Saturday, December 14, 2013

In summary

"It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures," says Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed." Prensky 2001
We can't keep teaching the same way over and over again. Even Einstein said "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results." What we're doing is not working. Students are bored with school and there is no obvious test score gains across the country. In June of 2013 it was reported that "Michigan’s high school students gained almost no ground in the last year on the Michigan Merit Exam and ACT." If we keep teaching the way we were taught things will never progress. Kids just don't think the same way they used to.

Online and/or hybrid courses are one way to bridge some of the gaps we are seeing in achievement. Today's students are born with iPads in their hands and laptops at their desks. They blog by the age of eight and have a facebook at twelve. The Instagram their cell phone pictures by fourteen. They are plugged in from the moment they know what "plugged in" means. Older generations can deny it all they want but the digital age is here...and it isn't going anywhere.

As teachers, we need to embrace it. We need to use it to our advantage. High schools students are motivated enough that Online courses can be an advantage to them. The readily available resources on the web will keep them interested; the short microlectures that can be downloaded and reviewed will help them process information in their own time. Making lessons relevant to students by having them do assignments via Twitter and/or Facebook like sites will engage them in the process. Using the tools to our advantage will only strengthen our instruction.

But we have to be willing to change. To embrace being digital immigrants. To learn new ways of using the digital age to our advantage. Online classes, when done with best practices in mind, are a great way to do this. Everything is on the computer, the place the kids want to be anyway. Everything is easy to use because the kids already know how to use most websites. It's the way in, the way to reach even those that seem unreachable.

Some may argue that it takes away the personal interaction. And it can, if it's not done right. Social presence is an important part of making an Online or hybrid class work. You can't just be a person on the other side of the screen. You have to create the sense of community in your classroom. Show who you are behind the words; show each student who they are so people can see that they are in class with other people, not other computers.

Online classes aren't for everyone. There is a sense of maturity that is needed; one needs to be self directed and disciplined to keep up with an Online course. You have to have the desire to learn something and be self motivated, something that generally comes with age. I think that most older students would benefit from Online classes. I think they are the wave of the future and what is going to keep education current, relevant for the next generation. I think it is important to embrace the new world of technology and work with it to reach our current classroom students. We should try and employ some digital wisdom and instruct students in a way they can understand and relate to, not just the way we were taught when we were little.

Prensky, Marc. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Retrieved from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Zeman, David. (June 2013). Huge Achievement Gaps Remain in Michigan High School Performance. The Education Trust-Midwest. Retrieved from:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Social Presence

Finally I would like to talk about presence in online classes. Not just social presence but cognitive presence. Not just instructor but peer presence. I think a lot of the time people argue against online classes because there is a perceived notion that there is no social interaction between students and/or instructors. They see it as a person just connecting to a computer, not other people.

Certainly there are some online classes that this may be true for. But I'm not talking about those. This blog is here to point out the best strategies when teaching online classes, making them a powerful, useful tool in education. Presence is important in this aspect. The students still want to feel like they know the instructor. Students still need the chance to interact with each other. Having social presence on your online class is one of the key factors in making it successful.

There is a brief video where some experienced online teachers share their wisdom. It is called 8 Lessons Learned Teaching Online. While all 8 things are important I'd like to discuss the two things that add to social presence. First, they suggest doing a digital storytelling as an introduction to yourself as a professor. In this way the students will get to know you as a person, not just words typed on a forum telling them what to do. They can see pictures and relate to you as a person. I also think that having them create something similar as an introduction to each of them will help create peer-to-peer presence. People love telling and sharing their stories and by using something like digital storytelling, you can make that experience personal. People see who they are discussing things with and, in my opinion, makes discussion more meaningful. Indeed Lowenthal and Dunlap, the two teachers from the video, even wrote in their article here that "stories help make meaning out of experience. Experiences, and the stories created to make sense of that experience, are the key to learning." 

There are other ways to interact and encourage interaction with your online classes. Creating an online wiki that has students viewing and critiquing each other's work; video welcome messages, and collaborative learning activities are all just a few of the things Kia Bentley suggests in her paper here. She also points out that social presence "relates to comfort levels with respect to communication, perceptions of the sense of community, the acknowledgement of other's points of view, and the absence of impersonal discussions."  This is really saying that students feel more comfortable talking to and discussing topics when they can feel that they are talking to other people.

