Online Teaching Tip – Transparent Feedback Loops


Tip: Use the online discussion forum to incorporate transparent feedback loops into learning tasks to provide students with suggestions for improvement.


Sharing incomplete and draft work can be a regular and repeated process throughout a course. Students can be organized into small peer review groups (3-4) to share draft work using the online discussion forum in Desire2Learn. Draft work can be shared as an attachment or by inserting an external link (i.e. Google document) in the message thread.  It is also helpful for reviewers when students describe the type of feedback requested using the criteria outlined for the learning task.


In these small discussion groups, the feedback process is manageable and students can provide clear and specific feedback to a few peers in the class.  As the instructor, I also review the draft work posted and provide feedback to students.  My feedback might include a brief reply posted in the discussion forum or a more detailed response using track changes Additional feedback may be required using email or arranging a virtual meeting using Adobe Connect.


Overall, this transparent feedback strategy serves to: 1) provide students with peer and instructor feedback when there is still an opportunity to make changes before submitting the assignment for a grade; 2) clarify learning intentions and any misunderstandings about the criteria for the task; and 3) offer students an opportunity to review the type of feedback peers receive from other students and from the instructor. The following quote from one of my former students demonstrates the value in using transparent feedback loops: “Assessment practices supported my learning and showed me what my next steps are. Quick and helpful feedback was inspiring and exactly what I needed to stay engaged in the course.”

Note: This was also posted in the Teaching & Learning Newsletter, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, November 2015.


What is a Collaboratory?

I am currently teaching online courses in graduate programs (M.Ed. and Ed.D programs) that use the term “collaboratory” in the course title.   The term collaboratory is considered a combination of the terms collaboration and laboratory (Lunsford & Bruce, 2001; Wulf, 1993). The courses use a collaboratory approach and learning spaces to support graduate students examine their practice and learning from engaging in meaningful inquiry in the field.

Students in these courses are generally full-time professionals completing graduate programs and are grouped into cohorts or class groupings based on their specializations.  As such, the Collaboratory of Practice courses were designed to support the application of knowledge in real world settings by graduate students in cohorts who investigate and learn from inquiry in the field and examine problems of practice in their workplace or related to their professional work using various research methods and a collaboratory approach.

The collaboratory approach is also considered a fusion of two important developments in contemporary research: communities of practice and collaboration.  Communities of practice are groups of people (in this case cohorts based on specializations) who deepen their knowledge and expertise in an area by engaging in active inquiry.  A collaboratory can also be considered a learning space or laboratory for learning and collaboration.  In this collaborative virtual environment, scholars work together and learn alongside peers in their cohort.  Since students move through many courses with a similar cohort, they develop relationships with cohort members and can build trusting and collaborative relationships.

One strategy used by instructors to help students accomplish work in the course both individually and in collaboration with peers is to organize small groups (~5 members) within the cohort into studio groups (Grego & Thompson, 2008).  Studio groups provide students with an opportunity to collaborate with peers in a writing and sharing space for collaborative knowledge building and idea improvement.  Various online services can be used to support studio group collaboration including threaded discussion forums, shared documents (i.e. Google Docs, presentations, etc.), virtual meeting spaces (i.e. Adobe Connect, Skype, Hangouts, etc.) and other collaborative online spaces. The collaboratory approach and learning spaces used in the Collaboratory of Practice courses serve as a source of active inquiry and learning, an opportunity to respond to contextually based problems of practice, and an opportunity to take an inquiry stance in the company of peers.

Copy of slides from the session “What is a Collaboratory” for EdD graduate students on July 9, 2015 presented with Dr. Brenda Spencer – EdD Collab Lunch Session_Slides

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Facilitating Online Courses

The Teaching Assistantship Preparation Program (TAPP) is designed to provide educational development for graduate students about the role and responsibilities of the work as a graduate assistant in teaching.

I was invited by the Office of Teaching and Learning to lead a session for TAPP on Wednesday, February 25th from 11 a.m. to noon. The session will focus on how to facilitate online courses. Topics in the session include instructional design, synchronous and asynchronous communications, tools for student interactivity, cultivating a scholarly community of inquiry, organizing online spaces, developing instructor presence, and formative assessment strategies.

