teaching...and good conference-going!

(BTW - did anyone notice the ironic metaphor for education here?  Boring lectures, audience members not paying attention, little audience interaction, etc?  Hmmm...I guess that's another blog.)


They’ve left us, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still students.


Let’s Make a Difference in 2011

In an age of constant student mobility, the students have changed and the paths they follow are diverse. Increasingly, those paths include transfers to and from many types of colleges and universities creating barriers to degree completion. In a 2005 issue of “Policy Matters,” the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) emphasized the need for collaboration and change among transfer students’ institutions with these remarks:

The process of bringing together so many different kinds of institutions and programs into common agreement will never be easy, but will remain an essential goal as student   mobility increases and options multiply. (…) States, systems, sectors, and institutions must continue to work together to eliminate their differences and create smooth working models that encourage student success. (Conclusion section, para. 2)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the Economics Situation Summary, Friday, December 3, 2010 and the November 2010 numbers reflect we may not have made much progress in finding ways to increase student success.  The unemployment rate is 9.8% and the difference among those with college degrees and those without is striking (see Summary Table A)!


Table A indicates “High school graduates, no college” have twice the unemployment rate of “Bachelor’s degree and higher”.

Our country has made significant gains in “access” to higher education but despite the efforts of the institutions to have policies in place some students still encounter difficulties obtaining degrees. It seems that one of the problems may be positioned in the fact we are often concerned with “student retention” which has an institutional focus and not “persistence” which has a student focus. Determining clear connections supporting learning and student success could lead to a significant narrowing of the economic inequity in our society through empowering learners.

The first step is to increase high school graduation rates across America. The students who don’t acquire their high school diploma have the highest unemployment rate, currently reaching a level of 15.7%.  Upon attaining this milestone, high school alumnae see unemployment rates drop to 10%.  These learners need to not only graduate but  graduate with college ready skills and have a community of people willing to provide them financial, emotional and motivational support to enter higher education. Taking the initial step to enroll in post-secondary education and secure some college experience shows unemployment numbers of individuals begin to fall, if even ever so slightly. In the most recent unemployment numbers for this group rates fell from 10% to 8.7% when some college credit was achieved.

One resource with implications for academic practice deals directly with innovations in testing and measurement. Pearson’s Test, Measurement, and Research Services Newsletter (TMRS) provides an easy to reference list of current publications and conference presentations that deal directly with promoting student success in K-12 and Higher Education.  Pearson's research publications are for educators, parents, students, researchers and policy makers. Visit the Publications section of Pearson’s Assessment & Information website to search by topic, tile, author and date. All documents are available to view in PDF format.

A  Sampling of Recent Publications:

Almond, P., Winter, P., Cameto, R., Russell, M., Sato, E., Clarke, J., et al. (2010). Technology-enabled and universally designed assessment: Considering access in measuring the achievement of students with disabilities—A foundation for research. Dover, NH: Measured Progress and Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Bodenhorn, N., Wolfe, E. W., & Airens, O. (2010). School counselor program choice and self-efficacy: Relationship to achievement gap and equity. Professional School Counseling, 13, 165–174.

Conference Participation

Phan, H., Sentovich, C., Kromrey, J., Ferron, J., & Dedrick, R. (2010, May). Correlates of mathematics achievement in developed and developing countries: An analysis of TIMSS 2003. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO.

Van Moere, A., Suzuki, M., & Klungtvedt, M. (2010, October). Time is money: Assessing efficient use of written English skills for work purposes. Paper presented at the ninth annual conference of the East Coast Organization of Language Testers, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

As educators we all need to take accountability for fostering student success. As United States citizens we need to foster the state of our economy through two of our most valuable resources…..labor and entrepreneurship. Today’s students evolve into leaders of tomorrow. The paths chosen by students have become quite complex. The traditional vertical progression through higher education has become a pathway of the past. It does not suffice to simply understand the various pathways; we must understand why these pathways are chosen and have policies in place to support these pathways. This understanding comes through exploring the perceptions, ambitions and reasons for persistence of all students in their pursuit of degree attainment at all levels of education. The ultimate goal is to empower our struggling labor force to reach personal academic goals and become productive citizens in our workforce!

Let’s make a difference in 2011!


