Life by Design

Online learning and blended learning environments have received much criticism in recent years as being ‘ineffective’, ‘unsuccessful’ and not as ‘good’ as a face-to-face traditionally designed course.  Yet, there is very little specific information offered with this criticism that can help to improve these new forms of educational delivery.

I grant you that scanning a syllabus, including a title to a textbook and throwing up a PowerPoint into a course management system instructing students to read it all before coming to class, constitutes the worst of the worst.  This effort is known as ‘flat design’ and reinforces a negative impression of this style of learning.

However, with a good design rubric in hand and thoughtful measures taken to ensure an engaging learning space both online and in the corresponding face-to-face experience, blended learning environments can be more successful and effective for student learning.

So, how does one know if their proposed course design will work and meet the stated learning objectives?  I enjoy using the ‘Quality Matters’ rubric for course design as a way to be sure all the best practices for course design and student satisfaction are met.

“The Quality Matters™ Program ( is a research-centered approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement for online learning. The primary components are a set of standards (or Rubric) for the design of online courses and the online components of blended courses, a peer review process for applying these standards, and related professional development for faculty. The Quality Matters Rubric, with versions for continuing and professional education, educational publishing, secondary education, and post-secondary education, is based on recognized best practices, built on the expertise of instructional designers and experienced online teachers, and supported by distance education literature and research. The goal of the program is to enable faculty to increase student engagement, learning, and satisfaction in online courses by implementing better course design. ” (Quality

In backwards design methodology, reflecting on the rubric first helps to design a course with best practices built in as part of its DNA.  All the considerations are built to create a tightly integrated course that delivers results and meets the needs of varying learning styles as well as the need for accessible course elements.

Another feature I enjoy building in includes student surveys.  I design surveys to assess online learner readiness to take at the beginning of the course.  Then a second survey to assess student satisfaction is administered about 3 weeks after the opening of the course to gather formative feedback that might inform the remainder of the course. This also insures a higher retention rate as an instructor can quickly see students that are either struggling or are highly dissatisfied with the course.  Finally, a third survey is administered at the end of the course to again to capture a final look at student satisfaction and measure how attitudes and skills have changed since the inception of the course.

There is an art and science to designing good online courses and especially blended learning environments.  A good instructional designer has an ‘eye’ or a ‘feel’ for good design and relies on the science of educational research to ensure a good mix of the subjective and objective.


Quality Matters website ( Quality Matters research and related documents may be found at  Extracted:  March 23, 2015.


One of the challenges in creating a blended learning course is being certain that there is a tight integration of learning activities and content flow from the online side of the course to the face-to-face session.  When a blended course is integrated well, the user experience is seamless.

There are tools available to help the instructor (or the instructional designer) create a balanced approach to the blended learning course.  A tool that I’m particularly fond of is the “mix map”.  I first learned about this tool when I visited with Cub Kahn, coordinator of the Hybrid Course Initiative supported by ECampus at Oregon State University last year.  This is the tool that he advises faculty to use as they begin to reimagine how their content can be used in this new delivery format.

The value of creating a mix-map is that it forces the designer of the course to list all content items, assignments and assessments and create a lively interplay between the online and f2f environments to ensure that it is all done in an engaging manner.

To see an example of the mix map, please click here: .

Here are some additional tips for creating a consistent whole while developing a blended course:

  • “If students know that they can always find the details of the assignments introduced in the last class session by turning to the online modules or that they will always submit assignments via a particular online tool, students are likely to perceive the course as one consistent whole.” (BlendKit Reader2015)
  • Plan an integration chart showing the course objectives, how they will be measured, where the learning activities and resources will be found and exactly how the online and f2f components will integrate. This big picture view is wonderful for planning purposes.

I tend to think that a seamless integration looks much like a lively tennis game with the ball being hit back and forth between the online segment and the f2f meetings, both sides scoring points!


BlendKit2015 – The BlendKit Reader is edited by Dr. Kelvin Thompson as part of The Blended Learning Toolkit prepared by the University of Central Florida and the AASCU with funding from NGLC.

A key component of effective blended or hybrid courses is an a assessment that can accurately gauge the depth of student learning.  It is often customary for instructors to assume that assessments delivered in a traditional face-to-face course will be applicable in a blended or hybrid course.  This assumption is not always correct.  Riley et al. (2014) suggests that faculty ask themselves:  “How well does your course make connections between learning objectives, course activities, and selection of site tools to accomplish the assignments?  How well do face-to-face and out of class time learning activities complement each other?”  I would add an additional question, “How can I design assessments that will provide a practical application of the material that is relevant to the students’ life outside the classroom?” In the spirit of student-centric design and supporting students in becoming independent learners with well-developed critical thinking skills, assessment choices need reevaluation.

