The Horizon Report: A NERCOMP SIG Event

by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Simmons College

This NERCOMP SIG event took place on May 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What is The Horizon Report?The day-to-day challenge of teaching and learning with technology is overwhelming–it can be challenging to look toward the horizon, envision possibilities and plan for the future. For those of us in need of renewal and inspiration there is The Horizon Report, a publication developed by the New Media Consortium in collaboration with the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI). The purpose of the report, published on an annual basis since 2004, is to “identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within higher education.”

Each year the Horizon Project’s Advisory Board considers dozens of emerging technologies, winnowing the list down to six areas considered most likely to be significant within higher education in the next one to five years. In addition to identifying specific “technologies to watch,” the Board also notes key trends and critical challenges affecting teaching, learning and creativity.

The following technologies are featured in the featured in the 2006 report:

  • Social Computing
  • Personal Broadcasting
  • The Phones in Their Pockets
  • Educational Gaming
  • Augmented Reality and Enhanced Visualization
  • Context-Aware Environments and Devices

On May 2, 2006, Horizon Project Advisory Board members Phil Long, Cyprien Lomas and Bryan Alexander convened a NERCOMP SIG during which they discussed four of of these technologies: Social Computing, Personal Broadcasting, The Phones in Their Pockets and Educational Gaming.

NOTE: The SIG event included hands-on demonstrations and exercises with RSS, social tagging and collaborative authoring with wikis. However, this write-up focuses on themes that emerged during presentations, questions posed by SIG participants and examples of emerging technologies at use in higher education. In keeping with the emerging nature of the technologies discussed, the SIG presentations were adapted on-the-fly to address participant questions and therefore sessions merged into a fluid day-long experience. Likewise, the summary that follows is presented as a retrospective, not as a write-up of discrete presentations.

Event Blog How Does One Keep Abreast of Emerging Technologies?Emerging technologies are exciting and invigorating, but difficult to identify and assess because they are, by definition, emerging. Phil Long began by posing the following question: How do you track and find promising new developments in technology? Strategies suggested by the group included the following:

  • Talk with kids
  • Participate in listserv discussions (especially those popular with 18-26 year-olds)
  • Follow up on requests from users for oddball things
  • Read widely (for example, Business Week article on Second Life, Newsweek article on Web 2.0 and a recent Web 2.0 review in The Economist)
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds (for example, Bryan mentioned Educause blogs, and blogs produced by library specialists)
  • Seek out others outside your field (for example, Cyprien keeps in touch with academic colleagues who are cell biologists)
  • Look outside the U.S. (for example, LAMS and CAUDIT in Australia)

In addition to the challenge of identifying promising technologies, there is also the problem of language. One of the goals for the Horizon Report SIG is to develop a common vocabulary. Emerging technologies often have a short half life, but issues and challenges persist. What you learn about innovation in one sector may be equally relevant in another. A shared vocabulary helps us articulate common themes across technologies, academic fields, etc.

The definition of what constitutes “emerging” varies depending on the interests and prior experience of the people with whom you are speaking. In addition, it can be difficult to understand a person’s level of involvement. For example, when asked, “Are you doing podcasting?” what does an affirmative response mean? Does it mean you listen to podcasts, support people who are producing podcasts or podcast your own material?

In preparation for the NERCOMP SIG, the workshop facilitators administered a pre-conference survey to registrants, to assess participant involvement and interest in emerging technologies.

Highlights of Survey Results:

  • 54% have started using IM/Chat.
  • 100% self-identify as email power-users.
  • 87% said they would be bringing a laptop with them to the session.
  • 73.9% do not have a blog.
  • Most take wireless for granted and RSS is almost like electricity (everybody needs it, but nobody wants to talk about how it works).
  • Respondents had less familiarity/experience with tagging, social bookmarking, flickr, videoblogging, MMOG.
  • Things the group said were of most interest to them included social computing, collaboration.
  • Things that were less interesting to the group included geo-tagging and mobility.

Phil is surprised that there is not more interest in geo-tagging. He provided the following interesting examples of geo-tagging in use: “My Space”-type content can be paired with geo-tags and cell phones (to alert you when buddies are nearby); “crush lists” can be combined with geo-tagging to track the location of people on your list; finally, in higher education, Stanford University students can get more information about campus buildings from their cellphones.

Question: How accurate is the geolocation? Could you track two trees 10 ft apart?

Answer: No, not with cellphone technology–that is only accurate within a few blocks. However, Ispots (a tool in use at MIT) can track a person’s IP address and is accurate to within feet.

The group was asked what items they wish would be added to the survey. Responses included:

  • ePortfolios
  • Text messaging
  • Real time tools (e.g., video conferencing, video chat, etc.)
  • Real time data gathering (e.g., survey monkey)
  • Virtualization (embedded storage) that is device-agnostic
  • VOIP connected to podcasting (e.g., Skypecasting)

What Key Trends Are Identified In The 2006 Horizon Report?Phil Long discussed the following key trends identified in the 2006 report:

  • Dynamic creation and social tools and processes are becoming more widespread and accepted.
  • Mobile and personal technology is increasingly being viewed as a delivery platform for services of all kinds.
  • Consumers are increasingly expecting individualized services, tools and experiences, and open access to media, knowledge, information and learning.
  • Collaboration is increasingly seen as critical across the range of educational activities, including intra- and inter-institutional activities of any size or scope.

What Challenges Are Presented By Emerging Technologies?

  • Peer review and other academic processes, such as promotion and tenure reviews, increasingly do not reflect the ways in which scholarship actually is conducted. Academic rewards are increasingly decoupled from, and out of step with, the practice of scholarship. As faculty scholarship extends into the digital realm, roles and systems for rewards will need to be renegotiated.
  • Information literacy should not be considered to be a given, even among “Net-Gen” students. Tool awareness does not necessarily translate into using the tools in a thoughtful way.
  • Intellectual property concerns and the management of digital rights and assets continue to loom as largely unaddressed issues.
  • The typical approach of experimentally deploying new technologies on campuses does not include processes to quickly scale them up to broad usage when they work; in fact, this approach often creates its own obstacles to full deployment.
  • The phenomenon of technological “churn” is bringing new kinds of support challenges. For example, this SIG would morph into a completely different workshop three months from now due to rapid changes in technology.

21st Century Literacies for Emerging Technologies: With emerging technologies come new forms of literacy. On the one hand, emerging technologies make it easier to create and disseminate sophisticated multimedia offerings. However, authors need to understand that emerging technologies constitute new genres of communication. It is important to know the strengths, limitations and conventions of the medium through which you are communicating.

For example, it’s not particularly helpful for a professor to videotape a lecture and post it, unedited and without chapter markers, online. That is pouring proverbial old wine into new skins. Instead, 21stcentury literacies challenge us to reconceptualize the products of faculty and student work. A literate person’s “publication” takes advantage of the capabilities (and transcends the limitations) of the digital medium in which it is authored.

Students are surrounded by an array of user-friendly authoring tools that extend traditional notions of “authorship” to include processes typically associated with orchestration or even remixing. Spaces for learning and authorship include images, words, motion and sound. How does one communicate effectively with this rich set of representational tools? The nonlinear nature of emerging media makes it imperative for students to understand things like user interface and organization of data. For more information, see the New Media Consortium’s New Media Literacy & Learning Initiative.

What’s the Purpose of The Horizon Report? How Can I Use It On My Campus?
According to Phil Long, The Horizon Report is designed for use by boards, advisory groups, in strategic planning committees, etc. If you get it into the hands of key people on campus, it can be used as a mechanism to move certain technologies from pilot to accepted campus use. Given the rapid rate of change in emerging technologies, the goal of The Horizon Report is to help staff, faculty and administrators in higher education make informed decisions.

