Disrupting the Classroom

Everyone has probably settled into the semester by now. Those first few crazy days are behind us and we are sailing right into that comfortable rhythm. So, why would I want to talk about disrupting your classroom? Michael Horn described disruptive innovation as a technology that “transforms an existing sector or creates a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability” (McCrea, 2010). That doesn’t sound all bad.

Mobile technology can be considered a disruptive innovation in the classroom. Students engrossed in their mobile devices could not possibly be paying attention -right?  Surprisingly, more students are making use of their phones and tablets for educational endeavors along with social and entertainment adventures. Students meet in electronic hangout sessions, search for new knowledge, share materials with peers, and download educational videos.

TopHat could be considered one of those disruptive innovations. Why would I want to encourage my students to have their phones out during class? But what if instead of checking in with friends on SnapChat, they were engaging with class content? How can faculty leverage the mobile revolution invading their classrooms? One way could be to create an engaging learning environment using a tool that almost all students have with them in class (their mobile device).

Imagine taking attendance based on class participation. It is a win-win, you are sure students are attending class and they are rewarded for more than just sitting in a seat. You can ask questions and get responses from the entire class. A response system like TopHat can allow instructors to share slides with students so they can follow along with the lecture from their own device. The instructor can control the flow of information by locking the slide sequence so the students’ attention remains focused on what’s being presented. Instructors can even assign slides to be reviewed after class or as an exam study guide. Responses and participation are captured by the technology reducing your course management responsibilities freeing up more time for offering feedback and interacting with students.

Make disruptive innovation work for you!  

Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will Change the way the world learns. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

McCrea, B. (2010, January). Disruptive Innovation in the classroom. THE Journal. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/Articles/2010/01/21/Disruptive-Innovation-in-the-Classroom.aspx?Page=1

What does gamification have to do with education?

Many professors have been using some form of gaming in their classroom for years, this is not a new phenomenon but gamification is not just adding a game to the class. Gamification is the process of taking lessons you have already created (not games) or new lessons and integrating game mechanics to motivate students to participate and engage in the content. Game designers are trained in techniques to engage players and these techniques can be applied to non-game experiences to motivate actions and add value to your message. Gamification is not always about creating something new, it is about adding the motivational techniques that work so well in games leveraging the impulses and desires that exist in people.

Some techniques used in gamification include:

  • Leaderboards – Individual or team standings for a challenge or goal gives students purpose and can educate them about the value and possibilities in a learning experience
  • Fast Feedback – notifications of progress or congratulations for reaching a goal. This can encourage a student to take the next step to a milestone or try to earn a reward.
  • Acknowledging accomplishments – Indicate mastery of a skill or learning competency in a meaningful way that is visible to the learning community
  • Leveling – Levels indicate sustained achievement. Levels can be used to unlock new activities or gain some type of reward or badge
  • Collaboration – Create challenges that require students to join forces and share knowledge to contribute to group success

Game design principles in non-game problems or challenges still play on the psychology that drives human engagement. You have probably participated in a form of gamification at some point this week — you present your coffee club card each time you visit 7-eleven to earn a free cup of coffee, you expand your LinkedIn profile to bring the progress bar to 100%, or you take the long way to your car to reach your goal on your fitness tracking device.

Examples of how gamification can be used in a class:

  • Allow students to benefit from failures or level-up. Students put too much emphasis on grades, sometimes more so than faculty expect, which oftentimes discourages them from taking chances. Making mistakes and learning from them is part of the game mentality and a valuable skill that many students do not learn in the classroom because they are afraid of the consequences to their grade. Using a system of badging allows students to fail, overcome, and persevere. Students that may not do well or fail at a task still earn a badge that can be swapped for a higher level when they achieve mastery. This motivates the students to work harder to gain the knowledge and skills needed to progress to the next level.
  • Create a point system that translates into a final grade for the semester. Students accumulate points by how much they have accomplished. Students are trying to progress toward a level of mastery similar to a game. Experience points and levels can be aligned with skills and emphasize the value of the material. (Lee Sheldon, a professor at Indiana University)
  • Create competition and a sense of community with class tournaments. This competitive atmosphere incentivizes students to practice and learn. A competition can add energy to the classroom and using a tool like a polling system allows both introverts and extroverts to compete at the same level. Take this technique a step further by creating a leaderboard so students can see their standings in the class community (Celine Petsche, School of Business at Wilfrid Laurier University)
  • Set goals for your class and offer rewards or badges, for example, if 90% of the class scores an 85 or better on an exam, the entire class gets an extra credit point (or whatever you decide is appropriate). This fosters a helping atmosphere because all students want their classmates to do well to reap the rewards.

