Finding the right balance

This is my comment from about finding the right balance through blended learning.  Parts of it may, therefore, seem a little out of context.

Trying to find the right balance is often a difficult thing to do, especially when there are so many good things you can do. My general rule of thumb is that when you add something to your class, something needs to go. However, there is a point when this isn’t really possible any longer. When it gets to this point, I tend to start examining the way the course and instruction are designed. Is the content being disseminated in the most efficient way possible?

This is where I think blended learning can really be helpful. Wendy I know you are already doing some work with Edmodo so this may not be anything new to you, but for the rest of the group it might be helpful.

What I’d do would be to look at everything that I want to include in my course. Put it all out on the table if you will. Then start thinking about what it is that you could do online. Are there components that can be facilitated online, such as discussions, readings, etc. that will reduce the load of your face to face lessons? If so, then start by organizing those components into an online “pile” if you will.

Next, I’d start looking at some of the things that you’ve done in the past that have traditionally taken place during class. Are there other things like lectures and group work that you typically give your students time in class to do that can be facilitated online? Some of you may be thinking, crazy Dan, doing group work online! As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually not that hard and can actually give your students more flexibility. In my master’s program (75% online) we did a considerable amount of group work using tools like Google Docs, WebCT (BB9), Skype, and Adobe Connect. And when it comes to lectures, there are a number of tools available that can help make the transition to online. While I don’t like lectures, sometimes you just have to lecture, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it in class. So as you survey the components of your course for those type of tasks, put them in the online pile as well.

Remember, you don’t have to put everything online, but ranking components by importance will help you decide if you can do it online or in class. Once you have gone through everything in your course, you should see all the pieces of your course that you want to do in class. These should be the crucial components of your course: major projects, central methods, etc. You should also see a considerable amount of your course that will be taught online. These are going to be things like discussions, lectures, small group activities (not major projects), videos, etc. These are still important pieces of your course, and by putting them online in no way are you lessening their value. Rather, you are just being more efficient with how you spend your time in your course.

As you go through this process, you’ll want to talk with an instructional designer who is familiar with online learning, such as myself. The main contact on campus would be Jason Vetter in ITS-ET. Contacting one of us when you go through this process will help as we will likely provide a different perspective. Remember, my goal here is not to have you simply post your syllabus and readings online. I’m talking about putting major components of your course online to complement your face to face sessions with your students. What I’m advocating for is much more difficult to do at the beginning, but has a much greater payout in the end in terms of the type of learning your students experience and the time savings you can experience in class that allows you to do other tasks with your students.


My experiences with blended learning

Note: This blog post is being used as part of the UNI Teacher Quality Partnership Course Redesign Summit that will take place from June 1-7, therefore, this post may seem a bit out of context for those not participating in the summit.  However, feel free to leave comments and interact as you see fit.

I’ve had a few experiences with blended learning as a student, some good and some bad.  My first experiences were during my undergraduate course about distance education.  This course was taught in an entirely blended format.  There were face-to-face meetings on campus and there were also a number of interactions using a learning management system.  Like many things, the first time you try something is rarely the best experience and mine was no different.  Having never taken a course that met at a distance, I was unprepared for the online experience of the course, in particular, the online discussions.  I’m typically a more reserved person when it comes to discussions in front of my peers and this transferred to the online environment.  When the time came for discussions it was difficult for me to engage with others in the course.  I’d have something I would want to share so I would post it in my forum, but I rarely received feedback from anyone else in the course.  Essentially I thought what I was posting was wrong and no one was telling me otherwise so I went on that assumption.  I felt isolated.  As time went on I continued to feel more and more isolated and in the end my performance in the course suffered.  The problem with this first experience was that I didn’t feel like I was noticed by others in the course.  This is what is called social presence, which has to be facilitated and cultivated by course instructors.  If instructors fail to do this, students tend to fall into the same situation that I found myself in during my first blended course.

