I am clearly biased, but I believe that we are living in one of the most exciting times in history when it comes to education. Yes, we have problems to address, but we also are also starting to see some amazing innovations that have immense promise to democratize learning, leverage the growing science of learning, and personalize learning in a way that equips and empowers more people than ever before. We also know that things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. I know many people in education who feel that way. So, how do you deal with that? Well, I would love for you try one of the excellent online programs at my place of work, but there are also many ways to go the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) route. I suggest ten steps to becoming competence and confident with a new area in education. Whether you want to learn about project-based learning, self-directed learning, learning analytics, blended and online learning, digital badges for learning, game-based learning, 1:1 programs, or any other emerging practice, all you need to do is pick the topic and then commit to going through the following ten steps (not necessarily in order), committing at least 1 hour to each one, but 20 hours divided among all of them (or 40 for a really deep dive learning journey). You can become relatively competent and confident (albeit not an expert) in just 20 hours. Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you.

Log It

As you start, create a place where you can keep a log of your learning and experiences. It can be an old-fashioned notebook, a tool like Google Docs or Evernote, or even an online blog so others can follow along.

Experience It

Before you even have a full understanding of the topic, try to get a couple of hours of direct experience with it. Being an observer is okay. Being a participant observer is better. Being a fully immersed participant is best. If it is game-based learning that you want to explore, find a place online or in-person where you can experience (or at least witness first-hand) learning from a game-based learning experience. If you have time, getting a couple of experiences from which to compare is especially helpful.

Define It

Now that you have experienced it, you are ready to define it. Look around at various definitions. Compare them. What do they have in common? What is different about them? Based on a bit of research, create your own working definition or explanation. Try to be thouthful and precise. Choose your words carefully. You don’t want any fluff. Make it meaningful, informative and substantive. Write it down like you were trying to explain it to someone use. Use examples and illustrations to help clarify the definition. As you go through the other steps, come back to this and refine it based on your new learning.

Study It

You don’t have to follow these in perfect order, but at some point you want to more deeply study the topic. This is where you look for a few more substantive resources; maybe whitepapers, scholarly journal articles, a book chapter or two, informative videos, or in-depth blog posts. Take the time to learn from them. Be studious about it. Take notes. Ask questions. Strive for a deep understanding. Consider asking a person who is well-informed about the topic to suggest their two or three favorite resources on the subject.

Play With It

Try out your new knowledge. Sketch out a few ideas for how you would use it in a lesson. Try parts of it on a real lesson with students. Create a simple project that you can try out with friends or family. Have fun, but focused fun. Don’t worry about being perfect or polished. Just enjoy experimenting with it in some authentic environment…ideally with real people.

Talk About It

As you are doing these others, find people who are interested, connect with them, and talk about what you are learning. Ask them questions about what they know about it. Be “really curious” in your conversations. Your goal is to be genuinely interested in the thoughts and insights of the other person, to clarify your thinking, to consider different applications, benefits and limitations.

Analyze It

We have plenty of walking advertisements for educational trends and innovations, but we need more thoughtful people who examine the benefits and limitations of each area. Project-based learning is great for in-depth exploration, but it isn’t as amazing for learning something new quickly. It has plenty of other benefits and limitations as well. Force yourself to critically analyze the practice. What are the benefits? What are the limitations? In what contexts or situations does it work especially well, and where does it not seem to work as well? This needs to be more than your gut reactions and biases. Challenge yourself to be relentless in both your praise and critique. Be honest, persistent, and analytical. This will help you cultivate a wisdom that will serve you will with this new practice.

Design It and Try It

At some point, you want to design and teach new lessons informed by this practice. Consider doing at least two of these if you have the time. Do keep in mind, however, that first attempts don’t always work perfectly. Imagine how few basketball players we would have if people quit after missing their first effort to make a basket. I’ve seen teachers do this often with something like project-based learning. They try something once and it doesn’t go well. So, they assume that it must be the new strategy that is to fault. Since when did we blame a piano if we couldn’t play it on the first attempt? Whether it is basketball, learning a new instrument, or learning a new educational method or strategy, they all take practice…which leads us to the next one.

