Why instructors’ presence matters so much online

Don’t obscure the instructor!

Or, why online college courses need more than e-learning “content.”

The Chronicle this week had another entry in the (unproductive) back and forth about whether lectures are an effective means of instruction: “In Defense of the Lecture”. I’m not sure whether the author makes a compelling case—I’d argue that his teaching style involves far more than traditional lecture—but he makes a point that I think is often overlooked when we think about how to teach online:

First and foremost, I lecture so that I can model how an expert approaches problems. If my students have read the book (or, for the flippers, watched the video) before class, they have (I hope) obtained some basic facts and also have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how those facts fit together. If I assign them problems or questions to grapple with, they will eventually work toward a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. What the in-class lecture adds is a model of how an expert approaches questions.

What I remember most from my college courses is not any particular fact delivered by a professor, but the processes by which they reasoned through complex issues, and the methods of problem-solving that they demonstrated. Certainly the textbook should provide examples of sophisticated reasoning and analysis. But even if students do the reading ahead of time, how likely is it that they have deeply grasped all of the pertinent points?

The writer presents a hypothesis: Students learn better, and learn how to learn better, when they’re guided through the content not just as stated fact but as reasoned through by a person, with that person’s experiences, personality, and biases present and transparent.

Setting aside some sort of lit review to examine the question, I’d suggest that most people would agree with the hypothesis and understand this sort of instructor guidance to be the difference between a college course and just a college textbook (or series of videos).

This reminds me also of Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learningin which the author decries methods of teaching that suggest that facts are black and white, settled, or universal. We may not be able to “teach” critical-thinking skills, Langer would argue, but we can model those skills and provide space for students to develop their own.

So how do you teach online this way when students never sit in a room with you? My take is this: Design your course so it emphasizes

  • first: your interactions with your students,
  • second: your students’ interactions with each other, and
  • last: your students’ interactions with the content

Your guidance, explanations, feedback, and modeling will nearly always be more meaningful than the course’s static content (which students probably won’t remember anyway, beyond the basics).

Here are some practical suggestions, based on a few different specific approaches to presenting content online:

  • Video lectures or screencasts: Emphasize your individual intellectual presence in every video. Talk about your own perspective, your research, your particular interests. Then provide a means (such as a regular class discussion in a Carmen forum) for students to wrestle with the information with your input, guidance, and explanations.
  • E-learning modules (from Articulate or Softchalk, for example): If the production effort of creating e-learning modules makes you wary about personalizing them too much as described above (say, if someone else might teach the course soon), then you can try to keep modules short and contextualize them appropriately. When you introduce a module to students (in Carmen or elsewhere), be open about the source of the material and the potential limitations of the format. Let them know that while the module is meant as a helpful introduction that you (or someone) have put together, they should feel encouraged to question what they read, to think about the information differently, and to follow up with you and their classmates. It’s important then to include a platform (such as a regular discussion) for you to solicit questions and provide some personal context.
  • Discussions only: If your course doesn’t include a collection of static lecture content, you’re probably using discussions (or some other collaboration tool) to guide students through the textbook and other content. In this case there are no caveats or careful contextualizing needed as above, but the work of giving your personal expert guidance will likely involve broad, regular class-wide discussions in which you take an active role.

Much of online education and instructional design seems to involve the digitization, modularization, and sequencing of content, often obscuring the role of the instructor. To put these media in the context of higher education, though, I think it’s imperative that we consider the instructor’s place differently—that we give students college courses and not just semester-long multimedia textbooks.

Passive learning online isn’t enough!

Asleep at the Wheel by Aaron Jacobs (Flickr)

Yesterday the Chronicle’s Wired Campus blog  had a post trumpeting what sounded like a pretty obvious conclusion about massive online courses: “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.”

The study’s author explains:

We’ve observed that the highly structured MOOC design focuses on content provision, which the participants are very positive about.

The structure, however, does not encourage learners to actively self-regulate their learning. If anything, participants, even those with high self-regulated learning ability, tend to limit their activity to reading and interacting with course content, overlooking opportunities to use the theory they’ve learned to improve their practice.”

It seems obvious enough (that experiencing course content through osmosis doesn’t mean really learning something), but it’s a lesson we have to keep reminding ourselves of when we design online courses.

