craig dennis howard

Concrete instructional development in online learning in higher ed


Deconstructed pedagogy embedded in an online assignment. Erin’s assignment contains dozens of thought through pedagogical decisions- I could only highlight 8 given the space. When decisions like these are made deliberately as she has done so here, the experience of online teaching is enjoyable. Of course, no one will know *why* it works except Erin, myself, and perhaps, now you.

In my role as a faculty fellow I am learning that to the seasoned instructor new to online learning, the modality can seem amorphous and elusive, a minefield of unexpected pitfalls. It may well have those frustrating moments; however, I had a fair bit of evidence this week that the essential skill base of a seasoned instructor is actually very transferable. Seeing their development strategies is also eye opening for collecting a battery of different developmental strategies. I worked with three excellent teachers this week; Dr Melinda Gibbons, Dr Erin Hardin, and Laura Ketola. Each showed me something new. 

I have deconstructed one of Erin’s products from our talk to show how this process results in real changes to strategy, how instruction becomes more technologically adroit, but still retains the approach of the instructor. I have written out the entries here to align with the numbers and make it a little easier to read:

  1. Erin brought a desire to create something blog-like, but we explored wikies, google docs, and other collaborative spaces before she settled on this genre of media.
  2. She wanted a productive media option where students could write extensively. These were targeted learning outcomes. She had a frame to work with—she wanted “Engaged Inquiry” which entailed three characteristics: (1) reflective learning (2) forms of collaboration and (3) would result in a non-disposable final product. Something the learner would carry out of the course.
  3. This captures the non-disposable final product requirement.
  4. We discussed the dynamics of small verses large online groups, and how impersonal large groups can be.
  5. This design decision is the result of extensive deliberation. Media choice has consequences. Her choice here puts those consequences on the onus of the learner, and avoids turning her psychology class into a technology tutorial.
  6. This is pro-active teaching, and was part of our discussion. This fore-warning heads off potential complications and simplifies the learning process.
  7. Hypertext declutters learning materials and moves these support resources elsewhere.
  8. There are a number of technological decisions being made here—all of which she deliberated to carefully construct a task that met the learning objectives while staying within the supported technology of the school. By making these decisions deliberately, she can communicate her rationale and win buy in on the part of the learners, allowing them freedom of choice at appropriate times but also keeping within the institutional restriction we must follow. All this effort makes the task look straightforward, masking how difficult it is to make online learning look easy.

Dr Gibbons took a different approach to strategizing the development of her mediated interventions. She took extensive notes and captured pretty much all of the content of our talk. She turned most into actions points.

Meeting with Craig:

  • Breakout groups
    • Assign roles
    • Move from group to group
    • Move back – assigned speaker
  • Keeping video on
    • Update zoom
    • Unplug modem for 30 seconds and then replug in
    • Policy – making self able to participate in class
    • Prepare ahead of time to be ‘present’ in class
    • UT will issue a hotspot
  • Packaged language (see his blog)
  • Tuesday online
    • Login to video space – zoom – work in google doc as well
      • Don’t use a phone, use a computer
    • Calling time
      • Home base needs to be Zoom
        • Start in zoom, get instructions, break out as needed
        • Provides that constant voice connection
    • Canvas – not a live presence indicator
    • Timed discussion board
      • Staggering participation – assignment doesn’t open up for everyone at the same time
      • Multiple participation points
        • Initial post due by 3 days into task
        • Responses to other posts after the 3 days
    • Whole class discussions don’t really work
      • Can create a small group discussion – 5
      • Collect the top three quotes and present in the following class
    • Prompts
      • Activity based – create an activity and discuss it as you create it
        • Matrix of squares –
        • 15 professional conferences and their dates
        • Divide the work and create this and share
        • Hand in matrix at the end
      • Come to consensus about something
        • Compare pros/cons
        • Entire group must come to consensus – final post
        • Or everyone gets a zero
      • Staggering participation
        • Different people start at different times
        • Easy to implement
      • Preformed, discourse models from experts in the field
        • Pivotal quotes about a single topic
        • Post one post every single day
        • Students need to respond after each quote each day
        • Which idea are you drawn to and why
    • For all readings – ask 3 randomly – what was the most intriguing part of the article?
      • Breakout rooms
        • Bounce between them
        • Discussion of the reading
    • SL
      • Design a solution for campus-based problem
      • Make a video, quiz, create a project
      • Always done virtually
      • Pair students (groups of 4-5) with a client
      • Client coordinates with instructor
      • Set up milestones to accomplish project
        • Discuss, create, implement, evaluate
      • Just reporting what you did lacks oversight
    • Materials in the cloud vs. on Canvas
    • Windows by assignment tab
      • Open and close
    • Modules can be set to release at different times
      • Set to release throughout the course at separate times
    • Landing page – syllabus
    • Grouping function in assignments
      • Group a discussion board 1
      • Group b discussion board 1
  • Fred Kelly – Canvas ‘guru’
  • Have GA review Canvas site after I build it before I publish

Laura Ketola teaches in ELPS, but comes from student affairs as her primary home on campus. Her primary concern was over losing the closeness, comradery and collegial feel of being together in the learning process. We discussed strategies IT Online uses as well as the extreme value of just one together experience that starts off a program of study with others. She talked about a Trolley ride around Knoxville that students would share before embarking on a service learning course that included components of local knowledge embedded into the content of the course. Trolley ride. Great idea!

What a Faculty Fellow for online learning actually does

A picture of my home office in 2000 as compared to my home office 20 years later.

The evolution of a home office for online learning. On the right, the home of the Kanda Email Exchange Program and associated web sites. On the left, the home of the Learning, Design, & Technology PhD and the IT Online Masters program. Notice the increase in space. The new digs are clearly high-end, tenure track. More importantly, I have learned to avoid back-lighting, position the web cam at eye level, control an onslaught of wires, and de-clutter my desk.