American Association of State Colleges and Universities (ASSCU). (2005, July). Policy Matters: Developing transfer and articulation policies that make a difference. Retrieved December 10, 2010 from http:/

Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS),  United States Department of Labor. (2010, December). Economics Situation Summary. Retrieved December  13, 2010 from

Pearson’s Assessment and Information: Research and Resources Website. Retrieved December  13, 2010 from

Pearson’s Test, Measurement, & Research Services(TMRS). (2010). Quarterly Newsletter v3 n3. Retrieved December  13, 2010 from

Karen R. Owens, Ph.D. / Academic Assessment Consultant / Pearson eCollege


A Couple of My Favorite Things – Digital Research Tools

Recent months have found me once again in the position of being both a professional consultant/trainer as well as a formal student. There are a number of things that happen naturally when you’re in this situation. First, you really do get to see the student and teacher side of the educational coin. (And if you’re anything like me, you sometimes find yourself at odds with yourself depending upon what hat you’re wearing.) For me the balance of the two views keeps my thoughts fresh and honest. Second, your conversations with fellow students and fellow professional peers mix and overlap. I love when this happens as it sparks additional and better thoughts as the conversations reverberate around my mind. (Granted, my mixed thoughts may be confusing for those listening to me.) And third, the amount of research that you’re working on in any given day can be relatively high. From my experience, research is also becoming more and more digital.  As I’ve nestled into my own research habits I’ve settled (for the time being) on a couple of free/freemium tools that work really well for me.

I’ve found that my research is almost always split between sources that are purely online (blogs, articles, occasional papers) and sources that are offline (ebooks, etextbooks, full-text PDFs from my research library databases). Ideally, I wanted to find a solution that allowed me to manage all sources in one interface. However, in order to get all the features I was looking for; I had to settle on one tool for each arena. The top features I looked for in a research tool were the abilities to archive, annotate, tag, make notes, search (the full text, tags & notes) and be able to access all this from where ever I might have my computer. 

For online sources, Diigo quickly became my favorite. Diigo is a freemium service that provides a tool for just about any web browser or device that you might be using to view internet. Chrome is my favorite browser and the extension that Diigo provides allows me to highlight the text of a website, add ‘sticky notes’, bookmark the site with tags and a description and archive all that information with a cached version of the site in case the site ever goes away. 

Highlighting a website with Diigo Chrome Extension

Highlighting a website with Diigo Chrome Extension

In my opinion the biggest advantage of Diigo is that it syncs all of my sites, annotations, etc. (no matter what device or browser I use to originate them) to a personal online library. In that library I can search all of my information and I can choose to share it with others. Groups allow me to collaborate with my peers on a research topic and a List is a nice way to share a discrete collection of sites around a particular topic. Either can be made public or by invite only. Things that I wish Diigo did, but doesn’t yet? Provide a way to keep a bibliography and insert citations into my documents (or at least generate them). Include other document types like PDFs, Word documents. 

For offline sources, I’ve landed on using Barnes & Noble’s Nookstudy application. You might have noticed that Barnes & Noble has created a small suite of applications for reading digital literature that can be used on devices other than their Nook. Nookstudy is an additional application that B&N provides for free that is specifically created for academic use. (It’s currently only available for PC and Mac, perhaps due to keyboard use in notes.) It is basically an e-literature (ebook, emagazine, enewspaper, etextbook) and PDF reader that allows you to add notes and highlighting. A few other nice features are that you can search the full text of the documents, link annotations to other annotations, and lookup words and phrases with, Google, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha or YouTube. Like Diigo, when you sign in with a free B&N account, Nookstudy will sync your information across devices and within your B&N library. (This can include any e-literature you may have purchased or downloaded for free from B&N.) 

Annotation in Nookstudy

Annotation in Nookstudy

The things I appreciate most about the application are the ability to a) organize the e-literature in collections (or courses for students), b) open more than one document at a time so that I can quickly tab between them, c) search my notes and tags and d) jump to the location of a annotated piece of text my simply clicking on the link in the notes catalog.  Things that I wish Nookstudy did but doesn’t yet? Allow me to search across all my notes, tags and full text of my e-literature instead of just within a single document. And, like Diigo, I wish that it provided tools for bibliography and citation generation. 

I know that in academia there is often frustration when an online tool is adopted and integrated into systems and daily life only to disappear 18 months later. But, unlike many Web2.0 tools that have come and gone, I’m confident that these two are going to stick around for a while. Barnes & Noble has shown with software, devices and content that they are invested in e-literature. Diigo is a small but diverse team with roots in academia who want Diigo to succeed for the same reason I would like to see it succeed: “to discover, process, manage, and share online information more productively and effectively”. 

