“Technology is …

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” – Bill Gates

Welcome to IDT Talk. This blog will be an open discussion about trends and issues surrounding the field of instructional design and technology. I welcome your comments and feedback.


Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Distributed Learning

As I reflect back over the past semester, I don’t think my personal theories about learning have changed much as a result of the things I’ve learned; however, I am more aware of the practical limitations of some of the things I believe when it comes to teaching in an online environment. Although the online environment seems like an ideal format for students who are motivated to take control over their own learning and therefore well-suited to a learner-centric, constructivist theory of learning, many of the people who find their way to online courses do so out of convenience or because it is the only option open to them. These students are often unprepared for that type of environment and need a great deal of teacher support to make it in an online course. Additionally, many online instructors are not yet ready to let go of their “sage on the stage” mentality. For some this may be due to a fear that online learning threatens their existence, and that if students can learn without them, they will find themselves out of a job. For others, it may just reflect a lack of adequate training on what it means to facilitate learning, or what good online facilitation looks like. For the most part, technology has caught up to allow courses to be designed from a constructivist perspective, but some learning management systems place limitations on what is possible, and often the possible is limited by the instructor’s or designer’s training on the system. Until we bridge the gap between under-prepared learners, reluctant instructors, and inadequate technology, social constructivist learning will be limited to a few online courses.

I have, unfortunately, yet to narrow my research interests. My mentor tells me this is the curse of the gifted; I am interested in everything. In my work time, when I’m not doing research for a grade, I tend to expend my energies on the faculty. I guess I figure that if I am going to be a change agent, I need to affect the people who can make that change happen, and I believe in education that is the faculty. I conduct needs assessments, plan, create, and hold professional development sessions, bring in external solutions, and evaluate the effectiveness of what I’m doing. My major research interest surrounding the faculty right now relates to the effect that Quality Matters training has on a faculty member’s perspectives concerning standards for online learning. I’m not sure how that fits into my personal learning theories, except that I do believe that online learning needs to be well designed to be effective, and that there should be a set of minimum quality standards adopted by every institution informing design best-practices. If an instructor posts a list of course readings in no particular order without a schedule of when the readings are to be read, and just expects the student to be prepared, that is not a quality design.

As far as student interests, I am interested in student engagement and interaction with the course, the instructor, and other students. I have done a little work with Community of Inquiry and a bit of research with an intervention a faculty member dubbed “Simulated Student Interaction”, where she engaged with students in the discussion board as a student using an alias to model the kinds of postings she wanted and to stimulate their interactions. I am also interested in student cognitive load and attention, especially in the areas of synchronous web conferencing. In both these cases, these are techniques that are more prominent in a social constructivist environment, and so I think they lend themselves to my personal learning theories.

I predict online learning becoming more mobile with the increase of phone and tablet use. I think the new tablet laptop combos will replace our existing laptop computers and we will soon see desktop computers be replaced by tablet docking stations. Phones are getting larger, lighter, and more powerful, so I think people will carry their phone and their tablet and we’ll see the end of the traditional computer altogether. As a result, online courses will need to become more responsive. Videos will need to be able to stream quickly. Content will need to be easy to read and adjust to narrow screen widths. We may see PDFs become a thing of the past, and instead we may see more pod-casting, allowing students to listen to lectures on the go. Discussions may become verbal rather than typed, or a combination of the two, similar to what you can do with Voice Thread. Synchronous Web Meeting platforms will improve their apps to allow those connecting from mobile devices the same affordances as those connecting from computers. Test security from mobile devices will have to be increased to provide a more secure experience with less likelihood of cheating.

Part of what I learned this year was learned out of frustration as an online learner when my instructor became ill. Left to my own devices within the course, many of the assignments did not go as originally planned. There was little support except from other learners and no clear instruction on what to do. In this case, learning really did fall under social constructivism. We had to figure things out on our own; use the assigned readings and videos and our own experiences to determine how to handle an assignment or what to write about in our blog on a given week. While we worried about a favorite teacher and struggled along on our own, somehow we made it through most of the tail end of the semester with very little guidance and one another for support. While it was neither fun nor easy, it was a reinforcement of the belief that sufficiently prepared and motivated learners can learn in a social-constructivist environment. Doing so becomes all the easier with a well-trained faculty member facilitating the course, as our instructor usually does. I look forward to having him back this summer, hopefully in good health.