I have had three talks with faculty members so far about their online teaching and alternative modality options for the fall of 2020 in light of COVID 19. In each of these sessions I went in with no expectations of what I might hear or say. I found each session remarkably enriching. I learned new teaching strategies and am humbled by the care and expertise my colleagues bring to their teaching. Here’s what I have found.

Faculty at UT seem to need very little technical help. Conversations about the home set up, the experience of working from home, and my own personal preferences for how I set up my home space to do this kind of work sustainably entered into each discussion- see pic to the right.   But more important than this, I got the impression that each colleague I talked to sought validation from a colleague that their gut feelings about the way they envision constructing online learning was fair, equitable, and within the conventions of online learning. My colleagues do not search to be taught tools or tactics as much as reassurance about acceptable conventions, e.g.  require video cameras be turned on during sessions. Another example, none needed to be taught how google products work; but all did seem to find the arguments behind requiring students to use their school-issued google accounts that don’t generate permission requests interesting. Faculty do not need to be taught how to use break out rooms; they need to talk to another instructor about how they do it and hear, “yes, that sounds a lot like the way I do it.”

The sharing was healthy. There are little tricks I can learn from other faculty, and there are little tricks I think they learned from me. I learned from Dr Morrow about how to modularize multimedia content stored in Canvas, and her pecha kucha requirement of preloading ALL slides prior to class to save time. I learned from Dr Richardson that the video annotations tools in Canvas were easy to pick up. I shared my strategies as well, e.g. I send out a link to and require all students to restart their router-modems before the start of each semester to proactive solve bandwidth issues in video conferences.  I walked away from the experience seeing it as one of collaboration and sharing. At no point in time did I feel like I was telling my colleagues what to do. I don’t think I could do that even if I were asked.

I thought it would be creepy to approach colleagues about their teaching. “Let me talk to you about your teaching” is not an acceptable request among professional scholars. That is not what happened. I invited a colleague to talk about it, and she did me the favor or recounting her experience in a listserv shout out. That approach made the experience feel comfortable for me, and the subsequent sharing sharing actually felt good. It also gave me a chance to get her perspective on some of the policies that I use, such as asking our learners to not ask each other for personal cell phone numbers, and instead generate google voice numbers so that classmates can keep their cell numbers private. As cell numbers are increasingly used for instant banking and two-factor authentication, I am finding it questionable to support their use in the context of classes. Other things were just a little venting; I am frustrated with learners using personal google accounts that block them out of UT resources; I have eliminated special permissions for access as an acceptable teaching practice from my repertoire.  We’ve built an infographic explaining this here.

As a faculty fellow I am charged with doing about 30 of these peer consultations. I think I can accomplish that, and I think the experience will result in me becoming a more informed teacher in the end. I also think the practice will result in better online teaching at UT. Here are my follow up assets that emerged from these sessions.

#1: Packaged syllabus language:
From my course syllabuses in the section on Learning Environments:

This course is delivered asynchronously via Canvas, and synchronously via ZOOM. I DO NOT USE CANVAS EMAIL, but I do use CANVAS announcements. Please go to account->Notifications-> enable announcements to get my course announcements. However, stick to traditional email for contacting me; a personal message sent in CANVAS mail will never reach me. For synchronous meetings, use your UT ZOOM account: login, user guide: ZOOM, my “Zoom room.” If you do not want my answer to your questions broadcast to other students in the class, please be sure to clearly state that your message is confidential. I typically respond to the whole class for every question I am asked. I do not record class sessions for distribution to students who missed class. I am not against you recording class sessions, but you must ask the whole class when you do so because it does sometimes impact the willingness of others to participate.

While in class, your video is expected to be turned on during class time, and your image should be visible. Lurking (attending class with video off, or face hidden) is forbidden, rude, and uncomfortable for other learners. Additionally, please make sure that you have access to an audio headset (with a microphone) for optimum participation in the synchronous sessions. If you choose to engage in activities that are unprofessional, disrespectful to others, or disruptive, you will lose points toward course participation or be asked to withdraw from the course. By EPC policy, driving while engaged in an online class is prohibited.

Etiquette in video conferences

Being part of this learning community includes being present in online synchronous sessions. We have defined presence in an online class environment as listening to others as well as participating where appropriate. But unlike some face to face environments, there are activities that can make you not present in a video conference setting even when you believe you are. Those include but are not limited to driving during a class, supervising children or pets during class, turning off your video camera or obscuring your face while others are participating, or multi-tasking on other types of work. Of course, we all know the unexpected happens, and rules get broken on occasion. However, plan to follow these forms of peer respect. Plan accordingly as these non-presence activities not only detract from your learning, but also from our sense of community that we build in IT Online. Just a few repeated behaviors can result in a dispositions letter because these behaviors can be so disruptive.

UT Policy on video-recording sessions:

The instructor of this class owns the copyright to the syllabus, handouts, assignments, quizzes, and exams associated with the class. All presentations developed by the instructor, as well as the instructor’s lectures, are also protected by copyright, whether these presentations are delivered live in-class, shared through Zoom or other videoconference platforms, or uploaded to Canvas or similar sites. Sharing any of this material without the written permission of the instructor is a violation of copyright law, and is therefore also a violation of the University’s policy on acceptable use of information technology resources (UT policy number IT0110). That policy states that students will not commit copyright infringement, “including file sharing of video, audio, or data without permission from the copyright owner” and that file sharing is a violation of the university’s student code of conduct. The Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs will report all such violations to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.

