Online Blogucation

Whom will the data serve? Thoughts on Usefulness and Portals for Education

As noted in the article Salman Khan: The New Andrew Carnegie? -

...knowledge no longer needs to be bound into the paper and cloth of a book but can float free on the wireless waves of the Internet. There’s a lot of junk bobbing in those waves as well — information that is outdated, inaccurate, or flat-out false — so the emergence of online educational materials that are both free of charge and carefully vetted is a momentous development. This phenomenon is all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness. Websites offering high-quality instruction for free are the Carnegie libraries of the 21st century: portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances (Paul, 2011, para. 6).

I pursue the goal of excelling as an engineer or architect of learning and to be otherwise associated with the proliferation of "portals of opportunity for curious and motivated learners, no matter what their material circumstances" (Paul, 2011, para. 6). In some sense, I am these things already as an Academic Trainer and Consultant with Pearson eCollege. If I had a personal mission statement, it would be worded similarly and my destiny would be to serve in an industry associated with or embedded within the systems of education.

Yet, that’s not the point of this post!

I found it interesting the Paul (2011) article quoted above suggests the phenomenon of high quality online vetted materials " all the more significant given the increasing scrutiny directed at for-profit online universities, which have been criticized for burdening students with debt even as they dispense education of questionable usefulness."

Could not many of us argue that public colleges and universities also "dispense education" of "questionable usefulness"? Actually, many might also debate whether education is dispensed or received or shared or…

Wait, that’s not the point of this post either!

So, what is the point you ask?

The point is to consider critically the reality that all colleges and universities - regardless of profit motive or mission statement - are justifiably susceptible to this questioning of usefulness. Knowledge and skills needed for professions and trades evolve quickly in part due to the globalization of knowledge and virtual removal of barriers to access to information through the internet for a large portion of the world’s population, but certainly not all of that population! Let's question some things...

Could we argue that a nursing or teaching degree in the United States from 1990 is as useful today in the same locale as one from 2010? Does locale matter? How does that impact usefulness?

Does on the job real-world apprenticeship style workflow-learning add value to the formal education received? If yes, how is that measured?

Does a graduate's lack of continued professional or personal development post-graduation to become or remain productive in the workforce as laborer or entrepreneur necessarily reflect negatively on the value of educational portals provided by a college or university?

Yes, that’s the point.

While there is much that can be unpackaged from the messages of the selected quote opening this post, the point of this post is to ask you to think critically about what we are measuring when we refer to educational usefulness, how we are measuring it and defining the variables associated with the measures, and ultimately why we are measuring it – whom will the data serve?

Lisa Marie Johnson, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege


Paul, A.M. (2011, November 16). Salman Khan: The new Andrew Carnegie? The emergence of free, high-quality online courses could change learning forever. Retrieved from Times Online MagazineIdeas section (link opens new page):


What Constitutes Teaching in an Online Course?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Students of Professor Who Didn’t Show Up Keep Their A’s and Get Refunds, Too,” caught my attention a few weeks ago. Initially, as I read the headline, I assumed that the professor in question had not showed up to teach her on-ground course. As I read the article, though, I realized that the instructor in question was fired for not teaching an online course: the third paragraph of the article states that “Venetia L. Orcutt, department chair and director of the physician-assistant-studies program” at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, was “assigned to teach a sequence of three one-credit courses in evidence-based medicine over three semesters last year. The first semester of the required course was face to face, and she showed up for that. But according to three students who complained to the university’s provost, Ms. Orcutt went missing when the course sequence shifted online” (Mangan 2011). The article does not explain which of her teaching duties Ms. Orcutt failed to carry out (nor could I find this information in the two other articles I could locate on the case, which seems to have received relatively little attention); it says only that she “went missing” and then assigned all the students in the course A’s.

How exactly does an instructor “go missing” in an online course, I wondered? How much negligence constitutes not teaching an online course? For instance, if you don’t participate at all in threaded discussions, does that constitute not teaching your online course? What if you answer questions in the threaded discussions but don’t grade any student work, or fail to keep your gradebook up to date?

