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 There’s a lot of junk bobbing in those waves as well — information that is outdated, inaccurate, or flat-out false — so the emergence of online educational materials that are both free of charge and carefully vetted is a momentous development.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):


Universal design – it is worth the extra effort

I recently conducted research into the topic of universal design. I want to design content that is accessible by most people. That is what is so great about striving to design content with universal design in mind. The point of universal design in Web content creation is to add, adjust, and create content in a way that most people can access it rather than just the majority group accessing it. In Web content specifically, because the end user has the ability to further adjust the content to make it usable for him or her, we the designers of the content need to keep those potential adjustments in mind and design under the assumption that one or many tools might be used by each different end user. It is really actually pretty powerful to consider designing something so well that almost anyone can access the content, interpret the meaning and do so in a way most effective for that one user. As one research group stated:

People who could benefit from more universal designs include many both with and without disabilities. They include:

• People in a noisy shopping mall who cannot hear a kiosk
• People who are driving their car who must operate their radio or phone without looking at it
• People who left their glasses in their room
• People who are getting older
• People with disabilities
• Almost anyone (Trace Research & Development Center, 2010)

Below are just a few design suggestions to make your Web content universally accessible. Keep an eye out for the next Educator’s Voice article. A more complete look at universal design will be presented and explained.

Designer Mindset— Before designing the next page of content, it is worth bearing in mind at all times that every page designed might be read by someone using a screen reader. So while some design suggestions benefits different groups for different reasons, almost every suggestion will benefit someone using a screen reader.

Font Type—While the research is split on whether serif font such as Times New Roman is easier to read online or whether sans serif font such as Arial is easier to read online, the balance tips in the direction of sans serif font (thus this article is posted in a sans serif font). In my efforts to find the research backing up this statement, I found about 55% of the articles favored sans serif font and 45% of the articles favored a serif font for text online. However, considering all the content on the Web that is text, it is obvious that most others agree with using a sans serif font because that is the predominant font on the Web. Sans serif font or font without hooks is easier to read on screens.

Text—Text content is a necessary component in online learning. In the Webinar I referenced in the beginning, I heard the presenter provide the following guideline for writing for the Web. Write it out and then delete 60% of the words; delete connector words and put into bullet points (Hall, D., 2011). That may be a difficult goal to reach for many but 60% fewer words in any lecture content item is likely to be more effective.

Colored Text—Many users of the Web cannot see certain colors. Make sure when choosing color combinations that you use combinations that have high contrast. Also, bear in mind that those with visual color deficiencies will not be able to see certain colors. Lastly, do not change text color to blue for emphasis because it looks like a link and users wonder why the link does not work.

Bold/emphasis— Our team uses the term double coding when referring to emphasis in content. Some methods are better than others for emphasizing important details. Do not underline because it looks like a link. Color for emphasis helps but some users cannot see the color change. So in additional to a color change, it is recommended that you double code such as making the text bold as well. Even better is to add the word bold into the text just before the important detail or mark important details with asterisks.

Navigation Links
—Include as much detail to describe where the link leads as part of the hyperlink on the page. In the sentence--click here to navigate to the museum of science and nature Website, build the link on the words--navigate to the museum of science and nature Website--instead of just click here which removes the indications, for those using a screen reader, where the site leads.

Tables—As mentioned before, tables were the way that most of us using WYSIWYG editors instead of hard coding HTML built content online in an nicely formatted layout. Tables are a challenge for screen readers when used for content presentation. When used for data presentation (which admittedly is the primary purpose of tables) they cause fewer problems. The best rule around tables would be that if it is your only best option for design, the content presentation should make sense when reading it from left to right. Otherwise, if you can use HTML commands such as blockquote to create margins on the page around the text and content, that is preferable to a 1X1 table. This site provides more tips for universally designing a table.

Images/Graphics—include images and graphics to present content via different modalities. Only insert images and graphics that are relevant and further convey a concept. When adding alternate text, be very descriptive. Those viewing the image with a screen reader or as text only with images suppressed should be able to see in their mind what the image, table or chart looks like.

Cut & Paste—when pulling content from other resources and using cut/paste commands, paste the content as plain text and format it within the visual editor. Trying to copy formatting and links from a word processing document often creates a poorly designed replacement. It takes more effort but it will look better visually and screen readers will read the page more cleanly as well.

There are many sites available with universal design tips. A few sites are listed below.

