By Doug Ward

Three students in an upper-level physics class designed and built a tabletop lightboard for their final project this semester.

Lightboards are used in creating online videos for classes. They allow instructors to write on a glass pane as they would a whiteboard. A camera is positioned facing the instructor, capturing the writing on the glass as the instructor speaks. The image must then be flipped so that the writing can be read in the video. The approach is especially popular among STEM instructors.

conner brown and john rinnert inspect the new lighboard
John Rinnert of KU IT inspects the lightboard created by Conner Brown and other students in an engineering physics course.

The students – Conner Brown, Pranjali Pare and Kyri Barton – adapted a template from Duke University as they created the lightboard for Engineering Physics 601. KU IT and the Center for Online and Distance Learning financed the project, which cost between $600 and $700, Brown said.

Rows of cool white LEDs line the internal frame of the lighboard. Sheets of low-iron glass – the same kind used in aquariums – aid the illumination. Red, blue and green markers work best on the glass surface, creating a fluorescent image that is easy to see, Brown said. Black markers don’t reflect well.

The students, who worked with Professors Chris Fischer and Michael Murray during the semester, demonstrated the board on Tuesday in Malott Hall. They aren’t sure where it will be set up permanently, but the goal is to make it available to physics faculty for recording class videos.

KU IT is installing a similar but larger lightboard in Budig Hall. It should be ready for use this summer.

Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown with the lightboard
Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown created the lightboard in Engineering Physics 601 this semester.

Briefly …

Tennessee is the latest state to foolishly allow guns on college campuses. (Kansas will jump into that quagmire next year.) The exclusions in Tennessee’s new law caught my eye. Guns will be prohibited at sporting events and other large gatherings, and at tenure meetings. Yes, tenure meetings. … In a column in the Hechinger Report, Stephen Burd says that public research universities and land-grant colleges give a third of their financial aid to non-needy students. Unfortunately, Burd never explains what he means by “non-needy.” … Sixty-eight percent of 13- to 24-year-olds say they listen to audio on their smartphones every day, Amplifi Media reports. That’s not surprising, but it is worth thinking about as we create online course material for students. …. Far more than their predecessors, today’s college students see higher education as a consumer transaction and a means to high-paying jobs, EAB reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Among academics, online education inspires about as much enthusiasm as a raft sale on a cruise ship.

That’s unfortunate, given that higher education’s cruise ship has a hull full of leaks and has been taking on water for years.

The latest evidence of academic disdain for online education comes from the Online Report Card, which is sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium and other organizations, and has been published yearly since 2003. It is based on surveys conducted by Babson Survey Research Group in Fall 2015.

In that survey, only 29.1 percent of chief academic officers said their faculty viewed online education as valuable and legitimate. That’s a slight increase from the year before but a slight decrease from 2004. Granted the drop was only about a point and a half, but I was still surprised that faculty support for online education had declined over the past decade.

chart showing where students are taking online courses
From Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States

Less than two-thirds of those administrators say online education is crucial to their institutions’ long-term strategies. That is a drop from 2014, though considerably above 2002, when less than 50 percent of administrators saw online as an important option.

The report said that 28 percent of students were taking at least one online course, and the vast majority of those students were at public universities. The report’s authors write: “It appears that many traditional universities are using online courses to meet demand from residential students, address classroom space shortages, provide for flexible scheduling, and/or provide extra sections.”

Those are all logical, important reasons to pursue online education, yet some universities see their future as solely an in-person enterprise. That may make sense at some level, but failure to experiment with online learning now will only make it more difficult later.

Online learning isn’t a salvation for higher education. In fact, many of us who create and teach online courses see in-person learning as a better option for most students in most courses. Universities need online courses in their repertoire, though. Online courses provide flexible learning options to students, especially during summers and breaks. That flexibility offers a means for keeping students on track toward graduation, and gives them the option of pursuing jobs, internships, and study abroad. Online courses also help faculty and staff members develop expertise in creating materials for hybrid and flipped classes. And perhaps most important, they provide a means for exploring news ways to help students learn.

That’s one reason that the continued resistance to online education is so troubling. It is symptomatic of a recalcitrant attitude toward change. We can deny the holes in the hull all we want, but denial won’t stop the leaks.

What department chairs should say

Maryellen Weimer offers a wonderful wish list of things she wishes department chairs would say about teaching. It includes areas like introducing new faculty to teaching, overusing summative evaluation of teaching, and developing a reward system for innovative teaching.

Here’s one of the favorite wanna-be conversation starters she offers:

“We need to be having more substantive conversations about teaching and learning in our department meetings. We talk about course content, schedules, and what we’re offering next semester but rarely about our teaching and its impact on student learning. What do you think about circulating a short article or article excerpt before some of our meetings and then spending 30 minutes talking about it? Could you recommend some readings?”

Briefly …

The Scout Report, a newsletter of curated web resources, recently released an excellent special issue on copyright and intellectual property. … The Hechinger Report looks into the 12-hours-as-full-time culture that keeps many students from graduating from college in four years. … Karin Forssell of Stanford suggests that talking about integrating tools rather than technology into teaching “frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that ‘technology’ can bring.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Women teach a sizable majority of online courses at KU, even though men make up a sizable majority of the university’s faculty.

Data provided by Laura Diede, the associate director at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, shows that of 171 online courses that CODL worked with in the 2014-15 school year, 60 percent were taught by women.