Curriculum sharing: Policy on the sharing of course assets and in-course recordings

Graciously lifted from the work of Dr Bob Dubois:

Posting or sharing audio recordings, video recordings, or photographs of class participants or activities is prohibited. Furthermore, posting or sharing class documents, instructor feedback, assignments, quizzes, exams, or assignment, quiz, or exam questions or solutions, instructor’s or fellow student’s written or verbal comments, etc. is prohibited. Prohibited activities include, but are not limited to, posting or sharing such items on websites (Course Hero, etc.), via eMail, via remind, via YouTube, or on social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snap Chat, Group Me, etc.).

Disability Services Policy

Any student who feels they may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact Student Disability Services in Dunford Hall, at 865-974-6087, or by video relay at, 865-622-6566, to coordinate reasonable academic accommodations.

Some other faculty fellows mentioned in a meeting that this website provides some helpful guidelines:

Here is the campus syllabus updated with COVID-19 language:

The Syllabus


#2 Useful links:
  • Link to how to set your zoom account to record to the cloud:
  • Ookle Speedtest: Zoom needs 1.5 mbps to run. If your students are getting more than that speed, and their Zoom experience is still choppy, they have too many windows open, or their router has not been restarted in a while. See next bullet.
  • Unplug your browser before the start of every new semester. This simple article explains why unplugging the router fixes 99% of your connectivity problems and speeds up the performance of your machine.
  • Remind students to logout of all other google accounts when trying to accomplish tasks in Canvas’s Google. This linked infographic is useful, especially if they have other Tennessee digital identities.
  • To get a google voice number, start at:

An annotated checklist for those new to synchronous online teaching


decorative image

An illustration created in five minutes to represent the hurried nature of how online classes will be created around the country in the following week. The base image prior to my colorization process in MS PAINT was gratuitously lifted from Gracious Home New York online home decor shopping site where they hawk this square rattan tissue box for over $100!

I wrote this blog post with John Kennedy, coordinator of UTK’s Office of Student Media. He is in the same boat as many– suddenly moving courses to a synchronous video conference format. Here are some thoughts we felt might be useful to others starting out in video conference suddenly. Feel free to add comments. We would love to incorporate other voices.

  • Craig (
  • John (

Before you start…

Don’t panic.

Restart your router.  Pushing the power button and unplug it. Wait 20 second. Plug it back in. 99% of lag problems are solved by simply restarting the router because it clears out lots of temp files clogging your connection.

Do a speed test. This will tell you if you have enough bandwidth to handle video conferences such as ZOOM. Ookla is the one I use. I find connection less than 10 mbps can get choppy in video conferences.

Install those updates. Update requests can pop-up during teaching, or can inhibit software from working with peripherals like your camera or microphone. Simply starting up a video session on your own can clue you into features that might require a system re-boot to get moving. Testing out the settings or preferences ares is far easier when you’ve got time before class than when you have students waiting or class is starting in a few moments.

After you get going…

Don’t panic.

Set expectations in the first session. The first one or two classes might have some technical hiccups on both the teacher and student end. Use this time to iron out any difficulties, but more importantly, negotiating clear expectations for your students and yourself reduces stress and the types of miscommunication that can sour the learning experience. The class can help decide communication, timeliness, and ground rules and gain ownership and buy-in in the process.

Keep text communication short and to the point. The default tone of electronic written communication in negative. Your witty sarcasm does not carry over, and the care with which you select that perfect word for an email is often lost as learners scurry to complete tasks. The simpler, the better.

Visuals help. Learners have difficulty using writing to communicate complicated things, but they are good at online play. A visual meme that captures course content goes a long way. If they build it, share it.

Describe what you’re doing when you teach. For example, “I am opening a browser to share the website that contains the syllabus I want to show you.” This lets learners know that you’re in the process of teaching and also provides vocabulary they may need. Video conference silence is louder than silence in a classroom setting because learners cannot see what you are doing. Describing what you are doing online is also difficult, and you will struggle a little at first. However, it is far more difficult for your learners to describe what they did when x or y went wrong, but they need that skill to explain to you where things went wrong. This practice is both vocabulary building and modeling.

Feature fatigue is real. The use of too many digital features can confuse learners, or exhaust them. Keep tech use to a comfortable level in order to move the focus of the interaction off learning the tool and onto learning the content.

Presence is everything. Most tech failures can be overcome simply by being there. Being there means: answering email quickly, even if it says, “I got your mail; your question is not easily answered in text, please ask this is our live session.” Being there means: Grading when you said you would grade. Being there is checking for understanding in live sessions when you see faces that express confusion.

Pick the right tool for the job. Skill in online teaching is using tools in coordination; skill in online teaching is not knowing all the features of a given digital tool. Use the right tool for the job it will feel look easy.

Appreciate a new perspective on your learners. Some students will perform more comfortably in online settings than in face to face settings. Some will find it more challenging because the skills that made them stand out before do not carry over. Be prepared to recognize that with the media change, will come a perspective change, both for you and for your learners.

After you have been teaching synchronously online a while….

Don’t panic.

Take breaks. Taking breaks every hour will be better on your eyes, and that goes for live sessions as well. Since your screen doesn’t move, your depth perception weakens as you teach for months online. Walks are good for eyes as well as legs.

Consider an adjustable / standing desk. Sitting introduces all sorts of health issues.

Solicit the questions you should be asking but are not. By asking learners what you should be asking them, you open a number of options to improve your teaching, give yourself insight into how they experience your work, and most importantly, demonstrate that you are invested in their experience. Many of my advancements in teaching, both in tech choices and cognitive strategies, came from learner suggestions, or a discussion with learners about ways I might improve a particular lesson or approach. Learners often appreciate simply being asked, suggesting that their opinions matter.