The area of authentic assessments and performance assessments is gaining ground and works well in both online and blended course environments.  The premise of these forms of assessments is that the student engages with the material and then finds a way to practically apply the information in a way that is measured.  For example, in an online Mandarin Chinese course I designed, the majority of the content was online and students participated in an asynchronous fashion.  However, when it came time for the assessment, students got online and connected via Google+ with a language coach who evaluated their spoken language proficiency in an oral demonstration of skill.  I designed a special rubric to measure not only growing language proficiency but skills necessary for effective performance.

The world of authentic and performance assessments opens up a whole range of possibilities for measuring student understanding in new and creative ways that tap a student’s intrinsic motivation.  For example, in a new course I’m designing that is an online course, instead of a weekly quiz, students will be writing up a critique of an element or resource that is utilized in their final project.  This effort guided by a carefully crafted rubric will measure skills such as inquiry and evaluation.  The student is free to select the resource (which is broadly defined) to perform their analysis upon.

in a different project, I’m working on, the design is a flipped model for a workshop designed for professional development.  The final assessment will be a project delivered to the class that shows direct, practical application of the material that will easily translate to the office when they return from the workshop.

If the content in a blended or online course is not made relevant to the students’ lives and work lives there is little chance that the material will be remembered or incorporated into one’s general understanding of a topic.


Riley, J.E., Gardner, C., Cosgrove, S., Olitsky, N., O’Neil, C., and Du, C. (2014)  Implementation of blended learningfor the improvement of student learning, In A. Picciano, C. Dziuban, and C. Graham (Eds.), Blended learning:  Research perspectives, volume 2, NY:  Routledge.

As more and more research comes out on blended learning, clearly student interaction is a topic that cannot be ignored.  Without sufficient quality and quantity of student interaction, any form of online learning, especially blended learning models, have little chance of success.

Dziuban, Hartman, and Mehaffy (2014) observe that:

Blended learning, in all its various representations, has as its fundamental premise a simple idea:  link the best technological solutions for teaching and learning with the best human resources….encourag[ing] the development of highly interactive and collaborative activities that can be accomplished only by a faculty member in a mediated setting. (p.322)

In creating a blended course model, here are recommendations I have to maximize student interaction.

In the online component of the course, have these activities planned:

a.  Syllabus review with a discussion board activity where students weigh in on the syllabus and their own

learning goals

b. Student profile creation which facilitates student-to-student interaction

b.  Readings

c.  Video viewings

d. Quiz or application of learning (This could be the evaluation of a learning object needed to complete the final project of the course)

e.  Reflection writing

These activities in the online component of a course demonstrate the following:  “In the best of circumstances technology allows professors to offload responsibilities that can be taken up by technology.” Dzuiban, Hartman, and Mehaffy( 2014).

In the face-to-face component of the class:

a.  Have a synchronous weekly chat that centers around the main topic of the week and allows time for questions

b.  Have a final face-to-face meeting where students (or groups) deliver their final presentations for the course with an opportunity for peer review

The face-to-face components of a blended course tap into interaction as a human need which is closely tied to intrinsic motivation.   Synchronous activities and meetings can provide a sense of community and the necessary connections that hold an online (or blended course together).  In this community setting, it is important to consider who the students will be expressing themselves to in their presentations.   Students should be prepared to make their case, express their opinions and answer questions from peers and instructors.  Not only are these skills valuable in an academic setting where students are working toward a degree, but they can also be considered part of what it means to be career-ready.

Whether activities are online or face-to-face, it is very important to provide clear instructions, expectations and exemplars of good work. Creating rubrics for each different kind of activity gives students a roadmap toward defining their learning and achievement goals.


Dzuiban, C.D., Harman, J.L., and Mehaffy, G.L. (2014).  Blending it all together, In A. Picciano, C. Dzuiban, and C. Graham (Eds.), Blended learning:  Research Perspectives volume 2. NY: Routledge.

In taking ELI’s BlendKit15 course on blended learning, I am exposed many new readings and ideas about what blended learning is and what it is not.  As online learning research accumulates, clearly blended learning models are coming out ahead as the most effective form of online learning with exceptional learning results for students.  As cited in the U.S. Department of Education’s (2010) “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning:  A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”, “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruciton (p.xiv) and noteably, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction that did purely onlien instruction.” (p.xv).

Why is this?  There are several reasons to consider.  By combining online components that the student can engage with and explore on their own terms with a face-to-face component that allows for building knowledge through connection, collaboration and discourse, you have a well rounded experience that benefits the learner and provides a refreshing role for the instructor as a guide or facilitator.

This model is also highly beneficial to several learning styles and allows both the introverted and extroverted student areanas in which they can shine.