Examples: Social ComputingAccording to Phil, blogging can be difficult to get excited about–it’s like getting excited about word processing. But blogging is simple to do and it is public in a way that word processing is not. And because blogs are simple, they can be used in innovative ways to get students to think differently about their work.

Blogs are an increasingly-mainstream offering at institutions of higher education. Examples include the MIT project “blogging and metacognition.” Incoming students are asked to blog about courses in which they are successfull, as well as those in which they are having trouble, and then to look for patterns and consider the differences. This helps them to identify and address recurring first-year problems, such as not devoting enough time to preparation. This process also encourages first-year students to take responsibility for improving their learning.

It is interesting to note the impact of blogging on the way that people write. Because blogs involve numerous posts, authors need to get to the point as soon as possible if they want to retain their reader’s attention. In addition, good blog entry titles include terms relevant to search engines. The first paragraph often reads like an abstract, as opposed to a thesis that unfolds gradually.

Web 2.0, library 2.0 terms have stuck. The concept of “micro content” is one example–pieces of content being moved around, smaller pieces, more distributed, more dynamic, drawn from a range of other places.

Audience Question: Why is blogging catching on now? And why is this so hot when we have had threaded discussions for years?

Answer: Blogging isn’t in the same category as a bulletin boards. Bulletin boards are for group discussion, blogs are personal. So, from the perspective of an educator, blogs are better for fostering metacognition than bulletin boards because they encourage the student to exercise a personal voice. One other difference is that every post in a blog has a unique state URL–so it can be accessible and cross-linked in ways that are not possible with a bulletin board.

Audience Question: Who reads all these first-year students’ blogs?

Answer: The other students. Additional possibilities include assistant instructors and graduate students.

Audience Question: And what are they expected to do with them?

Answer: Students were asked to read others’ blogs and make some connection or observation between their peers’ posts and their own writings. Then they were asked to return to their own blogs and write about what it takes to succeed as a college student.

Audience Question: Did it work?

Answer: Faculty are very happy with the increase in public writing that is happening on campus. The challenge is in the assignment set-up, the instructional design. And students often lose awareness of the fact that this is public writing and that it will persist.

Audience Question: Why not use a course management system for this kind of assignment?

Answer: Most course management systems (for example, Blackboard) teach students totally different habits of information. Course content is set up in separate silos so that it’s difficult to make connections across the curriculum. It’s a question of what pedagogical approach you want to embrace.

With social software, both faculty and students are now posting course materials and coursework all over the Web. This raises interesting issues–for example, how much of the course materials and student work is on a platform over which the institution has no control?  In addition, there is the issue of students’ intellectual property–if they aren’t made cognizant of the public nature of these tools, students can be giving away their work without knowing it. At what point does this become such an issue that you think you need for it to be hosted on campus? These questions need to be addressed.

Finally, there is the challenge of assessing the features, capabilities and quality of these emerging tools. Edutools compares course management systems and ePortfolios, but there is no analogous forum for evaluating and comparing emerging technologies. However, Wikipedia can be a useful place to search for this type of information.

Audience Question: What costs are associated with implementing these technologies?

Answer: Costs are somewhat tricky to assess. For example, consider the cost of RSS. It feels like it’s costless because it’s a standard–you can set up an RSS feed on your site for free. In theory, it could lead to real additional costs if you have a popular RSS feed.

On the other hand, in assessing costs, you need to consider whether you plan to be a consumer of the technology or whether you plan to use these technologies to create and disseminate content. The associated costs depend on the use scenario–passive or active use.

Benefits are, of course, the other side of the cost/benefit equation. In the book How People Learn, effective learning is described as having three characteristics:

  • Ownership (Student Created)
  • Social (Learner Choices)
  • Active (Mobile)

Podcasting used in conjunction with blogs, for example, achieves all three of these criteria. So in this respect benefits may well outweigh the costs.

Links To Check OutTechnorati
http://memeorandum.comBaghdad Burning


Pepys Diary
(compare blogs with the daily posts of this 17th century diarist)

Crooked Timber
(aggregator of faculty blogs)

Dr. B’s Blog
(example of blog that integrates teaching and research)

Other Ideas for Using Social Software in Higher Education: Technorati allows users to search a database of blogs. Results are arranged chronologically. This is called “searching the live Web” because items that are returned in search results may have been posted only minutes ago. Some argue that Google is the “historical” Web because new pages need to be up for a certain amount of time before they show up in this search engine’s results.

Consider this learning scenario: Students use Technorati to search the term “Iraq,” seeking out different perspectives on the topic. Or perhaps they use, a tool that aggregates news stories, pairing the stories with blog discussions. Another possibility would be to compare Baghdad Burning, a blog posted by an woman in Iraq, with “official” Iraqi news publications. These classroom ideas could be used for an investigation of reader response, for a discussion of situational ethics, etc.

About Social Bookmarking: When you bookmark a website in your browser, that information is bound to particular software on a particular machine. But “social bookmarking” externalizes bookmarks onto the Web so that your list can be shared, annotated and “tagged” (to make large collections of bookmarks searchable). One example is This online software adds a “post to delicious” button to your browser.

A note about tagging: From the perspective of many librarians and scholars of information science, controlled language is central to the categorization of information. But social tagging involves a democratic process for categorization–a process of sifting–through which the most-often-used terms float to the top.

These populist schemas for categorization are described as “Folksonomies” (a term reportedly coined by Thomas Vander Wal). In social bookmarking, tags can be displayed in a “cloud”–words presented in a cluster, with the size and boldness of a tag indicating its frequency of use. Tag clouds can be viewed from a number of perspectives–your perspective, all users’ perspectives, etc. In this way, tagging produces a community-based, non-constrained vocabulary (a folksonomy).

How can this be useful from a teaching perspective? For example, students can develop their own lists (and include a class tag number), describing WHY the items they are tagging are interesting to them. Then the tag cloud can be used to present students with the aggregate “class perspective” on the topic. Social bookmarking also provides a means for tracking how a reference became popular–providing a social index of others who thought it was important (and with that index comes opportunities for collaboration).

If you follow a group or an individual’s tag cloud, you can learn a great deal about patterns of perception. For example, one art museum asked visitors to tag its paintings. The PennTags Project at the University of Pennsylvania invites library visitors to tag books, then compare the resulting tag cloud with the official categories for library classification.

Note that there is a page for the Horizon Report.

Social bookmarking is not limited to text. Flickr is a service that allows users to upload, tag and share photos. A number of uses relevant to higher education come to mind. For example, Cyprien uses flickr to have people document their learning spaces. After uploading photos of campus learning spaces, users can tag them and note what features make these spaces conducive to learning.

You can also add a note to a portion of the image to annotate it. In one example displayed during the workshop, a set of X-rays was annotated to illustrate the visual process of diagnostics. This type of social bookmarking is useful for any discipline in which the subject matter is visual–for example, annotating botanical images.

Participant Question: How do you know if the images and the annotations are credible?

Answer: Content on the Web–or anywhere else, for that matter–isn’t always credible. Instead of only presenting credible sources to our students, it’s important to equip them with the ability to discern the credibility of a source. For example, you could examine the profile of the person who made the post, then look for other evidence that this person has relevant expertise, knowledge or experience.

Assessing validity is one of the most important skills to teach students–they need to learn what they can rely on. Most of these sites provide you with a learning opportunity to help students determine what is valid, what constitutes authority. We need to help students cultivate a healthy skepticism.