Create a frequently ask questions (FAQ) area. Similar questions will be asked, and your desire to answer them in individual emails will decrease with time. Also, many students will shy away to ask questions in a larger group settings, but will ask plenty in emails. Create a central repository for questions and answers and continue to add to it with time. By broadcasting your answer prior to entering it on your FAQ, you credit the student who asked the question and validate their participation without forcing a social interaction upon those who might prefer not step forward.

Getting started teaching online at UT Knoxville

On-boarding is the process of moving from hired to started. I imagine this post will grow over the years, but here is what I have so far. This post is to help faculty new to UT Knoxville get moving with their digital assets they will need for teaching our distance learners.

At some point in time you will get a net ID from the business administrator in the department. Thereafter, you will need to follow the links in this document to set up all your digital resources at UT Knoxville. Your net ID is your default email address until you change the email address in the UT directory. Your net ID and your email address do not have to be the same; many prefer they be different. Complete the following steps in the following order for the smoothest experience.

  1. You will need to create your Net Id password first, before you do anything. Start here:
  1. Two-factor authentication is necessary at UT. You will need your cell phone whenever you log into the system. Start with your two-factor authentication here:
  1. Thereafter you will need to set up your course in CANVAS. That URL is here:
  1. Our program is synchronous, live via ZOOM video conference. You will want your own ZOOM pro account. A ZOOM pro account may take 24 hours to activate after you submit a request, so be proactive. To create that from your net ID, go here:
  1. I think most instructors will get a Net ID that is somewhat cryptic and hard to remember. For this reason, I suggest using an alias, such as your name or initials, so it’s easier for everyone to remember. To change the appearance of your email address to be different from your net ID, edit your directory information here:
  1. Change your password every 6 months. UT Knoxville requires this; however, if you do so off campus, you can re-use previous passwords. If you change your password while VPN or on campus, the system will not allow you to re-use past passwords.



Little by little and the Shibboleths of PhD study

Little by Little Poem

Multimedia poem by a very special girl who grasps something we often forget by graduate school. Marker on sketch paper, scanned and manipulated in MS PAINT. Erena Howard, 2020.


There is a point in the doctoral student experience in IT where the student goes from having ideas to having notions. I’ve seen this discursive acquisition again and again, and I am beginning to feel that it’s a kind of shibboleth. It marks a significant change. While we might joke about having notions instead of ideas, hedging one’s arguments is a sign of a gradual progression towards a new way of thinking, and I dare say, a different disposition. A scholar’s discourse is often hedged like this because they have encountered time and again the limits of claims.

Hedging and limiting claims is the discourse of a scholar, and is an honest sign, in the signaling theory sense. It signals that the learner has changed in identity and behavior, and more importantly, in the way they think. The change happens little by little, and the change is far deeper than the milestones toward degree completion might suggest. This idea of gradual progression is not new, or profound. The 7-year-old artist’s illustration is spot on. We know pretty early on that we can do it, and doing it takes a long time. However, by the time most people get to doc study, I think they forget what they learned when they were seven. I know I did. I felt I knew far less about many things when I graduated than when I arrived at doc study. Inside you it changes, little by little.

Making big changes in the way one thinks is not why people come to PhD programs. People come for a credential. If one works hard and is lucky, change happens, but I don’t think people come to PhD programs to change. In fact, I think when they come to PhD programs, they need to be pretty resistant to change because of the grit it takes simply to get this far. However, attaining a PhD credential, and learning to think and talk like a scholar are very different things. They only coincide if the learner eventually accepts the change. That is not easy to do, because what they came for was the credential, not the change.

Therein lies the rub. The value of the credential lies in the likelihood that this change in thinking and disposition has taken place. The change includes attitude, intellectual curiosity and grit. No one hires a PhD not to do critical research, and critical research manifests in publication. Of course, the context of the research might change, and the publishing process might manifest in different forms, but the essential thinking remains.  These attitudes, curiosities and grit result in an ability to write with precision, consider and reflect in multiple ways, and rewrite until a difficult task is complete. This part of the curriculum is all hidden, and at the same time, the skills that will eventually convince those who work with this newly minted PhD whether or not the skill accompanies the credential.

PhD programs should scaffold this hidden curriculum, and find ways to recognize the more pivotal aspects of change when they become visible. The nuts and bolts of PhD milestones tend to garner the most recognition, if any recognition happens at all. Conceiving of a study worthy of investigation, grappling with all its complexity, and negotiating the politics of a work environment during this process is unreasonably difficult. But it is the attitude, initiative, disposition and perspective that are the real learning strides. These take place while learners have full lives with all the other complexities one would encounter. Doctoral candidates have spouses, parents, and kids. Their lives are complex and more intricate than one can manage to create by the undergraduate years. Programs attempt to resolve this with one credit doc seminars meant to scaffold progress early on in the degree program, but I think that serves as more of an orientation than development. What should happen are high-fives in research group, or advisor-student research meeting when the students start having notions about what they are studying, take the initiative on a research task, or carefully negotiate how something might be accomplished strategically.

In-school but out of class: Part 2

EPC Awards Poster 2019

Evidence that we love us… or at least we want to see us do well. While it may be socially accepted to downplay awards, in truth, they are important motivators and identity builders. If you’re in EPC, you should go.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about three learning interventions that I particularly admired: The Kanda Self-Access Center, The IU Plagiarism Test, and the Texas A&M Catpals reading program. This time I want to talk about the EPC awards. I want to frame it as a learning intervention. We don’t normally think of this sort of thing as a learning intervention, but it is. It is a special kind of learning intervention that again, is in school but out of class. If you’re reading this, you should go, and here’s why, IMHO.

