The 12 Days of Course Development

magic, doves, sky, ring

What is Instructional Design?

When Christine B. shared with us Aesthetic principles for instructional design, it was like walking in a magic forest with fairy tales hopping from tree branches. Could we have said it better ourselves?

The instructional designer “sometimes acts in a role similar to that of the Greek chorus, commenting on the dramatic developments from a privileged standpoint.” 

And sometimes he/she “functions as a companion character  who is confidant to the protagonist and who might also act as provocateur or mirror, as Sam does during Frodo’s quest in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.”

“Instructional designers are also in the business of creating “refined and intensified forms of experience.”

In the spirit of the magic, and as a final blog post for this year (!), we are offering a collective effort at the season’s cheer and whatnot, with an aside note that some of us can even sing and/or play music!

The 12 Days of Course Development

sung to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas

On the first day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Make a timeline for your deliverabllllllles!”

On the second day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Use Bloom’s for the course objectiiiiiiiiives.”

On the third day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Let’s double-check those objectiiiiiiiiives.”

On the fourth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Align assignments with the course objectiiiiiiiiives!”

On the fifth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“DON’T USE Comic Saaaaans!”

On the sixth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Build rubrics to assess student performaaaaaaance!”

On the seventh day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Deep breath): “Curate readings and multimedia for your students from the library and the weeeeeeeeeb!”

On the eighth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Deep breath; ⅔ the way there!): “Check for new editions and obsolete information in the resources you proviiiiiiiiide!”

On the ninth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
Record some new lectuuuuuuures!”

On the tenth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Cough…hack…wheez): “Make materials accessible to all students with transcripts and image descriptiooooooooons!

On the eleventh day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Check the course one last tiiiiiiiiiime!”

On the twelfth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Congratulations! The course is ready to laaaaaaauuuunch!”

Happy Holidays!


Parrish, P. E. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 57(4), 511-528. Retrieved from

The Twelve Days of Christmas, an English Christmas carol


Learning Styles: How we engage with the world

If you have been following this blog, just a few months ago, we wrote about common learning styles and what effect they have on learners and teaching methods and practices, and that to a large extent these are not well-evidenced in either science or practice, but for some reason have a wide acceptance.

Today, we are tackling a different take on learning styles – rather learning preferences in ways we interact with the world along the continuum of how we do things (processing) and how we perceive things (think or feel, the perception continuum) as developed by Kolb and further modified by others.

I started doing research on reflective practice – one of many topics I am interested in! – and it eventually led me (should I say took me all the way back) to this source, which I found quite tangible. Reflective practice is an important process (practice) in professional and personal growth which starts with describing and identifying the problem, naming feelings associated with this, thinking through why a particular event took place, and finally developing a plan for dealing with a similar situation in the future or preventing it from happening in the first place, in a nutshell.

Then I ended up with Kolb’s learning styles (or preferences if you wish) and the continuums and the learning cycle, which all theorize learning in attempt to explain and leverage the process.


I believe that course design benefits from balancing a number of modes of student engagement and flexibility and student choice in the products they are required to submit as evidence of learning and mastery of concepts. Applying both Kolb’s learning styles/preferences and the modified learning cycle to a course, one can evaluate what sort of activities a particular course favors, if any, and if there are adequate (optimal) opportunities for engagement for all types of preferences.

If your course includes group work, are there also opportunities for students to reflect and process readings and thoughts? If your course is mostly based on readings and reflection, are there opportunities for students to take action in the real world and interact with other individuals in some capacity?

What are your thoughts about any learning styles, catering to various learning styles and this particular take on learning styles/preferences?

Sending email messages to students from a Blackboard course

We all have our workflow preferences and places that we check to stay connected. Some prefer using Course Messages (which in our configuration won’t send the message to a student’s email, unfortunately), and others prefer using actual email service.