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Excellence in Teaching Award


Thank you to all students, staff, faculty and leaders at the Werklund School of Education for the honour in receiving a Teaching Excellence Award.  I am proud to be a member of an innovative and growth-oriented learning community!

The following are responses I provided to reflective questions about teaching for the award ceremony:

1. What makes teaching a passion or something that you strive to excel at in your academic work?


My family influenced many of my interests including my passion for teaching and learning. For example, I remember my grandfather passionately teaching me how to read and write in Italian at a young age. He was one of my first role model teachers that taught me to value learning and to persevere with passion. As such, receiving feedback from students in my classes indicating they are “happy and learning” makes me continue to strive towards excellence and continual growth in my work.



2. What are some attributes of your excellence in teaching?


I believe students come first and I make my students and teaching classes my priority. When I’m prioritizing my daily tasks, my students come first. Responding to student questions, sending out class communications and providing feedback is first on my to-do list each day. I also believe learning is a collaborative partnership and a characteristic of excellence. Each term I look forward to working alongside my students and I thank my students for influencing my learning as much I endeavor to activate their learning.


I have always been passionate about learning and I’m particularly inspired by new ways of learning and building connections with learners in digital spaces. I try to share my passion for learning and organize my online teaching spaces so they are inviting for students and foster active participation.  I try to motivate students by designing authentic and challenging learning activities. Furthermore, I have high expectations for students and provide ongoing formative feedback, scaffolding to meet individual student needs, and offer many opportunities for students to improve their work in the company of peers.



This is a sample of student feedback I received over the last year:


Thank you very much for your guiding expertise which helped me to produce my best for this course . . . . Your strategies to get the studio group engaged were quite innovative and thoughtful, keeping us in check to achieve our academic goals. Thanks for being an awesome instructor, I enjoyed being apart of the team and hope we get to work and learn together again. ~ MEd (Technology) student, Dec. 12, 2013


You were very responsive always to any request or question I had. I really appreciated how available you were by email — I never had to wait for a response, very much appreciate that. I, also, enjoyed your feedback and comments on my written work, you gave me clarity and suggestions to make my work more grounded and supported by evidence. I think you would be a fabulous dissertation advisor as you are able to balance guidance and direct feedback with support and guidance in professional and courteous manner. Thanks for everything. ~ EdD (Postsecondary), Dec. 16, 2013


Thanks for the feedback. Very helpful indeed. You have a done a great job with this course. Well structured with appropriately spaced online sessions and topics. You are extremely responsive and supportive which is very, very helpful. And your passion sure comes through! ~ EdD (Postsecondary) student, Dec. 17, 2013


While all of my teachers have provided similar learning environments, the effectiveness of the learning experience has been determined by the quality of the teacher…. John Hattie wrote an interesting article contrasting expert and experienced teachers which is worth looking at: (http:

…. During the TED talks that were filmed in Vancouver this past spring, Melinda Gates echoed a similar sentiment in an interview published in The Vancouver Sun: “But the thing that we learned, and what turned out to be the fundamental key is a great teacher in front of the classroom,”  (http:

The teacher is so important in a student’s learning experience even in an online environment.  You can provide the same course outline, but the difference the teacher makes is amazing. So, thank you for providing such a great learning experience.  Your ‘expertness’ is evident in your excellent teaching. ~ MEd (Leadership) student, June 2, 2014

I have re-submitted my paper.  Thank you so much for meeting with me today.  I was really touched by your advice and understanding.  I felt that the opportunity to review my work really helped me solidify and argue the importance of the topic.  I feel that you were quite generous and I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn and grow from this assignment. ~ MEd (Interdisciplinary) July 11, 2014




How has technology changed back-to-school preparations?



It’s that time of year again!  As a parent, I help my kids prepare for back to school and as an online instructor, I prepare for teaching Fall term graduate courses.


One of my fondest memories about back to school time as a child was shopping for school supplies and buying new clothes. My kids will likely have a similar memory about back to school but instead of remembering the journey to the mall and returning home with a bag of supplies and new runners, they will remember searching online stores and anticipating deliveries arriving at on the door step. I love to shop at the mall but notice my children do not share the same enthusiasm for crowded malls at this time of year; they love to shop in online spaces.


I also remember back to school as a time to organize my room and desk at home, and organize dividers and binders for my school subjects.  I noticed my son taking time this week to organize his digital files. In addition, he’s making sure his laptop is ready for school, backpack loaded with appropriate cables and digital texts are accessible.