Examples: Personal BroadcastingPersonal broadcasting presents many advantages. Content can be broken down into smaller, more digestible parts. These media can be downloaded onto mobile devices, allowing listeners and viewers to “time shift” (watch/listen to the media at a time that is convenient to the user, or perhaps review the file multiple times).

Digital Storytelling: The concept of “digital storytelling” grew out of experimental theater. The idea is to involve ordinary people in the making of videos. For more information, see the Center for Digital Storytelling’s website, which includes a downloadable workshop manual.

The digital storytelling movement is predominantly personal–people develop their own stories. Digital stories have become increasingly popular as bandwidth has increased.

At Middlebury the process was adapted for non-personal educational uses. Digital Storytelling is one of the most popular workshops on campus. For more information, see Barbara Ganley’s work on “Digital Storytelling in Higher Education” and an accompanying digital story (in Quicktime format).

Other Examples of Personal Broadcasting in Higher Education: Personal broadcasting makes it possible to distribute alternate (other-than-official) perspectives of a given topic. For example, in the ArtMobs project, museum goers generate their own podcast tours of exhibits.

Ohio University uses video blogs (vlogs) to distribute Ask the Techies episodes, “a weekly video podcast explaining the latest in cool technology.”

The world of everything on video is a pretty diverse world; it is rich, but overwhelming, because it is more difficult to search video than it is to search text. But when digital video is disseminated in the context of vlogs and other forms of social software, it is becoming possible to rate, tag, sift and subscribe–making the process of finding gold nuggets easier.

Intellectual Property in an Era of Personal Broadcasting: If you examine popular sites like YouTube and Google Video, you will realize that personal productions often involve rampant copyright violation. This opens a whole can of worms for copyright infringement, especially regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA).

The Creative Commons is a group formed to try get around constraints of copyright, to enable legal sharing and reuse. Your work is, by default, copyrighted whether you want it to be or not–others can be sued on your behalf. So The Creative Commons is a means for helping authors to assign broader rights than those that are the default. It’s a simple syntax you can use to indicate your choice: to allow commercial uses of your work, allow modifications of your work, etc. You enter information about the jurisdiction (countries of use), format of work, etc., then the site generates a “license” code that you can embed on a page or within a work to indicate the rights that you want to claim.

Phil Long encourages participants to use the Creative Commons, and to encourage others to use it. It is important to be explicit and to take responsibility for communicating to people what your wishes are. It’s also important for faculty to include a discussion about copyright and to encourage students to be proactive about registering their work through the Creative Commons.

Participant Question: What about collaborative work?

Answer: They don’t know if The Creative Commons provides a mechanism for that yet. However, classes that involve collaborative work should include negotiation about how that work will be shared with others outside the class. It’s an opportunity for students to debate the issues from an author’s perspective, working together to clarify expectations and ground rules.

The Impact of New Media on Content: Cyprien offered a few caveats to those who want to experiment with podcasting. Podcasts have a reputation of being easy to produce. While this can be true, it’s also important to know that you can’t simply record a lecture, place it online and expect the result to be successful.

Just as blogs are influencing conventions of writing (including keywords in titles, placing critical aspects of the argument up front), podcasting and other forms of personal broadcasting are influencing conventions of online broadcasts.

As opposed to beginning a piece with a long preamble, successful podcasts tend to begin with information designed to bring the listener/viewer on board quickly. “Enhanced podcasts” divide long pieces up into chapters to that listeners can skip directly to a specific place within the podcast. Sections can be tagged with visuals–representative icons–in the same way that DVD chapters are represented on a DVD menu.

Finally, as faculty and students listen to recordings of their voices, they may be critical of themselves. It can take time to become relaxed and develop confidence in one’s broadcast voice. In addition, people may want to edit their recordings, to delete false starts and other things that they feel are undesirable. But editing audio and video takes time–it also requires additional software, such as Garage Band.

Examples: Phones in their PocketsConsider the following scenario: While studying abroad, a student takes pictures with her cell phone. Because of the cell phone’s satellite triangulation, it is possible to geocode the image, noting the latitude and longitude in which the image was created. In addition, the student can use the cell phone to record audio, noting thoughts and impressions. Using an online tool like Stanford’s BuddyBuzz, articles and other content are automatically delivered to her phone. In addition, she can share and receive notes from her peers, even those who are also studying abroad that semester.

Mobile technology is changing the way that media are produced. For example, some items such as bullet holes on shoot-em-up television shows are being made larger so that they will be visible when the show is viewed on an iPod. Likewise, we in higher education would be wise to consider the methods that we use to produce media, ensuring that educational media will make the transition into mobile technology without having to be re-produced.

As an example of “phones in their pockets,” students can download lessons to learn Chinese via cellphone. Many initiatives like this involve creative commons licensing and distribution. For example, Connexions is a site developed by faculty at Rice University, designed to facilitate the sharing of course modules and other scholarly works. Likewise, iCampus is an MIT-sponsored project that disseminates resources and tools.

Participant Question: What about the cost of cell phones?

Answer: First, ask yourself why is it worth it to you to pump money into your cell phone. It provides us with a means for being connected at a time when people are increasingly geographically dispersed.

The United States is behind on innovative use of cell phones, in part because our pricing structure differs from those of other countries. Text messaging is expensive in the U.S., whereas conversational minutes are relatively inexpensive. Outside the U.S., the opposite is true.

Examples: Educational GamingA recent publication of the Harvard Business School, Got Game, argues that gaming is the one experience that today’s students have in common. Gaming is changing how students behave and how they respond to the world around them (including formal learning situations).

Games represent an opportunity to gain experiential understanding of a given topic or idea. They are particularly good for addressing a range of learning styles that are often overlooked in higher education: spatial, social, kinesic, etc. For example, “The Sims” allows users to create simulated people and communities, playing out social interactions that would not be feasible (or perhaps even desirable) face-to-face. By recording a Sims Game, users can create a video of their creation and broadcast it to others.

Other examples include:

  • The Croquet Project, an open source tool designed to support development of 3D multi-user online applications;
  • The Topiary Project, developed at Berkeley, allows users to model the location of people, places and things.

Games can also extend the player’s experience beyond national boundaries. In online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, literally millions of players are enrolled and participating at the same time. This fall NASA is releasing an online game in which players will experience remote access to Mars. A section of NASA’s website is already devoted to space science games. Likewise, the America’s Army (AA), developed with tax dollars and distributed for free by the U.S. government as a public relations tool, is an online multiplayer game that allows participants to “experience” the Iraqi war firsthand. AA also serves as a recruiting tool, linking to official military sites. This highlights the importance of equipping students with the ability to take a critical and reflective stance on the things that they are learning (both overt and subliminal) in online games.

AfterwordAt one point during the day, it was noted that “this SIG would morph into a completely different workshop three months from now due to rapid changes in technology.” There is a certain irony to the fact that this report is reaching readers more than five months after the event. In intervening months, YouTube was acquired by Google, the MacArthur Foundation pledged $50 million to “build the emerging field of digital media and learning,” and Blackboard’s worrisome course management patents have come to light. Perhaps it’s time for another Horizon SIG event?

Review of “Emerging Trends for Teaching and Learning” A NERCOMP event (10/27/05)

by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Simmons College

Emerging Trends for Teaching and Learning: A Retrospective

by Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Academic Technology, Simmons College

In the field of educational technology, there have always been “emerging trends.” But as I listened to presenters at the “Emerging Trends for Teaching and Learning” gathering last October, I came away with the perception that, at this juncture, the range of possibilities on the horizon is particularly rich. There was a heightened sense of excitement, creativity, and possibility in the room that I continued to feel for days after the event.