Awards are mechanisms that increase motivation, and in learning, motivation is our most prized learning outcome, second to only one, identity. Awards are not just about feeling good. Rather, “When people are given an award, they are likely to work better and be more engaged…  They have higher intrinsic motivation.” (Bruno Frey). Awards are given in ceremonies, not in private. Awards are very social things. The power of an award is carried in its social recognition and appreciation. An award leaves behind a bond between the award giver and the award receiver. We see lots of organizations that capitalize on this bond. The military is the obvious one, but surely not the only one that you can think of quickly. A retirement is a recognition in the same sense. There’s a big different between retired and stopped working.

An award has a unique value for educators’ most prized learning outcome, identity. Especially when given by an academic department, and award can help not only the learner that gets the award, but those who see it as a potential result of their own study in the future. The reason I call attention to this particular learning tactic is because it addressed a teaching challenge that is daunting. Scholars are remarkably hard to nurture. To start, these are intelligent people who are quite wary of embarking on a task not worth doing. Scholarship can be intimidating, isolating, and frustrating. The most common feedback the doctoral student gets is the revision. Complexities abound, and are often mired in conflicting perspectives held by other advanced scholars who are simultaneously correct but nevertheless apparently in-congruent. Evidence the dissertations committee. I once joked that doctoral students must be pretty thick to need a committee of four to teach them through a single study. A close friend commented, “It speaks to the complexity of the learning that no one scholar could hope to accomplish such instruction of an early scholar completely alone.” I am not saying that one must identify as a scholar to get a PhD. It may serve some people well to simply get the degree. However, I am saying that worthwhile doctoral study changes someone’s identity to that of the scholar. The change is a kind of motivation to keep learning. A line of scholarship, informed curiosity, not simply a study.

Attending an event like this is a step towards that identity. Entering a community of scholars as a scholar is different than entering such a community from the outside, or leaving the community once the paper is handed in. One does not have to win the award for the award to have effect. Just being there, being part of it, lends to that new identity through the potential of the work undertaken. Seeing others win can inspire– sometimes it takes seeing the other person ride the bike to know you can ride the bike.

IT678, IT693 &; LEES 602: Research groups, research apprentices, and the unbearably vague process of doctoral training

magnetic poetry saying "together you and I dream better"
Magnetic poetry done by my daughter 愛怜夏, age 7. The gentle sentiment of “together you and I dream better,” the idea behind the collaborative research of research groups, contrasts with the 7 year old observation that “a thousand luscious raw sausages smell repulsive” …which is equally as applicable to research groups. In a research group, you learn how the sausage is made.


It’s a common misconception that PhD study is about the courses you have to take. It’s not. It’s about the work that you do, but it’s hard to find the roads into that work early in one’s program. Sometimes courses help with that, sometimes they don’t. I have heard that PhD programs in other countries contain no coursework at all. That would be even more disorientating. A PhD is disorienting enough even with the rudimentary road map coursework provides. No coursework at all sounds like bicycling with one’s eyes closed, in the dark, in the fog, with your flashlight turned off, on the wrong side of the road, and a little tipsy (that’s Ray Bradbury’s description of the writing experience, btw). In education, we often try to mimic PhD training in the hard sciences by replacing the “lab” experience with the research group (RG) experience. We compound that confusion by trying to tie that experience again to coursework. Unwary doc students are then left to navigate the process on their own. This blog post is in response to questions about the LDT PhD program’s courses: IT678, IT693 and LEES 602 that endeavor to integrate the RG experience into coursework in LDT.

The purpose of research groups (RGs) is to learn to do research. In the hard sciences one hears, “I work in so-n-so’s lab.” It’s a similar dynamic here in LDT. The research group is where you get your real training. It’s where you learn from others, share your frustrations, and find mentorship from both more advanced students and your faculty mentor. Eventually, RG is where you will lead your own research project when you are ready. While the adviser is the one running the research group, he or she is not likely the one doing the talking.

RGs move both intellectually with the field and physically with the resources. In education we don’t actually get a dedicated space— we can barely afford a conference room. In the hard sciences learners might gather in a permanent lab, but in education, we need to be a little more resourceful. I have seen RGs survive through many changing locations, and even into cafe’s and restaurants. I know of a faculty member who ran one out of her living room for a year after a devastating car accident prevented her from getting to campus. It’s not about the space; it’s about the people and the work. The RG is the primary locus of advisement and learning in a PhD program in instructional technology; I imagine it is so in most education fields. Some programs contain only RG courses. Often RGs will have a reading list for first semester students. Sometimes students will read through content together and meet separately from the main group. I don’t quite have a formal RG nor a reading list to start in on. Crafting such could easily be a RG task.

RGs don’t really end. They run consecutive semesters. RGs also run through the summer, regardless of registrations. If a program is large it might have several RGs being led by different faculty. Sometimes faculty will share a RG. If a program is small, likely there is only one RG per faculty member. If you are in a large doctoral program, one can visit several. If you are in a small doctoral program, visiting another RG might mean changing to a different doctoral program within that department, or enrolling in a different program altogether. Sometimes RGs are temporary, constructed simply around one line of research that once published, does not re-emerge.

In a RG, you bring your own voice to the current work of the group. However, RGs usually rely heavily on the expertise that the adviser brings to the group.  Often, it’s a methodological approach that unifies the group, and students voice areas where they are interested in exploring. Sometimes a current event or development may cause a RG focuses entirely on one topic the adviser is into. For example, when a RG gets a grant. Some advisers will run more than one RG because the two groups deal with different topics. I tell my students to bring their topic to everything they study, in every course they take. The same goes for research groups.

