Top 10 NWeLearn Takeaways

We had a talk. Several of them. Want to know what we learned?

Photo credit here.


Have you ever gone to a conference and then been asked to present about it at work? Probably like many of you, my office has a policy that every time the university spends money on sending someone to a conference, in return that person tries to find a way to provide some of the value of the conference to the rest of the office. I work in educational technology, and while this conference follow up always sounds great, the problem is that content has always been a roadblock for me. I feel like no matter how well I summarize what happened at a conference, I’m not really transferring any of the benefit of being there. I’m just writing a report. It makes me feel like I’m in 5th grade again, doing a geography presentation on a country I’ve never been to. Worse, I think my audience often feels like they’re watching me give that report.

So, this time I thought I would take a different approach. First, I asked my office which format they would like to have the information presented in. Turns out, far and away, that was a top 10 takeaway list (thank you Buzzfeed). Second, I wouldn’t present information that already exists in the universe. All of the conference materials are already published here. I would instead present the results of the work that was done at the conference: the conversations, the new ideas, and the insights that were generated from being present.

The following is my top 10 list of takeaways from the 2016 NWeLearn Conference. If you’re an instructor in higher education, an instructional designer, a student, work at a university, or are fascinated by the brave new world of online learning, you may find this helpful. Please be aware that I am a faculty support person on my campus, and that my voice is probably biased toward that experience.

Tiny additional disclaimer: None of the following is strictly my voice, but all of the following is my interpretation of many group conversations, presentations, ideas, etc. that happened as a result of the conference. Let’s get to it.

10. Departments are snowflakes

Regardless of how your current ed. tech, or teaching and learning office is set up, you may have the common problem (as we do) that not all departments have an equal level of engagement with online learning. The top departments in this area often have a great interest in utilizing digital rescues and online learning best practices, and are generally friends and advocates of our office. Other offices are not so friendly. Any of the instructional designers out there ever worked with someone in your ethics department? What about ASL? What about (fill in your department of choice).

It’s been said a million times that departments create their own culture (intentional or not), and sometimes that culture is more or less supportive of utilizing online tools. But I’m wondering if there isn’t a connection between department subject and willingness to look at online modalities. Perhaps there really are some subjects that gain more benefit from having online resources. Or… perhaps it’s a case of digital literacy. On average, is a given ASL teacher more or less tech savvy than her Logic or Farsi counterpart, or his Computer Science counterpart, for that matter?

The idea that there are some subjects which don’t lend themselves well to online instruction is contentious. Nonetheless, I think most would agree that certain activity types are typically better or worse suited for different subjects (gamified painting, anyone?). Moreover, other activity types are certainly easier or more difficult to implement online. So, while the connection between ease of digital implementation and subject matter may not be straightforward, there certainly is something there.

10 Second Takeaway: Values, cultures, and attitudes towards integrating new technologies and approaches differ across departments. Let’s foster a conversation about why that is. Does it have to do with subject matter? Culture? Activity or tool type?

Which brings me to my next point:

9. If they say you’re wrong — agree with them

Sometimes faculty tell us that we’re wrong. “That won’t work online.” “I can’t do that with (insert your institution’s LMS).” “That’s too much work. It will take too much time.”

They’re right. It will be different online. But it’s important to remember that we don’t put things online because they are a good facsimile of what can be done face to face (although looking at a lot of technology trends I’m not sure software companies understand that). We put things online because they have other intrinsic benefits. Online materials are reusable, shareable, adaptable and adoptable in ways that face to face materials aren’t. And speaking of words that end in -able, they can often be even more accessible than face to face materials can. They allow introverts to speak and students in work groups to connect while babysitting their kids.

Rather than focusing on the why-nots, try shifting the conversation to focusing on how putting an activity in a digital format will benefit the course. Why is this assignment better because it’s online? Why will it make your faculty’s workflow easier? Why will it provide a better student experience? As an added benefit from a designers perspective, it’s amazing what kind of assignments you can develop when a faculty member can no longer rely on their well-earned sage-on-the-stage charm to keep a class happy.