These questions may seem overly simplistic, and it does seem logical that a university firing an instructor for “not teaching” an online course would probably result from a combination of all of the above duties: no appearance in the threaded discussions, no grading of student work, no answering of student questions. But I wondered whether this case might open the door for institutions to decide, for instance, that online instructors who fail to respond to students in the threaded discussions may be in breach of their contracts with the institution and thus at risk of losing their jobs, or that instructors who don’t grade student work should be fired. This question was particularly interesting to me given recent feedback from some of my own online students. I always use the last threaded discussion of one of my online courses to solicit feedback from students about what worked well in the course and what didn’t; this term, which just ended last week, I had for the first time students telling me that they really appreciated my doing things that I consider pretty basic aspects of my job: participating in the threaded discussions, responding to their questions punctually, being available for extra help over email, using the course tools available in my institution’s LMS rather than email to accept student papers, and keeping the gradebook updated.

Coupled with this anecdotal evidence from my students, I have seen firsthand a variety of online courses that demonstrated exactly the shortcomings my students were complaining about in their other online courses—courses in which there is no record of students submitting assignments, much less the instructors grading it; threaded discussions where the students post regularly, for up to eighteen weeks, with no response from the instructor; gradebooks that are either empty, incomplete, or inaccurate. Such behavior would not be tolerated for long, I suspect, in most on-ground courses; what makes it acceptable in online courses?

The short answer is that it is not acceptable. There are two problems, though, that make such occurrences more common in online teaching. The first and largest of these is that many online instructors don’t receive adequate training; they don’t know how to use the tools in their LMSes and thus lack basic knowledge that would facilitate the teaching of their courses online. This is an institutional problem more than it is an individual problem. Certainly, there are online instructors who persist in believing that online teaching is somehow secondary to on-ground teaching, and that they need not actually do the same kinds of work in their online classrooms, but most online instructors, I think, want to do a good job and sincerely believe that they are. They simply haven’t received the training they need to make full use of the tools available to them, nor do they understand that there are strong pedagogical reasons for maintaining an active presence in an online course. The second problem is that it is much more difficult to measure how long online teachers spend teaching, particularly if those online teachers aren’t using tools in the LMS that record activity for the time spent using these tools. If, for example, instructors ask students to submit papers via email rather than using a dropbox tool in the LMS, it’s more difficult (not impossible, but more difficult) for those instructors to show that they’ve collected and graded those papers. If instructors are primarily interacting with their students over email, not responding to or facilitating threaded discussions in their online courses, it is again more difficult to ascertain how long these instructors are spending actually teaching and interacting with their online students. This second problem thus relates to the first: these instructors haven’t received really basic information about why and how they should use their LMS’s tools to teach their online courses. The good news is that both problems are easily fixed: institutions need to make adequate training, both in terms of basic instruction for online teachers about how to use their LMSes and in terms of the pedagogical principles of online instruction, their first priority.

Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.

Academic Trainer & Consultant

Works Cited

Mangan, Katherine. 2011. Students of professor who didn’t show up keep their A’s and get refunds, too. The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 9).

Filed under: eLearning 2 Comments

Google Voice for Teaching Presence & Community

Abounding research has confirmed for us the power of instructor presence, immediacy and feedback in online courses. Conceptually, “immediacy” refers to behaviors that lessen the “psychological distance between communicators” (Weiner & Mehrabian, 1968). In practice, and in particular as it applies to online learning and course delivery, the behaviors and practices that generate and sustain instructor immediacy must often occur in scenarios of total or varying degrees of physical distance and separation of course participants. The power to connect with students who we do not physically see or meet with in person can have much to do with the resources available to us to power open lines of communication.

For online instructors, a critical need is to have the capacity for communication, just as we would have in a face-to-face classroom. Instructor-to-student communication around the delivery of content, course information, grades, assessment feedback, etc as well as the need for student-to-student communication around course concepts, discussions or group work illuminates the need for a wide range of tools to facilitate communication exchanges.

How do you foster immediacy and the communication you need to have with your online students?