There may be a practice compromise to accommodate both the need for convenience such as emailing a student (or a number of students) without leaving the course, and using email as a system, so that both students and instructors will get alerts when they receive messages.

Blackboard has emailing capabilities. While it email as a tool has been also disabled in our configuration, the workaround exists and instructors can choose to send an email directly from the course when using the Grade Center.

Here is how.

STEP 1: Visit Grade Center

In both Edit On and Edit Off views you have access to the “Email” button. Select a student you want to address, or several at once, and use the email options to send your message.

grade center view

STEP 2: Select your recipients.

You can add more if you wish on the next screen.

email from Grade Center

STEP 3: Edit your message, add recipients (optional), add attachments (optional)

edit and send your message

Remember that this email will be sent to you as well (the sender). The student then can reply directly back to you using email only. Consider this as an option.

Collaboration in Online Courses: Group Work

putting together a jigsaw

We often use group work in our online courses, and success varies among courses, projects, and students.

Overall, our ultimate goal is organic learning, fostering an online community of learners and stimulating active participation in it. This, however, is not always achieved with a stellar consistency.

Reflecting on our use of groups in courses, a few issues become apparent. Recognizing and addressing these issues is an important part of the course design process.

This article examines some of the things you commonly find in a course with groups and group project, and some factors that can either make or break or improve the user experience, and offers suggestions on what to include in order to ensure collaboration opportunities and go beyond basic cooperation. 

While a facilitator plays an enormous role in student overall experience, the key is to design tasks that are truly collaborative, meaning the students will benefit more from doing the activity as a group than doing it alone. A complex task that requires everyone to contribute to a group project is often the way to ensure success.

Shadow Curriculum

All tasks assume that we have a certain prerequisites or skills, without necessarily explicitly stating these. Sometimes, the skills are easy to pick up, other times, a barrier to entry is too much for an individual to engage in an assignment, thus causing enormous frustration. Some frustration is good and healthy, and encourages learning (at least, constructivists believe so!).

In the same breath, we assume that our students have skills necessary for successful group work. In some instances, it is true and they do. In other instances, they have skills to compensate the lack of asynchronous group work skills. Since our students come mostly from a brick and mortar post-secondary degree background, it’s also likely they don’t have these skills (to collaborate in the asynchronous online environment) and as a result, additional communication and scaffolding need to take place.

In a course, students should have guidance concerning how to work in an asynchronous team to help them build those skills. In addition, there should already exist numerous opportunities in a course for community building. One gets to exercise ever more creativity when a course is only 8 weeks long. It will also help our cause to indicate that a course which has group projects will require more frequent communication from the get-go – and such an expectation upfront will help inform a student’s schedule for the term.

Frequent communication with groupmates may happen in a number of ways. It may be a shared Google Document, with comments and a chat built in. It may also be synchronous Skype or Google Hangouts sessions (or any other tool that provides similar services). It may be scheduled or ad hoc – where it helps to see who is currently online and available. It also may be weekly “office hours” with the instructor during which students can address their questions – for example, if the instructor has a “room” (or whatever the nomenclature is in a particular environment/LMS) and makes it available to students for use as “a study room” – very similar to study rooms in brick and mortar buildings.

At all times, this implies that students both have sufficient knowledge and skills to use such tools, and that the tools are readily available to them.

This sort of “shadow curriculum” has to be addressed during the course, in order to facilitate more productive group work.

Identifying Problems and Realistic Solutions

This paper identifies the most common problems and possible solutions to those when it comes to group work, and is a quick read.

As always, building in a contingency plan – in case, a groupmate is MIA or drops out or is somewhat apathetic about the group assignment; or skill level is not as expected; or the project needs revising on the spot to accommodate whatever may come up, – has to be part of the design process as well, and is essential when the term timeline is already intense.