However, my second experience was much different from my first.  I enrolled in a distance masters program where all the courses were taught primarily at a distance.  In each of the courses, we only met physically about once or twice a semester and, for the most part, the people I began my courses with were the same throughout the entire experience.  This helped each student develop relationships that will last a lifetime.  There were many typical class activities, such as readings, lectures, discussions, and collaborative group work, that were done at a distance with people from all over the US.  The key for the experience was being able to work asynchronously, but still on a schedule to ensure we progressed through the course together.  This way we could learn when it was most convenient for us.  Also making this a positive experience were the instructors who were flexible and responsive to the needs of the students.  If something needed to be changed, they worked with the entire class and modified the course accordingly.
Reflecting back on the experience, there were a number of changes from my first blended course to my last.  The biggest factor has probably been time.  About 7 years has elapsed since my first experience and during that time a number of advances, both intelectual and technological, have been made with blended and online learning that have made them easier to design and teach.  This isn’t because blended and online learning is an easier format to teach through, but instead, we are better able to identify and change problem areas both in the design process and once the course is underway, which in the end makes the entire process easier.  While we will share and discuss many of the resources and strategies you can use to design effective blended learning environments, I underlined a few words above to have you start thinking about how you and your students interact in your courses.  Even though there are a number of contextual differences between my experience and the ones you create for your students, these are still common themes that will appear in nearly all blended learning environments, so think about these themes in your context and what it means for your students.

Social media, Pen pals, and Access

I was reading an infographic about social media and education and one part talked about how an instructor uses social media to connect his foreign language students with native speaking people.  Essentially, his students have pen pals they are connecting with using social media (Skype).  This surely makes a much more authentic experience than what I had when I was in school and we used mail to communicate back and forth.  Effective, but I never really knew my pen pal and certainly didn’t stay in contact after the course ended.  Social media is changing how we communicate and interact, but in a good way.

This was certainly an exciting opportunity for this teacher’s students to experience, but what struck me most about this was the incredible ease we have to connect with others from around the world.  We have almost unlimited access to people, information, and other resources, but the unfortunate reality is that too few teachers leverage these tools to create meaningful experiences for their students.  I don’t have any hard data to support my claims, just my own beliefs and opinions, but it doesn’t seem like teachers are unwilling to use social media.  To me, it seems like teachers just need support and a vision to see the possibilities.  The problem as I see it is that two fundamental things are missing from many schools…proper support and a vision.

What are your thoughts?  How are you or other teachers in your school using social media to communicate with others on a local, state, national, or even global scale?  How has that changed the dynamic of the classroom?  Add a comment and keep the conversation going.

Online education: Is it as good as face-to-face education…it can


I came across these two questions when I was browsing through my RSS reader this morning, and it made me think about how we can wield distance education to reach the ever expanding clientele schools are educating.  Here are the questions:

What I like about this article is that it shows some of the problems associated with online education as it is widely done at all levels.  I think of the courses that don’t allow for student voice, feedback, interaction with other students/instructors, etc.  I also think of some of the courses that were offered online from a local community college from my K-12 days as a technology coordinator.  The courses were online courses taught without an instructor, where course materials are available online and students complete assignments based solely on readings and online exercises that rarely require any form of higher order thinking.  When online education is conducted in this manner, I too find the prospects of a face-to-face education much more appealing than the online alternative.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.  With the range of available online technologies today, there are very few technological reasons to not have a meaningful online educational experience.  The problem lies with poor instructional design for online learning environments.  We cannot simply post instructional materials or as the article mentioned, provide no way for feedback or interaction.  The principles of effective instruction are still applicable in online environments just as they are in face-to-face environments.  For me it all starts creating an environment that promotes interaction and social presence.

Interaction is key for any classroom.  This may seem difficult for online courses, but it doesn’t have to be if the course is designed in a way that promotes interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous methods.  In synchronous online environments, this can be done through the use of video conference software, web cams, microphones, chat rooms, and back channels.  With some simple moderation all of these can be integrated into most online synchronous courses.  In asynchronous online environments, the same level of interaction can be attained through discussion boards, social networks, email, weekly video updates from instructors, or even texting between participants.  While interaction is delayed, it doesn’t mean they are or need to be of any lesser quality.  All of these means of communication also provide the necessary social presence that is necessary for students to perform well in any learning environment.

Social presence is the level at which a participant in a course feels they are received by others in the course.  This can be simply done in a face-to-face course by going to class and interacting with other students and the instructor.  However, distance education makes this a little more difficult since participants don’t physically go to class.  This doesn’t mean that social presence isn’t necessary or possible in online environments.  It just means that instructors have to work a little harder to make it possible for social presence to be established.  There are many ways to go about this, but what I have found to be the best way, from my experiences in an online graduate program through Iowa State University, is to provide a way for students to communicate with each other.  Provide them with a space that is meant just for them.  Let them share stuff that’s going on in their lives, even though it won’t relate to what’s being discussed in class.  Life happens so embrace it and use it to make the connections stronger within the course.  These interactions are necessary for students to become comfortable with each other and lead to more enriched discussions.

