Miller Blog

I Blog on EdTech, Web 2.0. Learning Strategies, Marketing & Higher Education (especially two-year colleges)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

In Online Learning, Don’t Start with a Virtual “Syllabus Day”

Sadly, many students have come to expect that there will nothing of consequence addressed on the first day of an on-campus class.  It’s often referred to as “Syllabus Day” because that is the only content of consequence presented by the instructor. 

Kevin Gannon, the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and also Professor of History at Grand View University.  Gannon also bills himself as the “Tattooed Professor.”  Recently he penned an op-ed piece for Vitae, the online career service from the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester.  It is a well-crafted argument for expecting more of students and for giving them more than a ten-minute overview of the syllabus.  Gannon states:

We dedicate so much time to designing our courses, planning our activities, reading up on our content, and constructing our syllabi. We ought to ensure that time was well-spent by planning a first day of class that encourages students to become engaged participants in every aspect of the course.

He goes on to suggest that the first day of class encompass these points

1.  Give the students a taste of everything they’ll be expected to do during the semester. For example, lead a discussion session if that is a central learning strategy for the class.  Or, if group-work is important, break them into groups for a simple exercise.  In other words, give students the opportunity to experience your teaching routine and model your expectations and feedback for them. Give students an immediate opportunity to do to be active learners.

2.  Show passion for the course content.  The first day is a great time for an instructor to share “the exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial parts of the course material.

3.  Of course the syllabus itself is a critical element of any class.  Discuss the document by directing students to the information they’ll need throughout the term.  After, check for understanding and memory using a syllabus quiz.  This first quiz will encourage students to read the syllabus thoroughly.  But it can also provide an example of the quiz format that will be used throughout the term.  Of course, a quiz on the syllabus is a relatively low-stakes assessment that allows students to build some early confidence.

I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts of the Tattooed Professor.  He also recommends making an effort from that first day to learn the students by name.  (I actually create a video using my iPhone with each student telling the camera their name, their college goals, and one memorable thing that will distinguish them from other students.) 

Kevin Gannon summarizes his view of the first day on campus as:

Opening day presents a unique opportunity in our courses. Our students haven’t experienced anything yet, so there’s a default level of interest which we can leverage with engaged teaching and a welcoming atmosphere. The tone we choose to set and the structure of activities we design can impart a positive first impression, and might also preempt some of the more common frustrations that pop up later in the term. Sure, some students will lament the passing of Syllabus Day, but the dividends from a more substantial and engaging first day will more than offset that disappointment.

These are truly important concepts and similar to strategies that I have used when I teach on campus.  Yet, I believe his thinking works just as well for online learning.  Just because we teach online does not mean that instructors are missing similar opportunities to connect with their students, to set expectations, and to create a sense of curiosity and interest for the course topic.

Here are four suggestions for incorporating Gannon’s thinking in online learning.

1.  1.  Create a learning experience around the syllabus.  In addition to the benefits mentioned from Gannon, informing students and measuring via a simple quiz means that the students can legitimately be considered “active students.”  This is significant as the students who receive Federal financial aid such as a Pell Grant must be documented as active in each class.  For years, I have created a one-question syllabus quiz.  That question is a yes or no response to: “I have read and understand the syllabus for this class and agree to be an active student.” Of course it is possible to use a more extensive quiz if desired.

2.   2.  Use the flipped class approach and create a killer introductory video featuring you in which you talk about the importance of the subject.  You could also talk about your own pathway to teaching this class.  Express your passion for teaching, for the subject and for students, especially the ones in this particular class.

3.  3.  You may also need to create or discover videos that will train the students in the use of the college’s Learning Management System (LMS).  Don’t assume that students know how to use discussions, journals, or turn in their homework.  I create the first discussion be asking each student to provide a little biographical thumbnail.  This semester, I will be asking them to submit a short video that will be shared with all students in my section.  I believe that this will create some sense of a group and put names with faces.

4. 4.  You could also divide the class into groups if this is something that you commit to.  Group learning is powerful, and most LMS platforms will make it fairly simple to do.  The groups can work together on projects throughout the term.

One final consideration is that the first week or so of a term may be a time of exploration for many college students.  They use the first week as a time to “shop around” for classes. That makes it especially important to give them a clear and engaging introduction to the course that reflects your overall teaching style and the course’s material.


Yes, in a sense there really is not a first day like you would have on campus.  Online learning would be more like the first week.  But, you definitely can create the positive first impression, set expectations for the students, and allay fears about the technology immediately using many of the same principles that produce engaged learning in a traditional classroom.   

