Making lemonade

I am teaching a grad class for the UND program in Instructional Design and Technology this semester. I have had the opportunity both before and after retirement to teach a course a year for this program and I truly enjoy the experience. This class theoretically combined on-campus and off-campus students using technology services that allow all to meet in a kind of virtual classroom. Because I no longer live near campus, my courses are now all online.

The technology for the class has not worked very well this semester. The U made a decision to move to a product that operates within the Blackboard environment (Collaborate Ultra) and for what remain mysterious reasons after week two. We have yet to have a class when we can all get the system to work. Last week was particularly problematic because I could not launch the class remotely. Tech people tried to help and even took over my system remotely but nothing would work.

I had enough and fell back on something I knew I could count on – Google Hangouts. I had used this system before with a grad class consistently mostly of K12 educators based my belief that you learn about technology by using technology and Google products would be available to K12 educators (and others) after the class ended. This would not necessarily be the case for a CMS such as Blackboard. I sprung Google Hangouts Video on the class without warning and had a functioning session without problems.

I have since decided to move the Google Hangouts for the semester. I will let the U tech people struggle with Blackboard Collaborate. I thought I would create a simple tutorial related to Hangouts video calls so that my group and others might take advantage of more of the features provided.

I must say I prefer the previous version of Hangouts to the present arrangement. The previous version of Hangouts allowed me to create a “circle” for my class, start a session and share it with a circle within Hangouts, and record the session for distribution to those unable to attend or those wanting to review the session. Google has changed some things. I cannot find a way to share the present version with a circle and the recording feature is now a function of YouTube live. I prefer the old system and I have what are reasonable alternatives.

So for the uninitiated, you being by connecting to

You should encounter a screen that looks like this. I have X’d out the history of past hangouts I have used. I use video call for my class. If you must deal with more than 9 people in real time, you will have to make the effort to use the YouTube Live alternative.

Video call should bring up a screen allowing making use of your camera and mic and a couple of other things. In the lower left-hand corner, you should see an icon that will launch chat. I will get to that later, but you may want to make use of chat and video/audio with a group. The dialog box appearing in the middle of the screen allows the originator to invite others. In the previous version, this is where I would take advantage of Google circles. I prefer not to have to enter addresses for all members of my class, but I use the copy link to generate and copy a unique URL to the clipboard. I then send this link to all members of the class using any email system. Note – you will not see this link immediately as it is copied to the clipboard. Just assume the address is there and paste when you generate the email invitations.

Students click on the link they receive and show up in the video session.

The video Hangout call allows many features those of us who use online class systems are used to having available. In the upper right-hand corner, you should find an icon that launches the drop down you see here. You can launch that chat tool and screen sharing from here.

Screen sharing offers two options – share the entire screen or share the active window of an application (e.g., PowerPoint, the view from a second browser).

The chat pane is fairly standard and should appear on the left of the video pane. Participants can carry on a chat while others are speaking.

Here is my work around for recording. I simply launch Quicktime (I tend to use Apple products) and record the section of the screen that Hangouts window. I save out recording in 720p and then upload to YouTube for sharing and archiving. The upload takes some time for a multi hour class, but I do not have sit and watch while this is happening.


Online charter schools concluded to be inferior

Wait for the numbers has long been my recommendation. Those promoting online K-12 education have made statements about the need for innovation and have suggested that online environments are more responsive to individual needs. I am a fan of the individualization argument specifically when explained as a form of mastery learning (not so much learning styles). You seldom see what I would describe as a mastery system in a traditional school setting.

Studies comparing educational treatments are very difficult. It is nearly impossible to create the right circumstances for a treatment/control study. Without random assignment to conditions, the actual causes of any differences between groups are difficult to identify with precision. You might find quality methodology in small sample studies, but not with large numbers of participants from multiple settings.

Researchers from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education have done their best to apply methodological alternatives to a randomized assignment methodology to investigate academic performance of students enrolled in traditional and online charter schools. The results clearly support the traditional approach. While some data suggest specific limitation of online education (e.g., poor supervision) that might be a target for improvement, supporters of online education are going to have to rethink present offerings before contending they provide a superior educational experience.


Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2015). Online charter school study 2015. Available online –

Individualizing literacy instruction with Newsela

The individualization of learning experiences is one of those educational goals that sounds so logical, but ends up being difficult to implement in a practical way. Finding or generating learning materials suited to individual needs can be quite time consuming. What could be ideal in many situations is combining individualization with group discussion. Discussion and sharing can be an important social and learning activity, but learners must share at least some background in order to have something to offer.

Newsela is an online service suited to these circumstances. The benefits of the service have been described in several different ways depending on the reviewer. Newsela offers news articles within several topical areas ranging from science to world events. Each article offered on multiple reading levels – the claim is from 3rd grade through high school. To be clear – this means students reading at different levels can be reading about the same specific topic. Each article connects to a writing prompt and comprehension questions.

It seems that Newsela could be used to completely individualize the learning experience. One strategy would be to differentiate the experience for each level based on interest and reading level. I like the alternative of having students read a similar article suited to their level of functioning and then having the opportunity to discuss the article in a group context.

Newsela comes in a free and a pro version. Newsela requests that educators or administrators contact the company for a bid. EdSurge suggests the cost for the pro version is approximately $2000 per classroom. The pro version offers features such as an annotation tool for teachers allowing teachers to highlight content within articles to guide students and advanced data tracking features. It seems that the free version might be a great way to supplement/diversify literacy instruction and the pro version would appropriate if one wanted to make these resources a core part of instruction.

As the year winds down and educators are seeking a few new things to spice things up, it might be an ideal time to explore Newsela.


Comparison of free and pro versions

Setting up an account for your classroom



The financial challenge of online instruction

I noted a couple of weeks ago that my professional responsibilities had changed as a function of my new role as department chair. The one component of this position that may be relevant to this blog is my administrative role associated with two department online programs (a graduate program in forensic psychology and the undergraduate major). The forensic program has been operating for a couple of years, but we are just rolling out the online undergraduate program. As I indicated in my previous post, my administrative role offers a different perspective than my previous roles as online instructor or graduate faculty member preparing other academics to teach online or design for online instruction.

Here is a concrete example – the financial challenge of an online program.

As a department, we have committed to a faculty in which all members are involved in teaching, research and service. We believe these roles are interdependent in that each is necessary and each role supports the others. When we moved last year to the initiation of the online major, we started by having existing faculty teach a few courses as overloads (with pay). However, this year with have added three faculty members. These individuals are not in tenure-track lines, but are given some expectation of stability. These individuals are expected to teach 5 “group” courses during the year (a 3-2 or 2-3) and all have research expectations. Nearly all of us are involved in teaching online courses, so the new hires both teach online and cover FTF courses when tenure-track faculty members teach online.

Here is a mathematical description of the money challenge. One can calculate the amount of return from tuition (approx. $225 per credit) that must be generated to cover instruction. We must generate approx. $13,300 per 3 credit course. The department receives approximately 55% of tuition dollars after money is taken out for Continuing Education and the college so we make about $370 per enrolled student. We do make some additional money in fees from 300-400 level courses. Here is the problem. We do very well in lower division courses and a few other courses taken by many majors. The problem is that we cap courses at 40 students and we must enroll approx. 36 students to cover instructional costs. So there is little room on the up side to generate a little extra money for administrative costs and GTA support (40 students online is a challenge and far more time consuming than 40 students FTF). When we get to courses likely to be taken by majors only we do receive an additional fee ($50 per credit), but we have far fewer students. The limited upside in fully enrolled courses does not compensate for the struggles to generate enrollments from online majors. We are pretty much breaking even.

I think we are doing what we should be doing to offer a quality program. We want those who take online courses to experience the same faculty members campus-based students experience. I offer this information as a concrete way of explaining what it takes. If our experiences are typical, universities need to be doing this because it is the right thing to do and not because they anticipate large financial gains.

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