Practice It (ideally with feedback from a mentor)

Try it again and again. It doesn’t need to be something massive. Just get practice with it. It is ideal to find a mentor who can give you feedback on your practice, sort of like a piano teacher or a basketball coach would do. If possible, having them observe and give feedback is great. If not, at least have a meeting before and/or after to talk through the plans and debrief how it went with them. Listen to their advice, adjust, practice again, and get more feedback.

Reflect On It

Remember the first suggestion…log it? That is where you can reflect on your learning. What are you learning? What is helping? What is hurting? What is frustrating and exhilarating? What is inspiring? What is working and what is not? What else might you try? What else might you need to learn or practice to improve the results? Use such questions to reflect on the process. It will help you become more thoughtful and intentional, but it will also help solidify your learning.

That is it. Pick a topic and dedicate at least 20 hours to doing these ten steps. If you want a deeper learning experience, go for a 40 hour learning journey. As you go through it, use your judgement to decide how you want to divide your time. For some learning projects you might devote more time to the defining and studying. For others, the bulk of your time will be in practicing and reflecting. Find out what works best for you and go for it.  And while I already gave you ten steps, I’ll finish with an 11th. Somewhere along the way, share it. Spread the word about your lessons learned so that it can help the next person who wants to go on a similar journey. Blog it.

Look at the following scenarios. As you read through the list, make a mental vote for each one. Is it cheating? Vote yes, no, or it depends. Consider sharing one or more of your thoughts in the comment area.

  1. A student finds a publicly posted version of the unit test online and studies from it.
  2. A student find a free collection of answers to questions in a textbook test bank, and uses that to study for the test.
  3. A student pays a fee for membership to a web site that posts answers to text bank questions for textbooks, using it to study for tests in one or more classes.
  4. A student has a friend who took the class before, so he/she interviews that friend to get tips on what to look for on the test.
  5. A student hires a tutor to help study for a test (I realize most would not consider this cheating, but I include it to set up for the next two).
  6. A student hires a tutor to help study for a test. The tutor subscribes to a web site with answers to textbook test bank questions to use as a resource in tutoring the student.
  7. A student hires a tutor who took the class before (and has copies of the old tests) to help study for a test.
  8. A student buys an instructor copy of a course textbook to gain access to the test bank.
  9. A student uses copies of old tests from the same class to study for a test.
  10. A student uses copies of old tests from the same class to study for an open-book test.
  11. A student steals a copy of the test and studies from it before test day.

Here is my concern with many of these scenarios. There are contexts in which most of these are considered cheating, and others where the instructor is alright with them. In addition, most academic integrity policies do not explicitly address these types of nuanced situations. Context is important. What is considered acceptable in one class is defined as cheating in another. This is often true even when there is a school academic integrity policy.

So, how do we deal with this? I suggest three great places to start.

1. Create Better Assessments

The best way is to create new types of assessments, to be more creative in how we go about tests and measurements in learning organizations. Look at test banks from publishers and you will often see poorly written and often confusing questions. Well-trained educators can usually create better tests on their own.

2. Revisit Grade-Focused Teaching and Learning

Our ultimate goal is to ensure that students maximize their learning, not that they earn a specific grade on a test or quiz. As long as we persist in making courses and school about earning grades, and not about learning new knowledge and skill, we will continue to run into these conundrums. Or, the other option is to create a massively detailed list to do’s and don’ts, but who wants to enforce such a thing and how would they do it?

3. Teach about Academic Integrity and Dishonesty

The reality is that the connected world is changing the way we think about teaching, learning, studying, sharing, collaborating, and cooperating. We live in a world of crowd-sourced knowledge generation, and this impacts how people think about issues like academic integrity. If you were teaching a group of students and gave them a quiz with the 11 statements above, I guarantee you that there would not be consensus on whether each constitutes cheating. At minimum, this means that we need to be more explicit and intentional in teaching about our expectations and the overall concept of academic integrity and academic dishonesty.

