Category Archives: online learning

Canva Convert

When I first started using Canva a few years ago, I was, well, rather meh about the whole experience. I wanted to make YouTube channel art for my professional writing course, and I muddled through with a series of free icons in complementary colors.

This semester, however, I’m making new graphics every week! I change out the header for my online freshman writing class with important reminders:

Exercise deadline reminder

Midterm Exam reminder

Week 10 topic announcement with activity reminder

Week 11 topic

I also have turned to Canva to create graphics for Kahoot! review quizzes for my capstone English majors and minors. Students need to recognize specific passages from major works of American and British literature, and it’s easy to paste in the text I need with some labeled-for-reuse images:

quote from Waiting for Godot

Who wrote it? Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

first four lines of The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Who wrote it? Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”



What’s the best way to put together an upper-level, undergraduate course on Shakespeare?

shakespeare digital app

CC licensed image from Samsung Newsroom,

Here’s what I have linked so far for nine different plays:

Discussions will emphasize synthesizing all of these different materials. We also would spend a week on several sonnets, with other poems introduced in tandem with plays (I like doing Sonnet 57 with Caliban in The Tempest, for example).

What am I missing?

MOOCs for Writing Remediation

I am intrigued by research into non-credit developmental English MOOCs as a means of reducing the need for remediation.

The article linked above raises a very important point at the very beginning: “a large percentage of students who require remedial education become mired in courses that are taught using the same deficit-based pedagogy that contributed to their failure to master the curriculum in high school” (Whitmer, Schiorring, James, and Miley 1). If that’s the case, then why not try something very different, like the five-module MOOC called Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools for the Trade.

The study found that while only 8% of the enrolled students earned a passing grade for this non-credit course, 23% actively engaged with the materials and therefore may have gotten something valuable out of the experience. Engagement could be with instructional videos, discussion forums, quizzes, assignments, and surveys — a spectrum of ways for learners to pick up information about improving writing skills.

Probably the most interesting finding, to me, is this:

The act of taking the entry survey or participating in the online learning readiness quiz were both significantly related to participation (p < .001).

Note that it doesn’t say passing the quiz. Students who weren’t ready for online learning still participated in the MOOC at relatively high rates.

How can I use these data in my own, drastically smaller class? I give an optional “getting to know you” survey that I ask students to complete during the first week of a new term; I need to reach out more aggressively than I already do, perhaps, to those learners who haven’t done the short Google form questionnaire by the middle of week 2.

Designing an online humanities course

A relatively new course at my university is Introduction to Humanities, and it’s proving pretty popular, perhaps because it has no prerequisites and fulfills a core curriculum / general education requirement. Because the Dean of the College asked that all core classes be approved for online delivery, I have been working on building a complete, 15-week syllabus centered on fairy tales, one of my research specialties. We will look at different versions of several tales, from a variety of cultures, alongside illustrations, songs, ballets, cartoons, and films.

Illustration of "Sleeping Beauty" by Jennie Harbour

Illustration of “Sleeping Beauty” by Jennie Harbour

So far, I’m taking advantage of the online environment in some of the following ways:

I’m also trying to mix structure with choice. The course starts with five sequential weeks focused on a handful of folklore theories (Propp’s 31 functions and Jung’s archetypes), writing about illustrations, and setting up compare-contrast analyses. Students will get used to reading short selections, watching video clips, and participating in online discussion forums as they work up to their first major graded assignment.

Once I post the first essay grade, students will gain access to three modules that they can do in any order; one must be completed every three weeks, however. Modules introduce additional cultural and ethical analysis, in keeping with student learning outcomes for this particular area of the core curriculum, and students will write a paper or create a presentation for the module’s big assessment. For example, the ethical analysis module explores Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and the Brothers Grimm version of “The Brave Little Tailor,” particularly

I am planning to make the final exam available from day one, since students will be writing an original fairy tale with an accompanying explanation of their inspirations, the Propp functions and Jungian archetypes consciously used, etc.

Given that the class has no prerequisites and therefore is likely to have a high proportion of freshmen, I hope that this approach can ease the transition into online learning!

Free Freshman Year?

young woman writing in a notebook next to a laptop computer

CC licensed content from CollegeDegrees360 at

Yesterday I came across an article called “Free tuition your freshman year? It’s possible at Texas State,” a popular public university south of Austin, TX.

It sounded amazing, but after I finished reading, I was a little let down.

You see, the plan is for students to enroll in free MOOCs, massive online courses, and then take either an AP (Advanced Placement) or CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam in that subject area to earn college credit. The MOOCs are free, but the exams are not:

  • $92 for each AP exam, plus any fees from the testing center
  • $80 for each CLEP exam, plus any fees (Texas State adds on $40)

If a student wants to earn at least 30 semester credit hours, a full freshman year at most Texas colleges, s/he would need to do well on at least 7 CLEP exams (high scores on the College Composition exam, for instance, can result in 6 semester credit hours) and as many as 10 total. Choosing the right AP exams could yield even more college credits; by my calculations, a student who does well on the AP Biology, English Language and Composition, Spanish, and U.S. History exams would walk into my university with 34 hours from just 4 exams

Don’t get me wrong: $368 – $1200 for a year of college credit is a total deal. But I feel like the program may mislead students into thinking they must take classes in order to take these exams, and that’s just not true. There are open testing centers all over the U.S. where anyone, including non-students, can sign up for testing, present valid ID, and send scores to their preferred college or university.