Given the range of presentations and the many examples that were provided, it is difficult to write a summary that does the day justice. Instead of a blow-by-blow recap of each session, I’ve decided to highlight some of the main ideas discussed and provide a list of links to technologies that were referenced during each presentation.

Session I: Introduction and Overview (Bryan Alexander) Session I LinksSession Links

– General Sources
Bryan’s Website

– Storytelling
Center for Digital Storytelling

– IP/Sharing (New Approaches)
Creative Commons
Academic Commons

– Gaming and Alternate Reality
Halo2, Machinima, Bad Wolf
BA’s commentary

– Social Bookmarking
Flickr,, Furl
BA’s commentary

– Web 2.0
Flock, BA’s commentary

– Other Sites Mentioned
NASA Worldwind
(Scholar, Map, Desktop, etc.)

HighlightsDuring his 30-minute introduction, Brian touched on a range of themes, including: vernacular storytelling, strategies for sharing and aggregating content, and the social dimension of emerging technology.

Vernacular Storytelling: As multimedia tools become more affordable and user-friendly, students from all disciplines can become producers as well as consumers of new media. In addition to written papers, students now have a range of options for communicating what they have learned. Digital storytelling also helps students make connections between school-based learning and other experiences outside the classroom. This narrative trend is exemplified by the work of two entities: the Center for Digital Storytelling and StoryCorps.

Sharing and Aggregating Content: As digital video becomes easier to produce, it is important for schools to help students and faculty understand the ethical implications of intellectual property and copyright that are associated with their digital creations. As more people use the web as a space for multimedia publication, many are deciding that they want to share their work in a format that can be used by others. As a result, new resources are becoming available that are specifically designed to broker the sharing of intellectual and creative products, such as the Creative Commons and the Academic Commons.

The Social Dimension of Emerging Technology: As individuals produce and accumulate links to reams of digital resources, there is increasing need for better ways to organize, search, connect, share, and aggregate information meaningfully. While customization is not necessarily a new idea, the newest crop of tools adds a social dimension to the process of adapting technology to suit personal preferences. “Social bookmarking,” a relatively new term, now has 49 entries in Wikipedia. Many are also exploring the role that social networking can play in filtering and sorting information as well as developing communities of learners. Tools that exemplify this trend include: the photograph browser Flickr; Del.ici.ous, a social bookmarking tool that allows users to add meta data to links and cross link with other like-minded bookmarkers; and Flock, a resource that allows “micro content” to be drawn from a range of sources into one browser.


Session II: Videogames and Learning (Joel Forman) Session II LinksSession Links

– General Sources
Educause: Games & Gaming

-Game Links
World of Warcraft (WOW)
Pocket Kingdom
  Neverwinter Nights
Open croquet project

HighlightsWhen Joel Forman looks at online gaming spaces such as MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games), he sees spaces in which players are learning all the time. As he reviews recent developments in the field, three themes emerge: distributed group intelligence, blurred boundaries between the virtual and the physical worlds of gamers, and emerging tension between corporate and gamer perspectives on the game worlds that are being created.

Games as Intelligent Swarms: Similar to the intelligent, decentralized swarming of migrating birds, MMOG’s foster the development of group intelligence, an extended cognitive system that can be likened to a global brain. For example, consider WOW, which has more than 1 million subscribers, or Eve, a gaming world that is home to 60,000 people. Up to17,000 players have interacted within Eve simultaneously. The average player of Pocket Kingdom, a game played through mobile phones, spends 7.3 hours per month with the game. These hours are, in effect, leisure time spent learning things like collaboration, strategic thinking, planning, problem-solving, etc.

Blurring the Boundaries: As games become increasingly realistic, illusion and reality are become indistinguishable. For example, Havok allows players to construct spaces that adhere to the real world’s properties of physics.

Some online games are even developing their own economies, in which players make a “real” living creating virtual assets and selling them to other players. For example, one site ( is dedicated to the development and sale of virtual real estate. Another gamer draws on her advanced programming capabilities to make virtual Samuri swords that can be sold to other players. Down the road, will there also be real world consequences for people who are caught “stealing” or “defacing” online assets? At least one instance in Japan resulted in the vandal being held legally accountable.

Who Owns the Game?: Corporations that have gotten into the business of online gaming have sometimes found themselves at odds with the players they originally wished to court. Multiplayer online games involve players in the co-creation of increasingly rich and complex worlds. Given the considerable investment that players make in developing these spaces, it is not surprising that they feel a genuine sense of ownership. What is the relationship between virtual property rights and real property rights? The license agreements for some online games state that property created during the game belongs to the corporation that created the game. Those who have tried to enforce these agreements have experienced revolt.

Final Questions: Online games hold promise as tools for learning because they engage players in a deep and active participation. Some of the most intriguing questions are still open for consideration. How can these gaming worlds be adapted for learning purposes? What can we learn from online games about factors that contribute to learner engagement? As early text-based games give way to virtual worlds that are image-based and visually rich, how will this affect the preferences and learning styles of students who are gamers? Finally, are we willing to allocate sufficient funding for research and development so that in the future we can offer our students “Massively Multiplayer Online Learning Environments”?


Session III: Mobile Learning (Bryan Alexander) Session III LinksSession Links

– Examples
Mobile Bristol
Trans-Siberian Radio
(see also the report)
Art Mobs
Uncle Roy All Around You
34 North 118 West

– For Further Reading
Smart Mobs

HighlightsCulture and Pedagogy: When it comes to mobile technology, the United States is arguably out of step with the rest of the world, and this discrepancy has an adverse affect on our use of mobile technology for teaching and learning.

As a semantic case-in-point, Alexander noted that we (the U.S.) are the only ones who use the term “cell phone” instead of “mobile phone.” If you want to study the innovative things that are going on with mobile technology, you inevitably have to look outside the United States. For example, Britain has poetry contests in SMS (Short Message Service, a technology that allows text messages up to 160 characters in length to be sent over the phone).

Mobile devices appear to be pulling us in opposite directions: cell phones expand our abilities to connect, while iPods are used to renegotiate privacy in public spaces. Another complicating factor is that, at least in the U.S., cultural norms for mobile devices are still a work in progress, as witnessed by “dear cell phone user” cards that can be distributed to nearby people who are talking on their phones too loudly. In Japan, people use SMS to communicate during mass transit and in other settings where a verbal conversation would be annoying to those nearby.

Some of conventions for the use of mobile technology will turn out to be passing fads, such as “flash mobs” (using text messages to coordinate the behavior of groups). This induced human swarming was seemingly ubiquitous, then suddenly faded once the novelty wore off. Other uses will become integrated into our everyday lives, but it may be too early to tell which uses will persist.

Surveillance and Memory: The size and portability of mobile technology raises concerns as well as possibilities. Because cell phones now come with built-in cameras, we are becoming a culture of surveillance. To protect patron privacy, phones are often banned at gyms and pools. Yet these same phones make it possible for everyone to be a documentarian. On a moment’s notice, the average person can create a visual, aural, or written record of a child’s first steps, a front row concert view, the Pope’s funeral, a subway disaster, suspected police brutality, or even an ill-fated September 11 flight.

Microcontent: Small devices challenge us to package content in smaller and shorter segments. This trend has been dubbed “microcontent.” For example, NYC2123 is a graphic novel produced with mobile devices in mind. These creations may be grassroots, intended to oppose, or provide alternatives to, the messages of mass media. For example, Art Mobs asks the question, “Should museums and galleries have exclusive control over making audio tours of their exhibits?” Their most recent project involves creating alternative audio tours for the Museum of Modern Art, tours that counter those produced by the museum. These ideas could adapted for pedagogical purposes: increasing students’ critical engagement, fostering media literacy, enhancing dialogue/participation, etc.