Technology Trends in eLearning: MOOCs and Mobile Learning

A few months ago, I would have predicted that MOOCs were a thing of the past, no longer of much interest to anyone. They had a good run, but from all the most recent research that had been published, there was not enough engagement in the courses to call them a success on just about any level, and there didn’t seem to be an accepted means for measuring student success.

But now the news is buzzing about MOOCs again. It seems that Arizona State made the earth-shattering announcement that they were offering MOOCs for credit (Butler, 2015). Students successfully completing certain courses as MOOCs can pay to convert the courses into regular transfer credit at Arizona State, up to enough credit to cover their entire freshman year. The cost of the transfer credits is only $200 per credit hour, which is less than half the cost of the same courses taken via traditional methods. The courses will be indistinguishable from regular courses on the students’ transcripts. Students not interested in credit can still take the MOOC for free, and of course, there is no risk to the student seeking credit until they have already passed the course.

Mobile learning, on the other hand, is not something I feel to be a fad. I do not think this one has any chance of going away but only of growing. On the tiny campus of 1700 students where I work, I gather statistics about the mobile usage of our learning management system. It is surprising to me to discover that over a third of our students, more than 600 unique logins, access Blackboard via a mobile device of one kind or another each semester. I should not find this so surprising, however. I myself prefer to do much of my browsing on my iPad. I usually check my email on my phone. If I need to look something up, Google’s voice search is typically my first choice. The computer is still my first choice for homework, but only because typing on the iPad is so clunky and the phone’s screen is too small. If I had a Surface Pro or another tablet with a detachable keyboard, I might find that my tablet computer became my only computer.

The 2015 New Media Consortium Horizon Report identifies Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) as one of the top two trends to watch for in the next one to two years (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015). As more students and faculty bring their own devices to the classroom, we will see a greater increase in mobile learning. Courses will need to become more responsive to work on all devices. Flash will be replaced with HTML5, and Java dependent programs will fall out of favor. Media servers will become intelligent, and just like YouTube, be able to determine the users’ device and stream video in the right format and at the right speed to accommodate the needs of the learner.

I don’t know if these changes will cause a backlash or not, but I do believe them to be an essential part of the forward path of technology and education. Information is omnipresent. Pick any career, and professionals in that field are already using mobile devices to access information just in time. My husband is a Federal Express courier. His pad tracks his packages, plans his route, and can even alert him when he takes too long to get from one stop to another. My doctor consults a mobile device to determine medicines and dosages. The Home Depot delivery driver had me sign his pad to confirm receipt of my order. The Square register turns any smart phone into a point-of-sale device, enabling a person to accept credit cards anywhere. My neighbor’s bracelet-making business goes professional just like that. If education wants to prepare students for this decade much less the next one, it needs to keep up by providing classes where the students already are, and many are already on their devices. It certainly needs to provide students with a glimpse of how industry is done, and to a greater and greater extent, that is becoming mobile. Businesses have already been warned that more than half of all online traffic now comes from mobile devices (Hessinger, 2014), and that more than three quarters of all searches are mobile (Sterling, 2014). Education now needs to take up the charge and do what needs to be done to ensure students are prepared to function in this new mobile world.


Butler, S. M. (2015). New Arizona State-edX MOOC: Another blow to traditional college. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/techtank/posts/2015/05/4-asu-moocs-butler

Hessinger, S. (2014). Online Traffic Report States 60 Percent Now From Mobile. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://smallbiztrends.com/2014/07/online-traffic-report-mobile.html

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. Retrieved from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf

Sterling, G. (2014). Study: 78 Percent Of Local-Mobile Searches Result In Offline Purchases. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf

The Great Social Media Experiment

During the past two weeks we conducted an experiment where we had class using only social media tools. We conducted class via tweets using a common hashtag and posts to a Facebook page. Even though I am very familiar with both tools and use them frequently, the total immersion into social media for learning was rather interesting to say the least.

I have been a fan of Twitter as a classroom tool. I think Twitter is a good way to engage a roomful of students in a discussion and sustain it beyond the classroom walls. The short posts force students to think critically about what they want to say and get to the meat of their topic. In a large class where engaging all the students would not be otherwise possible, Twitter provides a voice to every student. Twitter also permits the otherwise shy student a certain measure of anonymity and safety in a group discussion, allowing them more freedom of expression. Controversial topics can be discussed without open war. Whereas most classroom discussions end at the classroom door, Twitter allows students to continue the discussion on as long as they find the topic engaging. There are stories of conversations taking off and continuing long after the official class period has ended. I know in our situation, even after Dr. Warren called time, the conversation continued for a while.