-Pamela Kachka, MAEd-
Academic Trainer & Consultant

Suggested Resources:

Colblindor. Coblis – Color Blindness Simulator. (2006). Retrieved October 19, 2011 from

Krovitz, G. (2010, November 10). Being disabled for a day [Web log message]. Retrieved from

The Trace Research & Development Center. (2010). General Concepts, Universal Design Principals and Guidelines. Retrieved October 17, 2011 from

University of Central Florida Teaching Online. (2009). Accessibility Tips. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from

WebAIM. Creating Accessible Tables. (2011). Retrieved October 18, 2011 from


Hallmark #2 – Planning

Fasten your seatbelt and hold on to your hat! This week we are going to talk about planning in regards to the Middle States Accreditation plan. While I say that a bit facetiously it is actually a little piece of the canvas which is part of a bigger more exciting piece of work.  By standardizing accreditation requirements nationwide for higher education online learning programs, those of us firmly planted in online learning programs can take a huge leap forward to demonstrate (with statistics, research and data) that what we are doing is not only catering to a growing market’s demands but doing so because the pedagogy and statistics show that our students are learning and competing and often exceeding their counterparts in fully online programs.

There are 9 hallmarks in the Middle States Accreditation plan and today we look closely at #2-Planning. On a side note, I will give you some background into this series of blogs. After an introduction to the overall Distance Education Programs--Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (Online Learning) each person on our team (the Academic Consulting team at Pearson eCollege) took a hallmark to focus on and fully explain. In the draw, I drew #2 Planning.

Now, as I plan for this blog (I deliberately chose the word plan in case you missed that) I can see how apropos it is that I have the planning topic. I am a planner to the point of a clinical neurosis some might say. I am the person who, when the seatbelt light goes off on an airplane as we pull into the gate, I get up and find my car keys and my credit card so when I get off the plane and get to the end of the very long walk to my car, I can jump in, start the car and proceed to pay for parking. Downtime is used for reflection and analysis but it is also a moment or two that can be used to take care of details and save time later on. So from the planner’s perspective, let’s look at hallmark #2.

With that statement of credibility (I am qualified to talk about planning because I am a neurotic planner in my day to day life), let us take a look at how EduKan, the consortium of online campuses for 6 Kansas community colleges, leads by example when it comes to these accreditation hallmarks. Some institutions will fret and have to hire consultants to comply when this becomes standard whereas other institutions, such as EduKan, will simply look at the list and say: “we already do that.”

Hallmark #2 reads:
The institution’s plans for developing, sustaining, and, if appropriate, expanding online learning offerings are integrated into its regular planning and evaluation processes (MSCHE Standard 2).

From the guidelines, analysis and evidence of this hallmark will review:

  • Development and ownership of plans for online learning extend beyond the administrators directly responsible for it and the programs directly using it;
  • Planning documents are explicit about any goals to increase numbers of programs provided through online learning courses and programs and/or numbers of students to be enrolled in them;
  • Plans for online learning are linked effectively to budget and technology planning to ensure adequate support for current and future offerings;
  • Plans for expanding online learning demonstrate the institution’s capacity to assure an appropriate level of quality;
  • The institution and its online learning programs have a track record of conducting needs analysis and of supporting programs.

So in asking how EduKan’s director Mark Sarver addresses the topic of planning, he replied that all aspects of the planning guideline are addressed through their Strategic Planning committee. The Strategic Planning committee for EduKan includes representatives from all jobs and roles within the organization. The group includes but is not limited to: academic deans, advisors, instructors, registrars, other administrators et. al. They devise a 3 year strategic plan which is created and agreed upon by all members of the committee. It is all encompassing to include goals, budget planning, technology planning, and indicators of success. The stakeholders on the committee then take the plan back to their respective groups and gain approval from those groups. As the committee meets every three years, they check the indicators of progress, document successes and adjust or re-define goals for the next three year plan. Statistics, reporting and data analysis provide the documentation needed to assure the required appropriate level of quality. The process is ongoing and it includes every role in the EduKan system to gain buy-in from all those with a role in the success of the online program and the consortium as a whole.

EduKan is not unique in this process. All institutions have a similar program or committee that examines, develops, implements and then reviews their overall plan for successfully educating the students who attend their institution and enrolls in their courses. If they have always been a traditionally on ground campus, this will have to expand to include the online goals above. If they already have an online component to their offerings, they will have to be sure they can document that they are addressing the analysis components above. Of the 9 hallmarks soon to be part of the accreditation process for online learning programs, number two might be one that you can check off as already being in place. Good luck!