One of the most shared articles on my blog is a simple infographic that provides tips on how to build a personal teaching network. Similar to a personal learning network, a PTN is creating a plan to teach and contribute in positive ways in the digital world. This is a great way to be an active and contributing digital citizen, and to share from your life, learning and experience. However, some people contact me, asking how they can get involved in educational consulting. Where and how to do start? While there are hundreds of ways to do this, I offer the following eleven bits of advice, but note that these are not tips on how to get rich. These are for people who genuinely want to share and help others. I realize that making a living is important, but this is really just about making a difference for me. Some find it possible to make a full-time job out of the work, and that is quite possible. However, it really starts with tip #1.

1. Decide what you want out of this. Do you want to be a full-time speaker and consultant? Do you want to do it to learn and build connections around shared passions? Do you just find it rewarding to help and share with others? Do you want something that supplements your full-time income, but that keeps you sharp and learning? Those are many reasons why people get into educational consulting. A good first step is to be honest and clear about your reasons. That will impact the other steps. And it is good to revisit these often. It is fine to change your goals and purpose. Just know that this will also require you to change your approach to many of the next ten items.

2. Pick 1-3 passion areas and focus on them. Commit to them for at least for 2-3 years. After that time, you can always adjust, add, or remove areas based upon your goals, interests and aspirations. However, it takes time and focus to establish yourself as someone who truly is a leader in a given area, and focusing will allow you to be a person of depth…a go-to person in these areas. To be honest, I don’t completely follow this advice, but I still encourage others to do so. By focusing, you can build more depth, establishing yourself as a skilled and knowledgeable person in this area. I’m not a huge fan of terms like expert or guru, but if you persist in a few areas long enough (and share what you are learning), people will likely refer to you in this way. For example, I was at a conference several months ago, and a colleague heard someone talking about “the badge guy” who is at the conference. It took me a moment to realize that the person was talking about me. I’d not said a word about badges at the event, but somehow the word got around. How did that happen? Well, I read, write, and think about badges a great deal. Over time, people come to recognize you for the time, effort and work that you put into this area.

In terms of picking passion areas, some people encourage you to choose topics in high demand, hot topics that are driven by mandates or something that builds demand in the field of education. I realize that taking this into account is important if you need or want to do this for your full-time income. However, I choose to instead identify passion areas that are truly things about which I care deeply. If you are going to invest much of your time in an area, have a compelling why behind this choice. Why is it important? What difference will it make in the world?

3. Read and study everything you can about your 1-3 areas. Make it your goal to be the most knowledgeable and/or skilled person on the planet in those areas. Who knows if you will ever achieve that goal, but striving for it will help you grow and learn a great deal. You don’t have to wait until you think you’ve arrived. There will likely almost always be some who are behind you and others ahead. However, your thought and work in the area will be a valuable contribution to he field. and work. You might want to start by figuring out who the leaders are in the field, learning from their work and writing.

4. Find the novel stuff. Don’t just look at the popular books. Get into the research. Read the “boring” and technical articles, and books that others don’t bother to read. They may be boring, but I find amazing ideas in such sources. Analyze these resources, and then share them with others in a more interesting and easy-to-understand way. Collect novel ideas, approaches, models and examples. Become the person who does more than Tweet what 1000 others have already Tweeted. Some of the jewels in your area are often found in dust-covered research reports and doctoral dissertations, in largely unknown groups that are doing amazing things in your area but are not telling anyone, in older articles and books about which many have forgotten. Find these jewels, polish them, and display them with the world to see.

5. Get in the field. Reading and study is great, but if you want to be a consultant, you want to get into many different types of contexts that are doing good (or bad) work in your passion areas. Visit these places if you can. Interview people. Be as curious as a 1st grader. And, if you have time and the ability, help out. Also ask if people are willing to stay in touch. You are building a network around your area of interest. As as visit and interview more, you will find that new places will also what you to share about your work with them. Do so generously, but not to sell anything. Just share because it is a passion, because you care about it and you genuinely want to help. In addition to learning from others, do something yourself. Build something. Design something. Create something. Become a person who has both knowledge and skill in your passion area.

