Author: mmcroberts

Advancing Teaching and Learning in Traverse City

Thanks to a run of good luck with presentation proposals, I’ve had the privilege of attending the Traverse City Lilly Conference for several years now. Even though this time the winds blew harder and the first snowflakes of the season were in the air, Traverse City in October remains a great time to reflect on the art and science of teaching.

My presentation this year was titled “Alone at the Table Together: Hospitality, Community, and Online Education.” In this talk I tried to bring together some very different things. One part of the conversation was about the design choices we make in building online classes as well as the “big picture” pedagogical choices we make about designing our classes themselves. The other part of the conversation was about how we conceptualize what education and teaching really mean. I presented a way to think about teaching that focuses on the idea of hospitality and welcoming students into a shared exploration of the world. From this perspective, many decisions about how to design online courses actually end up communicating that students aren’t really welcome in our virtual educational spaces.

Several of the other sessions I attended focused on helping prepare faculty to do a better job teaching online. Staff from Wayne State University’s Office for Teaching and Learning led a session in which participants discussed how their institutions train faculty to teach hybrid and online classes. Before the session ended, the presenters gathered contact information to help continue the conversation beyond the conference. In a similar session, an instructional designer from Central Michigan University talked about the services his university offers to faculty through a cohort-based model of training faculty.

Founded in 1981 at Miami University, the Lilly Conferences have grown into a series of seven different conferences and events held annually across the world. Each conference offers faculty the opportunity to discuss issues of teaching and learning in a community environment. For more information, please see

Exploring presence online…in Traverse City

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and Learning held in Traverse City, Michigan. Founded in 1981 at Miami University, the Lilly Conferences have grown into a series of five different conferences held annually across the United States. Each conference offers faculty the opportunity to discuss issues of teaching and learning in a community environment.

Grand Valley was well-represented at this year’s conference with nine different individuals showing posters, facilitating roundtables, or giving presentations. Topics ranged from community-based learning and preservice teacher education to success with group projects and surviving the experience of teaching online.

Entitled “Expertise as Teaching Presence: Online Tools for Interactive Learning Experiences”, my presentation drew upon my experiences as both an instructional designer and adjunct professor in Political Science. In our Foundations of Online/Hybrid Course Development workshop we introduce faculty to the idea of the “Community of Inquiry.” This model helps future hybrid and online faculty focus on what it takes to deliver high quality educational experiences.

One important ingredient is known as “instructor presence.” Research shows that learners benefit when their instructors are involved in their courses in a visible, immediate, and interactive manner. This “presence” can be found in the ways that faculty design their course, deliver content, and interact with students through feedback on assessments.

At the Lilly Conference, I sought to expand on instructor presence by discussing the instructor’s role as subject matter expert. Learners benefit dramatically when their instructors can develop learning experiences that bridge the gap between how experts and novice learners see a given field of knowledge. When faculty don’t meet their students face-to-face on a regular basis—as in an online class—it can be difficult to build those bridges. Common instructional techniques like streaming video can only help so much.

Using examples from my online course about the American Constitution, I demonstrated the use of two free and easy-to-use tools that help faculty create interactive learning experiences. Activities built using Oppia and Twine can engage learners in the type of back and forth exchange that’s easy to have in the classroom but harder to recreate online. The usefulness of such tools, though, rests on faculty identifying common misunderstandings and misperceptions within their field and delivering targeted feedback that purposefully scaffolds the learner’s knowledge and understanding over time.

Slides, links, and a bibliography from my presentation can be found at

(Photo credit: Lilly Conferences Facebook page)

Flipped Learning: It’s the Goals, not the Tech

The flipped classroom is no longer breaking news for at least two reasons. First, the term itself has been popping up in the media for long enough that it’s hard to imagine any educator has managed to avoid it entirely. Here at Grand Valley we’ve been offering a workshop on the flipped classroom each semester since May of 2012, with a steady enrollment every time. More important than the fact that we’ve been talking about it for a while, though, is that the conversation has started to mature. Blog posts and “have you heard about this” news stories are giving way to books about flipped learning and academic studies that actually investigate its effectiveness.