-Pamela Kachka, M.A.Ed.-
Academic Consultant


A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

You’ve likely heard the statement “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” far too many times to recall a count. And we know the saying holds true in so many applications. Each time I return from a trip, be it business or pleasure, I tell the story of my trip through its photo album on my iPhone. You will find all kinds of pictures on the 8gbs of photos currently on my iPhone- from snapshots highlighting airport architecture to pictures of the venues I visited to images of the city’s scenery and local flavor- you name it, I probably took a picture of it. And with some added narration, walking family and friends through those pics, arranged conveniently in chronological order on my phone, is one of the most entertaining –and fastest– ways to the tell the story of a multi-day or multi-week trip in just minutes.

The power to tell a story is one of the greatest inherent capabilities of a photo or image. A picture can express feeling, impact mood and inspire emotional reaction.

A Wife and Her Soldier
A Wife and Her Soldier

A picture can also communicate a theme, express an idea, or provide the visual reference needed to break a difficult concept down to a level of comprehension and assimilation.

RSS Diagram
What is Really Simple Syndication (RSS)?

A picture can engage. My niece, Ava, who has just reached the tender age of 6 months old, need only capture the slightest hint of light or visual activity on the television to devote her full attention to the picture on the screen.

For an online professor like me, this makes me turn to my online courses to find the ways I am employing the power of a picture to engage, communicate and tell the story of my content. Putting this into practice into a recent course I am enhancing and redesigning, I came upon the seemingly-serendipitous realization that if pictures really are worth a thousand words, I surely have several opportunities in this course to put the age-old saying to the test.

I started with revising the Introductions forum to ask students to consider posting a recent picture of themselves along with their introduction. I then went into my instructor bio area and posted a couple extra pictures of myself, choosing images that depict both my professional and personal life. Next, I went into my Virtual Office and changed out the old image of a question mark animation to a more modern image that greatly resembles my own workspace- a light-colored and large desk surface with a large monitor, iPhone, Bluetooth keyboard and writing instruments. Even the true-to-life sticky notes that tend to overtake my desk space are pictured in the image. From here, I went to my Unit Homepages and began selecting relevant images that helped capture student interest in the Unit ahead. I then tackled the Course Homepage, adding a large banner and image to help distinguish the course from other courses my students might be taking. Finally, I looked to the lectures, which I’m tackling one week at a time, to uncover the areas that are difficult to understand or envision and the areas where a relevant picture (beyond a silly graphic) could enlarge the potential of the lecture content. Today, I considered the possibility of taking the pictures my students begin to post of themselves in the Introductions discussion area and putting them into a simple collage and adding it as a Content Item such as “My classmates” under Course Home. This would provide the students in this group with a real sense of the cohort of peers that share the online course space. It would also help them see patterns they might not otherwise notice in an online course, such as the diversity and breakdown of their online classmates.

It is indeed the case that we do not always have the level of design freedom in our online courses as this experience describes. But in most cases, I’ve always had the opportunity to either make improvements and enhancements from one term to another or at least make suggestions for improvement, especially when those suggestions could be linked to student engagement and lead to a more picture-perfect course.

L. Rachel Cubas, M.Sc.
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Assessment & Analytics Group
Academic Training & Consulting (ATC) Team


Collaborate and customize!

As we work with our Educational Partners on implementing their outcome assessment plan, from the macro to the micro level in distinctive academic cultures, a common theme emerged. The focus was on organizing and collecting evidence but there was no formal plan for action steps.

Our Assessment & Analytics team worked closely with several of our Educational Partners to customize templates, devise online faculty discussion forums and offer other technology enhanced solutions to be a catalyst for improving curriculum and instruction. As discussion pursued it became evident that there was no “one way” to accommodate the unique requirements of all colleges and universities but we were providing methods that could be used and customized for most.

The next step for us grew into Assessment Consulting Modules that could be designed around the needs of our Educational Partners. This included a “backwards” planning method to help ensure the multitude of assessment data the academies collect would actually help answer their ultimate questions and lead to evidence driven action plans.