For all the time, energy, and technology that goes into making videos, web content, ebooks, and quizzes, the crucial elements of the course are the low-tech ones: discussion, collaboration, and (most important) practice with feedback.

As time passed… [students’] main concerns shifted to completing the course and getting high scores, not practicing their newly acquired skills.

“Learners focused on activities such as watching videos and taking tests, with little evidence of learners’ relating new knowledge into practice, or connecting to their peers through the discussion board,” said Colin Milligan, a research fellow at the university, in a news release.

Active learning makes courses messier—but more meaningful. A canned course that’s just videos, readings, and exams can be easier for both the instructor and the students, but it probably won’t lead to the kind of learning that students come to Ohio State to experience!

Instructional design toolkit: Markdown


To be a power user of Carmen (or any LMS), WordPress (U.OSU), the web in general, or e-learning authors (such as Softchalk), you have to do some HTML.

If you’re new to HTML, intimidated by HTML, or just a little bit lazy (like me), you have a friend in Markdown. It’s a sort of HTML Lite language, an easy way to write your content in just a text editor, and you can convert it to full-blown HTML when you’re done.

For example, you can write a bulleted list like this:

- This is a list
- It's just using hyphens and spaces
- It's pretty low key

And then it’s smart enough to convert that to this nice clean HTML, which you can paste into your web page:

<li>This is a list</li>
<li>It's just using hyphens and spaces</li>
<li>It's pretty low key</li>

Markdown has easy-to-type, easy-to-remember ways of doing just about every basic HTML thing you’d need. Many cheat sheets are around. It’s easy to learn, lightweight (uses text files), and it’s a perfect way to dip your toe into HTML.

Many Markdown apps (which are tiny and usually free) will give you a preview pane that shows how your code would look on a web page. My Mac recommendation is Mou, and there are a slew great options for Windows, iOS, and Android.

Beyond the QM rubric: Where do we want to go?

Many rivers (and streets) to cross

My colleague Ben Scragg and I have been reading a lot of Hybrid Pedagogy and other conversations challenging the status quo of designing and teaching online courses. (The status quo seems to come in two forms: ground classes with PowerPoints that have been recorded and put online, or old-style online courses with cookie-cutter activities—“post your reply and respond to two classmates’ posts,” and so on.)

Quality Matters and solid backward design will get us to a point of courses being usable and generally sound, but where else do we put our effort? How do we make our offerings excellent and not just acceptable?

If I were writing my own addendum to the Quality Matters rubric, here’s what I’d include as qualities to measure:

  • digital first — Content/experience created for the web
  • ethical, learner centered — Course policies, activities, assessments are designed to empower students to control their own learning
  • authentic assessments — Student assessment focuses on students’  creating actual professional or scholarly work and receiving feedback
  • activity centered — Course work emphasizes student projects, tasks, collaboration, and inquiry, not instructor or textbook content
  • human — Course design and delivery emphasizes human interactions: instructor/class, instructor/student, student/student, class as community
  • local — Content (at least the front-and-center content) is primarily created by OSU faculty and staff, not a big publisher or elearning company; tools are primarily OSU tools
  • open — Uses open content and shares content openly (to students, to people outside the course and the institution)
  • accessible — Content and activities are accessible to students of all abilities and on all devices

Alternative to a lecture video: Audio


The multimedia principles of e-learning are, in short, about the superiority of employing multiple media at once to instruct.

When your instructional goal isn’t to show and tell, specifically, or when you simply have lots of words but no visual component, you can use a medium with a long history of engaging people in journalism, entertainment, and education: audio recording of spoken words.

Audio is probably most powerful as a vehicle for bringing attention to people’s voices and stories. It may not be the best medium for explaining a technical concept or promoting memorization of specific details, but it’s surely better than text (or perhaps even video) for having experts or other interesting people share their stories.

A few examples:

  • Planet Money / This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money
    Voice and audio used to narrate an investigation. The hosts explain their journey toward to understand the financial crisis. You can see (hear) how the medium lends itself to seamlessly incorporating the frequent new voices of experts and others included in the narrative. The personality and idiosyncrasy makes the topic seem so much less dry. This could have been  an (expensive, time-intensive) animated/video documentary, but just see how well they explain with just words!
  • #PHONAR: Fred Ritchin lecture
    In this “guest lecture” from #PHONAR, an open online education project about photography, audio is used as a medium for story and personal voice in a sort of long interview. NYU photography professor Fred Ritchin recounts memories and shares thoughts about the trickiness of telling stories through photos. Notably, by having audio only, the lecture seems to encourage you to Google the images, stories, and facts he’s talking about. (How much more interesting that journey was than if they’d just stuck the photos there in front of me!)

