Author Archives: Bart Pursel

Ray Schroeder on MOOCs

I recently attended a talk sponsored by Penn State’s new Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The speaker was Ray Schroeder, from the University of Illinois, Springfield. Ray used his website as the anchor for the presentation, taking the audience to several different MOOC providers as well as illustrating the various models employed by MOOC providers like Coursera and Udacity

During Ray’s talk, a few interesting thoughts came to mind. Ray started out by discussing the promise of MOOCs. Essentially, the MOOC model might be a way to deliver educational content an an affordable price, of high quality, and accessible anywhere with an Internet connection. He talked about traditional models, and how most traditional models can only get two of these three criteria right. One example is that a student can likely take an online course anywhere with an Internet connection that is high in quality, but likely not very affordable. This reminds me of the triple constraint, a project management concept that deals with a project’s timeline, cost and scope. From a project management standpoint, it’s very challenging to manage a project that’s completed quickly (timeline), cheap in cost and large in scope. 
Schroeder emphasized that the current trend of rising tuition coupled with the decline in average family income is simply not a sustainable model for higher education. Will MOOCs play a role in defraying the cost of higher education? Possibly. Another interesting anecdoate Ray shared dealt with a recent visit to the Gate’s foundation. Most academics in attendance, when asked what employers look for in graduates, cited things like critical thinking and problem solving. They then had a panel with HR representatives at large, United States-based companies talking about what they are seeking from recent college graduates. These companies cited very specific skillsets, such as accounting, java programming, .NET programming and so on. Again, Schroeder theorized that MOOCs might help play a role in helping some of the country’s largest companies find skilled employs to fill many of these skill-based jobs. 
COIL plans on hosting more guest speakers in the spring and I look forward to continued engaging discussions around various online learning topics and how they might apply to Penn State.

Faculty Spotlight: Rosalie Ocker

“The longer I teach, the less I lecture.”
Rosalie Ocker, Ph.D.
Professor of Practice

Dr. Ocker, the recipient of the George McMurtry Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award for 2007-2008, leverages a wide variety of active learning strategies and methods to engage students in the classroom. “I put it on them [the students]. You walk into class, you’re quizzed, before we talk about anything.” Dr. Ocker’s typical class involves a short lecture, followed by a student-centered discussion, and then a closing activity. Dr. Ocker’s course is structured similar to a flipped classroom approach. “The longer I teach, the less I lecture. I’m putting more onus on the students, then using the time together for solving problems or applying knowledge.”

ocker_vertical.jpgThis model stays consistent across her various courses, whether she’s teaching 30 students or 125 students. Dr. Ocker also teaches online, and states “If I excel in teaching, I should be able to excel across different venues. This includes online.” All these experiences, Dr. Ocker reflects, add to her toolbox of teaching skills and techniques. “Online teaching has improved my resident teaching, without a doubt. It has forced me to be more organized, clearer. I remember, in the past, not having a course schedule finalized at the start of the semester. I would never do that now, in any course. Online courses have brought a discipline to my teaching.”

When asked how she goes about planning her course, Dr. Ocker stresses the need to think critically about what knowledge we want the students to walk away with. “We could teach less content, and they would still learn the essentials. We need to clearly identify the top 3 to 5 things the students need to get out of the course and focus our energies on that. Sometimes less content is better.” When thinking about the students, Dr. Ocker states, “Every instructor that a student has thinks differently. That’s like having 5 different bosses at once.” Dr. Ocker always takes the students into consideration, and understands that each student is likely to be in many different courses at the same, with instructors that are using different styles, approaches and tools to teach.

One approach to course design that is consistent across all of Dr. Ocker’s courses is the use of student teams. Specifically, Dr. Ocker focuses on partially-distributed teams (PDT), where two or more team members are located in one geographic area and two or more team members are located in other geographic areas. Throughout her teaching, Dr. Ocker incorporates PDT projects, where students in the College of IST are in teams with students from other universities around the world. When talking about strategies to implement teams in a course, Dr. Ocker emphasizes that students need to be taught how to work in teams. “Be prepared to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly when working in teams.” Instructors also need to allot plenty of time for student teams to work through the teaming process, and in Dr. Ocker’s courses this includes in-class time to work on team projects and provide team status updates to her each week.