10 Second Takeaway: Faculty often give pushback about migrating things online for good reason. Honor their concern and refocus the conversation on tangible and effable benefits.

8. There is (too often) no student feedback loop…

When teaching face to face, if something isn’t going well, the instructor knows. The lesson flops, faculty may hear or overhear students talking about it. You get pushback. In an online class, when something isn’t going well, there’s often nothing to push back on. If you tell students to go watch a video, do an exercise, then write a reflection, and they absolutely HATE the exercise — how will you or your instructor know? Channels for feedback must be more intentional.

This was a sentiment that was shared more than once at the conference. For whatever reason, there just doesn’t seem to be a culture of gathering real-time student feedback in an online environment. The bias can be seen by merely searching the terms “student feedback online.” The results are article after article about how an instructor can give good feedback on the work of students. But adult students know whether a class is fulfilling or useful for them or not, and usually way before the class is over. Not only are students not encouraged to provide this feedback, in an online environment they are often actively discouraged by a lack of student instructor contact, and no scaffolded channels through which to voice concerns. The only voice students often get is a feedback form (if they’re provided one) at the end of the term. By then, it’s too late for an instructor to make up a bad review, too late for a student to get the full value potential out of a course, and sometimes even too late for the designer to really learn anything about her target student audience.

10 Second Takeaway: The term ‘feedback’ in higher ed. means instructor to student feedback. But what about feedback flowing the other way: student feedback on the course/instructor. Online formats may inhibit this type of feedback. This doesn’t have to be the case.

7. … but flipped models encourage more feedback

When you’re doing nothing but letting students consume your content on your terms, there’s little or no mechanism built in to gauge student understanding outside of the immediate moment. Sure they can ask questions in class, but unless you’re a seasoned instructor (and often even then), it’s hard to generalize one person’s question to how the whole group is feeling. And that doesn’t even begin to cover how students feel after the fact.

In a flipped classroom model, by contrast, you’re doing nothing but working directly with students whenever you have direct contact with them. What you see is no longer merely their questions, but how they are actively grappling with content. You get to see their learning occur outside of the input phase. Even if students do go out of their way to provide the instructor with direct feedback, students don’t always know what would help them learn best. This gives flipped classes an edge when it comes to student feedback (the learning kind). Of course, this advantage dissipates completely if these structures aren’t intentionally built into the class, especially if that class is fully online (see #8).

10 Second Takeaway: Flipped models are not a panacea, but do carry a lot of intrinsic benefits when it comes to collecting student feedback on the course in real time. Done well, this is a game changer.

6. Tech doesn’t talk

Technologies aren’t expected to communicate with each other. In the ed. tech world, this cascades into a slew of problems. Instructors don’t feel safe pouring hours and hours of work into a digital class if, when their university happens to switch LMSs next year, all their work is now useless — even as an archive. As educators, we need to demand that new technologies follow standards that allow our work the ability to move from platform to platform. Not all platforms will be completely compatible with each other, as they often do very disparate things. But this should not excuse software makers from attempting a standard that at least offers faculty the ability to archive or scaffold their work from one platform to another.

The culture of software as virtual birdcage will never change as long as software companies are not incentivized to provide backward, forward, and cross-platform compatible technologies. We need to demand it from any and all platforms, and we need to back up that demand with our institutional wallets. Developing a good API is hard work. No company is going to pay a developer potentially thousands of dollars to do something that no one will even know how to use. And thus we’re stuck. We can do better.

10 Second Takeaway: Please stop supporting software that doesn’t provide a basic API, or any cross platform compatibility. Let’s stop using tools that don’t talk to other tools. In ed. tech, we must do work outside of a sandbox.