From beginning to end the Assessment Consulting Modules are designed to lead participants through best practices of student learning outcome (SLO) assessment. The series begins by exploring why we engage in assessment and by defining a roadmap to creating a culture of evidence on campuses. Participants will then have opportunities to develop and connect SLOs and rubrics that apply directly to their unique curriculum. Our end goal is to provide specific strategy and design suggestions that translate into meaningful and sustainable assessment plans.

Following is a brief description of a few of the modules:

Curriculum Mapping
This module looks at the relational aspect of student learning outcomes within an academic institution. Intentional and explicit alignment of each outcome from the discrete course level to the increasingly broader, program, department, campus or institutional level is examined. The mapping concept is designed to provide opportunities and evidence of student learning at various stages of the curriculum.

Rubric Design
Measuring and assessing students’ demonstration of learning through the use of rubrics is the focus of this module. Designing an assessment rubric using explicit criteria statements and identification of examples of student performance at varying mastery levels of each outcome is presented. Included are comprehensive and clear rubric exemplars.

SLOs and Impact on Course Design
Quality course SLOs are the foundation for assessing student learning. Quality assessment of student performance requires those SLOs to be purposefully aligned to the learning activities, assessment activities and schedule of the course. In this module participants use a modified card-sort method to analyze the relationship of the course’s design to the SLOs and inform design changes to optimize student learning.

Fostering Faculty Ownership of Campus Assessment Culture
Assessing students’ mastery of learning outcomes falls primarily within the scope of faculty responsibility so it is critical they be an integral stakeholder in the development of campus assessment plans. Faculty engagement is further fostered by focusing on improving the student learning experience. This module provides tangible actions for academic leaders working to integrate faculty into the development of campus assessment culture.

We are no longer living in academic silos and must use web services and other technology enhanced services (along with colleagues) to link information similar to using Lego blocks. The design can be simple or very complex. The creativity is unlimited if we begin by understanding the combination of links within assessment and then proceed connecting until we have designed an application that fits real-time teaching and learning. Collaborate and customize!

Karen R. Owens, Ph.D.
Higher Education Assessment Consultant
Assessment & Analytics Group
Pearson eCollege



Global Perspective | Spotlight on Trends: USA & Brazil

Last month, I had the amazing opportunity of delivering a workshop course on Online Learning Best Practices in Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná, Brazil. The event, hosted by the Brazilian Association for Distance Education (ABED), is an annual gathering that calls for educational professionals from all over the nation of Brazil in what is esteemed to be one of the most critical events in the online and distance education arena for the nation.

The focus of my workshop was to engage a dialogue around what practitioners were facing today and then seek to facilitate sharing around their issues and experiences in order that we might bring to corporate attention those things we could observe as mistakes, successes and best practices.

To start this off, I gave a short presentation on trends in online education, featuring both U.S. and Brazil-based statistics. My original curiosity in putting the stats together was to identify some of what these two nations are seeing in their online learning & distance education landscape in order to draw an analysis of how the two landscapes might differ or cohere.

Through this presentation and our group dialogue, it became clear that both similarities and variances did exist. In such areas as student, teacher and institutional access to technology and the overall use of technology in education, for example, participants noted the U.S. is in a position of greater years of access to and practice with technology applied to educational contexts. We also dialogued about the impact of this reality on instructors, specifically in the case of wanting to find and incorporate online resources into their courses, including Web 2.0 tools and applications. Whereas we know that for an English-speaking audience, social giants such as Facebook now have 200+ apps that can be applied to education, the number of sources available for use in other languages, in this case Portuguese, can be dramatically fewer and thereby pose a greater challenge to instructors desiring to incorporate such tools in their courses and work.  Though we did identify these noteworthy differences in our dialogue, at least one solid point of coherence did emerge in our continued dialogue and exploration of the statistics.

Inasmuch as it seems evident the years of practice with certain technologies in education, as well as with eLearning in general can differ greatly between the U.S. and Brazil, it became clear that both nations are in seasons where the promise for the future of online education seems to be one of increased growth. For instance:

  • Brazil- “The offer of new distance courses in 2008 grew 89.9% in comparison with the previous year (ABED, 2009).”
  • U.S.A.- “The economic impact has been greatest on demand for online courses, with 66 percent of institutions reporting increased demand for new courses and programs (Allen & Seaman, 2009).”

For sure, this growth potential appears to reflect in both enrollment of students into online course offerings and in student-demand for increased online course & program offerings. In either case, the trend appears to point to a growing demand from students for opportunities through which to engage their education through technology.