A different study on social presence in online courses showed findings that indicated "perceived presence of instructors may be a more influential factor in determining student satisfaction than the perceived presence of peers." In other words, it is more important as an instructor to have a presence in the online classroom than anyone else.

Another aspect that is just as important is cognitive presence. On Debbie Morrison's blog she equates cognitive presence with critical thinking- where the student goes through the process of leaning (constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking). It is up to the instructor to create opportunities for critical thinking to happen. Some of her suggestions include discussion forums and small group activities. One can see that the cognitive presence overlaps with social presence. If you have a solid foundation of social presence in place, cognitive is sure to follow. 

The argument for online learning has to include social presence. It needs to be stressed that by taking online classes students are not isolating themselves. They still have instruction-student interaction. They still have peer-to-peer interaction. They still use what's in front of them to think critically and share their thoughts with others. Everything is still in place with online learning, but only if it is done with the best practices in mind. Having social and cognitive presence, both as an instructor and encouraging peer-to-peer interactions, will only make any online classes stronger.


Bentley, Kia. (2012). The Centrality of Social Presence in Online Teaching and Learning. Understanding Change: Making the Transition to Online Teaching. Retrieved from:

Lowenthal, Patrick, Dunlap, Joanna. (2010). From Pixel on a Screen to Real Person in Your Students' Lives: Establishing Social Presence Using Digital Storytelling. Internet and Higher Education. Retrieved from:

Lowenthal, Patrick, Dunlap, Joanna. (2013). 8 Lessons Learned from Teaching Online. Educause Review Online. Retrieved from:

Morrison, Debbie. (May 2012). Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom. online learning insights. Retrieved from:

Swan, Karen, Shih, Li Fang. (2005). On the Nature and Development of Social Presence in Online Course Discussions. The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Digital Natives, Immigrants, and Wisdom

Last time we talked about Microlectures and why they work so well for so many students. Microlectures are one of the practices we need to do if we want to be giving learners their best opportunities online.  In today's post were going in a little bit of a different direction. Today we're talking about Prensky and his theories on digital immigrants, digital natives, digital wisdom, and how that effects online learning.

I like watching Prensky's thinking evolve in the series of articles I read. The articles linked in this post progress from 2001 to 2012 and I have to say that I was impressed by Prensky's thought process even back in 2001. He had the right idea then. And I tend to agree with about 98% of what he says.

The basic idea behind it all is that "Today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors." They just do. And for him to say that back in 2001, imagine how more true (if something can be more true) it is today. We keep thinking that we can teach kids in the same manner that we taught them back in the golden years before computers invaded every aspect of our lives. Teachers bang their heads against their white boards (haven't seen a chalk board in years!) wondering why they can't get their students to sit still and pay attention for longer than ten minutes. Have kids devolved? Are we getting dumber as a species? Does everyone just have ADD?

I think Prensky hit the nail on the head. No, to all those previous questions. We keep teaching the same way because that worked for us. And for a few things here and there that might be the way to go. But overall, big picture, the assumption that same ol' teaching methods are the best is no longer a valid assumption. "Today's learners are different."

I found myself discussing this very topic at Thanksgiving this year with my 27 year old sister and my 22 year old brother. Digital Immigrants vs. Digital Natives. I used Prensky's analogy about it being a different language. Their generations (especially my brother's) grew up with this technological influence pervading their lives. They know how to speak it. They know how to use everything after a few clicks. They are digital natives. My brother can name almost every Pokemon created but I doubt he can name more than 25 states. He and my sister can quote movie lines verbatim but have a difficult time naming human body systems or even answering basic times table facts.

Why is that?

They aren't dumb (though we do heckle my brother from time to time about this being the possibility). They perceive the world differently than I do; school for them was a lot different than it was for me. They are just different than us older folk. Us digital immigrants. We are trying to learn their language while at the same time forcing them to speak ours. It's a battle. It's a battle we as teachers don't even realize we're fighting most of the time.