Combining Technologies: Increasingly, mobile devices are used in conjunction with other technologies (for example, web + mobile, portable gaming devices + mobile). For example, in the game “Uncle Roy All Around You” online players search for Uncle Roy alongside on-the-street players with mobile devices. This “augmented reality” makes it possible to add digital data to physical places. In the same way that information is “tagged”within web pages, physical places can be tagged and correlated with online content.

Mobile technology has great potential for use in research, ethnography, and field-based learning experiences such as semesters abroad. It can also increase student and faculty opportunities for connectedness. For example, it could be used to broadcast an invitation for others on campus to join an a pickup game of volleyball. Yet very real challenges need to be addressed for this technology to achieve its full potential in educational settings, including: technical support, market instability, device content limitations (small screen size), digital divide and accessibility issues, privacy and intellectual property concerns, and faculty resistance.

Session IV: iPods and Podcasting (Bryan Alexander, Alex Chapin, Shel Sax) Session IV LinksSession Links

Alex Chapin’s iPod blog
Podcast of Chapin’s SIG talk
Berkeley Groks Science Radio
The Internet Archive
Podcasting Demo Server
(includes tutorials)
IT Conversations (podcasts
on Information Technology)

HighlightsEase of Use: A variety of resources are now available that make it relatively easy to set up podcasts and RSS feeds. For example, Feedburner walks you though the process, as does the Podcasting Demo Server.

Aggregating Content: In addition to tools like iTunes, sites like Odeo provide directories of podcasts. Odeo Studio also can be used to produce recordings over the web — the studio serves as a browser plugin.

Finding What You Need, Knowing Where You’ve Been: One of the challenges of audio is accessing the exact segment that you want to listen to. For this reason, digital audio has enlivened metadata. Metadata, when used in conjunction with other technologies such as XML, provides a level of granularity that makes it possible for listeners to jump to a specific portion of a podcast. It also makes it possible to browse and search the increasingly large collections of audio available on the web.

With iPods/iTunes you can also keep track of your listening history — you can know when you last accessed a file, where you left off, and you can even rate a file. These capabilities will make it possible for students to create “smart” audio study lists, rate files by difficulty and sort to perform a self-assessment, etc.

Middlebury’s iPod Case Study: Shel Sax described a recent iPod initiative at Middlebury as a “strategic failure.” The project was intended to demonstrate innovative use of iPods for language learning. Over the summer of 2005, iPods loaded with language lab files were made available to students. iPods were distributed from the library circulation desk and could be checked out just like a book. They anticipated that students would use the iPods in many creative ways. In fact, iPod use was minimal (approximately 1.5 hour per week per student) and focused more on convenience than on innovation (the iPods were used primarily as a “glorified discman”). Fortunately, assessment was a built-in component of the project, so they have a good idea of factors that affected the project’s outcome. The following issues were identified as problems they plan to address in future projects:

  • Content Ownership: It was unclear if the rights they had to language lab content extended to the use of these files for mobile devices.
  • Technical Problems: They encountered problems with physical handling, iPods freezing up, and with peripherals such as microphones.
  • Insufficient Time for Testing: This project was an unanticipated opportunity, a windfall, and the short development timeline did not allow for adequate testing and technical problem-solving.
  • Insufficient Training and Documentation: Again, the short timeline did not allow for the development of documentation that would have helped users solve routine problems. In addition, language students enrolled in the summer intensive program take a pledge to only communicate in the language they are studying — and it was difficult to fit in sufficient training before the pledge took effect.
  • Ease of Access: Students had to go to the library to check out the iPods — as Shel noted, “don’t underestimate the factor of convenience.”

Overall, many of the problems could be directly attributed to the locus of energy for the project. As Shel said, “it was a technology-driven project.” For the fall, they changed their approach. The offered 1-3 training sessions for students taking courses that involve iPods. They also solicited proposals from faculty, focusing their work with faculty who wanted to use the iPods and who had innovative ideas for how this technology could be used in their classes. This second round of projects is much more innovative and pedagogically substantive:

  • Biology: developing a podcast web site of bird songs
  • Museum Studies: developing a podcast audio tour
  • Teacher Education: developing audio portfolios

Session V: Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control — Social Software in the Academy (Brian Lamb) Session V LinksSession Links

Brian’s Presentation Link
Brian’s Blog, Abject Learning
Clay Shirky’s Writings About   the Internet
Weblogs @ UBC
Denise’s Blog
Peru 2006
Michelle Chua
UBC’s Blogfolio Guide
Edublogs (provides free blogs
for education professionals)
NetNewsWire (RSS Reader)

HighlightsBrian had enough content for as many as four presentations in mind, so he began his session with a “group hum” exercise to assess our areas of interest. He introduced several ideas for directions he could take the talk, then asked for us to hum after each idea if we were interested in that particular direction. We “decided” to have him provide an overview of Social Software.

Social Software Defined: According to Lamb, social software is:

  • free (or cheap)
  • easy to use (a form of mass amateurization)
  • serves the needs of small groups and individuals, but also allows for new forms of interaction and aggregated presentation that can be remarkably rich (small pieces, loosely joined)
  • being introduced into educational practice and is gaining popularity rapidly (to varying degrees)

In the words of Clay Shirky, social software is “stuff that gets spammed.” Merriam-Webster, which named “weblog” its 2004 Word of the Year, defines a blog as

A website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer

Lamb’s original charge at UBC was to advocate the development and use of learning objects (LOs). He quickly realized that LOs are a “dog that doesn’t hunt” — because LOs comprise a “singular world,” the adoption rate is minimal.

In contrast, Lamb set up a blog for the University and, within a relatively short time, UBC was hosting 700 weblogs for 1500 people. For example, Denise Hubert uses her blog to coordinate the work of writing TAs, post assignments, and provide writing tips. Political Science faculty member Maxwell Cameron developed a class blog to document and discuss the 2006 Peruvian election. Michelle Chua used MovableType for ePortfolio development (blogfolio), then aggregated RSS feeds from individual students to create a network of blogfolios on one site. However, Lamb stressed that you can expect administrative and technical friction when you consider offering weblogs, because they are perceived as increasing risk and decreasing control.

Despite resounding popularity and success, some concerns were voiced — but the benefits outweighed the risks and each concern had a work-around. For example, some were anxious about “forcing” students to write publicly, but it was pointed out that student can assume a pseudonym. Others were worried about spamming, but that problem can be addressed by setting comments to “moderated.” While it’s understandable that administrators would be anxious about inappropriate posts, Lamb noted that, with over 4,500 pages of writing in UBC’s weblogs, they haven’t been made aware of a single objectionable post.

For those who are worried about information overload, the solution may be to change how you think about online learning. Instead of viewing blogs and other forms of online learning as “texts” (collections of objects), think of them as flow (something that you follow and/or dip into). Social software is changing how we write and read — it’s a new kind of narrative, a living text, that’s developing over the web. For more information about digital writing, see UBC’s Textologies site.

Lamb provides the following parting words of advice: invest in an RSS reader or aggregator such as NetNewsWire (for Macs), Bloglines, or AggRSSive. There is a high signal to noise ratio in blogs, yet with NetNewsWire he is able to scan 200 sites a day to glean the half dozen nuggets of useful information.

Session VI: Scientific Visualization Software (Dave Guertin) Session VI LinksSession Links

Science Visualization Lab
Sample Visualizations
3ds Max

Why use visualizations?

  • To help students form questions in their minds, to encourage them to create their own questions (as opposed to knowing the answers to questions they never asked).
  • To help students make connections.