Though both of these potential growth areas are vast topics for rich discussion, the one I chose to highlight to the group was the second (the expected & potential for growth in demand for new online course offerings). Moreover, I chose to focus less on the demand itself and more on the impact or implications of this demand on the online education landscape. My question to the group then and I pose this for your consideration now as well is to reflect on: “What does this mean for online course development?”

If we are to understand that the trend-signs point to great and seemingly rising demands for new online course offerings/programs, we can conclude that those institutions who desire to engage with this growth potential will need to:

  • discover their position in terms of current online offerings and
  • determine the extent to which their institutional strategy calls for (and will support) the development of new online courses and programs.

Bearing current offerings and strategic positioning for the future, new development would need to begin by an active discovery of those subject areas, courses and programs that represent the rising demands of online/potential online students. With this, we can observe the potential for a rising need for new course development across disciplines and levels. And a critical scenario for institutions offering online courses/programs to consider is whether the demand is rising at speeds that could soon (or have already) outpaced current systems for development.

Obviously, this apparent demand for course development is a larger reality than this short blog can fully address and there is indeed still much we need to discover. As such, I’d like to pose the following questions to you that might help you spark or continue this discussion in your institution:

  • What demand for online courses, including new courses and program offerings, is my institution facing?
  • What is our strategy concerning online education and how does growth in new course and program development fit into it?
  • How will any new initiatives for development affect our current system and capacity to support new online course development?

L. Rachel Cubas, M.Sc.
International Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege



ABED. (2010). Sao Paulo: Camara Brasileira do Livro.

Allen & Seaman. (2009). Learning on Demand. Newburyport: Sloan-C.


Some are asking, is technology making your students stupid?

A colleague sent me the article, Linked In With: a Writer Who Questions the Wisdom of Teaching With Technology by Marc Parry. If you find yourself reading educational articles, you’ve probably heard or read Nicholas Carr’s theories about the role of computers in business or the much talked about article: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” If you some how missed it, I recommend reading this above mentioned article. It is thought provoking. Who doesn’t like a good controversy?

I’ll go ahead and answer the question that some like Nicholas Carr are asking – no, technology is not making our students stupid. It is a decent premise for which he cites a few studies to back up his assertion. I can tell you right now that I could find an equal number of reputable studies to support technology use improving education. I can cite studies that show students who learn content in a hybrid classroom (where some content is delivered face to face and other content is delivered via technology in an asynchronous environment) perform better on end of course mastery exams than students who learn the same content in 100% face to face classes.

But this isn’t about pitting his anti-technology citations against my pro-technology citations. This is about education and what techniques we should employ to educate our students of all ages. You’re not going to be surprised when you hear my answer. I think that Nicholas Carr might actually also agree with me. He would just need to abandon his headline grabbing byline and talk about what works instead of swinging his red herring all over the place.

So if technology isn’t making our students stupid, what is? Bad teaching. This isn’t a new, ground breaking theory for which I’m going to get a grant to study further. This has been the case since humanity began. If you use poor teaching techniques, the students will not learn. If you throw technology into the classroom of a teacher or instructor using poor teaching techniques, it does not improve the mastery or retention of the students. The same occurs with throwing money at the problem (we need to spend more money on education!) or recycling old ideas that didn’t work the first time (picture the pendulum of educational theory that swings back and forth every five years or so).

You may be thinking, sure it is easy to say but what does that look like? Here’s an example that Dr. Bernie Dodge of San Diego State University shared with me and other educators at the recent ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) national conference in Denver. His overall premise is that an engaged learner is a learner who will master concepts and ideas. What does that look like? Check it out. This child is fully engaged.

The presentation that I had the opportunity to see was about taking good teaching techniques back to our classrooms and using technology when appropriate. We all know that but sometimes, it is refreshing to hear it all over again. We looked at sites such as Slate Magazine’s News Dots and 360 Cities to discuss ways that we could use those tools to teach our students. The advantage of attending this session was that I not only walked away with a few new technology tools I can use but also a long list of activities and techniques I can use with that technology to teach my students to master the content.

It isn’t about the technology. It is about good teaching. We need to do all we can to support good teaching techniques in our classrooms whether they are face to face, hybrid or fully online. Make technology the tool that engages the learner and not just the fix we throw at the low-scores-on-state-exams problem. Maybe take a minute or two to read Nicholas Carr’s article because there are many out there that do rely only on the technology. We need to be aware of that and combat it at every turn. Then take more than just a few minutes to read and watch Bernie Dodge’s presentation on engaged learning. If we read it and implement it, the answer to the question will be easy – no, technology is absolutely not making our students stupid.