6. Blog and Tweet – Share what you are doing and learning. You can’t share too much. Use the blog as your learning journal, but keep in mind that you are writing for an audience as well. Using Twitter allows you to build a network of people with shared interests, but it also becomes a place where you can share links to new blog posts, inviting others to follow your work. This step is what leads to over half of my keynote presentations and consulting jobs. However, you want to produce substantive, distinct (even unique) content…and you want to do it often. I average 3-5 blog posts a week at the moment, but at least committing to 1-2 articles a week is a great start. Also, make sure that you use a blog where people can subscribe and follow in ways that work for them. Some still use RSS, but having an old-school email subscription is still preferable by many. This allows you to also see the growing following that is developing around your blog.

Some disagree with this part about blogging. They instead argue that it is better to create a newsletter and get people to subscribe to it. Then you share what you are learning in the newsletter…only with the subscribers. I’ve met many who had great success with this model, building a strong following. And, this allows you to know how large of a following you have. This is not my style. I put my stuff out on the public web, free for all to read and share. That is because my ultimate goal is not about building a client base, but about contributing good and valuable resources for the world. If it turns into consulting or speaking options, that is fine. For me, blogging is part of my calling as as learner and teacher. However, I work full-time in another role and I don’t aspire to be a full-time consultant now. So, I choose invitations and requests carefully. I look for the ones that really connect with my passions and gifts, and I decline others. You obviously need to figure out what works best for your goals and life circumstances.

7. Start building that Personal Teaching Network – Check out my past articles for this one. Pick 5-7 items and get going. You have something to share, something about which you are passionate. Go for it. Don’t be afraid to identify yourself as a consulting who is happy to work with interested people. In time, you will find opportunities and get invitations, but people need to know that you are open to and interested in this work. For many, this means getting out there and doing good, even if it is volunteer work. Along the way, this also helps get the word out.

8. So, be sure to have a section on your blog or site that tells people who you are, what you do, your qualifications and accomplishments. People are “shopping” for who can be of most assistance. Help them out.

9. Similarly, display your work. People want to know that you really know what you are talking about. That comes from showing what you know and what you’ve done in the past. If you get to be in the news, present a webinar, or present in an online conference; put that on a page on your blog. See if you can link to the events and recordings. Show a list of who you’ve worked with, what projects you’ve completed, presentation topics, etc.

10. Help people. Be generous. People will eventually start to comment on your blog, interact with you on Twitter, and contact you through your blog (That assumes that you set up a contact form. Did I mention that you should set up a contact me form? Do that.). When they do, be kind and reply to them. Show good digital etiquette. Thank them for taking the time to reach out to you. Never say no to a request to chat. It is fine if you have a busy schedule. Be honest about that, but at least offer a few minutes for a phone chat or Google Hangout. Or, you can just email back and forth a bit. This is consulting too. Educational consulting is a form of educational entrepreneurship, which is a sub-category of social entrepreneurship. As such, it is about social good. I believe this has to remain the focus of good educational consultants, even when there are financial realities.

11. Don’t be afraid to share your fees. You can search the web for how much people charge for speaking or consulting. There are plenty of resources to review on pricing. It is good to be aware of these, but ultimately you need to decide what your goals are, financially and otherwise. If you are content with $25 / hour or a few hundred dollars for speaking…and you can afford that, then go for it. However, don’t devalue what you have to offer. You have something of value to offer, so don’t be afraid to charge for it. I’ve done educational innovation consulting for almost half that time, and I didn’t ask for a dollar for most of those years. I gladly accepted payment or honorariums if they were presented to me, and I asked that people cover any expenses…that it not cost me to do work for them. At this stage, I do charge. Again, it all depends upon your goals and needs. With that said, still more than half of those who contact me have a pre-existing budget and make a price offer before even asking my rates. It is very rare that we don’t find a mutually agreeable rate. You have needs and so does the other person. However, do note that every time you speak or consult, you are building new connections that may lead to other opportunities down the road.