An important aspect of teaming projects, Dr. Ocker states, is to identify what you want to assess. For instance, is the goal of the teaming project to illustrate how to work in teams and collaborate, or is the goal to produce a final deliverable or outcome? “You cannot manage what you do not measure,” says Dr. Ocker.


Be sure to create a grading mechanism that fairly and accurately assesses the teaming process and output (depending on what your learning goal is for the team project). For Dr. Ocker, factors that are often included in the assessment of the teams include observations, participation, multiple peer evaluations, team status meetings and so on. Even though these are team projects, Dr. Ocker assigns both a team and an individual grade. If the team assignment is worth 100 points, Dr. Ocker includes an individual grade, often based on peer evaluations and feedback that is also worth 100 points.

Dr. Ocker received two different Teaching Project Grants from the Schreyer Institute to assist her with teaming initiatives, the most recent grant focusing on educating students around aspects of cultural awareness and sensitivity when working in global teams. She also attended several Schreyer seminars, including OL 4000, a collaborative seminar designed, developed and delivered by the Schreyer Institute and World Campus specifically for online teachers.

Approaches to STEM Education

A recent publication in Science is stirring up dialog around approaches to STEM education in K-12. The article, The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning, found that students not only performed higher on content knowledge exams than the teacher-centric control group, but also showed hither retention of that knowledge in the future. One thing that really stands out about this study is the thoroughness of methods. Occasionally in similar studies, results are often overlooked or de-emphasized due to the lack of rigor in methods. But the researchers in this study even went so far as to record each session of instruction, to make sure that the teachers held true to the student-centered or teacher-centered approach they were assigned. This reminds of me a Chinese proverb I recently used in several meetings:

Tell me and I may forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand.
Even when I think back to my own experiences in the classroom as a student, the most powerful learning experiences came when I was doing something, not when I was simply listening. One challenge with this student-centered approach is that it can be tougher to design activities to fill your class time vs. designing a lecture. Fortunately, we have a large number of resources that can help you. In collaboration with Education Technology Services, we’re working with some faculty to flip their classroom, putting the burden on the student to consume content (reading, watch videos of lectures, etc) outside of class, while class time is used for more student-centered, active learning approaches.We have resources in inquiry-based learning, with strategies you can use to engage your students to deeply explore the concepts and ideas from your course. We also have resources, and can present workshops, on student-centered discussion. If you’d like to discuss possible strategies to actively involve your students during class, please do not hesitate to email us!

How do you Motivate Students to Read?

Members of the Institute are currently working with faculty members from Hotel and Restaurant Management on a research project around reading compliance, trying to better understand the factors that contribute to a student’s decision to read course materials. We’re currently administering a survey on the topic, and finalizing an analysis of past focus group data. Based on the data, as well as prior research in the field, some things you might want to consider to motivate and encourage your students to read course materials:

  • Quizzes – short, regularly scheduled reading quizzes provide motivation for students to read. In some instances, these quizzes might be weekly, and worth a very small number of points. In addition to quizzes, some instructors have success with short reading essays, also worth a small number of points. 
  • In-class discussions – integrate active learning elements, like in-class discussion, into your course. Students felt more compelled to read before class when they knew the instructor might call on a random student to answer a reading-related question. Some students even cited the use of i-clickers in class as a motivating factor when deciding to read.
  • Vary reading assignments – students understood the value of text books, but also appreciated various viewpoints, case studies and other sources of reading materials throughout the semester. Students especially appreciated readings that were current, and also readings that illustrated practical application of content being covered in class or the textbook. 
  • Stress long-term benefits – students often read only with short term benefits in mind, such as grades. Instructors should emphasize the long-term importance of course readings, such as being more knowledgeable, having a deeper understanding of a topic, the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics, be better prepared for interviews and the ability to apply a wide range of knowledge to existing challenges.
In addition to things you might want to try to increase reading compliance, the students in our focus groups also identified some instructor behaviors that act as disincentives or demotivators when it comes to course readings. These include:
  • Repeating the book – this was one of the primary reasons students did not read. If an instructor lectures directly from the book, students often decide not to read because they can get the same information in class. 
  • Enthusiasm or interest in the topic – students cited a lack of interest in the content by the instructor as a reason not to read. This might be challenging for some instructors, especially if it’s the 50th time they are teaching the same course. Students will quickly pickup on instructor disinterest in the material, and it might impact their interest as well.
  • Surprise quizzes – this was a tricky point to unpack. Students cited quizzes as a motivating factor, but some flavors of surprise quizzes seemed to demotivate students. For  example, when an instructor ‘threatens’ a pop quiz each week, but never gives one. On the other hand, some students indicated that instructors that give one surprise quiz each week (I know, that doesn’t sound very surprising) acts a motivator to read. To build on this example, it might be that the instructor teaches MWF, and gives a short quiz on one of those days each week based on the readings. 
We hope to learn more about students’ decisions when it comes to course readings through a current survey being administered in various PSU classes. If you happen to teach a course, especially a 100 or 200-level course, and willing to ask your students to participate in the survey, please contact me ( We have the ability to track students that participate if, for instance, you wanted to offer an extra credit point. We plan on analyzing the data and trying to put into practice what we learn at PSU through a variety of Institute workshops and other outreach efforts. 
Feel free to comment below if you have additional strategies you use to motivate your students to read.

Welcome Back: Fall 2012 Edition

We hope everyone had a great summer, and looking forward to another great fall semester at Penn State. After a summer of planning, the Schreyer Institute is excited to once again offer a wide variety of workshops, presentations and seminars for Penn State faculty and graduate students. This year, we are specifically focusing on the theme ‘Student Engagement’ in the vast majority of our programs. Throughout the semester, members of the Institute will be taking to this blog to discuss various aspects of student engagement, so be sure to bookmark this page, keep abreast of current topics and add your voice to the discussion. Some specific resources you might find valuable include:

Schreyer Events – a listing of all our events for each month of the semester. Be sure to check this page periodically as we continue to update the page with more events.
Drop-In Consultations – something new we’re trying this semester. Our consultants will be in a building near your, excited to engage in conversations around teaching and learning. Have questions about crafting exams? Syllabus creation? Assessing team work? Feel free to drop in at a location near you. You can also email us any time ( to schedule an appointment to speak to a consultant.
Yammer Group – like many other units across Penn State, the Institute is experimenting with Yammer to share resources and facilitate discussions around teaching and learning. You can find us by logging into Yammer, then searching for “Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence”, then click ‘join’. Or try this link
Once again, welcome back and have a great fall 2012 semester!

SITE Stories: Increasing Student Outcomes in Nursing Research

This is our first entry in SITE Stories, where members of the Penn State community share information about projects in collaboration with the Schreyer Institute. If you have an idea for a story, please email Bart Pursel at