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This post appeared on The Learner's Way, created by Nigel Coutts of the Redlands School in Sydney Australia


Monday, March 14, 2016

Tennessee's Outcomes-Based Funding Approach Showing Signs of Success

Tennessee implemented Outcomes-Based Funding several years ago. I applauded the change from funding allocations that were tied heavily to enrollment growth. When I worked at Chattanooga State Community College in the 90s, the only date we cared about was the 14th day of the fall semester - census day. The new formula rewards degree completion. While it is not a perfect system, it is conceptually an improvement.
Now we have indications that the outcomes focus is paying off. The Lumina Foundation has released preliminary results of their study of the Tennessee program. It shows:
Bachelor’s degrees awarded have increased by 3.4 percent annually since initial formula implementation, compared to 2.5 % annual growth prior to formula implementation. Other states have also had faster growth in bachelor’s degree completion in recent years, consistent with underlying demographic trends, so it is too early to confidently attribute the results to the formula alone.
Associate degrees have increased by 6.3 % annually since initial formula implementation, significantly faster than the 2.8 % average growth rate prior to implementation.
Certificates in Tennessee show strong growth since formula implementation that appears clearly linked to the new funding policy, with 174 % total growth in short-term and 27 % average growth in long-term certificate awards. The “certificate” category is much more flexible than degrees, so institutions have greater scope to create programs very quickly or to define completion of certain existing groups of courses as a certificate award. Tennessee has refined its standards for which certificates can be counted to limit opportunities for “gaming” the formula and to make sure that certificates have genuine academic and economic value for students.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Read my POV Column in Community College Week

I wrote Six Reasons Your Community College Needs A Social Media Strategy and Not Just a Facebook Page to encourage two-year institutions to develop a comprehensive
strategy or plan to fully use social media channels to engage with students and other constituents.  I have developed an online course for Snead State
Community College (AL) for their new certificate program in Social Media.  To make that happen, I have researched and explored a wide variety of material on techniques and best practices to maximize the impact of social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedInPinterest and more.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Will Community Colleges Exist as We Know Them?

One of my greatest fears is that American community, technical and junior colleges may well disappear.  2-year higher education is probably the single greatest American contribution to the world of higher learning.  One only needs to look at the plethora of such institutions that have
undergone name changes to eliminate the term “community from their name to see the effort to be more like 4-year institutions..  


The other disturbing trend is the notion that community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees.  This is a slippery slope and could lead to the eventual demise of true community colleges.  Perhaps this can be done is a way that allows 2-year colleges to retain their distinctive and important role, but I have my doubts.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great opinion piece from Rob Jenkins.  Rob is one of the most insightful voices
for higher education, especially for community colleges.  He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges


Read Rob's article The 'Middle of the End' for Community Colleges? HERE



Friday, May 2, 2014

7 Great Blogs to Follow About Community Colleges




Isa Adney is a speaker, author, host, and consultant who Blogs about helping students break the cycles of poverty through education. Her book Community College Success was published by NorLights Press in 2012. Twitter: @IsaAdney



Matthew Reed, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts writes Confessions of a Community College Dean.  He is a long-time Blogger for Inside Higher Ed who writes from the perspective of an academic leader.  Reed's book, "Confessions of a Community College Administrator," is published by Jossey-Bass. Twitter: @deandad



CCCOER encompasses several educational partners who seek to develop and use open educational resources, open textbooks, and open courseware to expand access to higher education and improve teaching and learning. The Blog is curated by Una Daly, a faculty member at Foothill College in California. Twitter: @unatdaly



Focused upon the First Year Composition course and other intro English courses, this Blog is open to contributors who want to add their voice to this community site. Many of the posts are curated by Holly Pappas, a writing teacher at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts. Twitter: @hapappas



Two Year Talk communicates news, promote discussion of relevant issues and serve as a visible development vehicle for two-year college libraries. Primary curator of this Blog is Julie Cornett, Assistant Professor and Librarian at Cerro Coso Community College in California. Twitter: @frontlib






IDeaS from the Sandbox is from the Instructional Design Services department at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.  It supports faculty use of educational technologies and learning strategies. Twitter: @MCCIDS



The Learning, Education, Technology and Support
(LETS) Blog is maintained by North Shore Community College's (MA) Academic Technology Department to provide an informative and useful resource for faculty, staff, and other interested parties. Lance Eaton, Coordinator of Instructional Design provides a growing pool of resources, recommendations, tools, and material for educational purposes. Twitter: @leaton01

Thursday, December 5, 2013

3-D Printing: On the Verge of Something Really Big

I am fascinated with 3-D printing.