Another way to promote social presence is to have a blended learning environment where students actually meet face-to-face at different times in the semester.  This can be done at the beginning of the course, a couple times throughout, or at the end of the semester.  Being able to see and hear what someone else sounds like is a great way to establish social presence in an online course.

When it comes down to it, education is all about the interactions and connections being made by students and their instructors.  If we fail to create a learning environment that promotes these characteristics, then we will not be able to succeed in online learning environments, or at least not at the same level as their face-to-face counterparts.

ePortfolio follow-up


I thought I would post a follow-up to my last post about eportfolios, which focused more on what I thought about ePortfolios as a medium for showing what we know and how I think they can best be done.  In the world we live in today, we need to consider the resources we draw upon to teach our students.  With very little effort, and maybe just a bit of thought, most teachers can find a media rich resource to use in class.  But how do we document the effective use of such rich resources if we are completing paper based portfolios?

The easiest way is to ditch the paper and go with an electronic portfolio or ePortfolio.  ePortfolios can take many forms, from non-linear PowerPoints to simple Web pages to full fledge Web 2.0 wikis, blogs, or even social networks.  The main thing to keep in mind is that the person creating the ePortfolio chooses the platform that works best for them, not their administrator or next door teacher.  Finding the right platform can be a little overwhelming, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Pick a platform that represents your work the best.
  • Pick a platform that doesn’t require a significant time commitment to learn the basics of “how” to use the software.  Some time investment will be required, but it shouldn’t be so much that you don’t have time for anything else.
  • Think about the type of media you will be using.  If you have video, but no way to embed said video you might want to find a different platform.
  • If you don’t know what platform will work for you, ask for help.  Talk to your administrator, the teachers in your hallway, or even ask for help on Twitter or Facebook.  Many people have been where you are and can help show you the way out.

What I like about ePortfolios, and really paper portfolios, is how easy it is to reflect on the “artifact.”  In most Web 2.0 platforms we have today, there are comment features for nearly everything associated with the software being used.  Whether it be a blog, wiki, podcast, etc., there is almost always some way to make a comment.  This easy access allows us to not only reflect on what we are doing and teaching, but it also allows others to comment on our work and provide feedback.  The power is in the feedback, not the process.  We are often blinded when we look at our own work, so it helps when someone we trust or even someone we haven’t built a trust with, takes a look at our work.

While this post focused more on teachers and ePortfolios, I think they are a great idea for students as well.  If I were teaching a class, I would have all students create an ePortfolio where they could submit their assignments for the course.  I would also have them share the URLs for the ePortfolios with other students in the class, and even other students, teachers, or experts in the state, nation, and world.  Give students the means and platform to speak from and to receive feedback from the rest of the world.  While you may be a very accomplished and educated teacher, receiving feedback from others may make more of an impact on your students’ education than you ever can.  And that’s okay.

Here are some platform ideas for creating ePortfolios.  Note: this is not a how-to perse or an exhaustive list, but rather a list of possibilities.

  • Blog
  • Wiki
  • Web Page
  • Social Networking site: Ning, Facebook Page
  • Podcasts
  • PowerPoint
  • Moodle
  • BlackBoard

The Digital Curriculum

I attended another round of sessions today and most of them were things that I need to know, like networking and wireless routers, and the such.  However, I did go to a couple sessions that many of you would have found interesting.  One of them was on the Digital Curriculum.  I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this breakout session since the three sentence paragraph describing the session was a bit vague, but nonetheless I attended and am glad I did.  This session was a very inspiring session that elicited the need for change in the way we are teaching our students.

This session started out by describing a classroom using some pictures the presenter had found and he asked us to guess the year.  As the pictures went across the screen I thought to myself, “well these look like some of the classrooms we have here in Cherokee.”  The kids in the pictures were wearing uniforms so I couldn’t tell what year it might be by their clothes.  As we came to the last slide I just assumed these pictures were taken just recently.  Then came the next slide.  The pictures were taken in 1978.  There was almost a gasp from many of the people in the room.

His point was that we are living in a highly digital and highly connected world, but our classrooms and the way we teach do not reflect this reality.  As the presentation went on over the next hour I listened to the presenter describe what the Digital Curriculum is and how it can be used.  The session I wandered into was making the case for going one to one with laptops for all students.