Video Annotations and Discussions

faces with a play button as in video

In our courses, we sometimes use videos as a prompt to start a discussion. The video is most likely to be included in the viewing section (aka Multimedia or Watch this), and possibly a link would be included in the prompt itself. It’s also possible to streamline the discussion flow by removing the permission to create a new thread on the student part. As creative as we can get when we push against Blackboard limitations, the result is not often optimal. I am going to show a couple of options where the interface is way friendlier.


This is a good social tool for annotating videos. You may use it with your own video from YouTube or use other people’s videos. It’s clean, may create a conversation among viewers (signing in with an existing account, such as Google user, required for responses and adding notes, but not for viewing). Create as many as you want. (Optional viewing)


Another similar service is provided by Vialogues. Here, too you can have a discussion (text discussion) of whatever is happening on the screen, plus the discussion can be guided by preset comments/annotations for others to react to in the context of the video.

Discussions in Online Courses

speech bubbleThe apparent convenience of online education is what attracts a lot of students in the first place. Imagine sitting on your couch with a bowl of cereal, still in your pjs and with uncombed hair, and working away on your assignments and readings where no one can see you.

The flip side of the coin, the absence of the physical presence is one aspect of online/distance education that makes students feel isolated so much more than in a brick and mortar college program. Isolation is one of the primary complaints. It is also an important factor to account for when designing activities for online students for success.

At SSW here at UNE, we often include group activities or at least group and whole class discussion forums, to both mitigate this increased isolation and to have students practice working with other individuals.

Some groups and some group activities work well, a frequent complaint is that students don’t always enjoy group projects. The asynchronous nature of the courses is often an impediment to student satisfaction because group interactions are challenging online where one has to wonder whether her comments are ever read and whether the other members of the group are working on their share of the assignment or are MIA – unless they get an unambiguous proof that other people are reading and participating.

It can be argued that lack of interstudent relationsips can account for this kind of challenges at least partially. We are typically more likely to resolve conflicts, be more conscientious and diligent, and get along with each other better if we have a connection to the other people we work with. This part is a no-brainer. How to help students form those relationships in online environments is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.


One way to facilitate connections is through group and whole class discussions (Rovai, 2007).

Students have options, which should make them more comfortable: they can lurk and read, they can choose which thread to participate in, they can most of the time read other students’ posts (unless they are the first one to post) and gather ideas from them. Lurking is arguably a form of interaction (read more).

A helpful and explicit rubric allows to communicate expectations as well as provide the initial extrinsic motivation by making this activity gradable. When students are required to participate, this provides extrinsic motivation and evidence suggests increased classroom community (read more).

Obviously, if you get students talking because a topic or a question is controversial and/or relevant, the intrinsic motivation takes over. If good prompts are half the battle, the other half is effective facilitation (encouragement, clarifying questions, etc.).

A good example of a prompt that may be quite popular is “the muddiest point” discussion. Instead of asking students for the “right” answer, this kind of prompt not only invites students to share a point (or points) they need further explanation on, but also informs future instruction and course redesign to preempt a possible confusion, where applicable.

In addition to letting students “show what they have learned”, well-set up course discussions allow for and facilitate student-to-student interactions and build camaraderie.

To summarize, students need to know that their posts are read, that they don’t post into the void, “a message in the bottle” type of scenario; the instructor needs to provide feedback, to keep discussions on task, to encourage students to build on other students’ contributions (Rovai, 2007).

Discussions are not foolproof

At a most basic level, asynchronous discussion tools allow for easy communication among peers, which is readily archived for later reference. (Dennen and Wieland, 2007) Anecdotally, there are stories of students not reading most of the posts (let’s be honest!) and at the other end of the spectrum there are students who have to read all of the assigned readings and all of the published posts before they comment themselves – thus getting overwhelmed and behind due to the sheer volume of the readings.