- Pamela Kachka, M.A.Ed. –
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege

Dodge, PhD, B. (2010, June 28). Engagement - iste - 2010. Retrieved from  

Parry, M. (2010). Linked in with: a writer who questions the wisdom of teaching with technology. The Chronicle of Higher Educaiton, 56(39), Retrieved from


Science and Science Labs in Online Environments

A good advocate of online learning will tell you that all content areas can be taught online; you just need to plan and adjust so that the activities done online are still as rich and compelling as they were face to face (F2F). So if I’m that science instructor wanting to move online with my biology course, where do I start?


Having attended the Sloan-C Blended Learning Conference and Workshop in April, I was able to attend sessions and network with colleagues who have been at that starting point of where do I begin? It seems like a great place to start is a blended or hybrid approach. When planning for a blended course, you decide what will work best F2F and what will work best online. This allows you to examine your content and evaluate each lab and activity to determine what is the best way to learn this concept?


If you are going fully online with your science lab course, you obviously will not have the luxury of deciding which labs you want to do F2F and which you want to do online. So plans need to be made for full online integration. From that perspective I think the best option is collaboration with colleagues. In addition to the contacts I made at the conference above, after further conversations outside of the conference I have a list of other science professors willing to talk to me about what they are doing.


So what if your institution doesn’t have the funds to send you to a variety of conferences (does any institution have the funds right now)? No problem! If you’re scrappy you can find the contacts you need to start the conversations. It is easy to find conference Websites online. Look around for the list of presentations or in the case of the conference above, look for the link to the presentations post conference. If you find someone who might have information you seek, contact that person. I tried it with two people and in addition to their insight, they provided me with names and email addresses of other colleagues as well. So a little digging and you’ll be able to build your own network of colleagues with whom you can collaborate and generate ideas for bringing your science course fully online based on what others have done.


If you are not that adventurous, the other option is to find listservs that focus on teaching science courses. The group of collaborators will already be assembled for you, waiting for you to ask your questions. Some great resources I found are listed below. Just sign up (sometimes the tricky part) and send your questions out or search the archives for previous posts.


Also, any of these resources or tactics will work for any content areas. If you are taking your curriculum online, find others who have gone ahead of you and build on their ideas and experience. You don’t have to do it alone.


ITeach Listservs – resource page for instructors associated with Minnesota State Colleges & Universities. There are a variety quality of sites and listservs for all content areas.

AdjunctNation – a comprehensive resource for adjunct professors of all curriculum areas

 Clemson University Biolab listserv – you have to dig a bit on this one; scroll down to the Visit header and click on BioLab. There are directions for joining the listserv which is described as: a great place to discuss college biology teaching with colleagues.  

Catalist – a fully comprehensive search engine for listservs. You can find a listserv on any topic you can dream up. It led me to the last one:

ISEN-ASTC-L - which links informal science professionals from around the world.

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- Pamela Kachka, M.A.Ed. –
Academic Trainer & Consultant



Outcome Assessment vs. Assignment Grading

Admittedly, this debate will only catch the eyes of those of us who passionately engage in the role that outcome assessment plays in improving curricular and instructional effectiveness. My experience is that in most cases, course assignments predate the integration (or imposition) of outcomes into the course delivery process. As a result there is often loose alignment between assignments and the outcomes that have been associated with a course.

The core question then becomes whether faculty can integrate these two evaluation requirements into a single workflow or if they must be two discrete processes. My colleagues at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence have deeply engaged in this debate with targeted faculty on their campus. They’ve summarized their perspective in a January 2010 newsletter article which is well worth reading. A case is made for maintaining outcome assessment as a unique process because of the aforementioned alignment issue.

For example, a student may turn in an assignment late which means s/he should receive a lower grade even though the student may have demonstrated mastery of the associated outcomes. Another common situation is that many departments want to include writing quality criterion in their assignment rubrics even though this may not be a stated outcome for the course.

While the points made in the article are valid, my belief is that ultimately these two processes need to be integrated into a single workflow for faculty. Professors have a limited amount of time they can dedicate to the feedback and evaluation steps in the teaching and learning cycle. If we ask them to add outcome assessment on top of an already full workload the quality of their feedback to students will likely be distributed more sparsely across a broader range of assessment requirements.