If you teach with the Pearson’s LearningStudio system, you might use the Announcements and Email tool for asynchronous communication with your students. You might also be using the Threaded discussion tool for targeted areas of communication such as an instructor virtual office, a weekly topical discussion or dedicated group work areas. When synchronous communication is preferred, you might also use Classlive or the Chat tool. All of these measures share the function and outcome of providing means through which communication, interaction and dialogue can occur.

In addition to in-course tools for communication such as those briefly highlighted earlier, the greater Web community offers a wide range of tools you and I can use to generate channels of communication. In this post, I’ll highlight my most recent experience with Google Voice as a communication tool in my teaching.

Google Voice isn’t a new feature from the well-recognized Google family, but it is one that is still unfamiliar to many and is being continually improved. Google Voice offers key functionality you may consider to be helpful to you in communication with your students.

What is Google Voice?

Google Voice can be used to enhance the existing capabilities of your phone, regardless of the phone or carrier you might use. Key features include:

  • One Number: Use a single number that rings you anywhere.
  • Online voicemail to your inbox like email.
  • Transcribed messages.
  • Free calls & text messages to the U.S. & Canada.

Directly from the welcome email I received upon signing up, here is a brief highlight of Google Voice and few of its features:

“Welcome to Google Voice. Google Voice gives you a single phone number that rings all of your phones, saves your voicemail online, and transcribes your voicemail to text. Other cool features include the ability to listen in on messages while they're being left, block unwanted callers, and make cheap international calls. We hope you enjoy using Google Voice.”

Your inbox, messages, features and settings can all be accessed and customized from your Google Voice Page (

Here’s how I am using Google Voice with my students

So, here is a brief overview of my current setup and a few of the ways I use Google Voice to enhance the phone communication channel with my students. First, I did some research on Google Voice before signing up and discovered the ability it would provide me to essentially bridge my current phones and receive voicemails all in one place- my Google Voice Inbox. I decided to give it a try!

During the sign-up process, I was prompted whether I wanted to use Google Voice with my existing mobile phone number or a new phone number from Google. I selected to create a new phone number figuring I could later choose whether I would actually use it. As it turns out, having a Google number, which is free, opened up additional possibilities for me in leveraging Google Voice for phone communication with my students. With a Google number, I was able to now provide my students with 1 phone number where they could call me and I set parameters around what occurs when a student calls that number, such as which of my actual phones (home, mobile, etc) ring when my Google number is called. I was also able to set when my phones can & cannot ring, and the greeting that students hear when I don’t answer their call immediately. Awesome! (More on this later in this post).

Having a Google number has also meant I do not need to provide students with my personal mobile number or home number, but can set Google Voice to route my calls to those personal telephones, if I choose to. When I am not available to answer their call, students hear my personal greeting and are able to leave a voicemail message. That message then arrives in my Google Voice inbox as transcribed text that I can actually read prior to or in place of listening to the voicemail message.

In this example, one of my students called my unique Google number. I wasn’t available to answer at the time of the call, so my student was routed to my personal greeting message and left a voicemail for me. Within seconds, I received the voicemail alert in my Google Voice inbox and was able to read what the student spoke in the voicemail message. The alert in my inbox displays the number from which the voicemail was received, the date/time in which it was received and a transcribed version of the voicemail message. Pretty cool!

Transcribed Voicemail Message Image

(Click on image to enlarge) Note: “Sample Student” and “(123) 456-7899” have been layered over the original name and number.

A few days after the original setup, I spent a bit of time exploring the Settings area within the Google Voice page and noticed several handy features that could help me even further. As mentioned earlier, I was able to schedule when my phones would be able to ring with a call and when they should not. This means I don’t have to worry about hearing my phones ring when a student calls me in the middle of the night. :-)  This is particularly useful when your online students span the country and/or the globe and could be calling you from a wide range of time zones!

