Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Importance of Research in Instruction

For the past few months I’ve been reading Clark and Mayer’s “E-Learning and the Science of Instruction” in an effort to gather some of the most up-to-date research in online learning. These authors use psychology and cognitive theory to make recommendations on how to best deliver online learning. They use the most recent research to support their recommendations. Because these are based solidly on cognitive research (my own research background) I am strongly drawn to these practices.

My own background is in cognitive psychology, however, this does not mean that I was not a little surprised by some of the research findings and recommendations. In their chapter “Applying the Redundancy Principle” (Snazzy name right!), they make a recommendation that frankly surprised me at first. When describing a visual of central importance, DO NOT include both audio and redundant text at the same time. This went against what I had been taught in terms of making learning accessible to individuals with disabilities. One of the things that I recall when I was in graduate school was a push to make all learning materials accessible to as many abilities as possible. During that time our department was spending a lot of time and resources close-captioning old video tapes and DVDs. I did a grant proposal to create an online learning module using something called Universal Design during this time as well. The idea of Universal Design, if you have not heard this term before, is really simply the idea that when something is designed, it should be useable by most (if not all) people, and that the accommodations provided in the design would benefit not only those with some form of disability or limitation, but would benefit all.

Take this example (close to my heart as a mother with two small children). Designing buildings with automatic doors allows not only those who may have mobility limitations, but also come in really handy when carrying a toddler, a purse, a diaper bag, and a sack of groceries. Designing sidewalks with slopes to the street allow wheelchairs to navigate that pavements and allows for  smoother riding for bicyclists, skaters, and strollers.

This same principle was really being encouraged in the learning environment when I was in grad school in the early 2000s. The idea that providing things like audio and text together for computer lessons would allow not only those with hearing or visual handicaps to access the information, but could also appeal to students with different preferred ‘learning styles’ (I’ll post a subsequent blog on my thoughts about learning styles in the future). In other words it’s a win-win situation and the added information does not affect the overall learning of the material. Thus, it was often recommended that both the audio and text be made easily available and this was the opinion that I held until I read this chapter in Clark and Mayer the other day.

Clark and Mayer actually suggest that if the information is redundant (i.e. the text is simply a repeat of the audio) and the audio is being used to explain or illustrate some visual image (say an animation or simulation), then the text should NOT be made visible on the screen because doing so would actually hinder learning. Frankly this surprised me and left me questioning, but what about the idea of universal design and accessibility for learners with hearing impairments? The research they described explained their reasoning and they also made a recommendation for the accessibility issue as well.

In cognitive science the prevailing theory is that our cognitive system is made up of different components that process different forms of information. To explain why you should avoid having redundant text and audio when describing a visual I will focus on two: the articulatory (or phonological) loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad.

The articulatory loop is the center for processing auditory information. It is primarily ‘verbal’ in nature and is best described as the ‘voice in your head’ you use when processing something. The visuo-spatial sketchpad is the center for processing visual and spatial information and is best described as your ‘mind’s eye.’ These two processing centers do not interfere with one another, but processing multiple pieces of information within one of these does cause interference.

Here is an example of interference. If I were to say to you to count the number of words in the following sentence: and I then said “How many words are in this sentence,” odds are to count the words you would ‘say’ the sentence again in your head, but possibly use your fingers to maintain a count. Most people do this because they are unable to both think the sentence and keep a mental count at the same time. These are two types of ‘auditory’ pieces of information and the articulatory loop basically gets overloaded and cannot process this well. Therefore you use your fingers to keep count so you are only processing one piece of information.

On the other hand to illustrate how the articulatory loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad do not interfere with one another try this exercise: Think of the home that you spent most of your childhood in. Now tell me how many windows were in that house. Odds are here that you do not need to use your fingers to count. You will use your mind’s eye to virtually walk through the house and you will keep a mental count. The walk through the house uses the visuo-spatial sketchpad, the mental count uses the articulatory loop. You are able to do both mentally because there is not the interference like with the previous example.

So this is the theory behind why both audio and text should not redundantly accompany some visual of central importance. Having the visual (e.g. an animation, simulation) uses the visuo-spatial sketchpad and the audio uses the articulatory loop to be processed. If you include also visual text, this will also use the articulatory loop (yes, it’s visual, but primarily processed in an auditory manner). This means that this may interfere with the learner’s ability to keep up with the instructions that are accompanying the visual (the audio and text begin interfering with one another reducing the speed and accuracy of processing). Thus, these authors suggest not including the text for this reason. Additionally, having the instruction in an auditory manner allow the learner’s eyes to focus only on the visual and not jump back-and-forth between text and visual, another bonus for learning.

So what about those with hearing impairments? Clark and Mayer recommend having an “Audio Off” option button, which would turn off the audio and then only provide the text form of the instruction. They recommend that this function NOT also include the audio.