Along with the excitement associated with back-to-school preparations there is also some anxiety.  I recall not sleeping the night before school started as I worried about which teachers I would have and which students would be in my class.  Similarly, kids today anxiously wait to find out who they will be working with for the year.  In some schools parents have individual login accounts and can check on the class allocations through online systems. In other cases schools post class lists outside of the building so kids find out on the first day.   I also know of some schools that send postcards or welcome letters via regular mail. My kids receive a phone call home directly from the teacher a few days before school begins.   A phone call home is a nice personalized touch and can work well to alleviate anxiety for those receiving the calls. However, students who do not receive calls remain anxious until the call finally comes in or the first day of school.


I previously taught face-to-face courses and now teach online. My preparation as an online instructor involves preparing the course syllabus and adding content to the online space for the course. I need to think of ice-breakers and ways for my students to get to know each other and how I can begin fostering relationships with each of my students.  For example, in an online course, discussion forums can be used for self-introductions.  Students can use use text, photos, audio or video to post their introductory note. It is important for the instructor to also post an introduction. Students can also provide introductions during the synchronous online sessions through elevator introductions. Students are asked to imagine they are meeting a group for the first time on an elevator and have about 30-60s to provide a brief introduction about their professional and research experiences.  The #SoMe activity described by Lisa Nielsen at http: is a great example of an introductory activity that can be used in face-to-face or online classes providing students with a creative way to introduce themselves to their classmates.


Have you observed other ways technology is changing how we prepare for back-to-school or deal with the excitement and anxiety of back-to-school time?

Common sense for some and new and inspiring for others

I came across a blog post that was written in response to an article I co-authored in 2013 – Instructional Design Collaboration: A Professional Learning and Growth Experience. It was great to see that Stephen Downes read our article and also took time to post a critical, if cryptic, commentary. Too bad it took more than six months for me to see this post and associated comments before I got a chance to respond. This blog is a response to some of the ideas raised in Downes’ blog and a comment to his blog.

The brief commentary by Stephen Downes (2013) discusses the idea of relevance. I admit the content of our position paper (reflection of practice) might be considered common sense for some audiences familiar with online learning. The topic may not be as timely or important to some audiences, especially those who are expert in teaching online, collaborating with others in course design and using frameworks for updating online curriculum such as Hai-Jew’s (2010) fourfold approach discussed in our article. However, the topic of post secondary instructors collaborating on the design of online courses is relevant to a broad audience. My educational background and experiences are primarily in K-12 with over 20 years teaching/leadership. My own online learning and teaching experiences started in about 2008. I was surprised when approached by a colleague to consider co-writing about our experiences with instructional design and collaboration. At first, I questioned who would be interested in our reflections? Isn’t collaborative course design a common practice already in higher education?  Turns out, the majority of instructors in higher education work in isolation, do not have any foundation in learning theory and instructional design, and many do not have the benefit of collaborative design and teaching experiences with others. As I reviewed the literature, and observed practice across campus, I realized that disciplined reflection on our collaborative work in the context of the professional programs in which we teach would make an important contribution to the existing body of literature in the field. We sought an appropriate journal for a reflective or positional paper on the topic. Despite my own reservations about making my teaching and design work public, I decided to take time to collaboratively reflect on my design experiences, take a risk, and make my early learning and design work visible for others.

Writing the article with four others who bring diverse experiences to online education provided a valuable learning and growth experience for me as a new scholar and sessional instructor. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my practice alongside my peers. From the feedback received from the journal editor and reviewers, I realized the potential impact of this work. I realized there were other instructors and researchers who valued the paper, found the ideas useful and relevant and who might benefit from our work. For example, one of the peer reviewers was so excited about our work that she asked for permission to share the article with colleagues pre-publication. Apparently other faculties besides our own were also working on collaborative course design. Following the publication, we presented our work at two conferences and both sessions were well received by faculty from various North American higher educational institutions; participants commented on the value of this contribution to the field. Other scholars recommended that we should continue building a research agenda around this topic. The practice of collaborative course design and team teaching has been adopted across our graduate programs, and is influencing design work across our campus through various initiatives.  Furthermore, educators have also positively blogged and tweeted about the article. For example, Debbie Morrison (2013) posted a review – How Online Educators Benefitted by Walking-the-Talk with Collaborative Instructional Design.