Critics of gamification argue that these techniques stifle a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn but, at the end of the day, most students are attending college to secure employment which is incentivized by a paycheck  

Is Flipped Learning Still a Thing?

The flipped classroom has evolved from the early 1990s when Alison King published “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” The focus is still on the importance of using class time for the construct of meaning rather than information transmission, but the impetus is on active learning. The flipped classroom has taken on new meaning and adopted more of an open-ended definition. The emphasis is on getting students to think for themselves. In the Google era, students just type in a topic of interest and an array of information is displayed for them, no brain power required. How do we get students to process and use the information uncovered by the search engine? The flipped classroom is not strictly about watching lectures at home and doing homework in class, it is an opportunity for students to experiment, ask questions, and participate in the process of learning.

Feedback is such an important part of the learning experience and by actively working through information with the instructor present, there is the added opportunity for immediate feedback, adding meaning to the student’s efforts and clarifying whether expectations are being met. Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on achievement and by providing more feedback we can produce greater learning (Hattie, 2008). Flipped learning allows for actionable, timely, ongoing feedback.

Using a flipped model can increase student-student interaction, adding more engagement by having students working in groups. Students can discuss topics for a greater understanding or work together to solve difficult problems. They no longer need to look to the instructor as the sole disseminator of knowledge and can begin to formulate ideas and think for themselves. The emphasis is on learning as a goal rather than just completing assignments.

If you have questions about how you can implement flipped learning or would like to discuss adding engagement to your class, contact us at ConsultLS@vcu.edu.

Hattis, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta‐analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.


Attendance is a hot topic in higher education. Is attendance required? Should it be required? What purpose does it serve? “Attendance proves nothing in terms of learning,” (Macfarlane, 2016). Faculty want students to be present in class so they do not miss any material and, if that is the case, then there may be a better way to track attendance besides a sign-in sheet or clicker poll.

Think about using attendance for greater benefits. Straight attendance recording seems like a waste of an opportunity to engage students. “Some of the best students engage very well with their studies – reading, contributing to online discussions, submitting excellent work – while others may attend but ‘in body only’ and then do very little work outside the class” (Macfarlane, 2016). Are you looking to count the number of bodies in the room or are you looking for a more meaningful accounting of students in your class?

Here are some thoughts on managing attendance beyond the sign-in sheet or clicker poll:

  • Attendance makes more of a difference to students if they know it is part of their grade (it does not even matter how much, to most, just that it is part of the grade)
  • Try to post course materials electronically that outline the information that will be covered in the day’s lesson but do not include word-for-word slides that can be used as a substitute for attending class.
  • Offer elements in class that students cannot get anywhere else.
    • Supplemental examples or illustrations
    • Exam tid-bits — Stress that items you are currently presenting will resurface on an exam so they equate attendance to gathering pertinent information
  • Require a reflection related to course activities for class participation credit. Making this mandatory for the first 5 minutes of class will also force students to make a bigger effort to get to class on time.  
    • This could be in the form of a reflection paper/journal – example: last class we talked about contrast in an image, write a short reflection on that discussion  
    • Or it could be a quick answer auto-grade question – example: What are the four elements that make up an ad that I mentioned in class last week
  • Give weekly in-class assignments that offer students a chance to apply what they’ve learned (30 minutes tops) and give credit for completing the assignment so you do not add more items to be graded. Think about offering the opportunity for students to work in groups on occasion.
  • Christopher Danielson has a creative technique for attendance that is worth reading <https://christopherdanielson.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/how-i-track-attendance/>
    • Give practice exam problem(s) (use Danielson’s idea of surprise times so students don’t know when they will have the opportunity to practice for the exam). Offer credit toward the exam grade for correct answers.