Discussion forums are self-sufficient, right? Discussion boards can, at first glance, be deceptive by providing a false sense of actual conversation or dialogue. Students are likely to meet the number of posts requirements for discussions, and will publish an initial post (answering the prompt) and then interact with one or two students (once) with a reaction or a question. In each thread, has it been your experience that all the questions get answered or even acknowledged? I am afraid that a lot of these conversations lead to nowhere, and once a new week rolls in, the old week’s prompts and discussions are ancient history. Do you get a sense of a round robin sort of response rather than an organic coherent discussion with multiple participants constructing a meaning and fine-tuning their understanding of a concept? It doesn’t help either, that you can see a single student’s contributions all filtered, so the context is also missing (in Blackboard), although obviously there are some clues that help guess some of it.

Do discussion forums foster student-to-student interactions? Again, it appears that discussion boards commonly show evidence of students orienting toward the teacher rather than their peers as the primary audience for their contributions. The stakes are such that students are after the instructor’s approval, not a sense of community .

Instructional Implications

In online classrooms, the challenge remains to engage students and have them engage with each other organically, reaching the sort of understanding that may not be possible otherwise and having the discussions and other student interactions key to better performance and higher quality products (papers, presentations, etc.)

As much as setting up good discussions for the course is desirable, the instructor remains a major factor in the successful experience, as she facilitates better thought expression in discussions for the sake of the classmates so that they can form connections. Writing in an online forum is a skill, and is quite different from writing for the instructor and must be taught, with a specific goal of mastering the “rhetorical knowledge”.

Finally, having a bunch of discussion forums every week, with perfunctory comments that amount to something hardly more than a pool of somewhat related but fragmented ideas, can be replaced with a discussion that collectively builds and furthers understanding, assists students in completing their assignments, and “helps students develop a sense of intersubjectivity“. For this, maintaining the focus on the connections to the course content and readings and making them more explicit to the audience of peers, becomes a part of the design and facilitation of discussions and the assignments.


Dennen, V., and Wieland, K. (2007). From Interaction to Intersubjectivity: Facilitating Online Group Discourse Processes. Distance Education, 28(3), 281-297.

Rovai, A. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88.

Image from

Touching the Third Rail: The Learning Styles (Myth) and Are They Worth Your Time?

It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about learning or teaching without invoking the concept of learning styles. Much of the drive behind lesson and course design is based on the need to tailor curriculum to particular or all of the learning styles that your students might come with. Is it practical – or even possible – to teach in a way that a student perceives she learns best? What observations have you made over the years that back up the claim that learning styles matter and can be leveraged? Or even, that they actually exist as a phenomenon?

Is It Possible that It’s All Just a Myth?

While it sounds good and we are emotionally and ethically inclined to help a learner get the best possible experience, devoting all our energy to finding out the learning styles and aligning the curriculum this way may not be the wisest solution.

First of all, as Harold Pashler states it, there is no evidence, not many experimental studies, and what few experimental studies there are, they seem to have come up with results which flatly contradict the meshing hypothesis (i.e., that the best way to teach is by matching the style of the information to the learning style of the individual). There is no evidence that we should incorporate any learning styles at all, he suggests.

Larry Alferink speaks about simplification of neuroscience when it comes to adopting findings of the brain function. Left-brain/right-brain and multiple intelligences – not so fast. He writes that while language and spatial information is processed differently by the two hemispheres, it is processed simultaneously, and this no single activity can address only one side of the brain, ever. Not only that, students need to master both sets of skills, analytical and spatial. In addition, he notes that “focusing on a particular “style” rather than a broad set of learning skill sets may be doing children a disservice. Indeed,
it is of questionable appropriateness to only teach to a child’s preference. In physical education, a child may prefer to kick the ball with the right foot rather than the left. However, if that child is to become a skilled ball handler, it is important that the child learns to kick with either foot, not just their preferred one. Developing skills with only the stronger or preferred limb would not develop the “whole child.” The same is true for cognitive tasks: A child who has multiple strategies available can be taught that when one strategy is not working to switch to another, even if he or she doesn’t “like it best.” Thus, it may be more accurate to strive for learning across a variety of “learning styles and preferences.” The larger the child’s inventory of learning strategies, the more likely the child is to learn across environmental settings.”