Naturally, I’ll continue my search for an ideal research tool, but I’d love to hear from those of you who might be using other tools. Some of the other more promising tools I took a peak at during my search are Connotea, blinklist, citeulike and Zotero. Has anyone used these and if so, what do you like about them? What don’t you like? If a majority of your research does include digital assets, what other tool(s) do you use to organize your work? If most of your research is not digital, why do you think this is and do you think it is or will change? What advantages to you see in non-digital research? 

Luke Cable | Academic Trainer & Consultant 

Pearson eCollege 


Research Confirms – Instructor Presence is a Primary Key to Success Online

I recently embarked upon research to study large survey online courses. It is common practice in face to face courses that intro level courses often have more than 100 students. In fact, one of the studies I read had 400-600 students in the course at a university in South Africa. My interest was to determine how effective these courses are when given fully online and what are some strategies that professors and instructors can employ to assist them in handling these large enrollment courses.

My research revealed many findings. So as not to keep you wondering, these large enrollment online courses are equally effective and in many cases slightly more effective than face-to-face courses if effectiveness is measured through retention (finishing the course) and final grade. In order to set these courses up for success, many factors should be in place. Varied assessment and quality course design are two such factors. Both come before the students are enrolled in the course. Review and improvement of both, throughout the process, will continue to make the course more effective for students and more manageable for instructors.

However, the most important role of the instructor, both in the days before a course starts and during the running of the course, is to provide instructor presence to build a learning community in the course and help students feel less isolated, an unfortunate byproduct of a poorly facilitated online course (Berry, 2009). Almost all researchers on the topic of large survey online courses agree that instructor presence is vital to the success of such a course. The top three tasks are to: “maintain frequency of contact; have a regular presence in class discussions; [and] make expectations clear” (Dennen, Darabi, Aubteen, & Smith, 2007). Other key actions include providing a current photo and biography of the professor and communicating via informal emails (Berry, 2009). Other studies revealed that students wanted detailed information up front, before the course begins. Students rated having an option to ask clarifying questions as a more important interaction than when the instructor uses a discussion thread in the early days of the course for introductions and replies to each student’s post (Dennen, Darabi, Aubteen, & Smith, 2007). One more interesting finding was that when evaluated by students, more feedback from an instructor was not necessarily better. “Increased instructor posting did not result in increased student participation” in discussion forums. In fact, “there seems to be a threshold at which an instructor’s…overwhelming amount of communication inhibits or discourages learner communication and participation.” Instructors need to contribute occasionally in discussions to keep them going or to ask questions intended to further the conversation. However, clearly there needs to be a limit. This is more good news for the instructor wondering how he/she can manage such a large group of students in one course. The most important thought summarizing communication and instructor presence is that perceptions will always differ between instructor and student so open communication is key to successful teaching and learning (Dennen, Darabi, Aubteen, & Smith, 2007).

There are no surprises in any of these findings. Since online learning began and we have been able to survey and study the results, we have known that good teaching includes good overall design and varied and effective assessment but the most important aspect is good instructor presence throughout all aspects of the course. So keep up the good work and know that you’re making a difference.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out the Educator’s Voice link. The full article should be posted any day.

--Pamela Kachka, M.A.Ed.--
Academic Trainer and Consultant
Pearson eCollege
Works Cited:

Berry, R.W. (2009). Meeting the challenges of teaching large online classes: shifting to a learner-
focus. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1), Retrieved from

Dennen, V.P., Darabi, A., Aubteen, , & Smith, L.J. (2007). Instructor-learner interaction in online courses: the relative perceived importance of particular instructor actions on performance and satisfaction. Distance Education, 28(1), 65-79.

World Airlines Review -


Taking The “R” Out Of RLO

I was in Singapore last month presenting at the ICT2010 conference.  It was exciting to share best practices for online learning, teaching tips, and student engagement ideas with people from around the world.  It was also a very new and odd experience for me personally.  Not the conference and not the presentations – I do that almost weekly in my role at Pearson.  I imagine I've spoken 150 times at conferences in one form or another - from keynotes to workshops to seminars.  No, it was a portion of my duties at the conference that were strange.  I was asked to represent not just Pearson, but essentially all of publishing, in a conversation (aka debate) about Open Educational Resources (OER). 

