How to get the most of online discussions in education

Athena and Larry lead a discussion on discussions
Athena and Larry lead a discussion on discussions

Larry Jansen and Athena Kennedy led a presentation on online discussions in the classroom.

The online threaded discussion is the most commonly employed method of interactive learning in an online class. Let’s explore the strategies, challenges, and successes of conducting threaded discussions. We’ll also point out alternatives to online threaded discussions, such as web conferences, wikis, or blogs. Come and add your ideas to the discussion.

Answers to question.
Answers to question.

Athena leads off the instruction with a question on what best practices we use for discussions in distance education or face to face. Model good discussions. Create good discussion questions. Set up a “lounge area” for students to discuss off topic. Communicate expectations up front… what is needed for grade. Instructors should be part of the discussion. Facilitate the discussion, let it run when it is active, step in and ask for more. Discussions can be use as a role play exercise.

Larry asked where do online discussions fail. If the discussion is not managed well, e.g., class is not divided into groups. Switching groups during the term is also beneficial to getting to know other students. Important for instructor to participate. Important to establish a rubric for a discussion post. Good discussion about how to form groups and manage group discussions. Good idea is to offer choices of topics to discuss. It is possible to attach additional resources to the discussion. Athena recommends providing a choice to assignment type.

Using Blogs and Wikis in the classroom

Deb Beck talked to the group about using blogs and wikis in the classroom.

This session will explore the potential – and the challenges – of using wikis and blogs in the higher education classroom. The presenter will offer an overview of each tool and lessons learned as a blogger and as someone who has used wikis for group work in an online classroom.

Deb Beck enlightens us on blogs and wikis
Deb Beck enlightens us on blogs and wikis

Deb started her presentation by pointing out that she had a number of useful resources on her Wiki. What is a blog? Blogs are a great resource for getting current information and perspectives on topics. Blog is a chronological listing of web logs. The most recent post is on the top. Blogs are typically text, but can be photo blogs, video blogs, etc. It is possible to subscribe by email or through RSS feeds. By subscribing, the information comes to you. Blogs are topical, social, and usually public. Deb does not get a many comments on the blogs, but does get discussion through Twitter. Blogs can put the student in a one to many situation instead of a discussion being hijacked.

Deb provided examples of using blogs in education.

  • Sharing research
  • Developing a personal professional page.
  • Sharing knowledge (Laramie Board Learning Project)
  • Inviting conversation (ProfHacker)
  • Sharing the journey
  • Student blogs for reflection (public or private)
  • In the classroom

Deb moved on to wikis. Wikis are a Web-page where many can collaborate. For group work, there are still student fears and anxieties. All technology can be powerful, but none are perfect. Deb uses engagement theory because she believes content created for others will result in a better product. Students appreciate creating a project for others. Students are immersed in a topic. Students learn by teaching. It is also an online collaboration experience. Deb tends to facilitate her course. She provides various support to include providing a video to show how to use a wiki, creates a brainstorming page for each group, stresses to go to the wiki to do the work, sets benchmarks or milestones for specific work products, sets a style sheet, tries to support the community.

Deb speaks to the frustrations, based on her experiences:

  • They can never have “too much” information.
  • Wiki can be scary.
  • Groups can be transient. Different people will be active and inactive.
  • Copyright concerns.
  • Iffy product quality.
  • Group work anxiety X 100 (plus)

Here is Deb’s advice if you want to use a wiki:

  • Clear instructional goal
  • Choose a wiki platform
  • Understand your students & their commitment to your project.
  • Is this stretch in their learning worth it?
  • Be ready to provide support.
  • Have a strong constitution.

Students have different anxieties with wikis. They are not sure about wikis. They do not like group work. They stress about their grade.

Deb has put together a great set of resources to help support others who want to use wikis in the class.

Good idea, using wiki or blog for collecting class notes.  A blog can be used as an optional journal assignment.

Kaijsa pointed out that blogs and wikis are powerful for developing communities of practice.

How to use Google Apps in the classroom

Rick Fisher and Kaijsa Calkins will start the final day of this great technology bootcamp with how to use Google Apps in the classroom.

Kaijsa and Rick will talk about their use of Google Docs (including Docs, Forms/Spreadsheets, and Presentations) for various classroom objectives. We’ll describe the benefits of Google DOcs for feedback, collaboration, informal process assignments, community building, and programmatic/departmental use.