I, for one, welcome this change. As an instructional designer, I spend a lot of time helping faculty look beyond technology to focus first and foremost on their students’ learning. The flipped classroom has generated some great discussions with faculty. I hope they’ve also gained a new set of tools for reaching their students. But so much of the early press about flipped learning focused on the role of technology that it tempts faculty to believe that they can become better teachers just by learning a new set of software skills. More often than not, faculty are told that the secret to flipped success is finding and creating videos.

Just to be clear, videos are not the secret. Neither is screencasting software. Or audience response systems (“clickers” or otherwise). In fact, there isn’t any technological tool, either individually or in combination with others, that will magically make you a better teacher or turn your students into better learners.

So if flipped learning isn’t educational magic, why has it become so popular? And beyond that, why is it worth adopting at all? Rather than offer a detailed recipe for flipped learning, I want to talk about why it’s a good idea in the first place. I believe that when it’s done right, flipped instruction gets us closer to achieving three valuable instructional goals. These goals can certainly be met with other instructional approaches. I’m convinced, though, that the flipped methodology gets us closer to achieving all three.

The first goal is meaningful engagement. In his book Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen wrote that “[o]ur challenge as 21st-century teachers is to leverage new content and new delivery systems into new course designs. We need to create courses that require and reward students who engage with material before and between classes.” For most students, learning is what happens inside the classroom. Once they walk out the door they’re free, their time is their own, and most try as hard as possible not to think about class unless they’re forced to “study.” Now that neuro- and cognitive science are shedding light on how learning actually happens, we know just how self-defeating this “out the door and out of mind” approach can be. Implementing flipped instruction forces students to encounter material outside of class time and it makes their contact with content in the classroom more engaging as well. Flipping makes it easier for faculty to implement active learning techniques, include structured time for reflection, encourage active interaction with the instructor and fellow learners, and move toward more authentic experiences like problem- and case-based learning. All of these make learning richer and deeper.

The second goal is agile teaching, a concept advocated by Derek Bruff. To understand this idea we should start with its opposite. Years ago someone told me that you should reconsider your teaching methods if you could walk into the classroom, discover that all your students had disappeared, and still carry on your class session in exactly the same way as if the room were full. Sadly, that’s how many classes are still conducted. The professor pre-plans the entire class period in a way that ignores the learners themselves. In such an environment, it’s hard to believe that student learning is actually the top priority. Flipped instruction encourages faculty to adapt class time to meet students’ actual needs, their struggles with the content, and to give students the chance to move closer to mastery. This requires a flexibility and “agility” in teaching. I like the picture that the term “agile teaching” brings to mind—that of a martial artist poised, balanced, and ready to respond to whatever might happen.

The third goal of the flipped classroom is the creation of self-directed learners. More than the poor writing skills that faculty perennially lament, perhaps the greatest problem for most students is that they aren’t prepared to take ownership of their own education. Students make poor use of their time, fail to keep track of important deadlines and course requirements, and expect to take a passive role in the learning process while knowledge is piped into their heads. These aren’t just bad habits—they’re signs of a problematic and ultimately self-defeating perspective on the learning process. Graduation will bring an end to the college experience but it won’t end the need to learn. One of the most important things we can do for our students is to help them understand how learning happens and to then equip them to learn effectively when they don’t have the benefit of instructors, classrooms, or grades.

Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, education faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, use the term “affordances” when talking about technology. Their point is that technology is not magic and it doesn’t automatically improve education, but there are some things that it can make much easier. I think that’s the right perspective. As I said before, all three goals can be achieved without technology. Adding flipped learning—and the right technology—to the mix, however, makes these goals a lot easier to achieve. Technology is not what makes learning happen. But it can make it a lot easier for us to design experiences for our students that lead to truly significant learning. We won’t get there, though, if we put the technology before the learning.

Photo Credit: dusterdb88 via Compfight cc