That’s especially interesting when you consider that of 1,649 faculty members on the Lawrence campus that fiscal year, only 42 percent were women.

I’ve not been able to find comparable data for online courses nationally, so I have no way to know whether the dominance of women in online teaching is unusual or not. In general, faculty members have been highly skeptical of online courses. In a recent survey by Inside HigherEd, more than half of faculty members said they didn’t think online courses could achieve the same level of learning as in-person classes. That attitude makes many long-time faculty members resistant to, if not hostile toward, online teaching.

Still, Diede and I still puzzled over the high percentage of women teaching online courses at KU. We came up with three possibilities:

  • Women are more willing than men to try new approaches to teaching.
  • Women prefer the flexibility that online teaching provides.
  • Men, who are more likely to have tenure, are more likely to refuse to teach online courses.

That last possibility seems the most likely, although there may be factors we hadn’t thought about. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see whether this trend grows as the number of online courses grows.

Female instructors score slightly higher in online course evaluationsbar chart comparing course evaluations for men and women in online courses

The data that Diede provided about online courses also showed another interesting facet of online teaching at KU: Female instructors score slightly higher than their male counterparts on student evaluations.

This runs counter to a widely publicized recent study (and widespread perceptions) that argued that student evaluations are inherently biased against female instructors. I’m not going to wade into that debate here other than to say that student evaluations of teaching are problematic on many levels. The reliance on them as the sole measure of teaching quality benefits no one.

Fear and loathing about good teachers

The observation below is from Richard M. Felder, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. It was reprinted this week on Tomorrow’s Professor. It’s something I wonder about frequently and have talked about repeatedly with colleagues who value high-quality teaching:

“Some departments I know, including mine, have in the past hired faculty members who were exciting and innovative teachers and who didn’t do research. Some departments I know, again including mine, have hired former professionals with decades of practical experience who also didn’t do research. Both groups of faculty members did beautifully, teaching core courses brilliantly and serving as supportive advisors, mentors, and role models to the undergraduates who planned to go into business or industry after graduation. Professors like that are the ones students remember fondly years later, and endow scholarships and student lounges and sometimes buildings in honor of. And yet the thought of bringing one or two of them into a 20-person department faculty instead of hiring yet another research scholar who looks pretty much like the other 18 or 19 already there is unthinkable to many administrators and professors. Why is that?”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Faculty often see the benefits of online education for students but not for themselves, Karen H. Sibley and Ren Whitaker write in Educause.

Development of online courses takes precious time away from other activities that generate greater rewards for faculty. The way to change that, Sibley and Whitaker argue, is to offer incentives to move into online education. They give these examples:

  • Providing compensation as salary, research funds, or time (e.g., a course buy-out)
  • Appealing to a sense of curiosity and a desire to develop new skills for those attracted to experimental work or invigorated by the chance to reimagine their courses
  • Delivering training and support to lower the barriers and to decrease the time and effort needed to develop or adapt new instructional approaches
  • Activating a sense of mission and loyalty to their students and the institution
  • Increasing a sense of relevance for those who want to remain current in the rapidly changing environment of higher education
  • Recognizing effective engagement in online learning in the institutional reward systems

    Outside of Spooner Hall at KU, with "wisdom" in brick
    Spooner Hall, University of Kansas (Photo by Doug Ward)

Online education is really just one example of a much larger problem in the way higher education values (or doesn’t value) innovative and reflective teaching and learning. Sibley and Whitaker offer good steps to promote change. Ultimately, though, two enormous cultural barriers stand in the way.

First, attitudes about the value of teaching must change. Many faculty members see teaching as a crucial part of their role and their identity, and most understand its importance at colleges and universities. Too often, though, teaching is seen as a bother, as something that gets in the way of far more important and more highly rewarded pursuits (research). High-quality teaching doesn’t magically appear with a Ph.D. Nor will it thrive until a critical mass of administrators and faculty members value it enough to create a truly meaningful rewards system.

Second, higher education is an inherently conservative profession, at least in terms of techniques. Professions promote conformity by passing on values, ideals, methods, and expectations to new generations, as Leonard Cassuto writes this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most instructors teach the way they were taught, and those with the Ph.D. learned in environments where teaching was generally an afterthought.

So to Sibley and Whitaker’s list, let me add these ideas for generating more interest in online courses:

  • Add instruction in course development and online instruction to graduate programs
  • Hire faculty members based not only on their research skills but on their ability and willingness to teach in innovative ways and to reflect on their work with students
  • Reward new faculty who are willing to develop their classes with active learning and take on development of online courses
  • Change the promotion and tenure standards to reflect the time and effort that innovative, reflective teaching deserves

In a recent issue of Change Magazine, Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate and a professor of education at Stanford, writes that faculty will indeed shift their attitudes and behaviors with the right incentive systems.

So if we want innovative teaching, we need to reward innovative teaching, just as we reward innovative research. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Briefly …

The Atlantic reports that proposed changes in 529 plans, the college savings accounts, would allow students to pay for such things as computers, software, and Internet access. … Poor technical production can inhibit good pedagogy in online courses, eCampus News says in one of its takeaways from the recent South by Southwest conference. NPR offered another list of education-related discussions from the conference, including the important role that online discussions are taking in teacher development. … Politico casts a skeptical eye on U.S. universities, saying that few have done anything to prepare for students who have completed the Common Core curriculum in high school.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.