Kaijsa shows off Google Docs
Kaijsa shows off Google Docs

Kaijsa started the presentation by asking us how we collect information or feedback from students. She also opened up a Google Doc to add comments. Kaijsa showed us how to use Google Forms and Spreadsheets for surveys to collect anonymous data. The data collected from the form feeds to a spreadsheet. The director takes the data and prints out a report to the instructors for their T&P packets. The link to the form can be placed anywhere on the Web. Rick posts links to course announcements. Kaijsa mentioned that the library also collects information about the workshops they teach. They find it important to track what they teach to whom and how well. There are no version control issues with Google Docs. There is a summary of data capability.


  • Web-based
  • Easy to deploy/link/embed
  • Downloadable in multiple file types
Rick Fisher talks about Google Docs
Rick Fisher talks about Google Docs

Rick asked us to talk about how we do collaboration in our classrooms currently. Karen Williams likes Google Docs is easy to use and the results are immediate. You can see the results of the document editors. Rick had used online discussions but did not have good results, he started using Google Docs. Rick posed a question in Google Docs and the students responded. The students were open to how to respond. They used color to delineate responses and began adding their own direction to the conversation. Students make the connection to use Google Docs for group projects. Note: Wyoming uses Google Docs at the government level.

Rick also talked about Google Presentations. He built a presentation where students can add their own bio information. Being able for students to add a photo is a great way to help build community. Students can build collaborative presentations.

Kaijsa closed with Google Drive. Google drive allows you to work online and offline. It is very easy to drag items into a folder and then have access everywhere.

Good discussion about different sharing rights for documents.

Assistive Technology and Accessible Instructional Materials

Stan presenting on presenting
Stan presenting on presenting

Kathy McWhorter is wrapping up the afternoon with a discussion about assistive technologies.

Students with disabilities in the K-12 setting have a legal right to have their curriculum delivered in an accessible format. This presentation will serve to inform educators of student rights as well as the process for obtaining Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM).

Kathy pointed out that materials we believe to be accessible may not be accessible to everyone. Kids have a right to accessible materials. Kathy coordinates the Clearinghouse for Accessible Instructional Materials. In primary school, the schools take care of the kids. In higher education, the student is responsible for themselves. Students must understand their rights. Instructors may not know if students have a disability.

If a students asks for support, we must by the law support. If possible find an alternative format for the course material. Publishers are not starting to accommodate different format. Content may be modified to address a learning issues, e.g., reading at a lower grade level. There are many different methods for formatting a book from braille to a larger format.

If students need special services, the student needs documentation. The law also provides alternative formats of copyright material. What is our mission? Are we focusing on the classrom? Are focusing on the gavel? or are we focusing on the student?

What is considered access? Kathy discusses the costs of providing access to materials. There are challenges providing materials and using accessible technologies. Are smartphones or iPhones accessible? Kathy showed a video on iPhone accessibility.

Kathy told a great story about a blind farmer who needed a GPS so he could walk down the road to get his mail. To get from building to building on his farm, he has a radio playing on a different station in each building. Here is a person who is making it work, and not feeling entitled.

Kathy showed great example of disabilities in an education setting. She showed examples of some how students interpret what is being said. They try to capture what they hear but it may not be accurate.

There are four places to find books in alternative formats:

WIND will help get a book in the format you need.

Kathy put out a number of devices out for review. She also demonstrated iPad applications that help with accessibility.

Great points! It is about focusing on the learner, and choosing the right tools to get the message across.

Every day people are giving bad presentations.

Big thanks to Christi Boggs for blogging my session.
Stan presenting on presenting
Stan presenting on presenting

We are concerned that the information presented is not being retained. We want to make sure that they get the information that we spent so much time creating.