This story comes from Michael Evans, Instructor of Nursing and Tierney Lyons, reference Librarian, both from Penn State Worthington Scranton. If you have any questions, or would like to learn more about their research, please do not hesitate to contact them directly.
Traditionally, nursing students view Nursing 200w: Understanding and Applying Nursing Research as one of the more boring and labor intensive courses, often wondering why they need to understand nursing research as a bedside nurse. However, it is a necessary challenge for it promotes both better patient outcomes and graduate education predisposition.  To spark students’ interest in nursing research, Penn State Worthington Scranton’s Michael Evans, Instructor of Nursing, and Tierney Lyons, reference librarian, piloted a blended learning approach during Fall 2011 using ANGEL’s asynchronous discussion boards to promote reflective thinking and increase student satisfaction.  This research was supported by a SITE grant with the guidance of Dr. Kathy Jackson, Senior Research Associate and Instructional Consultant.
For this study, Mr. Evans and Ms. Lyons applied the supplemental model for blended learning to the research class. Instead of decreasing traditional classroom time, they supplemented the students’ in-person interactions with their instructor, Dr. Milton Evans, Penn State Worthington Scranton Instructor of Nursing, by incorporating online, asynchronous forums.  After obtaining IRB approval and participant consent (n =20), the researchers monitored the ANGEL forums, asking students to respond to researcher-driven discussion questions. Students posted their own original response by midweek and responded to their classmates’ online comments by the week’s end using a “thought extending” statement, such as a question, a reference, or an additional idea for their peers to consider.  All posts were expected to be substantial and scholarly in nature.
Reflective thinking was evaluated using a modified version Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s tool, the Critical Incident Questionnaire. This tool provided qualitative feedback and recorded an increase in reflective thinking. Students commented that they felt engaged, motivated, knowledgeable, and appreciative of the collaborative learning environment.  To measure student satisfaction, a course evaluation survey was conducted at the course’s completion using a modified version of a Site tool and yielded positive results.  The majority of students found that using asynchronous discussion boards was valuable, would recommend taking other classes that used this teaching modality, will apply something that they learned in their professional or academic careers, gained knowledge in nursing research from the discussion forums, and agreed that the postings led them to think more critically about the course material.
Limitations to the study included the researchers, instead of the course instructor, leading the online discussions and the uninspiring, text-based interface of the discussion boards. However, Mr. Evans and Ms. Lyons plan to improve participation rates in future research by serving as the course instructors and incorporating user-centric technology. Introducing digital storytelling via VoiceThread and mobile computing through iPad tablet distribution, the researchers aim to increase student engagement.  While the study lacked statistically significant results, it demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary blended learning in increasing student outcomes. The researchers believe that this strategy is valuable in nursing education as well as in other disciplines.

Learning Analytics: Tread Carefully

Over the last 8-10 months, a handful of folks from the Schreyer Institute, Teaching and Learning with Technology and the Office of Institutional Planning and Assessment discussed and researched the topic of learning analytics. If you never heard the term learning analytics before, the easiest way to explain it is by looking at companies like Netflix and Amazon. These companies leverage your personal renting or buying habits to compare you to hundreds (or thousands) of similar users to provide you with recommendations on what to rent or purchase next. Learning analytics is the application of these same practices, but in support of education. Specifically, learning analytics is:

 “the use of analytic techniques to help target instructional, curricular, and support resources to support the achievement of specific learning goals”. (Barneveld et al., 2012)
Many of these early efforts, such as the Signals project at Purdue University, live within a University’s course management system. These tools generate a risk assessment for each student in a course by taking into account a student’s demographic and historical data (age, gender, past GPA, SAT scores, etc) and then combines CMS activity data (how many logins, grade book data, number of forum posts, etc). A faculty member usually initiates the risk assessment and then receives a ‘risk level’ for each student. At this point, the faculty member can intervene with those at high risk of not succeeding in a course.
Overall, I think this is a wonderful idea, and the folks at Purdue ran a few studies that illustrate how effective this system can be at keeping students at a “C” or above. A new system from Austin Peay State University just crossed my desk that exists outside of the CMS. This system resides at the course registration level. When students login to register for a course, they are presented with two ratings:
  • The highest rated courses you should be taking (based off your major, semester courseload and other data)
  • Your predicted grade for the course (this is generated by comparing your historical transcript data to 10 years worth of other students that have similar characteristics).
This is a very interesting idea, but how will students interpret the data? Will they intentionally register for courses where the system predicts a “B” or above, even if they are not interested in the content? Will students only register for highly recommended courses, and not pursue other interests due to the system’s recommendations? A colleague mentioned that this could spiral into a self fulfilling prophecy for students rather quickly, where they take the prediction data as fact and don’t deviate from any of the recommendations. Scary stuff. 
With any learning analytics system, a key challenge will be educating and training the end users on how to best leverage the data. In many instances, that means being skeptical of the data, and using it as one of many different factors that contribute to a decision that, in the end, contributes to student success.

Classroom Flipping: Technologies and Teaching Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning

Tomorrow, 3/2/12, I’ll be heading to Lehigh Valley with a couple colleagues from Education Technology Services, Chris Millet and Matt Meyer. We will be talking with a group of faculty primarily about “Flipping the Classroom”, an interesting model to bring more active learning elements into a class. Below are a few resources we’re distributing to participants that can be leveraged to learn more about the tools and technologies that can assist in flipping your classroom.