Could the MOOCs be great review for students who have been out of school for a while? Yes. Texas State is targeting older, working adults. Should the MOOCs include the same covered in a classroom that students need in order to pass a CLEP or AP exam? Sure. Is this a good way for students to get up to speed at a relatively affordable cost? Definitely.

I guess my disappointment comes from the fact that the option to earn college credit from standardized tests is nothing new. With a library book and some Khan Academy videos (heck, they have a whole section on the AP Art History test), many folks can master a subject enough. But folks have to KNOW about the option. Promoting and marketing credit-by-exam to specific populations is a smart move. If Texas State clearly tells students the costs of the exams and the scores needed, it could be the push that some people need to go to or go back to college.

Frequency of Contact for Online Courses?

At the start of a new academic term, I always wonder how often I should e-mail / tweet / message students in my online courses.

How much e-contact do students expect (or even want) from their instructors?

close up of someone checking a smartphone

morgueFile photo from

Typically, at the start of each new week, I post a description of the activities, assignments, and deadlines to the news forum in each class and automatically broadcast that message to all enrolled students’ campus e-mail addresses. I will admit, too, that I have taught certain courses so many times that I have standard messages (some of them several paragraphs long with embedded images) ready to go out for week 5 or week 10.

It’s easy for a student to delete and/or ignore these messages, however, and some might not even check their University accounts regularly. If this were a traditional, face-to-face class, students who attended would see and hear from me two to three times each week. I would probably remind them Monday, Wednesday, and Friday about a Saturday deadline.

I don’t want to be too annoying, either. Am I going overboard with an e-mail, a tweet, and a text 24-48 hours before a deadline? Or is such redundancy key to reach as many students as possible and to make them feel connected? It’s so easy to feel alone and isolated when you’re sitting in front of a screen typing up discussion replies!

Of course, these aren’t new questions. Research goes back well over a decade regarding e-mail contacts, but I have to wonder if different avenues, particularly ones that easily reach students’ cell phones, make a difference.

Hitting the Virtual Ground Running

Maybe it’s just me and the way I go about online classes, but folks always seem surprised when, on the second day of the semester, I’m already grading work for multiple students.

At the moment, I have 76 students across three courses (two different preps). In the core writing class, students have their first discussion forum to complete by tomorrow at 11pm. The forum includes two activities that ask students to apply and/or synthesize information from the week’s text and video lectures. If everyone completes the work, I have 48 separate posts that need reading, scoring, and responding — at least in the beginning of the term, I try to respond to everyone on everything, to build confidence and to reassure students that I really am there for them. The first posts actually came in last Saturday, before classes even started; I have commented, complimented, drawn attention to other evidence supporting their claims, and double-checked that the grade book is working every day since then.

My self-paced, upper-level, social media writing class doesn’t have deadlines until December. Still, earnest students start on the work immediately. I spent time on Monday, the first day of the term, following new professional accounts on Twitter and Pinterest and responding to tweets and pins…so students know I have found their virtual presences and can proceed confidently. One pupil already has earned 46 out of 60 points on the class Twitter project.

I also devoted a good chunk of time on the first day of classes to setting up class accounts, composing deadline reminders as far in advance as I could (you can’t schedule past 90 days into the future) and creating an orientation video for the core writing class. Every day, I have to check my class rosters to see who has enrolled; because it can take 24 hours for a student to get access to the LMS, I email everyone a welcome note with the course syllabus, the first week’s lecture PDFs, and video links. I sent five such e-mails this afternoon.

Essentially, most of this week, when I have looked up, I have seen something like this, only with a Diet Coke, a lot more paper, and approximately 42 post-its:

Could I just wait and grade those 48 discussion posts after the 11pm Saturday deadline? Sure. If a student takes the time to do the work early, however, I feel I can take a few minutes to respond in kind, addressing the student by name and giving 1-2 sentences of “I like how you…” or “I agree…” or “Did you also notice…”

Additionally, I find that if I mark all of the submissions at once, my comments become more redundant…and every student can see every single one of my replies. Online classes can feel impersonal enough without the professor posting a canned “great ideas” 15 times in a row, and students often complain that their online instructors “don’t do anything.” 24 comments from me sure looks like work. So, yes, I’m one of those people who checks the course LMS a few times each day

I guess I want students to know that, even though we may never see each other in person, I do see, read, and respect their work. Therefore I hit the virtual ground running, and I won’t stop jogging until December.