This is where online learning comes into play. We, as teachers, need to think differently than we have in the past. How can we reach these students on their level, with their language. Use technology to our advantage. Don't see the digital age as the enemy, see it as an ally, something we can use to get through to the kids, making learning more engaging, more of what they've come to expect in their lives.

This does not mean everything becomes a "game." I think, as digital immigrant teachers, we tend to equate computers with games. Goofing off. Non-educational. Yet so much has changed over the years that computers are much more than that. Digital doesn't just mean PC anymore, it can mean cameras, notebooks, eReaders, etc. And if teachers just take that extra step to learn a bit more about the digital tools at their fingertips, they'll come up with even more creative ways of including them in online or hybrid type classes. Prensky even says "What our teachers need is the freedom to implement what they know to be right." If they know that using technology will help cement a concept in a student's mind, why fight it? Why not use technology to your advantage?

And here is where digital wisdom comes into play. "Just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words does." Immigrants and natives alike need to be able to make decisions on when using technology enhances what they are doing. While in this article I think Prensky relies a bit too much on technology aiding human thinking, I do believe his overall concept is sound. If we use technology wisely we can make most things better. Education is one of those things.

No, I am not saying put "smart chips" into kids heads. But, as suggested by Heidi Hayes Jacobs in this video, use the tech savvy kid's world to your advantage. She suggests having the students make a Facebook page for a famous historical figure- what would go on his or her calendar? Who would be on his or her friend's list? What would some of his or her posts look like? Another suggestion was coming up with Tweets; what would be the important information to Tweet to his or her friends and who would they go to? Stuff like that is easy, simple, very similar to writing a paper or answering questions in a book. It's just putting it in the context of today's world. Meeting the kids at their level and using it to your advantage as a teacher.

This is not to say every digital immigrant/native is at the same level. Research shows that there are levels within each of these categories that people fall into. As teachers, regardless of our personal feelings toward the integration of technology into our lives, we should strive to be the 'enthusiastic participants/adopters.' We need to speak in the language of the students as best we can and most all students are speaking in the language of technology.

So let's tie it all in. This mission statement blog is all about promoting online/hybrid classes for older students. These students are of the age that their life revolves around the digital world. They're on Facebook, they're on their phones, they're on Twitter. We, as digital immigrants, might not like it. You can not like it all you want. Doesn't change the fact that it's happening. So then we, as teachers, have a choice. Fight it, deny it, keep teaching the old way and hope that something sinks in, seeps through, ferments long enough that it sticks.

Or take advantage of it. Learn what you can from those natives and implement what you deem best. Use some digital wisdom and figure out how to best reach your students. Use this knowledge when designing online courses. You can't teach an online course in the same manner of brick and mortar schools and expect stellar results. 'Read this and answer these questions' online is still the same thing as going to class and listening to a lecture for forty minutes and answering questions on paper. If you are teaching an online class you have an advantage. You have the students attention using a medium that they love. They are using one tool to receive a message, the same tool that you can have them use to show you what they've learned. Have them show you how being a digital native can be to their advantage.

Like Heidi says a good question to keep in mind when teaching any class: "What year are you preparing your students for?"

Next up, social important is it when teaching/taking online courses?


Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. (2011). TEDxNYED-Heidi Hayes Jacobs-03/05/2011. Retrieved from:

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Retrieved from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prensky, Marc. (2010). From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom. Innovate Online. Retrieved from:

Zur, O. & Zur, A. (2011): On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace. Zur Institute - Online Publication. Retrieved from

Monday, November 18, 2013


The last post was an introduction to online learning, who I thought it was best for and why I thought it was a great way to reach a lot of different students. Today I'm going to talk about one of those ways: Microlectures. Microlectures are one of the greatest strengths of online/distance learning; this post will tell you why.

Educause is a great little site with more information about educational technology than you can shake a stick at. One of its initiatives is the "7 Things" series, great little PDF files with concise information about different technological tools out there for educators to take advantage of. There are a variety of topics and each 7 Things PDF includes the answer to the questions:
  1. What is it?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Who's doing it?
  4. Why is it significant?
  5. What are the downsides?
  6. Where is it going?
  7. What are the implications for higher learning?
As a teacher looking to improve the quality of my online delivery there are a multitude of different 7 Things articles that I can glean information from. Useful information. The one I'm going to focus on for this post is something called a microlecture.