The point of attending the class is for students to learn and using some creative techniques to take attendance might result in better more attentive students in your class. It is also harder for students to outsmart the system if attendance is tied to an activity. If you are interested in options that could work for your class or you would like help implementing some of the techniques mentioned above, send a consultation request to ConsultLS@vcu.edu or visit the Learning Systems website.

Macfarlane, B. (2016, September). Academic double standards: Freedom for lecturers, compliance for students. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/academic-double-standards-freedom-for-lecturers-compliance-for-students

Welcome Back!

Yay! Another semester! Another chance to have an impact, another chance to make a difference. As you start to get into the semester groove, think about your own experiences as a learner. What do you remember? What made it a great learning experience? Chances are it was not the content itself that was memorable but how the content was delivered. Julie Dirksen, in her book Design for How People Learn, asks, “What’s the difference between a learning experience that’s effective versus one that gets forgotten as soon as the learner is done?” I believe good learning design offers students’ knowledge and skills they can apply to the real world; it’s about the learner being able to do something with their new knowledge.

Think of each class as an opportunity to share what you are passionate about and look for your students to be as excited about the topic as you are. One of the most difficult parts of getting your students excited about learning is gaining their attention, moving past the distractions and helping your students to focus. Once you’ve got their attention, how can you keep it? One way is to show them how the information is relevant and how it can be used to achieve goals. Outlining the important knowledge and skills the students need to gain from your class can help you build more effective learning activities and assessments.

The start of a new Fall semester is always exciting for me, the possibilities for learning are endless. The process is as important as the outcome, so think of ways to reward students for participation and encourage them to engage with you and each other to offer a more robust learning experience. I’m thrilled to be back and I hope that you will join me in a continued discussion this year centered around teaching and learning with technology. Contact Learning Systems if you need help getting started.


Cheating is happening in the classroom as well as online. In a survey conducted by OnlineCollege.org, 73% of students taking online classes admitted to cheating on a quiz, 56% of students in blended classes admitted to cheating, and 32% of students in traditional classes admitted to cheating. Research on cheating proliferates but much of the data originates from perceptions and focuses on a wide range of issues. The OnlineCollege.org study only reports 2% of online and 5% of traditional classroom students were caught cheating. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is not happening, but what can be done?

In an interesting article in the Chronical of Higher Education, “In a Fake Online Class with Students Paid to Cheat, could Professor Catch the Culprits?” two professors created a fake class to try and determine how sophisticated online cheating services were and to see if they could identify a cheater. The professors even offered an incentive; if they were unable to identify the cheater, the students would be eligible for a $350 raffle. This article highlights the need for faculty to be more aware of the issue of cheating and to take precautions when creating assessments. It is not possible to completely eliminate cheating in the online environment just as it is not possible to eliminate cheating in a traditional classroom but armed with the right information faculty can inform students about the consequences of cheating and discourage the practice.

Thoughts on how to combat cheating:

  • Create a Test with randomized questions and answers. This can be done very easily in Blackboard
  • Develop Test Pools so there are more questions than needed for a test, to ensure that each student receives a different version of the test
  • Use Respondus LockDown Browser for quizzes and exams
  • Don’t reveal test answers until all students in the course have completed the test
  • Require students to use SafeAssign when submitting papers, which makes it more difficult for students to recycle work found online.
  • Consider having students sign an honor code for your class; it won’t stop cheating but it holds them accountable for academic honesty.
  • If students are caught cheating, there should be consequences and they need to be enforced. If a student hears that a classmate was caught and penalized for cheating, they may think twice before they do it themselves. They may also spread the word.
  • Are the results important enough to warrant a proctored exam? Be mindful that proctored rooms or testing centers are not always the best answer because they make it more difficult for certain populations to complete their degree. Adult students with jobs struggle to fit a trip to a testing center into their work/life schedule and students in remote or low-income areas can’t afford travel costs.
  • Remind students to manage their time so they aren’t tempted to cheat. Procrastination sometimes promotes desperate measures.