Using Facebook for educational purposes was new to me. I have used and kept a blog throughout my educational career, at least since I went back for my master’s degree. I have two Facebook pages; one for my personal use and a fan page I use to market my brand as an author. My Facebook account is tied to my Twitter account and as a result I often post educational things to my Facebook page. I have set up postings from my blog to feed to both Twitter and Facebook automatically. I can see the informal benefits of using Facebook this way. I also see the need for Facebook as a communication medium with today’s students. They are already up there and using the tool and this is one of the best ways to get your message out. If you post an event up there, students are more likely to hear about it. After the event, students can post pictures to the page, especially if you link it to an Insta-gram account with a hashtag. What is new for me is the idea of using Facebook as an educational forum, posting and communicating there asynchronously the way you might on a learning management system (LMS).

I have used some LMS tools which mimicked Facebook in certain ways. Schoology, for example, has a very similar look and feel to Facebook packaged up in a true LMS that supports grading, feedback, file management, assessments, and other standard tools. Another tool meant to introduce social media to education is the site Lore.com. This site imitates Facebook almost to the letter, but is open only to educators and students. Instructors can create classes and give their students the enrollment information to join the class. Once a student signs up for the class, the medium acts very much like Facebook, allowing participants to “like” and comment on posts. Unlike Facebook, however, the tool supports file uploads and boasts a library that can keep track of course materials. Instructors can create events, add multimedia, attach files, and link to other websites to give students access to content. Students can then discuss the content and create shared meaning.

In my opinion, the past week was not as effective as our synchronous online sessions for learning, but it was not totally ineffective either. In a classroom where synchronous learning is not a possibility, or where students cannot all be present for the synchronous activities, social media may provide a suitable alternative that gets the job adequately accomplished.

I am part of an unusual group of students. In our synchronous group, there are very few that don’t participate verbally. Even the quietest of students finds their voice in our online sessions and is able to express themselves well. In a traditional classroom setting, that is not always the case, especially in a very large class. Tools like Twitter may provide an opportunity for these reluctant students to come forward and express themselves. They may provide a means of equal participation in a class of 200 students. While social media tools may not be ideal, they are certainly better than some solutions out there.

I believe these tools hold value and should be made available for teaching and learning. Instructors need to become familiar and comfortable with the tools. They need to learn about options for display in a classroom setting, such as Twitterfall, and they need to be informed of best practices and ways to protect student privacy and deal with situations such as students without devices or students who lack “smart” technology. The informed educator can then add these tools into their educational tool belt. With the right knowledge and understanding these tools can be applied to situations appropriately to enhance student experiences and make classes more engaging and interactive for students. They are not, however, a fix-all and should not be used indiscriminately.

In short, I enjoyed our week-long experiment culminating in a two-hour social media blast, but I would not want to try and learn this way all the time. I am glad the experiment is over and we can go back to our regularly scheduled program! I am glad I had the experience and can use this as a point of reference when working with faculty to incorporate social media appropriately into higher education classrooms, especially online classes.

Social media as an educational tool

This week we were asked to reflect on our use of open-source and social media tools for learning and how useful we felt they were. I use a lot of open-source tools for instruction and a few social media tools. Personally I use YouTube extensively for my own self-instruction and I do seek out information from other experts via social networking sites, but do not find much use made of it in formal education.

I like the audio-visual affordances of YouTube, as well as the free exchange of information, so that’s why I turn to it when I need to learn how to do something. I have used YouTube to find self-help videos for everything from applying pageant makeup on my daughter to fixing my car to wiring a switch in my house to most recently building a chicken coop. I have also located and watched many videos related to my field of educational technology, especially the ones from TED.

I am not sure if my choice of YouTube has something to do with my personal preferences for learning or if everyone feels the same way, but YouTube has a vast number of self-help videos. I doubt they would be so popular if others did not see their value. Khan Academy is finding great success as an educational provider and they got their start with a handful of math tutorial videos on YouTube.