Leveraging Video to Support Teaching and Learning

  • Lecture Capture – Penn State’s Lecture Capture home on the web. Contains resources, case studies, help documentation and contact information for assistance. If you’re interested in participating in the lecture capture pilot, this is the place to start!
  • Media Commons – Media Commons is a university-wide initiative to enrich the teaching and learning experience through multimedia technology, classroom training and direct support for students, faculty and staff. If you have an idea for including video in your class, both faculty-created or student-created video, contact Media Commons to talk to a consultant about your idea.
  • VoiceThread – VoiceThread is a totally web-based application that allows you to place collections of media like images, videos, documents, and presentations at the center of an asynchronous conversation. This website contains all the documentation to help you get started, as well as contact information for support.
  • Training Services – Penn State’s Training Services offers a wide variety of training opportunities around various technologies, including VoiceThread and iClickers. Find the topic, date and time that is right for you.

Getting Started with Active Learning

  • Clickers – Student Response Systems, such as clickers, represent a great way to quickly engage your students in a meaningful way. Check out Penn State’s “Getting Started” guide for instructors.
  • Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence – The Schreyer Institute offers a wide variety of workshops on active learning strategies, as well as a library of online resources to help instructors identify and implement active learning strategies. Institute consultants are available year round to sit down with you and help think through implementing different active learning strategies within the framework of your course.

TLT Website

  • TLT Classroom Flipping – The Teaching and Learning with Technology website has added a page introducing the idea of flipping the classroom that will include more resources shortly.

Educause Learning Initiative 2012 Recap – Blended Learning

I had the opportunity to attend the annual Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) conference this February in Austin, TX. I came away from the conference re-energized and excited to move forward in two different spaces:

  • Blended learning
  • Learning Analytics (more on this in a future post!)

As the Institute continues to explore our role in online and blended learning, this year’s ELI contained two fantastic sessions, one from Northwestern College and one from the University of Central Florida, on approaches to blended learning. I especially feel good about the conference take aways, things I can apply here at PSU immediately upon return. Both of these presenters provided just that.

University of Central Florida

UCF was well represented at ELI this year, with a wide variety of interesting presentations from UCF personnel. One specific presentation contained a wealth of resources designed to help faculty get started with blended learning. Kudos to UCF for making the resources all Creative Commons licensed, allowing other institutions to leverage them.

The primary resource is the Blended Learning Toolkit. It would take too long to review each section of the site, but I’d like to point out a couple very good resources.

  • Working through the BlendKit – This is a professional development course offered to UCF faculty, but it’s designed so anyone can take advantage of it. You can complete the course on your own in its entirety, or pick-and-choose elements of the course to complete for your own development.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository – This is a vast collection of resources, submitted by a wide variety of people, into a large wiki repository. The level of detail is fantastic, as each entry typically has both a synopsis and description of a pedagogical strategy, but also links to resources, examples and citations.

Northwest College
Northwest College presented on a blended learning program they implemented to help faculty take face-to-face courses, and migrate them to a blended model. I specifically enjoyed this presentation because it both applies to efforts taking place in the Institute around online learning and the presenters provided a set of fantastic resources for others to use. The entire project has a
website full of resources. A few resources that I find particularly useful:

  • Radio James – This is an online objective builder tool, allowing faculty to build objectives in an interactive format, following Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Top Ten Tech Tools – A great list, short and articulate.
  • Workshop Documents – samples of documents the Northwest team used in their 2-week faculty workshop series to help faculty redesign their course. I particularly link the checklist.

The two primary ‘hub’ websites for both of these initiatives are flooded with resources. I highly recommend exploring the sites if you’re working with faculty, or if you are a faculty member, designing a blended or online course.