So, I was up on the main stage with a Canadian University President, an industry guru who has created an open software option for creation Reusable Learning Objects (RLO’s), a representative from Creative Commons, another faculty member (nobody realized that I too was a university instructor), and a few others.  Keep in mind that Pearson acquired eCollege (and me) two years ago.  I know as much about publishing as I know about toddler learning behavior.  (With my 3 year old daughter I have some on-the-job training, but nothing from experts…)

But there I was, engaged in a conversation about open resources and reusability with people who desperately wanted me to falter.  I believe they were hoping I’d make some crazy statement about the ineffectiveness of repositories or how publishers hope all of the repositories just go away.  But not only do I not believe that, nor does Pearson for that matter, I actually didn’t have to say anything negative about RLO’s at all.  Why?  Because the experts on the subject explained to the 400 person audience that of the hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of RLO’s in the world today, less than 1% were actually reusable! 

It was a wonderful, rich discussion about how incredibly hard it is to create an engaging, effective learning object – whether it’s text based, video based, a simulation, a game, etc.  However, adding in the notion that the object you create will also be reusable seems to be nearly impossible.  Think about it.  Why did you create the learning object in the first place? It was likely to teach YOUR students a specific idea / concept within the context of YOUR classroom.  It will flow into the strategic thought you have around scaffolding for YOUR class.  It will be tied to specific outcomes / objectives YOU might have.  It will probably correlate to other learning ideas and other learning objects YOU’VE also designed. 

As an example, I have a game that I use in my online classes.  It reinforces two important, nonverbal ideas around chronemics (the study of how time communicates to others).  It is a Flash-based exercise with fill in the blank trivia of sorts – the answers are cultural and fairly easy, but students see a giant clock with time slipping away as they fill out the card.  My students love it and “get it” as a result of the exercise.  But if I were to place that learning object in a repository, it would take quite a bit of contextual explanation and even more training around how I use it, how it could be used, and finally how to implement it (technically) on a page. 

And so, at the end of the day, we are left with repositories full of good intentions, but unfortunately with little to no real value other than to possibly inspire a teacher to create a similar, but different working learning object for themselves…

So what’s the answer?  Again, from the experts around me there were some answers, but they will take some real effort that isn’t likely to happen.   For example:

Tagging – A common taxonomy or even folksonomy must be created and used by EVERYONE using a repository.  That’s no easy task.  I was once on a campus where the faculty senate had been asked to standardize the term in online classes used for presenting mostly textual / pictoral information.  The word, “Lecture” had been suggested by the administration.  (Online norming of nomenclature across a program is a best practice as students always know how to navigate.)  However, in 2 hours, the faculty could not agree on an appropriate term.  Some staunch opponents wanted “Presentation” while others wanted the term, “Reading” instead.  Another department chair brought up the inclusion of YouTube videos on the pages and pandemonium ensued. 

Design – These (r)LO’s must be designed with re-use in mind.  But again, with the description above, that’s no easy task either.  I barely have enough time to create learning objects for my own class, let alone thinking about the greater good of the world as I create them.  (I realize I’m not as noble as I’d like people to think…)

Standards – After creating and tagging a learning object in ways that others can consume them, we then need to think about standardizing the platforms they are built on.  What about using FLASH?  It’s a nice medium that has been used for years by educators.  There are more and more software options to create FLASH simulations, demonstrations, or games that are easy and cheap, if not free.  So FLASH is perfect, right?  Oh, wait…the iPad.  That’s right, Steve Jobs seems to have made it his personal mission to kill that software.  Well, what if my object is in PowerPoint?  Isn’t it “universal enough” for people then?  (Sorry Open Office users…)  Ok, well how about I create my learning object using simple HTML code.  Everyone knows that these days, right?  (Sorry 90% of instructors out there who can read Latin better than HTML.)

Quality – I recently read a blog by a professor who was pleading for the world to give up textbooks and adopt only open source content.  He was frustrated by his textbook publisher’s edition practices.  (Luckily, it wasn’t Pearson as he called them out by name…)  But I have to say, while I’m not a publisher by any stretch of the imagination, I have come to find great respect for what my new colleagues at Pearson do.  Did you know that a textbook costs over a million of dollars to produce?  Yes, I said million… Why?   Take a marketing book.  How many pictures, slogans, and commercials are represented there?  A thousand?  Two thousand?  Do you know how much it costs to get permission to use that Tide ad or the Toyota picture?  Every time the book is produced, Pearson pays intellectual property license fees.  Add that to the author of the book who gets royalties.  Don’t forget the editors, the auditors, the fact checkers, researchers, and the list goes on and on.  And of course, don’t forget the warehouses and paper, etc.  So, that one learning object (which is likely dozens if not hundreds of learning objects) costs a bunch of money to produce in a way that is educationally beneficial to our students.  Have you ever seen an Open resource that is vetted to that caliber?  What about the MyMathLab product?  It has shown improvement in math comprehension, math retention, and math process orientation in the 20, 30, and even 50 percent quartiles.  It’s based on algorhythms that require tremendous math subject matter experts talking to expert instructional designers working in collaboration with programmers