5. Show me the evidence…

Learning new technology is time consuming for many faculty. While a lot of them embrace this challenge, everyone needs to know that what they are putting time and resources into is actually having an impact on student learning outcomes. Switching costs are a real concern when it comes to faculty development — and faculty have a good point. If we as designers and support personnel can’t provide results or a good rationale for using a tool, especially if that tool requires training, then we shouldn’t recommend it. If we can’t articulate a tool’s tangible benefits to student/faculty workflow, the student experience, or student learning outcomes, it’s either a useless tool or we don’t understand it well enough ourselves to be using it in a course design. We try to hold faculty accountable for being intentional about their course designs. We as designers should be intentional about it too.

10 Second Takeaway: Learning new technology isn’t easy for many faculty and that should be honored. Don’t expect faulty to be intentional with their course designs if you’re not going to be intentional with their time in return.

4. … and a lot of software isn’t different enough anyway

(This is a similar point to 5, but worth mentioning separately as it comes from a different perspective.)

When is the last time you switched email clients? It’s probably been a while, and whether you know it or not, this is probably why: switching costs. Most email applications do essentialy the same thing. The particulars of how they work and the more tertiary features may be different, but the core functionality is nearly identical from inbox to inbox. There probably is a better email tool for you than the one you’re using. It could organize better, share things better, and present information to you better. But you haven’t switched, because those tertiary features aren’t enough of a benefit to overcome the switching cost of learning a new system and (god forbid) transferring all your data. You don’t want to spend hours figuring out how to answer email. It’s far more valuable if you can simply answer email.

Faculty just want to teach. They don’t want to spend hours figuring out your new cool audio-feedback tool, even if it is much better than their current tools. The switching cost of new software may look expressly different for faculty. Your new favorite tool very well may provide an improved student experience, but your faculty also may absolutely abhor taking the time to learn it — all the meanwhile performing your well planned course design poorly because they’re spending dozens of hours learning a new tool instead of teaching, grading, and interacting with students.

None of this should be taken as an excuse to create worse course designs, however. Nor is it a call to do fewer new things or use fewer digital tools. Sometimes faculty need a push, and sometimes those dozens of hours pay productivity and student experience dividends for the rest of that faculty’s career. We’ve all met the instructor who can’t even articulate what a right click is used for. The point is to be empathetic toward faculty as they move along in their own development with educational technology. Just ask yourself: Would I be willing to learn this to teach one course (on the salary a faculty is being paid for one course)? This is likely how the faculty member is looking at your shiny new tool in the moment. If you want to push them, you need to make it worth their effort.

10 Second Takeaway: We should all learn to be more empathetic of the fact that a faculty member’s switching costs are different to those of educational technology professionals. You may love learning new tech. Your faculty may not and the overhead of learning new technology may even hinder their ability to teach. You should know if that’s worth it, before pushing faculty.

3. Copyright fear is ubiquitous

Do you remember that time you were working with a faculty member and they refused to do X, Y, or Z because they were afraid of ‘copyright issues’? So does everybody else. We work in an industry that incentives us to publish publish publish. It’s a big part of whether many of us get promoted or build a career (especially for tenure track faculty). Faculty often contribute to this culture by trying to hoard things that are ‘theirs’ and ‘under their name.’

It’s important to remember (and to remind those who we work with), that much of the time the university or institution automatically owns the rights to any work produced for a course. Of course, this will differ at your institution and from circumstance to circumstance. You should always check with your copyright or other applicable office and know your institutions policies. There’s a lot of confusion around copyright law, and while most of us aren’t lawyers (I’m certainly not), the only way to combat the culture of fear is to become more informed, and stop spreading misinformation when we’re not sure.

That being said, please never feel empowered to give definitive legal advice unless you are licensed to do so. Instead, take a collaborative approach by bringing in librarians, copyright officers, and people who work with copyright at your institution (see number 2). Have your community explain to your faculty how copyright online actually works in their teaching context. Have an open and honest discussion about how your institution’s policies affect your and your faculty member’s work. And if they have concerns after that, don’t forget to listen. Don’t dismiss fear as obstinance. It is likely rooted in experience.