Many difficult subjects don’t lend themselves to traditional representation. In addition, many disciplines are comprised of levels of understanding. For example, in chemistry there is the observable level (which can be attained during a reaction in a lab experiment), the molecular level (which can be attained through a visualization), and the symbolic level (which can be attained through the formulation of an equation). Examples of visualizations include: illustrations, models, video, 2D animations (Flash, Java), and 3D animations (Maya, Lightwave, 3ds Max).

At Middlebury, over the past four summers they have taught students how to use visualization software, then paired them with faculty members to develop visualizations for specific courses. Students in this program usually are fine arts, math, or computer science majors. Animations are developed over the summer, with faculty and students working in close collaboration. Students work long hours (often well into the night) solving challenging representational problems. To date, seven students have developed about two dozen 30-60 second animations for faculty in five departments. As opposed to stand-alone learning objects, these animations are learning assets designed for use in conjunction with teacher explanations.

Cost / Value: The program is not inexpensive. Each student requires a high-end work station ($3,000-$6,000), software (Lightwave = $125/seat, Maya = $375/seat), and their hourly wages total $1,000-$2,000 per animation. Students usually need about a month of time using the software before they are prepared to create a high-quality animation. However, despite the costs, informal program assessment indicates that faculty are happy, the animations are useful, and students have benefited from the experience.

About the Event, Sponsor, and the Presenters”Emerging Trends for Teaching and Learning” was day-long SIG event sponsored by NERCOMP, the Northeast Regional Computing Program. The SIG took place in Bolton, Massachusetts on October 27th. Presenters included:

  • Bryan Alexander (SIG Organizer)
    Director for Research, National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE)
  • Shel Sax
    Director, Educational Technology Services, Middlebury College (SIG Organizer)
  • Alex Chapin
    Educational Technologist, Middlebury College
  • Joel Forman
    Associate Professor, English Department, George Mason University
  • Dave Guertin
    Educational Technology Specialist, Middlebury College
  • Brian Lamb
    Learning Objects Coordinator, University of British Columbia

For Further Reading About Emerging Technologies in Higher EducationEducause

In particular, the Learning Technologies Initiative page, the Emerging Practices and Learning Technologies page, the 7 Things You Should Know About page, and “Tomorrowland: When New Technologies Get Newer,” an article in the November/December 2006 edition of the Educause Review.

New Media Consortium

Emerging Technologies Initiative, including the 2006 annual Horizon Report.

Faculty as Authors of Online Courses: Support and Mentoring

by Deborah Cotler and Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Monmouth University


Our Present Context: How Did We Get Here?

Only a few years ago, if you had polled Simmons College administrators, faculty, students, and even technology staff members, the consensus would have been that “online”  learning is not relevant to the mission of our institution. A “small university”  with a liberal arts undergraduate program and four graduate schools, Simmons’ culture is “high touch”  and personalized. To the uninitiated, distance learning seemed antithetical to our institutional mission and philosophy of learning.

Along with thousands of other institutions of higher education, our views have changed as we have become increasingly sophisticated in our understanding of the tremendous potential for online learning. Today we offer hybrid courses, three fully-online certificate programs, and an online degree program in Physical Therapy. The School of Library Science is a member of WISE, a national network of schools providing online courses in information science. A number of other fully-online and hybrid programs are in development, including courses within the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only do pioneering faculty teach online at Simmons, those in the so-called “second wave”  are also developing hybrid and fully-online courses.

Our current challenge is to ensure the development of online learning that engages learners in the open-ended, inquiry-based learning that we believe is at the heart of a liberal arts education. We are finding that excellent professors whose face-to-face teaching is grounded in a liberal arts approach to learning may sometimes encounter difficulties when they take their teaching into the digital realm.

Our experience also suggests that the distinction between “pioneer”  and “second wave”  faculty is spurious. These labels distract from the insights and unique talents that a particular faculty member can contribute to a project. People don’t fit neatly into categories – they aren’t exclusively pioneers orsecond wave. Some faculty who are “second wave”  in relationship to technology can be pedagogical “pioneers.”  To realize the promise of online learning, we believe that academic technologists must learn how to collaborate with good teachers – even when technology isn’t a professor’s strong suit. Conversely, faculty members need help in learning how to work in partnership with academic technologists.

Good professors excel at engaging groups of students face-to-face, but few are prepared to develop courses online. In addition, their pedagogy is often implicit – developed and fine tuned over the years through trial and error.  Paul Hagner writes:

It is a basic fact that many of the best teachers possess natural communication and information management abilities that, for many of them, are simply assumed rather than the product of intensive self-examination.  Since one requirement for transformation is coming to grips with how the new technologies can enhance learning objectives, a problem results in that many successful teachers have never engaged in this form of articulation and self-examination.[1]

Faculty members and academic administrators who are new to e-learning are likely to overlook or even eschew logistical details that technologically-adventurous professors easily think through, grapple with, and resolve. Likewise, tech-savvy faculty may be undeterred by technical glitches, but have tremendous difficulty conceptualizing online offerings that are pedagogically progressive and grounded in inquiry.

Given this context, it is vitally important for those of us who are involved in academic technology to help faculty and administrators develop understandings and capabilities they may not realize they need.[2]And we may also need to step back and question our own pedagogical assumptions about the role that technology should/can play in teaching and learning at liberal arts institutions.

Just as a good teacher knows how to tailor a course to suit a particular group of learners, academic technologists need to develop a framework of support customized to meet the complex and variable needs of mainstream faculty, a support framework that is also congruent with the culture of the institution. In the same way that an ethnographer takes time to become steeped in the culture of a given community, we need to listen, observe, and thoughtfully assess faculty members’ perspectives and needs.[3]

To deepen our understanding of the range of their perspectives and needs, we interviewed several of our faculty collaborators, including:

Mary Jane Treacy, who directs the Honors Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College. In fall 2004 we worked with Mary Jane to help her develop her first hybrid course for graduating seniors. As part of a year-long fellowship, we are currently collaborating with her to integrate ePortfolio work across all years of the Honors Program and curriculum.

Vicki Bacon, who chairs the Counselor Education program at Bridgewater State College and is an adjunct faculty member at Simmons. She developed and teaches a fully-online course in Sports Psychology. Of the three faculty members we interviewed, Vicki had the greatest difficulty making the transition to teaching online. Our work with her is featured in a case study later in this article. We are grateful to Vicki for allowing us to write up the problems she encountered as a case study through which others can learn.

Robert (Bob) Goldman, who is a Mathematics Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College. He has developed two online courses, the most recent of which is “Webstat,” a fully-online statistics course.

What Are The Concerns of Mainstream Faculty?

When asked about preliminary concerns in developing an online course, each of our interviewees shared similar concerns. Bob and Mary Jane were apprehensive about loss of control and quality in their teaching. They also expressed fear of failure.  (see “Preliminary Concerns” video)

Vicki wasn’t initially concerned. Because her ability as a classroom teacher is her “greatest strength,” it didn’t occur to her that she might have difficulty teaching online. Like Bob, she doubted the medium – whether a course like hers could succeed online. But she didn’t anticipate that distance learning would set in motion a process that required her to rethink how she teaches her subject.

Online Authoring: What’s Different?

Online course development challenges faculty to become explicit about their teaching because e-courses force them to “put it in writing”  (or into multimedia). Yet few first-time online professors – and even fewer academic administrators – recognize the course development process as an act of multimedia authorship.