I am a huge fan of George Siemans and his learning theory of connectivism.  Blended learning moves us …”towards a networked model requires that we place less emphasis on our tasks of presenting information, and more emphasis on building the learner’s ability to navigate the information.”  It is in this navigation, that the student sharpens critical thinking skills and develops into an independent life-long learner.  I especially like the way that George Siemans describes the links and connections formed by the learners themselves as, “…the creation of the knowledge ecology.”

In order to achieve the best balance of both worlds and create an enriched learning experience for the student, these 5 ideas are useful to remember:

  •  Context is always at the core of the planning and design process.  Who are the learners?  What do they need to learn? What kinds of learning experiences will optimize that effort?
  •  Keep learning and not technology at the center of the design process.  Use technology to leverage learning.
  •  Be aware that creating an online or blended learning class will take more time and thought to prepare it properly.
  •  Be prepared to adapt any learning model you use as you get into the design process
  • “Creating a blended learning strategy is an evolutionary process.”  (Singh and Reed, 2001).

I’m looking forward to exploring this topic and online course design style more in depth.  What appeals to me is the interplay between online and f2f components and how to optimize that volly to find just the right mix to create a vibrant learning community that ignites with the love of self-directed learning.


Siemens, G. (2002, September 30, 2012).  Instructional Design in Elearning. Retrieved from

Singh, H. & reed, C. (2001). A white paper: achieving success with blended learning. Centra Software.

Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Education. (2010).  Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning:  A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C.  Retrieved from

edtechsec.blogspot.comHow will MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — continue to change the marketplace and reshape competition in the higher education industry?

If you’ve been following the stream of articles on digital education, no doubt you’ve run into the frenzy around MOOCs. MOOCS represent a new form of online education deliverable to students worldwide for a low- to no-cost and can provide, in some cases, college credit.  Students can access educational content delivered by some of the most prestigious universities in the world on their time and from multiple devices.

So far, MOOCs have already opened accessibility to higher education for millions of students; according to Coursera over half of these students are over age 26. [1]

As with other disruptions, controversy swells after initial launches, and MOOCs are certainly no exception. Recently, a group of philosophy professors at San Jose State Universitywrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, for his offering of a MOOC through the provider edX that had its beginnings at Harvard.

The issue? Concerns the collaboration between schools via MOOCs could represent the beginning of a trend to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”[2]

In early May, several dozen professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences signed a letter to their dean asking for formal oversight of the MOOC offerings through edX, a MOOC provider co-founded by the University.

The Harvard professors alluded to “many critical questions,” as yet unanswered, about “the impact online courses will have on the higher-education system as a whole.”[3]  Some outsiders comment that Harvard (and other large tier-one universities) may become the Wal-Mart of education, impacting branding, and moving to a corporate model, which could exclude the original values and mission statement of university education. Critics argue that professors who object to the emergence of MOOCs may be more concerned their scholarly works may come under much more scrutiny when their classes open to the world.

Financially and politically, the MOOC movement recasts itself almost daily as the big players jostle for position to become a top-tier provider of online courses that can be offered either as the main course or more of an appetizer in a flipped classroom setting.

Some higher education forecasters believe this is the future of public education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting the Massachusetts Bay Community College experiment where MOOC delivery is happening in addition to face-to-face classroom instruction, has devoted millions to seeing if MOOCs produced by elite universities could help boost student success at financially-strapped state colleges.

The MOOC style of delivery is no doubt highly popular among students and lifelong learners. More than 900,000 people are now registered users of edX, and President Anant Agarwal said it plans to generate revenue — through selling validated certificates to those who complete courses and charging licensing fees to colleges that teach courses based on its videos — are on track.

Coursera, another highly popular MOOC provider, adapted its original vision to a new platform, offering credit-bearing courses for students enrolled in multiple campuses within a public university system beginning in May 2013.

The company’s partners in this are the State University of New York System, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee System, the University of Colorado System, the University of Houston System, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska System, the University of New Mexico System, the University System of Georgia and West Virginia University.

Critics claim the real impact of MOOCs may not be in educational pedagogy, but in the altering of the financial and political systems tied to higher education.

Faculty are concerned about job security, academic freedom and the general dismantling of a very entrenched traditional version of higher education. Other newly-arising and hotly contested issues include: whether a professor who creates content delivered on a MOOC platform is responsible for the full impact of disruption created at another university or community college; whether students are actually learning anything; and how credit administered for these courses would compare with credit delivered for face-to-face classroom instruction.

Chandrakant Panse of Massachusetts Bay Community College said, “The MIT certificate has a lot more value in the marketplace than three course credits at MassBay — absolutely.”

In the context of a student’s job search, says the professor, an edX certificate “is going to matter tremendously more than saying. ‘I have three credits at MassBay for doing a programming course.’”

Because of the paucity of secure and psychometrically valid learning outcome assessments, it is difficult to determine the value of MOOCs. Some see it as a new form of entertainment, with some students around the world competing to obtain the highest numbers of letters of completion.  These so-called hardcore students have, in some cases, taken more than 30 courses and describe themselves as “Coursera addicts.” They argue this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from some of the most prestigious universities in the world … for free. And they worry this free admission to high-quality education may not last for long.