Within settings, I also noticed the ability to elect to have text message alerts of new Google Voice activity sent directly to my cell phone. I went ahead and signed up to receive a text message alert on my personal cell phone whenever a student leaves a voicemail message at my Google number. (Keep in mind this is something you can change or cancel at any time). For me, this handy feature has meant I am automatically alerted of a student’s voicemail message even if I am not in my Google Voice inbox or even on my computer. Below is a screen capture of what the text message alert looks like on my cell phone. Notice the transcription of the voicemail message directly within the text message alert on my screen, giving me the ability to ‘see’ the content of my student’s voicemail message without having to be on my computer, log into my Google Voice account, or even ‘listen’ to the voicemail message:

Image of Text Message Alert of a Voicemail in Google Voice

(Click on image to enlarge) Note: “Sample Student” and “(123) 456-7899” have been layered over the original name and number.

I’ve certainly noticed instances in which the transcription of a voicemail isn’t complete. When this happens, I am able to listen to the actual message to hear my student’s recording directly. I am also able to alert Google of when this occurs and even “donate” the transcript for improvement of Google Voice in the future.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, having a Google number and Voice account means I can also receive text messages from my students, free of charge. Now, I know some of us as instructors are not sold on text messaging with our students. And you’ll find the features of this tool that are helpful to you and you can use those. I’ve found adding a Contacting your Professor announcement in my online course and including within it several parameters for communication and my expectations for students can really help clarify the way I encourage my students to communicate with me, minimizing issues of appropriate methods of contact, etc.

When a student does send me a text message (which I’ve noted in my announcement as an acceptable form of communication), the text message arrives in my Google Voice inbox, just like an email would. It is organized under “Texts” and I have elected to have alerts of new text messages to my Google number sent directly to my cell phone. The alert includes details of the message as well as the text itself, much like the earlier screen capture. And I can choose to respond with a text message, a phone call, or any other method I’d like to use.

Additional thoughts on Google Voice for Communication and Community

I’ve been using Google Voice for some time now and it has become a frequently-used tool in my toolkit as I seek to build effective communication with my students. I’ve also been able to refer my students to sign up for their own Google number to be able to make free nationwide calls to classmates throughout the course and to team members during a group project. All the student messages I receive, including voicemail messages and text messages, are stored within my Google Voice inbox and I can access them from anywhere I can access the internet. I can choose to delete messages once I’ve responded to the student or keep the message stored in my inbox, which means I no longer have to worry about time limits for the storage and retrieval of student’s messages. As a robust phone communication tool to support what I am already doing in my online courses and the ways I seek to foster immediacy, Google Voice is certainly worth a try.

Here are some resources to get you started

If you’re curious about getting started with Google Voice, take a look at this brief introductory video: What is Google Voice? or visit the Google Voice YouTube channel to see more. To sign up, go to Click “Try it Out” to sign up with a current Google account or to create a new Google Account. Once your Google account has been created and verified, click on Voice logoand follow the on-screen instructions to get started. Again, you’ll have the option of using Google Voice with an existing mobile phone number or creating a brand new (and free) Google number.

By the way, if on-the-go advanced calling and voicemail functionality is a welcomed addition for your communication toolkit, you can download the Mobile App, which gives you access to your Google Voice inbox and messages right there on your mobile phone. Pretty handy if you like to stay connected while mobile! With the app, I am able to call students or send them text messages that appear as though they are coming from my Google phone number even though I am actually sending them from my personal mobile phone. Pretty cool stuff! Plus, it’s totally free to do within the U.S. and Canada. Currently, the app is available for Blackberry, iPhone and Android powered phones. For more information or to download the app, search for “Google Voice” in your app marketplace.

Until next time, I wish you the best in your courses. Be sure to share a comment with us via this blog if you use Google Voice or another handy tool for communication with your students!

Rachel Cubas
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Assessment & Analytics Group | Academic Training & Consulting Team (ATC)


Wiener, M. & Mehrabian, A. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Whaddya mean, it’s free!?

In case you missed it, Pearson made an announcement a few weeks ago followed by some serious marketing during EDUCAUSE about one of our newest products, OpenClass. OpenClass is “breaking down barriers and transforming the learning environment,” says Adrian Sannier, Pearson’s Senior V.P. of Learning Technologies. Why? Because, in short, it’s free. As in really free – it’s hosted in the cloud, so there are no hosting costs. There are no licensing costs. In fact, if you’re a school with Google Apps for Education you can start using it right now. Free. Just click here.