There are many committed faculty who are willing to go the extra mile but a well-designed course and assessment process can go a long way toward integrating these two components of a course-based evaluation approach. Assignments can be rewritten so that their evaluation criteria more closely align to the stated course learning outcomes. This takes effort too; however, once this alignment has been completed the efficiencies are realized in subsequent terms.

“Rubrics for Grading, Rubrics for Learning Outcomes”. (2010) January 2010 Koehler Center eNewsletter. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from

Brian McKay Epp | Academic Trainer & Consultant| Pearson eCollege


Recipe For Success

A year and a half ago, my wife went in for radical, life-changing surgery.  The surgery worked and her life is altered for the better.  But an odd thing happened just before the doctors started removing organs.  I got a text message from my Dad.  While it was impressive to get a text from the 64 year old minister who flies 200,000 miles per year, that wasn’t odd.  What was odd was how he signed it.  The text simply said,

“Jeff, know that we’re all praying for you.  Please call us when you can, but know you’re in our thoughts.  LOL.”

Now, for those of you not in the know, it’s the LOL that really threw me.  So, about a week later, I was going back through my messages and I found it again.  So I asked my sister why Dad would sign a text that way.  She said that she had gotten a similar one.  Her little girl was having some dental problems and needed a root canal.  Dad sent her a text the ended the same way.  “Hope she does great…LOL”

So I called my dad and asked him why he was signing his texts that way.  He told me, “I was so moved by a text from your sister a few months back that I’ve adopted it!  She wrote me a text saying she had just seen my book on the shelf in Barnes & Noble and that I was the man…then she signed it, LOL.”  He went on to explain that the comment, “Lots of Love” was so moving, he almost cried and had been using it ever since…

The following five minutes of conversation led my father to hang up and spend two days calling and apologizing to people for “laughing out loud” at their deeply troubling problems.  My uncle’s divorce was met with LOL, a roommate from college who just lost his own father was followed up with LOL…essentially my dad had offended about 20 people in 2 months via text message!

As much as that story makes me smile, and while I hope it also makes you smile, it’s the formula for that story that is important.  I teach speech and rhetoric – I have for years.  And throughout my years, I ask students to include plenty of narrative in their speeches.  Stories make a profound difference to an audience when told right. 

But there is a problem…often they are NOT told right.  I partially blame the news.  Your local news or the newspaper has always been filled with stories, right?  WRONG!  The bastardization of that term has caused people to believe that a “report” is the same thing as a “story” – when it’s not.  Let me explain.

Typically, an article or report is about time.  It is a chronological, step by step explanation of what happened.  Can it be engaging?  Sure – but more often it’s just informational.  But a “story” is different. 

Coming from “mythos”, the idea of story is really all about plot.  And the idea is simple – the plot should create tension, keep tension, and release tension!  Let me share a quick, but simple (and effective) recipe for a story that my students try to use.

Step one is to provide an attention getter.  In my story above, my first sentence was designed to be a bit engaging.  Nothing Earth shattering, but unusual.  A hook to keep you listening.  This was followed by a very important step two – the creation of tension!  My statement about an odd text message hopefully had you wondering what exactly was odd about it.  Step three is actually the majority of the adventure.  The purpose of step three is to keep the tension building.  Hopefully you were wondering with me why in the world my dad would write such a calloused message and why he would perpetuate that message over and over.  Finally, in step four, I released you from the tension.  I explained the behavior and concluded the story. 

The formula for a good story.

The formula for a good story.

If you think about it, almost every good story today follows this formula.  This recipe can be found in prime time dramas, late night sitcoms, or blockbuster movies.  If you look at a legal show like Boston Legal, the only difference is that they use this formula five or six times per show, often leaving the tension for a few storylines so as to bring you back next week.

So, as you consider creating content for your course…heck, as you consider your course in general!  Think about this formula.  Do you tell stories that create tension, hold tension, and release tension?  On a bigger scale, does your course grab students from week one and build the tension until week 15 when they say, “A-ha!”  Of course there are mini-gestalt moments along the way, but if you use this formula correctly…your students will be clamoring for more week after week! 

So, whether it’s an individual narrative, a discussion illustration, a lecture, or an entire course, think about this “recipe for success” the next time you want to really engage your students.  I think you’ll like the results.

Good luck and good teaching.
Jeff D Borden, M.A.
Senior Director of Teaching & Learning