Many instructors are eliminating cheating temptations by assigning work that requires more independent thought and discussion to foster interaction. David Wangaard in his book, Creating a Culture of Academic Integrity, stresses that we shouldn’t be looking to police cheating more effectively but rather “highlight and promote a life of academic rigor, integrity, and values that promote learning” (U.S. News & World Report, 2011).


U.S. News & World Report. (2011, August). Promoting an Ethical School Culture. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2011/08/10/promoting-an-ethical-school-culture

Header image from Google images < https://www.google.com/search?q=whispering+in+school&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiTjqCuoJjUAhWETCYKHTotAI0Q_AUIBigB&biw=1263&bih=732#tbm=isch&q=cheating+on+a+test&imgrc=Wj077ZTj5egR2M:>


What can I do with Video?

Including a video in your lesson does not have to be a snooze-fest. There are plenty of ways to create an active learning environment with video. Research recommends shorter videos, what I like to refer to as ‘snack-size’ videos – two to four minutes max. If you have a longer video, try pausing after a few minutes to ask a question or spark a discussion. You can use a polling application with longer videos to pose survey type questions before, during, or after the video to keep the class engaged.

Another option for using video more interactively can follow the Think-Pair-Share format. Have students think about their own knowledge or experience on the topic to be addressed in the video. You could even ask them to predict what could happen in a situation they might be unfamiliar with that will be addressed in the video. Tell students to pair up or put students with a partner and ask them to share their insights on the topic with one another. You can even ask a few students to explain their predictions to the class. After everyone has had a chance to digest the ideas, show the video. After viewing the video, have the partners get back together to reflect on their original predictions and to talk about their reactions after seeing the video. Call on a few students to articulate their thoughts to the class. Finally, close the session addressing any misconceptions and drawing attention to key elements you want them to take away from the lesson.

Another option for incorporating video could begin in the form of guiding questions. Provide students with a list of guiding questions before showing the video. Ask students to create one or two of their own questions based on the topic provided. Show the video and then take the time to review answers to the questions and address any misinterpretations. Adding the element of critical analysis takes the video from a view-only mode to an active learning situation.

Think about creating a meaningful experience using video. VCU supports Kaltura for video storage and creation; for more information on Kaltura or how you can incorporate video into your classes, go to <LearningSystems.vcu.edu>

Slowing Down

I recently watched a TED talk by Carl Honoré entitled “In Praise of Slowness” https://www.ted.com/talks/carl_honore_praises_slowness  where the author talked about a new movement aimed at getting people to slow down. Are things happening too fast, especially at the end of the semester? Do you find yourself running out of time or are students begging for extensions? Brigid Schulte wrote in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, “Living in an always-on technology haze leads to mental exhaustion.” As we enter into the home stretch of the semester, how do we combat technical fatigue? How can we help our students slow down as well?

One way to help students is to teach them how to examine information and make decisions on what is important and what can be put aside; this skill will prove invaluable in the workplace. Knowing how to quickly and effectively sort through material can help students avoid exhaustion from information overload.

President Drew Faust offered some suggestions for slowing down in a technology driven world in her speech “The Case for College.” She recommended:

  • Build in breaks
  • Require due dates for all elements of your class to give students direction

Many students have not learned the art of time management. You will be teaching them a lifelong skill by requiring them to get organized. Due dates for even small things help them to stay on task and hopefully keep a calendar. Regularly scheduled activities and assignments can help to combat procrastination because they have many items to accomplish rather than just one large project that can be easily put on the back burner.

  • Identify times when everyone should be unplugged (including yourself)

Although I do not have any magical answers to avoid end-of-the-semester fatigue, I believe it is important to identify times that you will not be available. Students are accustomed to 24/7 access to people and information, it is important to let them know that there are times when you will be offline and unavailable. You will have more to offer your students if you schedule the time that you will be unplugged, and truly take that time to do something not technology based. Encourage them to do the same.