But my post today is not to talk about OpenClass directly. I’m not going to try to sell you on it or demonstrate it or talk about all of its amazing features. Instead, I want to talk about some of the reactions we’ve seen to OpenClass. It’s my contention here that we in the educational world (and in our consumer culture in general) have become so suspicious of the word “free” that we can’t possibly believe that something really could be free. Once bitten, twice shy, right?

The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed both wrote articles on OpenClass following Pearson’s press release. Fine articles – balanced points of view, a few questions that need to be answered, and so on. And kudos to them for taking on these national discussions on the idea of a free LMS.

The heart of the matter, though, comes down to the comments posted by many of those publications’ readers. I’m going to share a few of those comments here, not to poke fun at the authors or to say that they’re wrong or that there’s anything wrong with what they posted. I’m all for free speech and for potential end users to challenge Pearson to deliver on its promises. What I want to point out is the amount of cynicism we see in the world of Learning Management System adoption. Let’s start with a sample of comments (unedited):

  • free-hosting sounds great, ...but at what price? what sorts of idiosyncrasies and limitations will this cloud-based LMS have?
  • I can almost picture the pop-up ads in OpenClass--"wouldn't you love to be able to [insert Learning Studio feature not present in OpenClass] ?"
  • Nothing is free!
  • this may not be as “free” as it looks. For a campus to integrate an LMS into their academic mission, it takes time, money and cooperative relationships with faculty.
  • I question how free OpenClass really will be. Pearson is a for-profit publisher and, to use OpenClass, I suspect they will have customers to use their textbooks under the guise of an integrated learning platform…I sense there are many strings attached to this so-called free platform
  • Like other people, I’m also wondering how “free” this can really be. LMS adoption is a costly process -- in terms of time and money. Plus, a newer LMS is bound to have more problems than better-established LMS that have been evolving over a decade or more.
  • While it is nice that "free" (as in gratis) is referenced, it is certainly not Free (as in libre). Of course, one does have to wonder how long the "free" part will last...
  • Can we please define "free?" It seems very limited to think of costs only directly related to hosting the application(s) and maintaining the hardware. Is it free in the sense that open source software is free (e.g. free as in speech vs. free as in beer)?
  • Pearson could cancel OpenClass at any time, or not fix bugs or insert ads or just stop adding any features or upgrades, and there is nothing anyone can do about it - you're locked in.
  •'s good.But would you mind if i ask you a question? well I am 31 years of age from Tanzania East Africa I am looking for a sponsor for  my master's degree any where can you help please..

Okay, maybe that last one’s not really on point. But I think you get the picture I’m painting here: people are surprised, suspicious, and even (at times) hostile toward the idea of a free LMS. Several readers/commenters act as if Pearson is a drug dealer, using OpenClass to give people a taste, getting them hooked, and then causing them to take out second mortgages on their universities just to stay in the LMS.

Not true! Look, I’m biased here. I see that. I work for the company that makes OpenClass. But I’m also an academic, have years of teaching experience at the university level, and have years of experience with a variety of LMSs. So I know where these readers are coming from. Nothing is ever as free as it seems, right? There are always hidden costs. We, as a consumer culture, have become desensitized to the word “free” because, as one commenter so astutely wrote above, “Nothing is free!”

For example, there are a lot of other LMS offerings out there that purport to be free, but limit you in terms of the number of courses you can create or the number of students you can enroll. OpenClass is not that. There are other LMSs that provide the backend code for free so that you can essentially create your own LMS using their code. Except that you have to pay for hosting – even if that means just a lousy few thousand dollars on some servers and routers. OpenClass is not that.

In short, these other “free” offerings have brought out the cynic in many of us, that anything that says it’s free can’t possibly really be free. We’ve been burned too many times before.

OpenClass is free. You can get it for free out of the Google Apps Marketplace, create a course, enroll students, and run with it. You can create ten thousand courses with 100 students in each. Let your imagination run wild. It’s free. If you still don’t believe me, try it out. Let me know what you think.