The presenter quickly explained that the digital curriculum is not something you can take off a shelf and use in your classroom and it isn’t a pedagogical learning theory and it also isn’t a technology tool we can use in the classroom either.  The digital curriculum is a conceptual framework for structuring schools.  One of the main problems with schools that go one to one is that the stakeholders can’t see how the increased technology will transform what they teach rather than only making minor changes to what they teach.

The digital curriculum helps ensure there is a prevailing digital component to every important component of teaching and learning in school.  Digital technology is the major feature but it is not the focus.  Rather the focus is on creating the ultimate enriching environment for learning.

I have attached the narrative the presenter gave us at ITEC.  I think this is where we are going to end up in the coming years as digital components begin to be crucial to our lives.  If you have any questions, or want to talk more about this let me know.


ELI Focus on Blended Learning

Here are my reflections from the Educause Blended Learning conference.

There are two ways that blended learning has been used in education: a transformative approach and an add on approach.  The key to effective blended learning is finding the right amount of f2f and online instruction.  Also key to successful blended learning is making sure there is a teacher presence.  There sometimes is a tendency to skip the teaching part of an online course because the content is readily available to students.  The content cannot drive the instruction, the teacher must drive the instruction.

An interesting observation while looking at the conference as a whole is that there isn’t an agreed upon definition of blended learning.  However, if you take all the different variations of blended learning together you are able to create your own definition of blended learning, which in my opinion is what counts the most.  The model for blended learning a teacher uses for their classes needs to work for them and might not transcribe to a definition of a colleague or leader in the field.  What really matters are the features of blended learning that are integrated into the course.

Garrison explained seven principles for blended learning, which include: design for open communication and trust, design for critical reflection and discourse, create and sustain sense of community, support purposeful inquiry, ensure students sustain collaboration, ensure that inquiry moves to resolution, and ensure assessment is congruent with intended learning outcomes.  These seven principles do make a nice foundation to start from as we begin to create a blended course, because it forces us to focus on how we need to change our pedagogy to create an enriching learning environment for students.

Just like in a f2f classroom, teachers need to keep students actively engaged in the content, which can be a bit different in an online environment.  This is why teaching presence is important for a blended course.  Students need to know that the instructor is present in the online environment as well as in the f2f environment.  What this means for teachers is that they need to nudge students along and model the type of behavior expected in a blended learning environment.  This has to be an attitudinal change in how we look at blended learning/online education.  Cannot expect students to know what to do.  We must prepare them for a different learning environment than what they are used to.

Dzubian says that students are taking a blended course for three reasons: convenience, convenience, convenience.  There are a variety of reasons why a student may choose to take a blended course, but they ultimately come as a convenience over traditional f2f courses.  The course takes place on their terms, which works well for students with certain personalities and also for students that physically are in a distant location from the f2f classroom.  However, what’s important to remember with blended learning is that “you can lead a student to a webcast or the online learning environment, but you cannot make them think” (Dzubian, Educause Blended Learning Conference).  This is a powerful statement because ultimately, it is up to the student to manage their own learning.

As we begin to look at the creation of a blended course, we need to make decisions based on pedagogical decisions about what parts of the class will work best online and which will work best in a f2f classroom.  Teachers need to look at every aspect of the course, because you may now how to teach in an online course as well as a f2f course, but that doesn’t mean you know how to teach in a blended course.  The environment is different in blended courses, but it does have the potential to be the richest learning environment (Ragan, Educause Blended Learning Conference).

Ragan discussed seven main categories of online teaching competencies with active learning and administration/management being the top two desired components by students.  Students crave engagement, so the learning environment needs to be designed to promote active learning.  Administration/management is also craved by students.  Administration/management is defined by Ragan as the management or administration of the course and learning environment.  Just like all courses, students desire structure and organization, and unsurprisingly, students continue to desire the same in an online environment.  Failure to manage the course in a blended environment will lead to student failure to learn the content.

One of the best ways to prepare faculty for teaching in a blended learning environment is to have them take a course in a blended environment.  This will give them the student experience and model best practices.  Another one of the seven principles that Ragan discussed was that teachers need to set realistic expectations.  It may be easy to become trapped by all the possibilities of blended learning, but it is essential to first survive before you can grow.

You can find all my notes from the conference on my Twitter page at  See everyone’s tweets by searching for #elifocus in Twitter.