Microlectures  are just what they sound like. A lecture that is tiny. Short. To the point. No rambling allowed. Macie Hall, the Senior Instructional Designer for the Center for Educational Resources quotes research from Wankat, Hartley and Davies:
"Research has shown that a student's attention span during lectures decreases after fifteen minutes. Once you lecture past that time, students retain significantly less information. Hartley and Davies suggested that breaking up a lecture into smaller segments could help keep students engaged." (Dec. 2012)
This is something I have found to be true in my teaching experience. You get a few minutes to get information across to students in a face-to-face classroom. You have to engage and teach in a window of time then move on to an activity to keep the kids learning. Otherwise they are staring off into space, tapping their pencils, trying to throw erasers at each other. You know what I mean. You've been there.

Online makes it that much more difficult to keep students' attention. There are so many more distractions at home: the dog needs to be let out, there's a TV show on, a video game is begging to be played, your kids need to eat lunch, etc. Most people don't have the time or patience to sit and watch a thirty minute video (much less an hour or more) and pay 100% attention to it.

Insert microlecture here! By keeping a lecture five minutes or less you not only keep the students focused but you, as a teacher, have to figure out what is important. What are the big ideas the students need to know? How can I say this concisely but still have it understandable?

For me, I think making a list of big topics and then recording a microlecture for each would be the best way to go about doing this. This way the students have access to the information and they don't have to wade through a long recording to review the sections they need. You have multiplying fractions down but need to work on adding them? Here's the microlecture based just on adding fractions. You understand the branches of government but not the levels? Here's one on the levels of government. It helps individualize students concerns and needs, meeting them at their level. That's one of my keys in education. Meeting the student's needs, not just playing a numbers game.

This article has a good point, contrasting traditional learning to microlectures and flipped classrooms.
"Many instructors lecture for fifty minutes because the schedule in the timetable says fifty minutes. Is the decision on duration based on good pedagogy or on the logistics of moving students through our buildings in an efficient manner? What is considered a "lesson" may only require five minutes of explanation or demonstration. What often happens is that the instructor will throw multiple five to ten minute lessons into a fifty minute class – up until now there hasn’t really been any other option to deliver the lessons. With microlecturing those lessons can be discretely packaged and offered to the students via the network. For the instructor, the creation of a 5-10 minute lecture is a lot less effort than sitting down for a full hour" (Feb. 2013)
 The article also comments on how this saves time in the long run. At first it takes time to record and make the videos. But, in the end, you'll have those videos made for years to come. They will only need occasional updates. And anything that saves time in the long run is a win in my book.

In another article from Online Cl@ssroom, Rob Kelly talks about how microlectures do nothing but improve online courses. Kelly points out that microlectures provide "cognitive presence" which assists students in engaging with the content. Kelly also states that "because of the short duration of each microlecture, students tend to listen/view them repeatedly." Having that short time frame and easy access makes the learners more willing to review the material which helps cement things in their heads. The article ends with some interesting statistics: "Penrose cites two statistics as indications of success: the completion rates for courses built on microlectures rose to 80 percent, up from 50 percent before this design using this method; and the proportion of students who completed courses with a C or better rose by 30 percent."

Microlectures are a great initiative for online learning. They meet a lot of criteria that I look for when making and/or taking an online class. Concise, to the point, meeting the student's needs individually, and even creating social presence by just being in the video. The ability to rewatch what is needed is invaluable. The short time span keeps everyone involved. Microlectures are an important part of any online learning class.

Next time: Are you a digital native or immigrant? What does that mean for your future in online learning?


Educause. (2012). 7 Things You Should Know About Microlectures. Retrieved from:

Hall, Macie. (Dec 2012). Microlectures. The Innovative Instructor. Retrieved from:

Kelly, Rob. (Mar 2010). Using 'Microlectures' to Improve Your Online Courses. Online Cl@ssroom. Retrieved from:

Tubbs, John. (Feb 2013). Microlectures=Big Learning Opportunities. CITES Academic Technology Service. Retrieved from:

Friday, November 15, 2013


On a regular basis I have a variation of the following conversation. Mr. Smith will ask me about school; what I’m doing, what I’m taking, how is it going. I let Mr. Smith know that I’m working on my master’s for teaching at CMU and it is going well. This leads to raised eyebrows and a confused look from Mr. Smith. “How can you go to CMU? It’s two hours away!” To which I reply, “All my courses are online.”