I don’t see much educational value in Facebook. I think that is a site used mostly for social purposes. I know many academic institutions post to it and I am not sure how valuable people find these posts for academic purposes. I know of several social media sites modeled after Facebook which were designed for academic purposes. They permit easy sharing of files and have a library to allow file upload. They provide for announcements, discussions, event postings, and collaboration among group or class members, have mechanisms in place to create and manage both open and closed groups, but still provide the social aspects of a Facebook-like interface, such as the ability to “like” a post.

One such site is Lore.com. I have used that site a lot for social learning in professional development, and I think it works well as a training tool for faculty. Use of a controlled site dedicated to education may also help to alleviate concerns over privacy and security issues.

My Instructional Design Process

When I have an online course that needs to be designed and developed, even though it has been years that I’ve been designing instruction, I still go through a formal design process, be it Rapid Instructional Design (Piskurich, 2006) or another process more suited to the topic and audience. I start with an analysis of the audience and the learning platform, unless those steps can be skipped because the audience is one with which I am familiar and the platform has been predetermined by some outside factor. I then analyze the task or topic so as to determine the best approach, and from there determine the best instructional design method. In additional to Rapid Instructional Design, I have used the Kemp Design Model (Morrison, Ross, & Kemp, 2007), and ASSURE (Smaldino, Russell, Heinrich, Molenda, & Cavanaugh, 2005) among others.

I received my Master’s degree from a program with a very practical focus. While we discussed learning theory and principals of instructional design, it was expected that we would actually design instruction using the Kemp model right from the outset. I cut my teeth with real projects and learned to design instruction one step at a time.

I have a very eclectic palate when it comes to what I believe about instruction. I firmly believe in social constructivism and believe that learners learn more in a group setting when they can benefit from the knowledge of others than they do learning in isolation. I also believe that learning is constructed based on things you already know, and that if you don’t help the learner make that connection to prior knowledge, they will not be as engaged with the content.

That said, I do believe there are times when direct instruction is appropriate. I have been known to choose a more behaviorist approach to learning, and have even used Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction (Gagne, Wager, Golas, & Keller, 2004) as a model for my instructional design. I try to find the approach best suited to the learners and their level of expertise with the subject matter. I am more likely to use a direct instruction approach with beginners and a more constructivist approach as my learners become more advanced. Where my process diverges from my theoretical perspective is when the learning platform has been pre-determined and does not support the process I would prefer to use, or when designing for an instructor who does not embrace the same ideologies as myself.


Gagne, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K. C., & Keller, J. M. (2004). Principles of Instructional Design, 5th Edition.

Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., & Kemp, J. E. (2007). Designing Effective Instruction (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Piskurich, G. M. (2006). Rapid instructional design: Learning ID fast and right. Wiley. com.

Smaldino, S. E., Russell, J. W., Heinrich, R., Molenda, M., & Cavanaugh, C. (2005). The ASSURE model: Creating the learning experience. In Instructional technology and media for learning (pp. 46–70). Retrieved from http://libproxy.library.unt.edu:2095/docview/860596225

The LMS as a tool for learning

This week I had an opportunity to create a lesson in Canvas and explored the benefits of using it for instruction from a theoretical perspective. Canvas, as do other Learning Management Systems, offers a variety of methods for presenting information to learners, whether that be in print, video, audio, or other medium. It offers several methods of interaction both synchronous and asynchronous, from threaded discussion boards and messaging to web-based video conferencing. The LMS also includes several means of assessing student knowledge such as tests and assignments. What the LMS is perhaps best at, though, is putting all these different tools for learning together in an organized fashion so you can present the material topically, by chapter, idea, concept, or unit. The LMS also makes it easy to provide feedback to the learner so the learner can track his or her own progress and move at a comfortable pace.

The LMS is really good at presenting information for those who subscribe to a direct instruction approach to teaching and learning. For those who ascribe to a more social constructivist approach to learning, there are some tools available which provide opportunities for learners to work together to construct knowledge such as discussion boards, collaborative document creation tools, and web conferencing tools. Unfortunately, for those who hold to a strictly constructivist viewpoint, I think that designing a web course utilizing a structured environment like Canvas would find themselves unduly constrained. While Canvas and other LMSs offer a wide range of tools to their users, they also have limitations on how things can be done. To be a purely constructivist environment, students need more freedom to explore on their own, and the LMS environment would restrict and hamper their efforts in my opinion.