Jennifer Cromley finds that there is really little reason to call the three common modalities (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) “styles” and what that really means, there is no reliable test that diagnoses the style (most tools used are “inward” looking and rather define a preference), nor are there teaching methods that help any style to learn better.

You can also read more from a number of sources.

Is It Worth Our Time, Then?

Cathy Moore suggests that instead of focusing on learning styles and different modalities – like recorded narratives – we should focus on more important aspects of the learning process, such as allowing students to set their own pace as “people learn best when they can control the pacing.”

We need to design learning that is relevant to the skills required by the world, as well as the one that empowers individuals to pursue their own passions – no matter what style, or shape, or form, or locale, or lifestyle. We need to have activities that engage students with the real-world projects, and partner with entities that work with real people. We need to allow for a number of paths to achieve the mastery of the competencies and leave the learner with a desire for more.

Let the course be guided by essential questions and allow for collaboration and individualized learning experiences.

Let’s see what you think about this. Are learning styles the real deal or are they a hype, in your opinion and experience? Are there other factors that carry more weight than a learning preference? Is it possible that a certain type of content determines the method of its presentation to students?

Turnitin faces new questions about efficacy of plagiarism detection software | InsideHigherEd

I have long been having controversial feelings and thoughts about plagiarism detection and its place in higher education. Our contention has always been that it’s a tool at best, and a highly imperfect one at that, to help faculty find things in students’ writing. What sort of things exactly? This article brings up what this software (both TurnItIn and SafeAssign, and Google as a separate item altogether!) may do, and what effect using this software has on teaching practice. Some important ethical questions are raised here. This article invites an open discussion, and there are a few comments there already, worth noting, so please comment below here or on the original page as well!

Turnitin faces new questions about efficacy of plagiarism detection software | InsideHigherEd.

Self and Peer Assessment

checklist on a clipboardIn many instances, it is beneficial to students to do peer evaluations – that makes them look at submissions more critically and learn in the process, plus using a predetermined rubric helps identify the high points and the important performance criteria for an assignment. The Self and Peer Assessment feature in Blackboard allows students to submit an assignment to a dropbox, then to be randomly assigned several of them for review (anonymous option available) and offer feedback, and even include a self-evaluation, if desired.

In the current courses, we often have a discussion forum set up for similar purposes, where one has to submit an assignment – usually as attachment (and sometimes viewing of the discussion forum is restricted so that students can only access the other threads after creating their own). Then one will pick which papers they will read and provide feedback based on either suggested criteria or their own perception of a quality paper. Both papers and feedback are available to all students (or only those who have submitted in the case of “post first” forums). Submissions can be reviewed as soon as they become available, and an unequal number of feedback posts may result. Forum submissions are not restricted by date (a due date may be set up though).

With the more formal and structured Self and Peer Assessment, there is a submissions due date – no one can start reviewing other students’ papers until that date. All submissions become available at once. After the first due date passes, students gain access to 2-3 papers – or however many papers you specify – of the other students. Criteria have also been set up so students may choose to provide a grade for each criteria based on their judgment but using your guidelines. A model answer may be included in certain cases. Students can also provide a self-assessment which we currently don’t require in the forum setup.

An Overview:

Being anonymous allows for a more objective feedback. It’s easier to track students’ contributions, and in general this tool is more structured, and this structure may be preferred to the forum one. Please watch the videos below to learn more and make a better informed decision.

Note: Bb treats any student’s submission slot as a submission, so if a student doesn’t submit anything, the slot gets distributed as if there were a submission (see what that looks like in the From the Student Perspective Video).

From the Instructor Perspective:
Part I
Part II
From the Student Perspective:

Blackboard Directions for setting up a self and peer assessment