RGs are sometimes framed as apprenticeship experiences, but different faculty may envision the exact realization of apprenticeship differently. The actual apprentice experience will vary in access to the mentor and in productivity of the group. My perspective on RGs was crafted by experiences in several groups at Indiana University between 2007-2012, most of which were quite productive. However, none of the groups I attended had foci on my content area– discourse analysis in instructional communications. So, I always brought a discourse topic to the group, and the group investigated it with whatever methods they were using. It is unwise to look to a RG to assume your topic are as the primary focus of the group; instead, embed your topic area as part of the agenda of the group by framing it within their foci. For example, I was in a group that used conditional probabilities to generate claims about teaching and learning (MAPSAT under Ted Frick at Indiana University). I created a discourse protocol that was then used in conditional probability research and later published; we called it the anonymity study. My dissertation was also conceived in conversations within that RG. For a RG on design under Elizabeth Boling, I studied design discourse and worked on articles revolving around the method of knowledge building that became termed as the instructional design case. My focus on discourse within instructional design context was never the topic of the group, but always the topic that I was pursuing. In fact, the focus of the RG has very little bearing on the research topic of a doctoral student in instructional tech. The studies in completed in these RGs were years in the making, and in each group I had to read some foundational literature in the early years. But that didn’t mean the RG determines by topic. 

RG participation does not always directly parallel course registrations. You don’t have to be registered for credits to attend a RG, but once you start coming, you’ll likely need to come well beyond the end of your registered time in order to finish the studies you started. Some ABD candidates stop attending RG to focus on drafting the dissertation, some continue attending to provide structure to their progress. Dissertation time is always stressful- some RGs help alleviate that stress by providing access to other students, and the support one needs to keep going. With so many variations and customization to life situations , faculty interests, and student objectives, many people from outside, or just starting, see the RG process as unbearably vague. It can be, that’s for sure. One expectation that I have seen consistent across faculty expectations is that with time, a learners’ role is expected to become more independent and leader oriented.

Participation in a RG is intended to be progressive. First semester as an observer, the second formulating your research design, then collecting data, and finally writing it up. This can, and often does, span several semesters. Sometimes a certain task may span semesters because of complications. Oftentimes, universities will require RG credits be taken in consecutive semesters; I don’t believe UT has the requirement, perhaps due to our small size. Typically, I have seen a number of PhD students attend RGs outside their actually registration times. Some for several years, consecutively.

The RG experience does not have to start right way. While one can sign up for RG credits whenever they want, I would advise students do so later in their program of studies. For my group, I would hope to see a new member have completed ALL the research methods and at least one of the LDT advanced core before registering for any advanced RG credits. Have said that, it is never too early to attend a research group and get involved.  In my own first year I was in a rather large PhD program and there were several to choose from so I attended as many as I could. I then made an informed decision. While this presented faculty with the image that I was perhaps a stray dog, or unwanted doc student, it afforded me a wide range of experiences to choose from. I learned a ton from Charlie Reigeluth, Curt Bonk, Tom Brush and Elizabeth Boling’s groups—even though my dissertation came out of Ted Frick’s group.

Finally, nothing can be more important than approaching your RG learning with intention. Some students perform poorly in research group because no tasks are assigned, nothing is ever “due.” Without intention and motivation, doc students can easily loose the interest of their peers, flounder, or miss much out of the experience because they don’t volunteer, take initiative, or eventually lead. I’ve another blog post for that, called Strategizing Group Research, that offers some of the strategies I saw in various groups that were consistently performing well, publishing research, and getting students involved.

A video-mediated observation

If you’ve not been in Zoom, this is what it looks like if no one is sharing a screen. Backgrounds tend to change as the semester toils on; learners get progressively more often stuck at work to attend class. However, notice their smiles of engagement and enthusiasm in learning about instructional design and technology!

Teaching in the evening, it’s often difficult to find a colleague to observe my teaching. Here I have video recorded a typical lesson in IT 521. This served a few different purposes. (1) A few learners were missing from the lesson and needed to watch it, and (2) I need a colleague to watch it and be able to run it at higher speeds to make the observation task easier. (I can’t imagine watching a whole three-hour class just to write up a peer observation!) I have also always wanted to have a lesson to share for the occasional inquiry. So here it is, week three from IT 521: Instructional Design and Technology as a Profession. The lesson covers a brief overview of learning theories – just enough to keep an instructional designer informed but not overloaded.

I learned a few things in attempting this task. Primarily, I learned that simple video editing software, at least that which ships with the basic windows machine in 2019, is oddly interlinked with photo editing software. This standard video editing software has a limit of about 35 minutes of video time that can be comfortably finalized into a viewable file (mp4). The 2:40 lesson ended up being workable only in 4 different files. Breaking them up provided more user control in the end. I do prefer separate files for sections of the lesson. Excessive scrolling is obviously tedious. Multiple files forces the viewer to open and close different parts of the lesson to take in the whole thing, but I think it also empowers the viewer to get where they want faster.

Access the video-mediated observation in four videos: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 and Part 4. Or if you prefer, the whole folder linked here.

Deficit model of Instructional Design

Erena's artwork.

Nigerfols Erena Voerjen, with instructional design annotations, showing deficit view perspectives juxtaposed with a more teacherly perspectives of recognizing uninstructed learning. Crayon, marker, on partially lined school paper by Erena Howard. Scanned, reproduced and digitally annotated to annoy you, dear reader, by yours truly.

There is this perspective in education called the deficit model, deficit view, deficit perspective, or some other combination of deficit and some visually oriented term. What learners cannot yet do, or where they fail. It appears in practitioner publications like Edutiopia as well as in scholarly journals. Essentially, the notion frames learners in terms of lacking skills or other knowledge; it foregrounds knowledge deficiencies. It is negative, and it is not an entirely new concept. In the larger picture of educational philosophy, there was once a rage against the notion of tabula rasa (blank slate) which was part of Freire’s theory of banking education, arguing that it is wrong. Learners do not start as blank slates. Everything come from somewhere. It all sounds like mere pontification until hits you in the face as a parent.