Multimedia principles

While this is technically not multimedia, I think we can see its value by looking at a couple of Mayer’s multimedia principles:

1. Coherence principle – People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.

11. Voice principle – People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

When the subject is personal—especially telling stories or building rapport, and when the visual components aren’t serving an important purpose, audio can be powerful. It’s a familiar medium to people, and it’s fairly easy to produce compared to video and animation.

Technical considerations

Equipment and technique:

On the DE team we use a few different USB microphones (the last of which can plug into an iPad with the right adapter). These are noticeably better than talking into the built-in mic on your laptop, phone, or tablet. They’re also not as good as using professional equipment.

Your audio recordings need not be NPR quality to be engaging, though. Most importantly, remember to speak slowly and keep the microphone close to your mouth. And don’t be afraid to let in ambient sound (or even to add sound, tastefully).

If you’re looking to get more serious, especially if you’re recording something that’s really worth keeping around for a long time, an excellent resource (which I found through that PHONAR course, mentioned above) is the Multimedia Train website.

Software for recording and editing:

On a Mac, use GarageBand! It’s easy to use and it’s fairly powerful. Just remember to export your file as an MP3 (or something else that works across platforms). On a PC, I’d recommend the free, tried-and-true Audacity.

On iPad, GarageBand only really lets your record “loops” and not long audio clips, so I’d possibly recommend Hokusai. You can also record easily in SoundCloud’s app, especially helpful if you’re uploading to there. Better still to edit on a computer, honestly, if it’s going to be at all complex.


The fanciest option for incorporating audio into your online course is embedding it through SoundCloud, which has sort of become the YouTube of audio. It’s pretty slick looking:

Audio files (especially a judiciously compressed MP3) are pretty small in 2014 terms, too, so it’s probably also feasible to offer your audio files as downloads.


Alternative to a lecture video: Text and images

Text and images

I’ve been thinking a lot about what might be better alternatives to video lectures. My first suggestion is the easiest to make, the most familiar to Internet users, and the most extensible. The simplest and most fundamental medium of the web: the web page.

I think web pages with text and images are a better alternative to videos for topics that require a lot of detail, step-by-step processes, or long discussions.

Some examples that are getting me thinking:

  • William J. Turkel: Installing Debian Linux in a Virtual Machine
    Text and screenshots are used to guide through a process, a somewhat long series of computer tasks. The medium is scrollable and easy for reference–sort of a long recipe. While we often jump to screencast videos for purposes like this, I think Turkel’s simpler approach is eminently more useful to the user/student who actually wants to do this task and not just watch it.
  • New York Times Magazine: Miscellaneous examples
    Journalism, particularly the (overly trendy) online “long-form” flavor, provides endless examples of creating engaging, instructive, long discussions of a topic. We can take lessons about the power of story as means of explaining and keeping students interested. (And think of how long and less engaging it would be to have a video of the reporter reading one of these stories into the camera or narrating it over PowerPoint.)

Multimedia principles

In a very real sense, these web pages are the basic flavor of multimedia learning: text (the basic medium) enhanced with images (adding the multi-). This format allows us to take advantage of some of the multimedia principles in a carefully controlled way—to present information free of clutter, positioned and formatted how we want it, with endless options for segmenting.

Technical considerations

I’d consider “the web” to be an instructional designer’s fundamental medium. Online learning platforms and elearning/tutorial tools are almost always some mix of HTML, CSS, and Javascript. We don’t need to be web developers, but I think it’s imperative to have some basic literacy in those!

Some resources I’ve found helpful (and a shameful reprint of material from a previous blog post):

  • Dash: An online learning platform with short lessons on HTML, CSS, and Javascript. It would only take a couple of hours to go through the lessons, and when you were done you’d know enough to be an HTML master in Carmen. (Seriously!)
  • “What Screens Want”: A visual essay on what it means to design natively for screens—for “digital canvases.”