The title of this blog entry is “The Importance of Research In Instruction” and I believe that this example is perfect for demonstrating why it is so important not only to base instructional decisions on research, but to keep current in the research. The recommendations for providing both audio and text have changed. That is the nature of science. We keep investigating and learning more. Sometimes, what we once believed to be true is discredited by better design or different conditions. I hope to assist in providing the most recent recommendations based on the literature to you all.

If you are interested in more about online learning or even just want to learn more about what cognitive science tells us about how we best learn, I highly recommend this book. What I like most about it is not only its empirically based recommendations, but the fact that these authors also describe the “boundary conditions” for their recommendations. These are the exceptions to the rules and again are based in empirical evidence. For example, in the principle being described in this blog, you may choose to include SOME text such as key words in a process or some technical vocabulary on the screen in addition to the audio, but doing so should be under only certain conditions. Using a one-size-fits-all approach in all cases is not ideal, but when we do deviate from the recommendations, we should do so purposefully and in a way that does not hinder learning.

Educational Technology Resources

An area that I feel Morningside is currently lacking is the availability of help resources for faculty and instructors that are tailored for Morningside faculty and readily available. This is one of the areas I hope to address early in my time in my position as Educational Technologist. It will take time for this library of resources to be built. Here is a list of resources that we currently have available to us as well as a list of resources I hope to create over time.


Technology resources currently available:

  • Moodle help for students: eClass4learning is a 24/7 helpdesk.
  • Moodle help for instructors: Moodle Reference Desk.
    • A username and password are needed. An e-mail was sent to all Morningside faculty and instructors with this information. If you need it again, please contact Kim Christopherson. Please save the e-mail for future reference
  • Morningside Moodle Knowledgebase
    • Accessed from Moodle upper left hand of the screen
    • Has some basic information about setting up a Moodle page.
    • I intend to work with IT in getting this knowledgebase more expanded. Right now it is a bit sparse.
  • Tech Help Desk x5544
    • Help desk for general technology issues.


Technology resources to be created

  • Expand the Morningside Moodle Knowledgebase
  • Create a series of short videos demonstrating some common issues with Moodle and Taskstream.
  • Lists of free or inexpensive programs with possible uses in the classroom.
  • List of gadgets available for loan and possible uses.
  • Regular social media (Facebook page, Twitter) and blog entries from Morningside Ed Tech
  • Morningside Educational Technology website as a central resource point (in progress and not yet live).


Tips for facilitating online discussions

One way that online instructors can greatly increase their presence in an online course is by utilizing forums for discussion. This provides an opportunity for all three forms of communication (student-to-resource, student-to-student, instructor-to-student). Instructors can interact in a variety of ways and can help foster discussion and learning by using different types of reply posts. It is important to note, that instructors should not feel obligated to respond to each and every student post. Doing so would be time consuming and we would not really expect this in a face to face conversation either. However, being clear about this to your students at the beginning may be helpful (i.e. state that you will be responding to posts, but that responding to each individual student post is not likely/reasonable).

To help instructors increase their presence and to help better facilitate learning and class discussion, the following tips can be used.