These is not an exhaustive list and there is plenty of room for doing things differently. This is not how to maximize profit. It is just the path that I’ve found to be rewarding…especially in terms of helping me to live out my calling and to have a positive impact in the education sector.

I did this personality test years ago that described you based upon the traits of four animals: a lion, otter, golden retriever and beaver. I ended up being half otter and half beaver. The beaver is detailed, analytical, serious, and discerning. He is the one that you are likely to find reading a dictionary for fun. The otter, on the other hand, is energetic, fun-loving, enthusiastic, spontaneous, and optimistic. I remember the otter being described as “a party waiting to happen.” But because I have these two seemingly contrasting traits, I concluded that I am a party waiting to happen, but we would probably be joyfully reading the dictionary at my party. 

There is more truth to this than I like to admit. I am one at the party who wants to dive into a deep conversation. I want to talk about ideas, possibilities, and issues. I have no sense of separating work from fun, because they are all in the same, wonderful, tasty stew that I call life. I painfully resist the desire for a deep dive conversation while engaging in small talk, feeling awkward and out-of-place. However, the moment the conversation turns into something about ideas, pretty much any ideas, I feel at home and in my element. I am inspired, engaged, and I don’t want the conversation to end.

So that is probably part of why I feel so at home on the web. I am in control, and I can navigate myself to places where ideas dominate: Twitter chats, webinars, MOOCs, listserves, blogs, whitepapers, online communities of practice… You get the idea. These are all idea-rich interactions. They tend to skip the small talk and jump right into substantive questions and ideas. They can still be playful and even light-hearted, but people who gather in these groups are usually looking to share and learn about things of substance, sometimes more practical and other times theoretical.

What do you do when you don’t find the conversations that you want to have with other people? That is where social media can be a rich and rewarding outlet. Post an idea or questions and let the conversation begin! Yes, it can be deflating when none seem to reply, but when they do, it is exhilerating. Sometimes complete strangers interject with a challenge, comment, question, or illustration that gets the heart pumping and the ideas flowing. Some of my best ideas emerge amid such exchanges.

While the nearly now of social media can be engaging and full of great connections and interactions, there is also that time when you yearn to have a real-time chat about a topic of interest. That is what I used to love about the chat rooms and IRC of the 1990s. You jumped in a room named after a topic of interest and just started interacting in real-time. You also had easy access to a transcript of the conversation for further reflection and review.

Now we have Google Hangouts. I have not used them as much as I hope to in the future, but I’m interested in trying them out as places to interact with people around the globe about ideas and questions of interest. Think of them as the dinner party of the online world. Find 10 people around the world that you would love to get together for a night of dining and conversation, invite them, and let the magic happen. Make it a “no strings attached” event. In other words, there is no expectation that you do anything beyond show up and engage in a good and lively discussion around a topic of shared interest. This is one of my goals for the end of this year and through 2015. So, look for the invites on this blog and on my Twitter handle. I’m a party waiting to happen, and there will be a dictionary waiting for each of you. Okay, I’ll try to make it a bit more exciting than reading the dictionary (although I have been known to relax in my leather chair on a winter evening with a hot tea and my beloved copy of the Concise OED).

weebleRemember those little toys shaped like an egg called weebles? “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” This is a pretty good life lesson if you think about it. How do we cultivate such a mindset in the life of our students, helping them learn to persist through the wobbles or failures of life, learning from them, persisting through them, and having a joy and resilience in life? I contend that one thing we can do is revisit how and what we teach about failure. Here are then places to start.

1. Create a culture where failure is a natural part of the learning process. Failing has turned into a bad word, a character flaw, and something about which to be ashamed. Yet, if we go to thriving startup communities, failure is not always seen that way. Risk-taking is respected, and failure is bound to happen at times when we take risks, even calculated ones. If we want to help students develop into adults who have courage and confidence as calculated risk-takers, then why not start it in school?