10 Second Takeaway: Listen and don’t dismiss faculty concerns about copyright. More than that, help to create a culture of accurate information on copyright at your institution by involving people who are qualified to talk about it. Stop merely saying it’s complicated and get the relevant facts.

2. You have to get out of the office

Do you ever feel frustrated that your institution seems siloed, and departments are doomed to repeat work simply because they don’t talk to each other? So are faculty. If you’re in a teaching and learning office, or an online-learning/support office and you never leave that office, all the while always making faculty come to you and do things on your terms, then you are actively contributing to this culture. You can’t preach to faculty to get out of their shell and get involved in community based learning, cross departmental collaboration, or to try something new if you don’t practice what you preach. Help make your office an shining example of cross departmental collaboration by doing it yourself. Ask other departments what they need from you. In tern, frequently ask other departments for their expertise (see number 3). Many people probably work at your institution becuase they’re passionate about what they do and they love sharing their knowledge. Take advantage of that. Get involved in joint projects. Go to university events. Never forget why you have this job: to support students (whether that’s directly or indirectly through faculty). Don’t forget who pays your salary either (again, students).

10 Second Takeaway: Get out of the office. Don’t contribute to a culture of university siloing. Be the change…

1. Everyone should be a student

This isn’t a point about lifelong learning (as important as that is). This is a point about empathy for students. Faculty usually don’t take their own courses. Why is that? Software designers certainly use their products before they are shipped. Manufactures all test their products extensively. Writers have editors. In nearly every other facet of our economy, things are tested and directly experienced before consumers are expected to use them. Why isn’t that true of our course designs?

I think a lot of it has to do with fear. Fear that this lesson won’t work, that an activity has too much organizational overhead, that the social dynamics of a course aren’t being supported, etc. Instead, we’d rather do less work by falling back on tried and true methods that we know are supported by evidence. Surely this is far superior to a guess, but it still falls far short of actually experiencing the courses you design directly. Not every learning community is the same, and no matter how good your peer-reviewed evidence is for something, there’s always going to be a case in which it won’t work. A quality designer in any other industry would never say “Oh I know this design must be good because it looks like every other design I’ve ever done that’s worked well.” They know it’s good because it’s been tested (in addition to being built on principles and best practices).

We should really strive to understand our audience before we land on an activity or design decision. And if we’re not sure, test baby test. Take your own quizzes. Read your syllabus. Carefully. Can you find where to do that activity in the ninth week? Can you tell how your grade will be calculated? Pretend to be a student. Better yet, pretend to be a bad student. Can you still navigate the course? Even better still, find a real-life bad student and ask for their feedback. Test, test, test. Do the work you’re asking others to do in the way you’re asking them to do it.

10 Second Takeaway: There is very little culture of user-testing in instructional design. Help change that, because it matters.


You may have noticed that there is a running theme in many of these takeaways: empathy. Active empathy is, in my humble opinion, the single greatest asset any designer can have (instructional or otherwise). As much as we may bemoan the faculty member who doesn’t deliver on a promise, the new adjunct who is genuinely unprofessional, or the students who can’t and won’t try, just remember what my mentor Jean Henscheid always used to tell me: “People aren’t stupid.”

It took me a bit of growing up to understand what she meant: Everything everyone does has a reason. You may not be aware of that reason. The person doing it may not even be aware of the reason. Yet there is a reason. More than that, in a course design a lot of these reasons and motivations are actually within your control. That’s the amazing part! You can do it. You can design a course that this faculty member can teach and these students can be successful in. You only have to listen, well.

About the author

Andrew F. Lawrence is currently a Course Support Specialist at the Office of Academic Innovation at Portland State University, and an aspiring full stack instructional designer. (More about that coming soon!)