Students enrolled in my school’s graduate programs also benefit from the backstory and practices around collaborative course design. Recently one student shared, “it was interesting to read about the development of the courses that I have been taking….I appreciated the description of the collaborative process that you engaged in to create the online course” (K. Hills, personal communication, June 2, 2014). In other words, the article was relevant for our audiences and also for audiences beyond our local context.

One aspect of the course we collaboratively designed is the goal of fostering a critical community of inquiry. It is important for graduate students in any program to critically and thoughtfully respond to the research literature. Downes (2013) mentions the article could have been written in the 90s in his commentary. Teaching experiences in the 90s were certainly not the same for everyone any more than they are today. For example, my teaching career started in the 90s so I just graduated from post secondary and did not experience any online or even blended course work in my pre service program at that time.  With an avid interest and enthusiasm in technology, I quickly embraced educational technologies of the day and adopted Apple II e’s that were available in my school. By the late 90s I was teaching in schools where using dial up connections, accessing basic information on the Internet and communicating via email with others was at the beginning stages. However, designing online experiences for students in collaboration with colleagues was not common practice in my work. According to Rogers’ (2003) diffusion of innovation theory, there is a range of adopters for any innovation. There will be categories of individuals readily embracing innovations as well as individuals rejecting the same innovations – at the same point in time. As such, in the 90s there were educators advanced in using educational technologies in K12 and higher education environments and there were those who were only at the beginning of these innovations.  So, it doesn’t surprise me that Downes, who is an early adopter, might think online collaboration is old practice and not relevant in the present. However, he cannot claim to speak for educators from across disciplines who are new to these ideas. Educators are not all at the exact same place or level of adoption with technologies and online instructional design, and each semester brings new educators into the online learning and teaching community.

A response to Downe’s post by Katrin Becker (November 26, 2013) questioned the use of the terms “signature pedagogies” in the article. I recommend that readers who are interested in the deep literature on signature pedagogies begin by reviewing Lee Shulman’s seminal work on the topic. Signature pedagogies are defined by Shulman (2005)  as teaching that is characteristic of the profession. Shulman also discusses the importance of learning “to think, perform and act with integrity” as part of signature pedagogies (p. 52). It is important the teachers and school administrators and individuals from across disciplines who are enrolled in the Master’s program learn to think, perform and act as educational researchers and writers no matter what their goals are upon graduation. As such, understanding ethics in research and ethics in academic writing is authentic and relevant to the discipline and part of the course assignments. In simple terms, the course was designed to emulate the work in the discipline of education, which is scholarship of the profession and scholarship in the discipline. In this case, the discipline is educational research. In this master’s level writing in educational research course, the assignments in the course were designed to engage students in writing and collaborative experiences similar to those of educational researchers. For instance, in the course described in the article, students wrote proposals to present a poster or paper at an academic or professional conference, which is a common task for educational researchers. The students worked with peers and provided peer review, making their own learning visible while learning alongside peers. Many students carried through with actual presentations at conferences making the assignment authentic and relevant for their studies and professional growth. Perhaps more exemplars are needed to help develop a deeper understanding of the processes of signature pedagogies in online classes– this might be a good topic for another article!

I would like to sincerely thank everyone that took time to read the article and provide feedback. In reflecting on the experience of co-authoring my first peer-reviewed article and reflecting on all the positive and critical feedback about the topic, I developed some related belief statements:

I believe early adopters should consider providing pathways to encourage advances in educational technologies and support late adopters. I believe reflective practitioners should be encouraged to take risks and share their practice. I believe that sharing signature pedagogies and making learning visible is needed to build and share contemporary knowledge in our discipline. I believe that what is common sense for some is also new and inspiring for others.


Brown, B., Eaton, S., Jacobsen, M., Roy, S., & Friesen, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3).  Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2013).  Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. Stephen’s Web [web log]. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from

Hai-Jew, S. (2010). An instructional design approach to updating an online course curriculum. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 33(4). Retrieved from

Morrison, D. (2013). How Online Educators Benefitted by Walking-the-Talk with Collaborative Instructional Design. Online learning insights [web log]. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations 5th ed). New York, NY: Free Press.

Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 134(3), 52-59.