According to Doug Brent, good courses are “like a story in an oral society … created and recreated each year in the complex guided interaction that occurs around [a] constellation of texts.” [4] When courses are offered over the Web, the posting of a session is a distinct act of authorship that precedes student and faculty interaction with the material. The “course”  reads as a musical score to be followed (and hopefully improvised upon) by course participants and facilitators. Each “class”  is an enactment, or performance, of this score, varying from semester to semester according to learners’ needs. The course score must be carefully composed in advance with attention to:

  • tone (desired approach and interpersonal dynamics);
  • part  (expectations for how students will interact with the material and with each other);
  • timing (a realistic assessment of how long each task will take); and
  • flow (how each component connects, furthers goals, and contributes to the learning experience as a whole).

As faculty members become immersed for the first time in the writing-intensive process of course development, they struggle to understand the genre. What constitutes a “session”  or “lesson?”  Lacking sufficient orientation, they tend to misapply familiar formats: cryptic lesson plan notes, PowerPoint slides that lack the speaker’s narrative, or lengthy academic articles. Faculty need guidance in developing a mental template for online learning that suits their personality, discipline, and pedagogical philosophy.

The collaborative dimension of online course development also requires faculty to become accustomed to a different pace and working style. With the exception of team-taught courses, most faculty members develop lesson plans on their own, using an idiosyncratic process that involves little or no interaction with others.

But for mainstream faculty who do not do their own technical implementation, online course development inevitably involves the give and take of working with a team of instructional designers and technologists. Ideally, team members are full collaborators with the faculty member. Instead of viewing others on the team as technicians who are solely responsible for “putting the course online,”  the faculty member needs to learn how to partner with people who possess professional perspectives, skills, and abilities. The work of educational technologists may be a heretofore invisible dimension of the process for the faculty member. For example, Instructional Designers, expert in web-based course design, implementation, and assessment, may suggest approaches that feel counter-intuitive to those who have never taught online. In addition, the technical implementation of course materials takes time, requiring faculty to adhere to deadlines that are well in advance of those that would be needed for a face-to-face course. According to Bob Goldman:

I’ve gotten used to working with the team that is preparing the course. I think that’s worked out well. I now know that I have to give them a lot of lead time. I know what they can do, and what they can’t do. And I’m now able to work within that framework much better than I was before.

Online Course Authorship Requires Faculty to Develop a New Skill Set

Assuming that online courses are a new genre of writing, what’s entailed in this type of authorship? In addition to asking our three inteviewees about their preliminary concerns, we also asked them to tell us what they think first-time authors of online courses need to know (see “What First Timers Need to Know”  video).

In reflecting on our interview data and on our own experiences working with faculty, we believe that faculty need support in developing the following understandings and capabilities:

Understand How to Author a Coherent, Integrated Learning Experience:  Most faculty members are unaware of the explanations they provide “in the moment”  when they teach face-to-face. Their first stab at translating sessions for online delivery reads like a set of lesson notes. For many, this is a necessary first step – putting the broad strokes in writing. When asked to flesh out the session, the second draft will often read like cookbook directions- with some clarifying details and the desired sequence of activity (“First, do this.  Then, read that.  Finally, do this.” ). But for the course to be a gratifying learning experience, sessions need a narrative dimension, the textual equivalent to verbal orientation and context setting. Sessions also need to be revised and polished in a manner usually reserved for print publications.

Understand What Needs To Be Composed in Advance and What Can Be Improvised: In a face-to-face setting, the teacher goes to class with a repertoire of strategies, discussion questions, and other resources jotted down in her lesson notes (or in her head). If students do not connect with one approach, she can improvise. In developing an online course, first timers have difficulty distinguishing between materials that need to be incorporated into the course text and things that can be communicated in impromptu announcements and discussion posts.

Understand the Emotional Needs of Online Learners: In the face-to-face classroom, good teachers know how to use subtle gestures and tone of voice to set an emotional tone that is conducive to learning. In preparing a course for delivery online, faculty are often inattentive to issues of tone. They need to learn how to use words, color, and images to communicate that their course welcomes intellectual risk-taking, inquiry, and deep thought.

Understand How To Keep Students Engaged and Oriented: Perhaps the most difficult challenge for faculty is to develop online sessions that are both explicit and engaging. Well-crafted sessions address the metacognitive dimension of learning. For example, callout boxes can be used to help learners see how discrete activities connect up with larger learning goals.

Faculty members who are new to teaching online often focus on the limitations of the medium – overlooking types of learning that can only take place “at a distance.”  For example, instead of doing all coursework online, students can get up from their computers to do activities around their homes and communities in geographically diverse settings. They can then report back. Within a relatively short time frame class members can benefit from information or stories that peers have gathered from across the country or even the world.   Groups can compare, contrast, analyze, debate, and synthesize their experiences into a multi-dimensional understanding of the topic.

Understand How The Course Looks and Feels From The Students’ Perspective: In the face-to-face setting, there are numerous cues about how a session is going – students’ body language and questions indicate when the learning is off course. But in an online course, serious problems can go unnoticed and compromise student learning. For this reason, we ask first-time course developers to solicit feedback through frequent formative assessment surveys. While the problems with a given session are still fresh in students’ minds, we use the following three questions at the end of each learning module:

  • How many hours did you spend working on this module?
  • What are your suggestions for improving this module? Please also fill us in on any problems you encountered with the technology, directions, or organization of materials.
  • Considering the objectives for this module, what do you think is the most important thing you learned? What questions remain?

The three-question format helps us disentangle technical and pedagogical glitches. Some things can be fixed in the moment. Student engagement intensifies when they realize that their input results in on-the-fly course revisions. Other issues are duly noted and “fixed”  in the next “edition”  of the course.

This skill set serves as the framework we use in consultation with faculty. But what does it look like in action? The following case study serves as an example.

Case Study

In 2003, Simmons launched a fully-online certificate program in Nutrition. Sports Psychology, taught by Professor Vicki Bacon, is one course in the program.

Well-regarded by her students and by others in her field, Vicki prides herself in her ability to “walk into a classroom, quickly size up the dynamic and mold the classroom experience accordingly.”  Her courses are pedagogically progressive and take a liberal arts approach to health science learning. She makes extensive use of novels (A River Runs Through It), films (“Fearless”), community-based interviews, and case studies. Course discussions are shaped by open-ended questions that have no clear answer – queries that are thoughtfully designed to engage students in inquiry, reflection, and critical thinking.

Vicki’s class was first taught live on Simmons’ campus and then piloted online. Modifications were made in response to formative assessment and the course was taught a second time online in spring of 2005.

Challenges: The Sports Psychology course faced a number of barriers to success in its online debut. This was the department’s first foray into distance learning. Other departments had taken the plunge into web-based distance learning. But, in the absence of an institutional mechanism for intentional information-sharing, communication among faculty and departmental administrators about distance learning took place on an ad hoc basis.

Other challenges involved gaps in support at the institutional level. Academic Technology was in the process of hiring two fulltime instructional designers to work with faculty, but at the time that Vicki was authoring a first draft for her course there was insufficient support in place. In retrospect, all involved acknowledged the need for more training, modeling, and guidance prior to the course development phase.

In addition, both the department and Vicki assumed that the project entailed “putting the course online.”  In reality, as Vicki noted during her interview, online course development involves rethinking fundamental aspects of oneself as a teacher and how to best engage students in learning.

Finally, as someone who had never taken or facilitated an online course before, it was difficult for Vicki to know what was required of her. Perhaps her biggest challenge was learning how to teach in a context in which she was unable to “read”  the expressions and reactions of her students. While her skill at reading a room served her quite well in the classroom environment, it hindered her ability to author course materials that anticipated the needs of virtual students.