Of course Mr. Smith has heard of online courses. The concept is in its infancy but well enough advertised that people ‘get it.’ But do they really? Without variation Mr. Smith will reply with a nod because now taking CMU classes makes sense. Wait a beat. The confused look comes back. “What’s that like? How does that work?” Then I spend the next five minutes trying to explain just how my online classes, in general, work.

It’s out there. Online classes are becoming more and more of a ‘thing.’ They are flexible and can fit into a variety of schedules. Yet still we are at a point where society as a whole doesn’t fully understand what an online class is. Are there truly benefits? How exactly does it work? Are online classes true equivalents for their face-to-face counterpoints?

Here is where I’m going to explain why I’m an advocate for it, my mission statement to convince you, the reader, that online classes are important. Distance learning, online schooling, whatever you want to call it, is a great concept not just for me but for many types of students. Using the online systems to deliver classes can reach out to people who may have been unable to achieve degrees because of lifestyle situations. Online lectures can assist students with different learning styles. There’s a lot to put in the plus column of online learning.

My one caveat for online learning, it’s limitation so to speak, is in who the online classes target audience should be. I do not think that across the board you can say online learning is for everyone. When talking about fully online or hybrid classes, the student needs to have the maturity to be able to navigate the Internet themselves. They need to be able to be self-regulating and self-motivated. For a true online class, a class where material must be accessed outside of the classroom walls independently, age has to be a consideration. Older students, preferably seniors on up, benefit much more from online classes than younger ones. Let me tell you why.

I think that distance learning works well for older students.

I believe it is better for older students because there has to be some sense of responsibility. There has to be some driving need for the student to want to do the work, to want to succeed. I think this is true of any learning, but more so of online learning: You only get out of it what you put into it.

Why not younger students? The younger they are, the more supervision they need, especially navigating the potential pitfalls of the Internet. If you have online classes for fourth graders you now have to factor in parent time because parents will most likely have to supervise and/or help with assignments. Younger students will have a more difficult time navigating through LMS delivery systems; while not impossible it could rarely be done alone. And a fourth grader on the Internet will typically be distracted by more ‘interesting’ things; it isn’t often you find one that is overly self-motivated.

This is not to say that you can’t have online assignments or supplemental material for younger students. I think that a truly online or hybrid class is something that takes a level of maturity to understand and take on. Something they need to be able to do mostly on their own.

I think online learning engages more students to participate.

I think it works well for students to have time to think about their answers and therefore become more confident in their thought process by having them answer questions and participate on discussion boards. I think that having videos to watch on their own time makes it more meaningful; they are not forced to go to a lecture at a certain time, they have a choice in when they want to learn the content.

As much as I am a fan on online learning, it is not perfected yet.

As I have taken classes over the last year I have had teachers with varying styles. Some I liked; some I didn’t. This is a process that we, as teachers, are still learning about- teaching classes online. I think if we take a little bit of each of the best practices of previous teachers we can make online learning a huge success. We can't expect to just jump in and know how to teach these courses. Teachers need to do some research into what has failed in the past as well as what has been successful. To teach an effective online class it just takes a little work and a lot of dedication.

I choose to think of this blog more as a mission statement than a manifesto. A mission statement seems more goal oriented to me, something that people can get behind beyond my own personal opinion. I choose to see this project as not only sharing what I think about distance learning but providing sufficient, valid reasoning so that other people feel comfortable taking up the cause. Something that educates you and makes you think. Maybe gives you a different perspective. Something worthwhile.

The next few posts I make will talk about some of the best practices to use when teaching an online course. How important is social presence? What are microlectures and should I use them for teaching my course? Am I a digital native or immigrant? All these posts will go toward supplementing my position above. Online learning, for a majority of students high school and above, is the best way to reach the most students, capture their attention, and have them learn the most they possibly can.