2. Consider alternatives to letter grades. – For many, it is hard to separate the concept of school from grades, but it is possible. In fact, there are a growing number of schools around the world that are coming up with alternatives to letter grade systems: standards-based report cards, narrative feedback, portfolio assessment and more. My support for alternatives continues to grow, largely because I believe that grades are counter-productive. While they serve as extrinsic motivators, what is the cost? What is lost? They seem to encourage playing it safe, and discourage experimentation and striving for things with potentially uncertain results.

3. Use ungraded and formative feedback. I realize that many will not get rid of letter grades. That is alright. There is still value in minimizing their role. If the goal is to help students get better at something, then give them a chance to practice and get feedback before getting a grade. There is even research to show that students are less inclined to cheat in such an environment. Grading every practice activity is just about rewarding those who don’t need much practice. That makes school about rewarding people who don’t have to work as hard, and leading those who do to feel like they are inadequate.

4. Debrief it. Whether things are a failure, success, or a combination of the two; there is so much opportunity for learning in debriefing the experience. What went well? what didn’t? What other strategies could you have tried? What would you do the same or differently if you could do it again? What knowledge or skill would increase your chance of success next time? How can you gain that knowledge or develop that skill? These are a few of the many helpful questions for debriefing, and they sometimes lead to many valuable learning vistas…those “a ha” moments.

5. Celebrate people who try something new or hard and fail. This will help nurture a culture with grit, persistence, and getting back up and trying again. Removing the social stigma of failure frees students to strive for goals that are out of their reach.

6. Teach about growth and fixed mindsets. For fixed mindset people, failure is a sign that you are a failure. For people with a growth mindset, it tends to be seen as feedback and a challenge to work hard and keep at it until you get the result you want. A growth mindset knows there is progress that comes from trying and trying again.

7. Model failure. Teachers can also be candid about their failures, how they dealt with them, and what they learned from them. This goes a long way in modeling that failure is not something about which to be ashamed, but something from which we can learn and that we can use to improve.

8. Set big goals and incremental ones. Big goals without the incremental ones can be overwhelming and discouraging. By teaching students to set incremental goals, they can learn to monitor their progress. They see that a failure is not an end point, but just a temporary setback in the journey toward a larger goal. When students persist to the larger goals, have them reflect on the steps along the way, the inspiring, challenge, discouraging, and motivating parts throughout the journey.

9. Study the failures of great leaders and inspirational people from the past and present. Make failure a topic of study, learning how people cope with it, use it, and overcome it. Each of these become stories/scripts to guide us as we work through failures along the road to success.

10. Teach that human worth is not rooted in a person’s successes or failures. Human worth is inherent. It is not based upon what a person does or does not accomplish. Life is a gift and each person has been granted value that can’t be taken away, not from the greatest failure. Coming from a Christian background, this is foundational part of my world view. I believe that God gave each of us inherent value. God declared us as precious and important. Such a mindset gives us to freedom to be risk takers, innovators, and people who fail with grace. Yes, failure can be painful, but it doesn’t take away your worth.

Do fully online courses exist? Or, are good online courses ever fully online? I know the first seems like a strange question, because we all know that such things exist, at least as we usually think of online courses. And the second question seems like a challenge to the concept of online courses, but it is not. Instead, this is my way of suggesting strategies for highly personal and potentially high-impact online courses by leveraging an aspect of online course design that is sometimes forgotten, namely the offline world. With that in mind, following are tips for integrating the offline world in your online courses.

1. Start with the Learner

This may seem insignificant at first, but I find it critical to remember that the single most important part of your online course is never online, the student. After all, one of the fundamental rules of good instructional design and teaching is “know your learner.” The student who will take your online course lives in a physical world, surrounding by physical people and things. Consider that world when you design your course. Provide suggestions to the students on how to create or find spaces that are conducive to studying, reflecting, and learning in the course. Ask students to look at their life schedule and share upfront when they are blocking off time to work on the course amid their other responsibilities and life challenges (That also lets you know good times to contact them). As an ice-breaker, have students share a few pictures from the world around them…and them in that world. It provides context, personalizes the experience, and it is a fresh ice-breaker and way to get to know each other a bit better. Early in the course, have students reflect on the physical world around them. How can that world help them in this course and what distractions will they need to manage? And on a more fundamental level, start the course by making sure students have the necessary physical hardware expected in the class (computer, headphones and mic (if necessary), tool for creating images and video, etc.).