My daughter created the image on the right, and I immediately recognized learning strides. I was impressed that the illustration had not happened in school. Of course, my daughter is surrounded with art supplies from my doctoral advisor who is also a close friend, but she chose to use scrap school paper for this one- sketching an idea while at home. She knew this was not for production; rather, it was meant as a sketch, a learning tool. She documented a memory of a trip to Niagara Falls when discussions came up about another trip. Most importantly, she was not instructed to do this learning.  My first thought after “cool!” was that if anyone else saw it, they might immediately jump on the inaccuracies rather than the successes.

I think there is more to the realization. Relative to other more grown up fields of study, instructional design is still working on sketches and learning. I think there’s a bit of bad press that might be holding the field back, and all too often it looks wiser to give up in the face of others recognizing our errors. At the same time, we are still limiting our research to things that are meant to appear like drawings other people did. I am less worried about ID learners not being recognized for their value. In fact, they are doing quite well. I do not know I can say so much for their teachers. Are we recognizing our successes and building on them?

The prospectus, proposal, and the dissertation

image of child's artwork

If your to-do list contains a row for “write one page of dissertation,” you can move your little pony magnet to the mommy happy column on the fridge when you get it done. (Artwork by 愛怜夏, age 7, mixed media and magnets, 2019)

There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the prospectus, the proposal, and the dissertation. This may be so because this task is one left to advisement and mentorship rather than formal instruction. An open and critical discussion on the purposes of these documents rarely happens among scholars for good reason. The interpretation of these documents are unique to the research context, and the mentor. Even so, I feel there is much to be gained from an open discussion about the meaning of these documents; I welcome any comments on this. When doctoral students do not understand the purposes behind these documents, their completion may appear like administrative hoop-jumping rather than learning.  While I do not wish to dictate to other faculty how to view these three documents, clarification around the purposes allow a mentor and mentee smoother communication, and hopefully less frustration. I have written this explanation for my own doc students, but others may find this a good starting point for a discussion with their advisor.

The prospectus

The prospectus is a plan to study something. This plan is written down on paper for the purposes of facilitating discussions with faculty one might want on their committee. Writing the prospectus supports the candidate’s muddling through complex methodological and topical areas to form a team whereby a research strategy can be collaboratively orchestrated by the doctoral candidate. Of course, the writing process always helps clarify plans, but that’s not the immediate practical value of the task. If you assembled a team, you had a successful prospectus.

One thing a prospectus is not— an abstract of the dissertation. While sentences from the prospectus may in fact appear in the proposal or even in the final dissertation, the prospectus is not to be written as an attempt to capture a study in its entirety. Rather, the purpose of the prospectus is to start the discussion enough to assemble the team. The team is going to want to know what your plan is about so they can see where they might fit in, and that the topic is going to jive well enough with your life plans such that there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re going to finish the study. Red flags include academic jargon that seems unconnected to the learner’s larger picture of life goals, or text written purely to satisfy the interests of the faculty member. Effectively, you are looking for their buy-in, on your study, not theirs. Assembling a team requires that buy-in, and among scholars, buy-in is achieved only when ideas meet paper (or digital paper, you know what I mean).

The prospectus is not a written form of your dissertation elevator pitch. Instead, it’s a sales pitch and with that, all the subtle intricacies of sales play into it.  There are a fair number of subconscious elements at work here, including your presentation evidencing that you’re organized enough and cooperative enough to make this working together experience relatively enjoyable for the faculty member. Having your ideas written down makes them real- both in what is said and how it is said. The prospectus need not capture all perspectives, but it should convey enough to the reader knows why you’re in it and how they fit into your study. There is also risk on the side of the learner that the faculty member does not become invested, and at the same time, the faculty member risks that the student never completes the study. These issues are being felt out in the prospectus process. In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should outline the plan in no fewer than two pages and no more than ten. Having sections mirroring the sections one might find in a dissertation is helpful. These guidelines surely vary among mentors. When I look at a prospectus, I hope to see a topic, an interest in that topic, how the study will play into the larger life of the learner’s career, and a some sort of method.

The proposal

The proposal is a refined plan of action. It should capture the conversations supported in the prospectus, yet none of the language that appeared in the prospectus need be in the proposal. There is a common adage that the proposal is the first 3 chapters of your dissertation. After I completed my dissertation, going back and changing much of what I had in my original proposal, I felt this was untrue. However, this did not stop me from telling other people that the proposal was the first three chapters of the dissertation; it’s an easy description to fall back on when time is short and one need not get into a longwinded blog post about the purposes of a proposal. This refined plan of action’s purpose is to support the candidate both in laying out directions, and support the candidate’s self-efficacy surrounding the study.

An approved proposal guides the research process. The proposal should support even the most frustrated dissertating candidate because it is a document that, when approved, evidences that the candidate came up with a reasonable, manageable, and worthwhile plan for study. Furthermore, that plan was approved by those who should be able to foresee any issues that can be foreseen. Think bumper rails. Candidates should recognize that part of the purpose of the proposal is to get the scope of the study under control, and manageable. If you’re entertaining collecting and analyzing more data beyond what was in your proposal, it is not likely that such activities will be welcomed by the committee. Don’t drive off the road. Research studies can organically grow too large to complete. The committee’s oversight is there to make sure the project does not become too large, or wander into territory outside of the reasonable expectations of a first independent study (which is what a dissertation is after all). I advocate catching up with your committee every once-in-a-while to stay on track. If we look at the proposal as a confirmation that the candidate has the support of four learned scholars who agreed that the candidate had created worthwhile study that is manageable in scope, then the document should support self-efficacy.  The proposal is also to support and scaffold the learner through self-doubt and frustrating times when things don’t go as planned. So now that we covered the false adage that the proposal is the fist three chapters of your dissertation, the well intended by logically false contract adage is next.