New research published by the Journal of Research and Practice in Assessment is among the first peer-reviewed studies based on MOOC data. The study discovered online learners performed better when they worked with the course material offline, either with a peer or with someone trained in the area of study. The course reviewed was “Circuits and Electronics” from MIT.

In this article, we must also visit the issue of cheating online, as it is easy to do so in a MOOC.  “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” an eight-week course, explores the vocabulary, psychology and mechanics of what Bernard Bull, assistant vice-president of academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, calls “successful cheating” in online learning.

Not all academics are critical of MOOCs. In fact, some of them welcome the movement as a way to augment their already-established courses. Khosrow Ghadiri, a lecturer at San Jose State University, said the edX course works perfectly as an additional classroom resource.

“It’s a talking textbook that you can pick up any chapter of it, augment it the way you want it, add lecture to it, and use it to teach your students effectively,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. [4]

Last fall, Ghadiri began using recorded lectures by edX’s Agarwal in his introductory course in electrical engineering. Students passed at a much higher rate than usual — 91 percent compared with 59 percent and 55 percent in two other, more traditional sections of the same course.

“We need a talented faculty to engage with the students,” said Ghadiri. “The only thing that I see in this pilot experiment is that the faculty get more time to spend with the students one-on-one.”

Clearly, the emergence of a trend such as the MOOC is indicative of unmet educational needs worldwide. Societal changes are forcing time-tested traditions to yield to the demand for more relevant models. The disruption presently created by the MOOC movement can be a time for fresh debate and an emergence of completely new models that serve both instructor and student more effectively in the 21st century.  As with many things in our societies, embracing change promotes growth, both personally and professionally.

– – – –

Article originally posted on The EvoLLLution at


[1] Allison Morris, “The Minds Behind The MOOCs,” Online Courses, June 4, 2013. Accessed at

[2] “San Jose State Department of Philosophy – Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Departemnt at San Jose State U,” RapGenius, April 29, 2013. Accessed at

[3] “Letter from 58 Professors to Smith Addressing edX,” The Harvard Crimson, May 23, 2013. Accessed at

[4] Steve Kolowich, “Outsourced Lectures Raise Concerns About Academic Freedom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 2013. Accessed at

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 2.23.19 PM In this day and age, ‘innovation’ is certainly the buzz word especially  with new modes of educational delivery given the discovery that in a myriad of ways that traditional models are not serving the student and preparing them for their role in the 21st Century global marketplace. While we need to embrace traditional learning theories, we need to build new houses on these trusted foundations. Houses that are engaging, collaborative, social, and challenging students to use knowledge to solve real world problems. Many instructors of varied content areas are looking for new ways to develop and deliver courses. We are no exception here at the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon. We specialize in developing new and better ways to teach foreign languages.

In this article I want to share three current challenges as we move forward with developing online modules in Chinese and soon, Swahili.

  1. The team is challenged to grow and it is human nature to take a step forward into the unknown and then shrink back to the familiar
  2. Blending two theoretical models – Instructional Design and Foreign Language Acquisition Learning Theory
  3. Preparing students in advance to become independent learners as opposed to the historical model where the teacher is the only resource for learning

Our Chinese content team consists mostly of native Chinese speakers, all of whom are well-educated and trained by the best standards. Now, that we are in the stream of innovation, it is a challenge to have this team try out completely new models of educational delivery with some of the most creative Web 2.0 tools available. In the face of change, it is human nature to intellectually want to change and grow, but on other levels we often retreat to what’s familiar. We want to create something ‘insanely great’ to quote Steve Jobs, yet how far can we push the envelope? How can we stay grounded in fundamentals, yet take the roof off of brick and mortar instruction so that students and instructors can breathe?

The second challenge is to mesh two theoretical models, one of Instructional Design and the other of Foreign Language Acquisition . We think we have discovered some points where these two models touch, but again are breaking very new ground.  Our desire is to deliver something completely new and different. Can we take the best of both models and find a way to fit one with the other for a dynamic delivery?

Lastly, it is no secret that students of today for the most part have been taught by traditional means and rely on the teacher to not only be the sole deliverer of content, but to also be the subject matter expert. If nudged in a new direction to see themselves as responsible for not only the quantity of their learning, but the quality of their experience, can and will they do it? Self-discipline and self-motivation are traits that some naturally are born with and others acquire meeting the vicissitudes of life. We plan to meet our student cohort early in the development of our project and discuss this topic among others. It is my hope to prepare them mentally and emotionally to take an evolutionary leap forward in becoming in charge of the quality of their own learning experience. I do not think this is too much to ask. In my own academic life, the points of greatest satisfaction.