2. Build for Offline Breaks and the Use of Physical Movement

Don’t design massively long video lectures or content without planning for breaks. Break the videos into segments and verbally suggest that students take breaks. In your instructions for activities and exercises, be explicit and intentional about tips for when to take a break and why. You can include tips like, “It might be good to take a quick break, go on walk, or do something else for a bit before you move on to this next part.” Check out some of the research about the value of movement and learning, note-taking, memory and breaks, and engaging all the senses. Think about how you can leverage these in your online course. For example, think about an interactive recorded lecture online where you give the student activities within the lecture (things to say out loud, movements that serve as anchors for remembering items, a scavenger hunt…like go find an item in your room or house that you could use as an analogy or illustration to explain this idea to someone else…). These activities can increase engagement, increase understanding and sometimes add a level of fun and playfulness. Try this Teacher Toolbox for Physical Activity Breaks for a few ideas.

3. Interviews

Consider how you can give students assignments to conduct simple and informal or deep and formal interviews to enhance their learning in the class. They can interview people in their family and community. This can be a great way to have students build a personal learning network in the physical world, learn from experts, better understand how what they are learning applies in real-world contexts, and it adds a rich type of face-to-face interaction to the online course design.

4. Observations

Create assignments that require students to observe the natural world, people, or groups of people. Then have them report back what they learned and experienced. This can be an individual writing assignment, an ongoing learning journal, a follow-up real-time chat with you as the instructor, or a contribution to an asynchronous online discussion. These can add a rich and practical element to courses in many subject areas. Don’t be too quick to suggest that it doesn’t work for your content area. Almost everything we teach has implications in the physical world. Find those implications and use them to help the students make meaningful connections.

5. Service Learning

Service learning integrates meaningful community service into a curriculum, and adds substantive reflection and debriefing. How can students use what they are learning in the course to serve someone in a small or simple way? It doesn’t need to be a commitment that takes hours or days. It might even be micro-acts. How could you add 5-minute service learning activities that relate to what you are teaching? This adds engagement, leverages the human connection, and models how this content can help you love the neighbors (literal and figurative) in this world.

6. Show and Tell from the Offline World

I mentioned this onet in #2, but have students make analogies and connections between what they are learning and what they see in the physical world around them. This drives their thinking to higher levels (analysis, evaluation, even creation), and it makes for fun and interesting sharing in the online discussions. The students are forced to think deeply about what they are learning, and their examples can help others in the class better understand concepts.

7. Experiments

This is done in some online science classes by actually including a lab-in-a-box or kitchen science experiments. However, it can work in almost any content area. What are social, personal, or physical experiments they could try to better understand a concept or to learn something new? I’ve successfully used what I call life experiments for some time. I have students test out a concept or idea by creating some sort of relevant social experiment, reporting their findings, and reflecting on what they can learn from the findings. This works very well for social science classes, but with a little creativity, you can come up with wonderfully engaging life experiments for almost any class. Some of these can even be designed as games they try to play with someone or a group.

8. Images and Video Footage

Each learner in an online class may come from a different physical location, so why not leverage that diversity in the class? Have students capture relevant pictures and video footage from their unique world, connecting that with specific lessons and concepts that are being learned. Over time, the students collectively generate a rich repository of visual and multimedia content for the class.

9. Peer Feedback

Build into assignments the requirement to run their work or ideas past one or more people in the physical world. They don’t need to find someone to carefully edit their work, maybe just give five minutes of time to talk through a few of the ideas and share their impression.

10. Connect Offline

Sometimes you have online students who are local, or students in the class who live close to one another. A quick meeting at a coffee shop, library or the school can be a rich enhancement. Or, in the absence of this, you can use any number of synchronous tools with video to add a visual and real-time element to a course. Phone chats work as well. These are not entirely offline, but they do add some of the affordances of communication in physical spaces. Also, encourage students who live near one another to try one or two study sessions. In my experience, this adds a wonderfully personal element to their online learning experience.