As mentioned previously, online course development constitutes a new genre of writing for most academics – both the process and the product that differ from their previous experiences authoring books, scholarly articles, book reviews, or even email messages and PowerPoint presentations. The text Vicki produced for the pilot version was skeletal. The outline was explicit, but the narrative that helps students connect the dots was noticeably absent. This is not unusual for a first time online course author. All three faculty members interviewed for this article mentioned that translating “lecture notes”  into a coherent online learning experience for students was one of their biggest hurdles.

Predictably, the course debuted with a bumpy start. Course modules pointed students to articles, case studies and lecture notes, but failed to set the context for learning. Participation lagged – students submitted the required work, but the learning and level of engagement stagnated. Vicki expressed frustration that the students were failing to “take it to the next level.”  She was concerned that these students’ discussions, reflections, and questions were not indicative of the type of learning she usually observes in her classes – conceptual understanding and insight did not seem to build from one module to the next.

Weekly formative assessment, gathered through WebCT surveys, confirmed what was already evident; students were not engaged, they didn’t come away from the modules having grasped the key concepts, and they were often confused about what they should be doing.

Intervention and Revisions: Fortunately, as these challenges unfolded, Simmons College was increasing its infrastructure for faculty support. As the newly hired instructional designers, one of our first tasks was to provide Vicki with the guidance and support she needed to succeed. In addition to face-to-face consultation and coaching, we also introduced her to the literature about best practices in online teaching.

The Evolution of an Activity: The following example presents the evolution of one assignment, illustrating how we worked with Vicki to turn it into a successful experience of learning through inquiry.

The genogram assignment required students to use Inspiration software to construct a diagram of their own family’s roles and dynamics. The purpose of this assignment was to help students examine their family history and reflect on potential “hot buttons”  that might impede their ability to work with a client.

Pilot Version:  Directions for the assignment, in the first iteration of the course, read as follows:

You should complete construction on your family genogram this week. In the discussion forum, first post about your experience developing your own genogram. Given your experience, what do you think is the genogram’s value for client assessment? Then, review your classmates’ posts and post at least one reply to another thread.

The formative assessment and implementation of that plan quickly revealed that students were struggling. Because there was no on-site demonstration, it took students longer to learn how to use the software. Because students weren’t explicitly told to attach their genogram files to their posts, they couldn’t understand details in peer comments on the experience and had no basis for comparative discussion. Because this was the first week of the class and community norms were still in flux, they felt awkward sharing personal details about family dynamics. Finally, because the assignment guidelines and discussion prompt were vague, the discussion fell flat.

The following are typical student comments from formative assessment surveys conducted during the pilot:

“Things are too scattered around.”  “I was confused with this module.”  “I tried to develop a conversation … and until the last day received little to no feedback.”

As an “on the fly”  change in response to formative assessment, Vicki decided to extend the discussion into a second week – this time encouraging students to post their genograms. But at best this was damage control – before the course was offered again, Vicki worked with Deborah Cotler to revise and reformat the entire course, including the genogram assignment.

Online Course Revised:  After analyzing students’ formative feedback, Deborah and Vicki realized that the goals for the assignment were unclear – both for the students and for Vicki. For example, the stated goal was for students to identify prior life experiences that might affect their ability to work with clients on certain issues. But the assignment’s discussion prompt also asked students to consider the value of using client genograms as a tool for assessment.

Deborah asked Vicki to describe how she would teach the assignment in the context of a face-to-face class. Vicki said that she would probably begin the discussion by focusing on what students learned by doing their own genograms and then ask follow-up questions to extend the conversation to cover the value of genograms in a sports psychology context. But in the online context, absent facilitation in the moment, presenting both discussion topics at once resulted in confusion about the assignment.

Deborah worked with Vicki to hone the assignment to make the rationale, process for implementation, and expectations explicit. They also moved the genogram assignment to the third week of the class, allowing time for community-building before asking students to disclose personal family information. Comments made during the second round of formative assessment indicate dramatic improvement:

“I learned to look at the possible conflicts I can have with patients because of their beliefs and lifestyles. I did realize this before, but this module made me focus and think about the possibility of this happening in my clinical practice.”

“Another great application of our learning to real life. It’s great to apply this knowledge to a real person and see how it actually fits in real time. My confidence about applying this to my patients outside of this class is growing.”

At the end of the semester, course evaluation comments were equally gratifying:

“Dr. Bacon was the best facilitator in my entire Simmons College online experience. She was extremely insightful and provided food for thought in several of the modules. It was encouraging that she responded to all the modules. This gave us a feedback as to that we are on the right track.”

Support for Developers of Online Learning: What’s Helpful?

To get a better understanding of what we were already doing “right,”  during faculty interviews we asked which aspects of our support had been most helpful (see “What Helped?”  video). Based on this feedback and our own observations, we offer the following suggestions:

Establish optimal conditions for dialogue. Before you begin working in depth with a faculty member, point them to a copy of the literature that informs your approach to online pedagogy. We find that when faculty members come to the table with a foundational understanding of the principles that guide your approach, the dialogue starts at a much more productive level.

Articulate goals for student understanding and skill development. By identifying learning goals at the outset of the project— and frequently reassessing these— you will ensure that course materials and activities support the desired learning.

Clarify how students will learn. Brainstorm ideas for what students will do or experience to further their understanding of course concepts. Identify, in advance, the artifacts of learning (discussion posts, work samples, chat logs, etc.) that will provide the professor with insight into students’ learning needs and progress toward goals. Help faculty keep cognizant of the fact that, in the online environment, you can never be too explicit in writing up assignment directions – but that doesn’t mean that assignments need to take an objectivistic approach to learning.  The assignment tasks need to be crystal clear, but the process of enacting those tasks – projects, research, discussion, reflection, etc. – will ideally engage students in constructivist meaning-making.

Work with faculty as writers. The most critical turning point for many faculty members is the moment they recognize this effort as an act of authorship. Suggest a process for authorship and help them develop a consistent format for session modules. Model a sequence for authorship that begins with analysis of students’ ideas. For example, instead of beginning with “what I want to say,”  begin with “what are common student misconceptions, where do the students tend to struggle?”  Then develop the course with these patterns of need in mind. Help them reflect on the desired class culture, or sense of community, and what needs to be included in the course to achieve that dynamic.

Work with faculty as revisers. Just as an author would never write an academic paper without multiple rounds of revisions, a course author must be prepared to revise the course based on feedback from others. Offer to be a reviewer. Encourage the faculty member to solicit peers as additional reviewers.

Final Words

Collaborating with course authors can be an immensely satisfying experience. When the pieces fall into place and an online course runs well, the result is intensely generative. Rather than increase the distance between faculty and students, faculty are discovering that web-enhanced learning engenders the type of personalized learning that is at the heart of Simmons’ mission.  According to Mary Jane Treacy,

I have never learned as much about a group of students in all my years at Simmons College. I am just amazed by what I know about them – and also amazed by how they’re coming together, getting close, but also bumping elbows, and how they’re getting closer to me. It feels very, very good.  It’s the right thing to do.

At Simmons, we have had the pleasure of enjoying many such positive partnerships. It is our hope that the suggestions and experiences we have detailed will assist you in your own consultative work with liberal arts faculty.

[1] Paul Hagner, “Faculty Engagement and Support in the New Learning Environment,”  Educause Review (September/October 2000), 31.

[2] Though beyond the scope of this article, a set of suggested guiding questions we developed for administrators and faculty involved in developing online programs is available at

[3] Video clips from interviews we conducted in preparation for this article are available online at

[4] Doug Brent, “Teaching as performance in the electronic classroom”  in First Monday 10, no. 4 (2005):60,