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


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.

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

Analyze My Writing

analyze my writing word cloudThanks to another mention by, I have looked into this Analyze My Writing engine. In the past we have talked about Wordle and Tagxedo, which are both fine word cloud generators, which in addition to making long pieces of text look pleasant, highlight most commonly used words in a chunk of text. The idea behind these is that you can manage and introduce large boring text without scaring off your readers/audience, and possibly generate some conversation in the process.

With Analyze My Writing, you can go several steps further and analyze your own writing or another person’s writing and “gain a wealth of information about your text including word and character counts, word and sentence lengths, the readability of your text, and other analyses”. The site offers a few pre-selected sources for your viewing convenience.

Why use it?

You may want to use this to gain insight into your own writing style, find words and phrases you mostly use, and see if your writing appropriate for your audience (according to AMW, of course). If your sentences are too long, and you intend your writing to be more of the bite-size consumption, then it’s possible you went off wrong somewhere. The opposite is true as well, if you are shooting for some decent, journal-style article, or just even college level writing, and the analysis tells you your piece is at a high-school level, well, it’s time to spruce up your writing (and maybe contact our Writing support to seek help). I see how this could be helpful to students if their instructors find their writing is not up to par yet.

As always, let us know what you think about this piece, whether more info is needed, or if you would rather read about some other things, like exotic flowers and Middle-Eastern recipes! 🙂

About Us.

Monosnap and Skitch – Screenshot Palimpsests

You know the word palimpsest? It is one of my favorites. It refers to a document on which more recent writing appears over older writing. The intent of such writing isn’t defined by the term itself–sometimes the newer writing is meant to deface the older writing (as with graffiti), sometimes to supplement it (as with JJ Abrams’ new book) but many times it is meant to explain or explicate what it is written over.

The practice is old and useful. We all know it from our own experience as students for when we took notes, or received them, in the margins of our books or on the papers we submitted for evaluation. Those notes, or added visual direction of arrows and underlines written overtop the original copy of a then-scanned and re-copied section of a textbook, could be so helpful. Digital media has turned our margins into dynamic wrappers on which our ballpoint pens no longer work, but with applications like Monosnap and Skitch we can still write in the margins, or directly overtop, of whatever we can pull up on our computer screens.

monosnap window

That’s the Monosnap icon. It lives, unobtrusively, up in your taskbar,

Since I use Monosnap, that is the application I’ll show here. However, I believe Skitch has a similar, if not the same, toolset (with the added benefit, potentially, of being integrated into Evernote).

Above is a bit of an Escher trick: I monosnapped the monosnap window that appears after I monosnap. Effectively, the app gives the user two options for capturing whatever is onscreen–a fullscreen screenshot, or a region specified screenshot that you draw with crosshairs. These function much like the integrated screenshot tools that you find on any Mac, with the difference that, after the screenshot is taken, the above window pops up. Within the window you’re given a myriad of options for how you may annotate the image you’ve just taken. It’s fast and easy to make notes for your students, for yourself, or for the heck of it.

Both applications are free for their core functionality (which is all I ever use), with, I believe, some additional tools available if you wish to purchase them.


Why Use Word Clouds?

word cloud

Word Cloud

You may be quite familiar with word clouds (by Wordle or Tagxedo, although lots more options also exist: thing 1 and thing 2). A whole bunch of text is popped into a word cloud engine and then – boom! – you only get a handful of words (you control the number) which are usually the most frequently used and/or the most important words of a larger text.

Why use it? On the one hand, you can analyze the text for focus or bias. On the other hand, you can fish out the most important words before you read the text (and then upon actively reading it, ascertain that your initial assumptions were correct or have them refuted). Additionally, because it may lead to active reading, the large amounts of text may seem much more digestible and less intimidating and overwhelming. Well, and it looks pretty neat, too.

Additionally, the word cloud may be used a discussion prompt. Not only will it liven up an online course, but having it in a face-to-face classroom will make it a focal point for a class activity. Hmmm… Now you are thinking!

P.S. Wordle doesn’t seem to work well in Chrome, but works beautifully in Firefox or Safari on a Mac system.

Tips and Practices for Creating Effective Online Learning Experiences

office-272813_1280If you have an hour, you will enjoy spending it going through this BB/QMa Conrad presentation on Tips and Best Practices to Create Effective Online Learning Experiences. It’s straightforward and clean, and addresses the following concepts:

  • The Instructional Design Process (Formulate Objectives/Competencies>>Develop Assessment>>Specify Content and Strategies>>Choose Tools)
  • tips on dealing with each
  • the 21st Century Learner skills
  • 10 Core Learning Principles Guiding Design
  • 10 Best Practices of Online Teaching
  • 4 phases of a course

If an hour is too daunting, I have an easy alternative for you, the slideshow presentation.


Any time you have an idea or a question that others might benefit from learning about, shoot me an email and we will make it happen!