We’re here to figure out how to use Powerpoint to do a better job of presenting our ideas.
Walked out of two presentations at the last conference and they were both given by presenters in Higher Education.
How to make memorable presentations:
  •  Education creates research on how memory works and business soaks it up but we (education) ignore it.
  • Most viewers only remember bits and pieces of information form any presentation.
  • Working memory can only process 3-4 bits of new information at any one time. If we attach new ideas to existing memories we will remember more. Tell good stories to connect to people – Stan has done this great!
  • Working memory can’t do much at one time. Most of the time we overload people with information in Powerpoint.
  • We bring information in on two channels: Verbal & Visual
  • Images, photoes, charts, graphs, etc. are processed through visual channel.
  • Your mind does a great job in mapping visual information.
  • Narration is processed through the verbal channel.
  • Problem with bullet points: bring in text visually and then making them remember verbal. There is a collision! It is easiest to create animated bullet points in Powerpoint which is the most important.
  • We want to guide people through ideas – focus on one idea per slide. It’s easy to digest!
The idea of a presentation is to make it easier for the learner to learn – not to help the instructor. It’s supposed to support learning.
How to use it well:
  • Give them entire sentences – the human mind likes these!
  • Use simple graphics to relate to the specific point at hand- it can be hard but it’s possible! Take the time, it’s worth it.
  • When creating a presentation don’t start with Powerpoint. Start with Word/outline/template
  • Call to action – why is the audience there?
  • The structure of the presentation: Key Point (5 minutes), Explanation (15 min), Detail (45 min)
  • Don’t put the information ON the slide, this is what I’m going to talk about it! Associate information you want to talk about with a good graphic.
To do this:
  1. Start with brainstorming – template
  2. Select all from the template and copy
  3. New Document and Paste Special as unformatted text.
  4. Delete parts of the Word Document that are not helpful/useful – If you are Stan you write a macro to do this 😉
  5. End up with every item on it’s own line.
  6. Open Powerpoint, choose Template in PPT
  7. ‘New Slide’ find the option to add slide from an outline and choose the Word Document you created.
  8. Organize slides and apply the appropriate template (Title, bullet, etc.) to each slide.
  9. Add notes to slides. You can create notes from this and you can also use presentation mode to see your notes during the presentation.
  10. Choose the right visual elements to put on your slides. Figure out what you want on your slide and then look for something that will work. Shutterstock, flickr images, Creative Commons – Take your own photos and keep your own library!
  11. Trying to make a point and drive it home with the visuals.
  12. Done!
  • Step into the screen – organize your space. Don’t split the audiences attention between the screen and yourself.
  • Put your computer in front of you so you can talk to the audence, not the slide.
  • Use a remote to change your slides.
  • Remove as many distractions as possible to make your presentation transparent.
  • Keep the slides SIMPLE! Don’t cloud your presentation with extraneous information.
  • Make sure the environment is good and works. Have multiple backup plans. Plan for problems that might arise.
  • Practice, practice, practice! If you follow the path you look at it 5 times before you even practice live!
  • Three elements: headline, graphic, your voice.
  • Encourage and acknowledge the backchannel – notes, tweets, etc! Add the backchannel info to your introduction slide. Incorporate tweet breaks. It can also provide feedback so you can improve.
Beyond bullet points: Cliff Atkinson
Visual Literacy: Lynell Burnmark
The Backchannel: Cliff Atkinson

Adding sound to to your instruction

Tricia and Meg

Christi Boggs, Tricia Giovacco-Johnson, and Meg Van Baalen-Wood talked about adding audio features to a course.

This session will explore how and why you would want to use audio for teaching, with many real-life examples, as well as provide a quick lesson on how to create content using these tools and how to get this content to your students.

Christi started work at UW with instruction on audio. Audio has been widely used through out history in education. Audio is the gateway drug to higher technology in education. Christi recommends picking up audio and video as a place to start for enhancing classes.

Tricia found a desire to hear a voice in her classes because students were just getting information as text. She listened to talk radio to learn how to perform. Students were using the podcasts to listen to the content she produced. She was able to podcast from anywhere she was. She now does more videocasts.

Meg’s course is also very text heavy. Students have to read and write a lot. She wanted to become more human to her students. An audio file softens the tone of the class. She uses to provide feedback and talk through the different units of the class. She commented that she is not necessarily comfortable with her voice.

Christi pointed out that teaching is about making connections with the students. Audio helps to make a connection when distance course. Podcasting can still be a one way direction in making a connection.  Christi mentioned Tricia’s Saturday morning coffee talks through audio. Christi talked about her challenges with providing written feedback. She uses audio to provide feedback on writing assignments. She lets the audio speak her tone and attitude while doing assessment. She finds providing audio feedback is easier for instructor and students. Audio has helped Christi become a better speaker.

Tricia ensures to use student names in an audio and the students notice and appreciated. She finds it is important to provide audio guidance to written instructions. She also talks more with her students as a result of audio comments.

Meg finds a challenge to reuse audio files compared to written comments. Meg has less calls from students because she clearly provided instruction.

They all use audios and videos so that students know who is teaching a class.