  • Have students use a pencil and paper some of the time

There is a growing body of research indicating that people do not read and write online the same way they do on paper. According to a study published in Psychological Science, when people write longhand, they process information better. That is not to say that students should only take notes by hand because the study also goes on to say that they found people could type notes faster and, therefore, they had more notes to look back on. There is no right or wrong answer here, the idea is to take the time to think deeply, slow down and appreciate the process of education.

Good luck as you move into final exam week.


Faust, D. (2014). A case for college. Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Keynote Address. Dallas, TX. http://www.harvard.edu/president/speech/2014/case-for-college

Schulte, B. (2015). Overwhelmed: How to work, love, and play when no one has the time. Picador, London: England.


Open educational resources (OER) are resources available for teaching and learning, at little or no cost. Virtually any material, textbooks, learning games, test banks or other learning content, can be offered as an OER resource. Creative Commons is one source of OER licensed collections but there are many others; each resource is issued a license that explains in detail how that material can be used. Some OER materials must only be used in the original format while other resources can be changed or modified. The OpenCourseWare project started in 2002 at MIT offers access to full course materials online for anyone to use. MIT’s model has been replicated by other universities around the world. OER is not equivalent to taking a course and should not be confused with a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

A fascinating byproduct of the OER movement is that open resources can be modified and improved by a broad community of experts resulting in materials that offer new alternatives for effective teaching and learning. These “living” resources also promote collaboration as modifications are made. A downside to OER is the questionable quality and caliber of some of the materials. Not all OER collections provide a mechanism for feedback and sharing of evaluations or options beyond just a digital version of a textbook. Out-of-date resources can also present a problem; the value of a resource is dependent upon being up-to-date.

A report issued by Cengage Learning (2016) related that OER in higher education has the potential to triple in use as a primary courseware over the next five years. Open educational resources are being considered at many institutions as a way to address the rising costs of education. It may not be the complete answer but many educators agree that teaching and learning is improved when resources are more accessible.



Creating Communities

There is an increasing body of research that indicates the importance of student engagement in the learning process. Engagement is not only a commitment to the completion of tasks but also a psychological investment in learning (Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992). It is important to design your course to include a supportive community. Whether you are developing a face-2-face or online course, considering student engagement and specifically developing a sense of community is essential to student success. Fredrick, Blumenfeld, and Paris (2004) found that students who were engaged performed considerably higher academically than their unengaged peers.

Creating a supportive learning community involves dialogue; faculty to student, student to student, and student to resources. The faculty to student dialogue is straightforward in a face-2-face class but can also be included in the online setting through a video introduction and video or audio clips created for sessions or lectures. Instructors can also offer coaching and periodic reminder announcements.

Peer to peer engagement is a little more difficult to develop online. One strategy is to begin the semester with a personal introduction so the students can get to know one another. You should also include a personal introduction that contains more than your years in education and teaching philosophy. Don’t be afraid to mention your dog’s name or confide that you secretly like to relax in your hammock on Sunday. Include a photo that personalizes you.

Create an open forum for students to post questions or request help, this will be open for responses from you but you can encourage students to support one another through this forum as well. You could also set up a specific problem-solving forum and assign students to monitor and answer questions that are posted. Another option is to create small groups where students can assume responsibility for supporting each other on class assignments or with general motivation throughout the entirety of the course. I can tell you from experience, a community forum can be the only thing that keeps students from withdrawing from the class or dropping out of school completely. The support of a peer network is very powerful.

Some students may not be comfortable with a high-level of participation and may not choose to take advantage of the learning communities, but others may require that support structure to be successful. Vygotsky (1978) stressed the role of social interaction and believed that community plays a central role in the process of learning.


Fredericks, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concepts, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 59-109.

Newmann, F. M., Wehlage, G. G., & Lamborn, S. D. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. In F. M. Newmann (Ed.), Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools (pp. 11-39). New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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