In 2004, The NMC: The New Media Consortium created its first edition of its signature publication, The Horizon Report.  I was fortunate enough to have been a member of that publication’s editorial panel and can clearly recall the discussion we had around RAPID PROTOTYPING – a technology we now think of as 3-D printing.  The panel recognized that a growing number of colleges and
universities were experimenting with rapid prototyping for fast and cost-efficient creation of models and parts.  The 2004 Horizon Report projected that the availability of 3-D printers would spread once the price of the units came done.
The recently published 2014 Horizon Report identifies 3D printing as a “Technology to Watch” with a time-to-adoption projection of two to three years.  It describes the technology this way:

Known in industrial circles as rapid prototyping, 3D printing refers to technologies that construct physical objects from three-dimensional (3D) digital content such as 3D modeling software, computer-aided design (CAD) tools, computer-aided tomography (CAT), and X-ray crystallography. A 3D printer builds a tangible model or prototype from the electronic file, one layer at a time, through an extrusion-like process using plastics and other flexible materials, or an inkjet-like process to spray a bonding agent onto a very thin layer of fixable powder. The deposits created by the machine can be applied very accurately to build an object from the bottom up, layer by layer, with resolutions that, even in the least expensive machines, are more than sufficient to express a large amount of detail. The process even accommodates moving parts within the object. Using different materials and bonding agents, color can be applied, and parts can be rendered in plastic, resin, or metal. This technology is commonly used in manufacturing to build prototypes of almost any object (scaled to fit the printer, of course) that can be conveyed in three dimensions.
Ten years later, the current NMC panel is even more enthusiastic about the technology.  And, there are scads
of examples of how it is being used regularly in educational settings – both formal and informal.

I can affirm that this technology is here now – at least in Chattanooga.  The Chattanooga Public Library 4th floor has a 3-D printer that is available for use to members of the public.  I used this device to make my first 3-D object – a very small figure of Totoro, the iconic
anime character.  They have since added a second printer with the capacity to produce larger objects.  You can read a story - The Boundless Possibilities of 3-D Printing  - on how Chattanooga has embraced 3-D printing in Nooga.com, a local news website focusing on business, government and lifestyle in the Chattanooga area.

You should also read a recent article in Campus Technology, one of my favorite publications - Print Your Own 3D Learning Objects.  The article describes how faculty and students at the University of North Georgia are using 3D printing to create low-cost orthotics and assistive devices for disabled children and other applications of this “disruptive technology.” This article also provides some resources for those interested in learning more about 3-D printing in education.

Autodesk AutoCAD: commercial 3D modeling software
Autodesk Maya: commercial 3D animation software
Blender: free, open source 3D creation software
Dassault Systems SolidWorks: commercial software for engineering design
Trimble SketchUp: a commercial design program that includes 3D modeling
Trimble SketchUp Make: a free 3D drawing tool

Printer Options - Hobbyist 3D Printers (sub-$3,000)
Afinia H-Series

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

10 Things that Will Make You a Better Photographer – Guaranteed

1.  Rotate your camera.  If you subject is mostly vertical, turn your camera 90 degrees.  This will create a vertical
Rotate the camera to make a vertical composition
photograph that makes you subject more prominent.


2.  Move in closer.  Standing too far away from your subject diminishes the impact of your photograph.

3.  Use the “Rule of Thirds.”  Avoid putting your subject in the dead center of your image.
 If you divide the image re into
Avoid "centering," create interest
thirds horizontally and vertically, placing your subject close to the 
intersection of the lines creates a far more interesting photography.

4.  Take lots of photos.  With digital photography, there is no reason to take only one of two shots.  Especially when you have people in the photo, take several of the same pose.  You will be surprised to see that there are small differences
Taking several shots can "capture the moment"
that will make one of these the “keeper.”  
Delete the rest.  Also, often great photographs "capture the moment" and taking multiple shots will let you select that moment.

5.  Move.  Do not stay in the same place and fire off a bunch of shots.  Move closer and move from side to side.  If you have a series of photographs and they are all from the same spot, with the same background, they will be boring.

6.  Watch the background.  Even a well-composed photograph can be made worthless if there are poles or
Contrasting, soft background enhances subject
trees coming out of the subject’s head.  Try to find a neutral, uncluttered background 
where the contrast of that background and the subject will make the subject “pop.”  Also, avoid having the sun or extreme brightness behind your subject.

7.  Hold steady.  A blurry photograph is usually not what you want.  Hold your camera steady.  Practice pushing your camera’s shutter button with a smooth, steady pressure.  Sometimes you will need to consider a camera support such as a tripod or monopod.

8.  Shoot at the proper level & angle.  Bend down if your subject is lower, such as a child or a pet.  Shooting at an extreme angle of up or down can be an effect you want, but
Bend down
in most cases, get to 
the eye level of a subject.

9.  Use lines, angles, and framing.  Lines and angles are powerful visual elements; they can direct the viewer’s eye to
Opening in wall as a frame
your subject.  Also, consider suing some element of the environment to 
frame a photo.  For example, a bit of a tree branch can make the subject stand out and have perspective.

10.  Learn as much as you can about your camera.  Even the simple “point and shoot” models have controls that will make you a better photographer if you know how to use them.  One example is ISO setting.  This lets you adjust the sensitivity of your camera to light.

Try these ides and see what people say about your talents as a photographer!