Faculty Spotlight: Laura Guertin

Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin has developed a reputation for being innovative in the classroom. Dr. Guertin’s innovations stem from necessity. She teaches at Penn State Brandywine, a commuter campus with approximately 1600 students. Many of her students use public transportation to commute within Pennsylvania and from Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland; it is not unusual for them to have a 2-3 hour trip to campus. In addition to attending college, many students work and care for family members. The result: little or no time for homework. 

Faculty members teaching at residential campuses notice the same lack of student attention to work outside of class. “Students are changing,” said Dr. Guertin. The demands on out-of-class time are numerous: for example, close to one fourth of all full-time students at public four-year institutions work 20 or more hours per week (Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac of Higher Education 2011). 
Laura, preparing for a presentation
Dr. Guertin faces another challenge familiar to faculty who teach courses that satisfy general education requirements: the sense that your course is one students simply want to get out of the way. “I’m at the bottom of their list of things to do,” she said. Dr. Guertin noticed a lack of engagement by students in her lecture courses. Readings and homework were simply tasks her students wanted to get done, not ways to think and explore. 
Her response to this situation was to use the Just-In-Time Teaching Technique (JiTT). The term describes strategies used to connect in- and out-of-class work. A common approach is to design a small set of questions students respond to outside of class. Students submit their answers a few hours prior to class. The instructor uses the students’ answers to create in-class activities that address student misconceptions, gaps in knowledge, or incomplete/faulty reasoning. With the help of a small grant from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Dr. Guertin adapted this technique in her Dinosaur Extinctions and Other Controversies course by posting three open-ended questions each week for students to answer via ANGEL. A couple of hours before class, she read students’ submissions, looking for misconceptions. She then planned an all-class discussion based on student responses and an interactive follow-up activity. She did this once a week. The new approach seemed to be working, but she wanted to know how well students were actually learning. 
Schreyer Institute consultants worked with her to develop and phrase her question sets for students, as well as devise ways of measuring gains in student learning and engagement. She developed a survey that measured students’ perceptions of their learning and engagement. What she found was a marked increase in students’ learning, engagement, and comprehension of course material. Students also reported a greater sense of responsibility for their own success. She published her findings with former Schreyer consultants Sarah Zappe and Heeyoung Kim in the Journal of Science and Educational Technology. 

Laura Presenting at a recent brown bag Lunch.

Dr. Guertin said the approach is not without its challenges. Instructors using JiTT have found students are more likely to buy into the technique if they get credit for it. Typically instructors make JiTT activities worth about 10 percent of the overall course grade, but this can vary by instructor. With her students, 30 percent is the “sweet spot” that induces them to participate regularly. She says instructors also need to devote time to making sure that follow-up activities are aligned with the teaching goals for their course. With meaningful pre-class questions, and the ability to submit responses to questions online, the daily commute has become homework time for many of her students. 
Dr. Guertin’s main suggestion for faculty members considering trying JiTT in their courses is to take the time to construct good questions. Whether they are multiple-choice or open-ended, questions need to be clearly phrased and include a variety of levels of thought. For example, all questions need not be recall-oriented; some might ask for an application or example. Dr. Guertin scales her questions using a model of cognitive levels (Bloom’s Taxonomy). See here for examples of questions at different levels of thinking that can be applied in any course. Dr. Guertin said that JiTT questions are a way for non-science majors to connect course material with life outside of class, such as current events and local connections. 
In addition to JiTT, Dr. Guertin continues to develop other teaching tools to help students meet course goals such as scientific literacy. This is a particularly important goal for non-majors, who will need to understand geologic/geographic information in order to be effective teachers and decision-makers. She has developed a capstone Google Earth ePortfolio assignment in which students use technology to apply their geological knowledge to real life situations. For example, students use the Google Earth program to locate and plot geographic features. The program has a tool that students can use to insert annotations, photos, and video, which provides them with a means of making connections between what they are learning in class and how that information applies to real-world phenomena. 
While Dr. Guertin, a 2010 Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Faculty Fellow, continues to incorporate technology in her courses in new and creative ways, she stresses that incorporating technology into one’s classes need not be complicated. “Don’t hesitate to use technology. Don’t go overboard. Just think about your goals and how technology can get you there.” That’s sound advice for any teaching technique, technological or not.