  1. Connect a comment or post from a student to previously learned material. In student learning, making explicit connections between old and new material helps to build a stronger network of knowledge. Students will sometimes do this themselves spontaneously, but other times they need help.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • Your comment reminds me of the concept of X that we discussed two weeks ago. Can you explain how your thoughts and concept X are related?
      • Very interesting example from your personal experience. Can you tie this back to a theory that was discussed earlier in the class relating to this example?
  2. Ask for elaboration or clarification. Perhaps based on a rubric guidelines for forum posts. Asking for further elaboration requires a student to basically write-out their thought process. This activity of outlining their thoughts helps both the instructor and the student see why they responded the way they did and helps to increase metacognitive awareness.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • Why do you think that?
      • What is your reasoning?
      • Is there an alternative strategy?
  3. Prompt another student to respond. Don’t feel that you, the instructor, needs to personally respond all the time. Prompt others to chime in. Students have valid thoughts and experiences that can be meaningful to the conversation.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • Student X gives an excellent example in this situation. Can others give an example of this in other contexts?
      • Student Y believes ______. What do others believe?
  4. Give a question to a student to research and answer. Perhaps your student is more of an expert in an area than you are (yeah, it happens). Ask a question that you have and ask the student to respond back to you. Of course the student does not need to be an expert, but they can get practice in researching a question and replying back.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • You mention using Method A with your classroom. I’m not familiar with this approach; can you explain this more to me?
      • You describe a disorder that appears to be quite rare. Please do a little additional research about what is known about this disorder and how it might be treated.
  5. Ask other students to respond to a student’s question. Too often students see their instructor as the only source for information, when in reality the students themselves can also be resources to one another. To help facilitate students serving as informational resources to one another try to give the responsibility for answering questions to them.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • Student A asks an interesting question about Concept Z. I want another student to respond and answer to her question.
      • I could answer your question directly, but I think Student B had a good description in his post earlier. Student B can you address Student C’s question?
  6. Make specific comments on particularly well thought-outposts. Especially important early on in the course, pointing out well-done posts and why they are well done can help students model future posts. When doing this, identify specifics about why the post was particularly good. For example, did the student elaborate and explain his or her thoughts, did the student explicitly connect their experiences with the course content, did the student reference back to one of the course materials or scholarly materials in the field?
    • Example instructor posts
      • Student K, this post is extremely thoughtful. You explain how Theory A ties into the practices that you use within your own job and why Theory A tends to be more effective than Theory B in your situation. You also refer to the research article comparing Theories A and B which explain why these two approaches are present.
      • Student Z, you have clearly tied your own experiences back to the concept of Y and use the readings from this unit to support these connections. Additionally, you mention how the goals of this course will help you to improve your understanding of concept Y and its use within the field.
  7. Reinforce the use of newly learned course material: This ties back to Tip #1 but instead of the instructor making a comment about how new material connects to previously learned material, the student has done so him or herself spontaneously. When this occurs, be sure to reinforce making these connections in some way so that this student and other reading the posts continue to consider how new information relates to old.
    • Example Instructor posts:
      • Good job connecting how concepts X, Y, and Z all connect back to the earlier idea of A. These ideas are all connected.
      • You note how the earlier definition of concept A is important to understanding Theory B in this unit. Good job at seeing this connection.
  8. Validate experience: Though using only personal experience and anecdotal evidence is likely not appropriate, it is important to validate a person’s personal experiences. You can nudge students to go beyond simply giving personal experiences by using Tips #2 and #6. Ask them to use the context of their experiences to evaluate some information from the course.
    • Example instructor posts:
      • I understand that you have had a difficult time with your students when using Method A. It can be frustrating when what is considered a tried and true method doesn’t seem to work. Do you think there is a weakness within Method A that might be contributing to your frustrations and if so what about Method A might need adjustment?
      • It does seem like common sense would suggest that doing _____ would work better and you give a few examples of when this is the case. Can you think of situations in your experience when using the theory discussed in class might also work?
  9. When the forum ends, post an overall summary of major points raised, issues discussed, resolutions to issues, and continued points of disagreement. A summary will help tie what could be a disjointed set of conversations into one. To do a good summary instructors will need to monitor discussions boards often and take notes about how the conversation(s) progress. Tie items back to the class materials and outcomes when possible. Take note about continued disagreements within the class and how these might mirror continued disagreements within the field.
    • Example Instructor posts:
      • This forum was focused on Topic A by asking students to respond to this question “……….”. It appears that many people believed that Point 1, Point 2, and Point 3 were most relevant to their jobs, but Point 4 was often not present or was very rare. This is also what the research suggested from Reading 9. Most agreed that Method A seemed to work best for them. However in the situation of Q there appeared to be continued debate about whether Method B or Method C were most effective. This debate is also present in the research as you can see from Reading 10.


These tips were suggested by and/or inspired by content from the following Best Practices resources:


It’s August…where did the summer go? Setting up Moodle Courses.

Well, July has passed into August. Where has the summer gone! If you are like many faculty, this turn of the calendar signals the time to begin prepping for Fall semester courses. Getting syllabi written, course schedules set, assignments decided upon, and areas to focus on for improvement are just a few of the items that begin to fill out time during this month. Another is getting our Moodle courses ready for the fall. This blog entry will focus on some of the nuts-and-bolts of getting your course up and running and ready for the Fall courses when they begin. I’ll cover the following topics 1) setting up the course itself so that students are auto-enrolled, 2) options for organizing the Moodle page for your course, and 3) things to think about in terms of how you plan to use Moodle in your course.


Setting up your Moodle Pages


To set up a new Moodle page is a relatively simple activity, but there are certain things that must be done so that Moodle talks to Aims and allows your students to auto-enroll in the Moodle course. To set up a new Moodle page follow these steps:

  1. On your home screen scroll down to the bottom and on the left hand block you will see a link that says “all courses.” Click this linkScreen Shot 2015-08-06 at 2.50.05 PM
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of this page and click “Add a New Course”
  3. In this next screen you will need to enter in some specific information from Campus Web. This will allow your Moodle course to auto-enroll your students into the course.
    1. The course full name needs to include the code for the term, the prefix, course number, course section, and course name EXACTLY as shown in CampusWeb
    2. Then in the Course ID copy the Term, Prefix, and Course number, and section once again.
    3. In the Course Short Name you can choose what you want to enter here.
    4. Choose the appropriate category for the term.
    5. In the Course Start Date I recommend starting the course on the Monday of the week that classes start so that the automatically generated dates go from Monday to Sunday.
    6. The rest of the options will likely work for you. The default organization is a weekly format, which seems to work well for most.
    7. Then click the Save Changes button on the bottomScreen Shot 2015-08-06 at 2.50.53 PM
  1. You now have your new course for the term created. You can now either 1) build the course from scratch or 2) import information from a previous term. If you want to import the information from a previous course (all files, assignments, question banks, quizzes, etc.) follow these steps:
    1. From the course page scroll down to the Administration block and click ImportScreen Shot 2015-08-06 at 2.51.20 PM
    2. From here click the old version of the course that you want to use
    3. From here you will go through a series of screens where you can pick and choose what you do and do not want to have import over to the new course.
    4. Once you have chosen what you want to include in the new course there is a little clean up that will be needed, specifically in any assignments or quizzes. You will need to change the due dates to the new semester because the old due dates import over.


Choosing the Organization of your Moodle Page

When you first create your new Moodle page there is an option to choose the course format.

The most common (and default choice) is a weekly format. This will organize the Moodle page into the number of weeks that you want and includes the dates of each week. The weekly format works well if you use Moodle often to have students access resources and activities. Students can then simply go to the week in the semester and see what all is due.

Another commonly used option is the topics format. This organizes the Moodle page into topics rather than weeks and does not include the automatically generated dates. A topics format may work best for accelerated Summer courses or for courses where students can move as quickly as they wish through the class (competency-type courses such as some tutorials).

There are two other options (single activity and social format) that are less likely to be of use for general classroom so I will not focus on these options in this entry

When choosing the format to use I would recommend considering the following questions:

  • Can students move through the course at their own pace (or at least move as quickly as they wish)? If so you might consider the Topics format.
  • Is it important for students to see what is due for a particular week? If so you might consider the Weekly format.
  • Is your course divided into relatively distinct topics? A topics format may be of use to have the Moodle page align with the way your course is organized.
  • Are there long periods of time when you will not use Moodle? Then a topics format may be better so that you don’t have empty weeks.
  • Do you use Moodle a lot in your course? Then a weekly format may be best because there will be more ‘categories’ for you to place information and activities and these will be in order by date resulting in less searching on the part of the student for the information needed.


Considerations for How You will Use Moodle

When incorporating any form of technology (high or low tech) you should first consider what the utility of the tool is. This is the same with Moodle. You may feel pressure from students or other colleagues to use Moodle more, but your choice of how to use this tool should be first driven by the purpose for using this tool. Here are a few things that Moodle can do for you and your students:

  1. Provide a place to store documents used in the course in electronic format so that students have access to these at any time. This can include documents such as readings, syllabi, schedules, assignments, PowerPoint slides, etc. Basically this gives students who might miss class no excuse for not having materials that were passed out in class and provides students who were in class the ability to access materials if lost.
  2. Provide a place for students to electronically turn in assignments. This is good if the assignment is easily completed in digital format (many can be, some are more difficult). Faculty can then download, grade, and turn back work electronically. There are many different options for how to turn in work, some work better for some assignments. This allows students to turn in work even outside of class (so can turn in work if miss class) and reduces the printing and paper elements of assignments.
  3. Forums allow for students to have discussions with one another outside of class. There is an art to having forums work well which will be covered in another blog post to come in the near future. If you are interested in ways to help improve forum participation, please feel free to contact me for some of these tips or visit the Educational Technology webpage (currently in progress of being built) for a list of these tips.
  4. Create material for students to complete before class. If you are interested in ‘flipping’ your class, Moodle can be the means by which students access and complete the work to be done before the in-class work. Resources such as the Book feature or Page feature can be used to deliver text, video, or other forms of media.
  5. The Quiz feature has many options that allow for different forms of adaptive testing and quizzing. If you are interested in incorporating mastery learning or adaptive testing, feel free to contact me. This allows your exams to be more of a true learning experience rather than simply an evaluation of knowledge/skill. Tests can be the best form of learning if administered in the right way.


Summary of things that Moodle may help with:

  1. Students not having ready access to the course materials.
  2. Reclaiming lost class time turning back assignments.
  3. Encouraging/requiring work outside of class.
  4. Having students discuss ideas/concepts outside of class
  5. Test grading and handwriting issues.
  6. Flipping the classroom.
  7. Electronic assignment submission organization.
  8. Providing guided lessons to be completed on their own.
  9. Adaptive testing options.
  10. Maintaining a grade book that students can see at any time.
  11. Reclaiming lost class time due to conference travel or other reasons for canceling face-to-face class time.