So what’s it going to take then?  Well…quite frankly it’s going to take people smarter than me (I know, I know…easy enough) to create some innovative solutions that are easy to use, easy to catalogue, and easy to consume.  People like the CETL in the United Kingdom who have created GLO Maker (, a planning & design tool that creates learning objects that are much easier to tag, share, and reuse.  Other leaders are groups like Equella, a digital repository company that incorporates learning objects, content management, and integrated content authoring.  Then there are the content repository sites like Merlot, Orange Grove, and others. 

There are answers out there, but it’s going to take some work, some strategy, and some compromise to make it happen.   Do I believe OER will ever replace monetized assets?  No, I don’t think so.  But I do believe that the two worlds can live quite harmoniously, creating a rich tapestry of content that can be pushed and pulled as required based on learning preferences, student needs, etc.   But I think that’s a blog for another time…

Jeff D Borden, M.A.
Senior Director of Teaching & Learning



How many lessons have you learned in your lifetime? 1,000? 1,000,000? I guess we have to start with what our definition of “lesson” is. Let’s take a broad-sweeping approach. For example, my daughter just learned the lesson that walking on the dog will likely cause you to fall when he moves. (Dog 1, Addie 0) But, if we learn little lessons like that every day, in addition to the formal learning that takes place in schools…wow.

Now, how many lessons have we forgotten in our lifetime? Would you guess more or less than we’ve learned? Common sense suggests that more is not only likely, it’s almost impossible to deny by anyone, even the smartest genius. So how do we remember better? That’s what educators have been trying to tackle for years. We research, we study, we come up with theory upon theory…and we make predictions.

What are the theories that we hold to today? As an Education doctoral student, I hear the current theories first hand from researchers and experts. If we want students to learn and remember, we must give them context. We must give them practical application. And we should never, ever use rote memorization, right? It must be true when both education scholars and Wikipedia agree! Here is part of the definition from Wikipedia on the topic of rote learning: “Rote learning, by definition, eschews comprehension, however, and consequently, it is an ineffective tool in mastering any complex subject at an advanced level.”

However, psychological research would suggest something very different. Rote memorization as we know it today is ineffective. This is hard to dispute. However, there is a significantly better way to use it, which actually helps the process of both learning and retention. It’s called the Spacing Effect and it works. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who works for Rosetta Stone. They have based their multimillion dollar product sales on it.)

The Spacing Effect was identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800’s. He proved that it was possible to significantly improve learning by effectively “spacing” practice sessions. This is more than just telling students about the ineffective nature of cramming. From its inception, psychological researchers have pleaded with educators to use this effect to accelerate our ability to learn. In fact, in the late 1980’s, Dempster published an article in American Psychologist called: “The Spacing Effect: A Case Study In The Failure To Apply Psychological Research.” He expresses that this concept is one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in human cognition. Yet how many teachers do you know who have ever even heard of it?

Piotr Wozniak took this concept and ran with it. He is the creator of Super Memo ( and he believes he can help you remember 95% of everything you learn. It’s all based on when you try to remember it. Try too soon and it ends up in short term memory, only to dissipate and wane later. Try too late, and you will have forgotten what you had to remember in the first place. So, there is a sweet spot. And Wozniak found a way to let computers create an algorithm that tells you exactly when that time is. (Hint: it’s different for everyone.)

I go to 20 conferences a year. I would guess that 19 out of 20 have at least one speaker who talks of the evils of repetition and practice in terms of rote learning. Even though we all do it foundationally (who learned to read without first learning the alphabet?). The key is not just the concept of rote memorization for foundational concepts. The key is how we teach and how our students practice these concepts. Of course context is important. I’m as big a proponent of application as any educator alive. But I’m also a lifelong learner. And I’ve learned something about learning recently. Holistic learning is much more than any one theory. Retention is deeper than practicality in assessment. Authentic tasks are only one side of the educational dice. There is much more to learning most of us realize. And by understanding one more piece of the learning puzzle…I’m a better learner today than I was yesterday.

(Thanks to Gary Wolf and Wired magazine for this amazing article on Piotr Wozniak that inspired this blog. You have GOT to get this magazine!)