What do you think? Are you ready to integrate the offline world into your online class? Consider trying a few of these and see how they work. It will help to conduct your own short survey or questionnaire to get feedback on how students experience these physical enhancements. Or, having students keep a learning journal will give you keen insights into how the offline design features are impacting the student experience.

By now, you’ve probably read a few articles or at least watched a couple of videos about the idea of mindset and the connection to learning. Carolyn Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is exemplified by the person who takes great pride in her IQ. She is naturally smart. Dweck explains that an unhealthy emphasis on fixed traits and our genetics when it comes to learning is a disadvantage. When I do well, it is because I am smart. When I don’t, I may get frustrated quickly because a failure might mean that I’m not smart enough. I am also less likely to take risks because failure is a character flaw from this mindset.

A growth mindset is different. This person likely recognizes genetic traits, but doesn’t focus upon that. After all, there isn’t much you can do about your genes. Instead, the growth mindset person is more concerned about how much more one can do with effort, persistence, and the cultivation of new skill. This person is not blind to the fact that some classmates can multiply two four digit numbers in their head faster than others can tie their shoes. However, the growth mindset student doesn’t dwell on such things. She instead knows that she can get better at multiplication with hard work, practice, and persistence. When such a person faces a challenging problem, she is more likely to persist…less likely to give up. She is going to make more progress. This is the spirit of the recent blog post by Salman Khan where he explains, “Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart.

Some might reply by arguing that you have to be realistic with kids. Know their limitations and make sure they know them as well. Know your students well is a fundamental principles of good teaching and learning, but here is the problem I have with that emphasis. It is hard to truly know limits. Yes, it is true that a person without legs will never be able to compete and win in the high jump at the Olympics. However, what about the 3rd grader who struggles with math or reading. Is that a sure sign that she’ll never be an award-winning author, a scientist who finds a cure for cancer, or the President of the United States. Or, what about the little girl who dreams of being a ballerina, but she lacks any signs of graceful movement? Yes, that is amazingly difficult. Don’t we want kids to strive for amazingly difficult things? Even if they don’t achieve them, they may have made tremendous progress.

I tend to set very high goals for myself. I’ve always done that. I remember a debate with a high school teacher. He argued that we should always set stretch goals that are achievable. I asked how you know if they are achievable. Why not set goals that are possibly or even likely out of reach. Shoot for the stars, knowing that you might only make it half way, but what a view! As I understand it, the rewarding part of goals comes more from the pursuit than the achievement anyway. At the same time, I accept the reason and value behind a mixed of goals, some more reasonable and short-term, but others that go big, really big, even if you or others think you don’t have what it takes.

I’ve heard too many stories of people whose teachers and guidance counselors told them that they could never be a __________ (fill in the blank), or that they are just not college material. In fact, I’ve experienced a number of situations where graduate students wrote worse than the eighth graders I once taught. There was a time when I took that as a sign that they were not leadership material. Do we really want a principal who doesn’t know the difference between to, two, and too? Here is the problem with that judgement. It is wrong. I’ve see great leaders who struggled with basic skills along the way, and many great leaders have weaknesses…but they still became valued and, in the eyes of many, accomplished and effective leaders.  I’ve also heard far too many stories of young people who lacked confidence, but were encouraged by growth mindset teachers, teachers who were more interested in what they can achieve by hard work and perseverance than labeling students and making sure they know their learning limitations.

The truth is that it is hard to know our limitations. Maybe it is fair to say that you will not be an NBA center if you are five feet tall, but most people figure those things out for themselves. What we do need is intentional encouragement, reminders that hard work, perseverance and grit often trump raw intelligence. And we often need coaching on how to cultivate these habits. Instead of declaring what people can and can’t do, why not make education about an experiment in just how much you can do, how far you can go, how much you can learn, and how much of an impact you can make in the world?