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
Pedagogy & Training Group Supervisor
Academic Training & Consulting


The Buzz on Assessment

I had the pleasure of attending the 2011 Assessment Institute in Indianapolis this week. The conference is the nation’s oldest and largest event focused exclusively on outcomes assessment in higher education. Administrators, Faculty and Student Affairs professionals convened this week to discuss techniques and approaches across outcomes assessment areas. This year, the event featured tracks on Capstone Experience, ePortfolios, and Faculty Development, among others.

I’d like to share with you a few of the recurring themes I heard and will take with me from the keynotes, workshops and best practice sessions. I will share specifically three themes and considerations. These few points may serve as a marker for some of the noteworthy issues and considerations in the higher education outcomes assessments landscape.

The first two themes are indeed linked in both process and practice, so I will identify both of them at this point. They are: 1) Faculty Engagement and 2) Using Results to Inform Improvement Processes. For those of us who have been doing outcomes assessment for any extended period of time, these themes may echo many of the questions and issues as well as the successes we have faced.

The engagement of faculty in the assessment process is certainly not a new issue in the practice of assessment. Notwithstanding, faculty engagement in the process of outcomes assessment is a reality many institutions are still desiring and even stretching to achieve. The corporate understanding among practitioners gathered at the event appears to reveal an arrival, or perhaps a standstill in some cases, at a place of resounding confirmation, one that points to faculty engagement in the assessment process as a critical component to successful assessment. In her 2010 paper entitled “Opening Doors to Faculty Involvement in Assessment”, Pat Hutchings wrote:

“As Peter Ewell (2009) points out in another NILOA paper, from its early days in higher education, assessment was “consciously separated from what went on in the classroom,” and especially from grading, as part of an effort to promote “objective” data gathering (p. 19). In response, many campuses felt they had no choice but to employ external tests and instruments that kept assessment distinct from the regular work of faculty as facilitators and judges of student learning. In fact, the real promise of assessment—and the area in which faculty involvement matters first and most—lies precisely in the questions that faculty, both individually and collectively, must ask about their students’ learning in their regular instructional work: what purposes and goals are most important, whether those goals are met, and how to do better. As one faculty member once told me, “assessment is asking whether my students are learning what I am teaching.”

Further, the notion was submitted that seeking faculty engagement should not be seen as a one-time achievement but as an ongoing and evolving effort that characterizes a campus assessment strategy. Inasmuch as the issue is not a new one for assessment, the corporate sentiment among conference participants is that garnering this engagement remains a key dynamic and often great challenge. Several presenters admonished institutions represented at the conference to engage in cross-institutional dialogue to share strategies on how to foster a deeper degree of faculty engagement.

The second recurring theme centers on a question of the value, strategy and purpose of assessment efforts, asking What’s it all for? Assessment is hard work. And the growing sentiment appears to be a desire to see campus assessment efforts translate into actual impact on student learning, beyond the collection of data and documentation for accreditation and/or certification. This pull for results that impact student learning is a call to move beyond data collection and planning of assessment to the informed and strategic improvement of teaching and learning based on the data. To make assessment more useful, we must include within our strategy an intentional approach to leverage data and documentation to help bridge the gaps between our current and improved realities. This process must be ongoing. And it undoubtedly must include faculty.

Finally, the third takeaway comes in the form of a resource. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) had a strong presence at the 2011 Assessment Institute. Several of the organization’s staff and associates were keynote presenters and include a notable group of internationally recognized experts on assessment. NILOA presenters pointed conference participants to what they called the ‘crown jewel’ of the organization’s efforts, a recently-enhanced and robust website featuring a collection of papers, articles, presentations, websites and survey results compiled in alignment with the organization’s vision for discovering and adopting promising practices in the assessment of college student learning outcomes. Reviewing the organization’s website will quickly reveal its valuable contribution to the field of assessment and current issues, including those I’ve highlighted from the conference. Take a moment to explore this great resource by visiting

It was certainly a rich experience to attend the conference and have the opportunity to share with institutions and hear the collective voice of higher education assessment practitioners.

Rachel Cubas
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Assessment & Analytics Group | Academic Training & Consulting (ATC)


Hutchings, P. (2010) Opening Doors to Faculty Involvement in Assessment. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.