Canvas and other systems like it are invaluable for the online educator looking for structure for their course. Many instructional design formulas would suggest that information is best presented to learners in an organized fashion, broken into manageable chunks surrounding a single idea or concept to maintain the learner’s attention, followed by formative assessment and immediate feedback to ensure understanding. Of course, this type of approach to learning also presumes a direct instruction view of learning or at least a cognitive approach. For those who hold a truer constructivist viewpoint, it may be better to design your own learning environment where you can allow the freedom of exploration necessary for your students to seek out the information they need to make connections to new knowledge.

Technology and Online Learning: Barrier or Blessing

I was asked this week to blog about the differences and similarities between the face-to-face lessons designed by my classmates and the online lessons they prepared on the same topic. Unfortunately a migraine headache tore me from our synchronous class meeting after watching only a few presentations, and even what I saw was lost to the pain and fog that was already starting to overtake me at that point. I wanted to view the presentations on the recording of the class, but in two different links sent out by my instructor, the audio was so chopped up it was impossible to follow.

I thought perhaps it might be my internet connection causing the video not to buffer, but I turned off all other devices in the house, used the computer hard-wired by Ethernet cable to the modem and got the same results on two different browsers. I even tried lowering the video’s streaming speed down to 144p. At that speed I could no longer make out details on the screen well enough to see the lessons being displayed, but the audio did not improve. My internet speed clocked out at 12.77 mbps, so my internet speed was not the issue, and on Chrome I could see that the video was indeed buffering. It had buffered out to about 15 minutes but the audio became choppy and difficult to follow after only two minutes. So, not the internet; both copies of the video were bad.

Unable to follow the directions for the week at this point, I found myself frustrated. I could try to blog about the two lessons to which I had physical access, one of which was the one my partner and I prepared, or I could find an off-topic posting that might satisfy the spirit of the posting requirement. I decided to blog about the ways that technology can both benefit and become a barrier to online learning.

In a face-to-face setting, if I had to miss a class or leave class early due to illness, there would not be a way to “record” the lesson. If I was not attendance, I might be able to count on the notes of a good friend or get copies of the handouts from the instructor, but for the most part, what was presented in class would be lost to me. In an online synchronous class, the ability to record the sessions is a huge benefit to students that miss class. Even students that attended the session can go back and review the recording, pausing and replaying sections which they found confusing or difficult until they felt they understood the concept being presented. While a face-to-face instructor is usually happy to review a concept with a struggling student, a student may be embarrassed to admit they find a concept difficult and would rather learn it in the privacy of their own home than in their instructor’s office.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are only as good as the technology. In this case, the recording failed to render correctly, leaving a student like me without the opportunity to participate in the lesson. In my life, two uninterrupted hours of quiet to watch a lesson is something that must be scheduled, so by the time I discovered the video was unusable, my time to find alternatives was pretty much up.

Technology can become a barrier and a blessing in other instances as well. I’ve been working with the faculty at my school to raise awareness of online accessibility for students with disabilities. While the advent of online education has opened opportunities for some students who had never considered attending college before because of the logistical challenges they would face attending school, online classes also have some disadvantages when educators do not take the time to ensure their materials are accessible to all students.

Examples of some barriers faced by students with disabilities could include PDF documents which are not readable by screen readers or improperly tagged, images without alternative descriptions, online forms without meaningful labels, poor color contrast, small font size, uncaptioned videos, webpages that do not provide multiple means of navigation, and video and audio used without transcripts provided. In the case of this lesson, even had the audio been adequate, a hearing impaired or visually impaired student would be at a disadvantage because the only captions available to those students were the ones automatically generated by YouTube. While YouTube’s speech-to-text feature is much improved over tools like this from the past, it is still very inaccurate. Captioning is possible with web conferencing tools such as Adobe Captivate but must be completed by an after-market vendor and it is very expensive. Educators find themselves caught in a vicious cycle; by law, the course must be accessible to everyone, whether they have a known student with disabilities enrolled in the course or not, but some aspects of accessibility such as captioning are too expensive to complete unless a student specifically requests it. Fortunately, the law does allow for exceptions when the cost of accessibility puts an unreasonable burden on the school, but the educator must apply for the exception and get it approved.

Flexibility in the online environment can also help keep technology from becoming a barrier. Different students learn best in different ways. By offering multiple means of presenting the same information, each student, including students with disabilities, can pick the method of learning that works best for them.