While logically wrong, there is another adage that the proposal is a contract. A proposal cannot be a contract because a contract outlines what happens when certain foreseen events happen; and unforeseen events void the contract. Unexpected results don’t void your dissertation proposal though. Research is by definition new territory, so not everything can be predicted.  Therefore, a proposal cannot be a contract; the logic simply does not hold. However, the adage is a confidence builder for the student because it offers reliability that the student will not be left in the lurch should things not pan out as expected. It is a way of telling the student that if they in fact do what they planned to do, the process will result in a worthwhile dissertation no matter what the results show. Contracts do not plan for the unexpected, but in the context of a dissertation, there are often feelings of self-doubt, and at times, panic. The contract adage helps against the panic, even if the adage is false. A proposal is a detailed plan, but no plan is perfect, and contracts are not plans. While contracts are not written for unknown entities, this way of thinking about the process is a good one; don’t bother arguing the semantics here. Just go with it.

In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should range from approximately 30 pages to no more than 100, and 100 is still really long. These guidelines surely vary among mentors. A proposal of less than 30 pages may raise concerns; it would for me. Not because committees measure quality by word count, but rather because detail is so important. The lit review in the proposal is important ground work. The methods need to be spelled out or cited extensively so procedures are obvious. The committee needs to know why you’re going to do the things you’re going to do, and how you’re planning on doing them requires detailed planning that needs to be discussed. A little working of real data goes a long way in playing out the plan; a screen cap of one’s data during the application of the proposed method is good to have, but is often not required in the proposal. I do require it, because I found it so useful in the past. Sometimes that data is not available, but usually, there’s a way to get at least a small sample, enough to make that proposal a really good guess. Of course, you can use previous data, but the closer your data is to the data you will use for the dissertation itself, the better your guess will be. You may well see important things that change your analytical plan in major ways. The task of the committee is to help you get to your goal, and without sufficient planning, you might lose a lot of time in rethinking things.

A proposal of more than 100 pages will raise concerns. Not because committee members are getting old and feeble, making it difficult for us to read for long stretches, but excessive writing suggests you’re over planning, or can get sucked into a rabbit hole. It is important to let go of the writing process and submit it at some point. No writing project is ever truly finished.  If you’ve not added a page in a a few days, either get back to writing or submit it.

The dissertation

The dissertation is a show-all-work, independent, original research task. It’s not a magnum opus. It is not just a research paper. If you think the dissertation is simply a long research paper, you are mistaken. There are plenty of published 100+ page research papers that would not fit the requirements of a dissertation. No matter what you have been told, your dissertation does not define you as a scholar. I have also heard people call the dissertation simply a book, but it’s not the same as a monograph. A dissertation must please four committee members. Books don’t necessarily have to do that. Rather, a dissertation places you in a field of study as someone who has contributed. It should connect you to the field you want to be in when you finish it, but if it doesn’t, you’re not going to be doomed. I think strategizing the dissertation takes more time than actually writing it. I would encourage all doc students to start thinking about the dissertation from the start of doc study. Big ideas don’t change; it’s the details of how to get it done that change. Every course you take should refine your vision of what you are about to study. I came to doctoral study wanting to study the way people learn language because I was convinced that the way you talk has enormous influence on the quality of life that you lead. After a few years of more graduate study I learned what types of language I wanted to study, and some nifty tools that gave me access to study it. My dissertation topic was the same the day I left as it was the day I arrived. The tech I used to do it was not all that important. That changed a lot. What I learned was how to do research, nothing about technology.

Long awaited conclusion to this dry blog post

The relationships between these three documents are actually not linear, though they may appear so. One need not finish the prospectus to start the proposal. Each of these documents serve different purposes. There are some tricks that help the writing process. For example, for each research question you write, imagine the possible answers and write down what meaning those outcomes would have. This will make writing the discussion chapter much easier if you do this in the proposal.

Try not to be too hard on yourself. Make small, accomplish-able writing goals. For me, I had each chapter in a separate word file, and if I wrote a page a day, on any of them, I considered it a good day. I decided to be happy with myself for that day, even if it was just one page. If I wrote a page (500 words), I had worked. Of course, there were days where I wrote a lot more, but I found the key was having no days where I wrote nothing. A day where you write nothing, or do nothing, is your enemy. Those days can pile up fast, as can days where you write just 500 words. You’ll find each chapter done in about 3 three weeks.

I also advocate being cognizant of the people skills beneath the dissertation process. How to navigate scholars and communicate with a committee of very different minded individuals is important learning and part of the process. It’s reflected in the dissertation. A dissertation that does not evidence negotiation between you and your committee is a sad loss of a great learning opportunity.

The doctoral research experience is not meant to be uniform. All PhDs do not serve the same purpose nor the same learning. Your dissertation should do what you want it to do for you, and revisiting that at some point during each of these documents is wise. Each new scholar finds value in different places. For some, the people skills are the most important and the most crucial. For some, it is in fact the writing. For some, it is the defense itself. Some PhD’s are pursued to get a job, some to enter a field of research, some to enter a career in teaching. I believe that in all these cases, the dissertation serves as an exercise, albeit a very formalized, careful, and important exercise orchestrated by the learner. In the end, it is training, and education. The dissertation is an experience in creating knowledge and convincing others who have also consumed a fair bit of related knowledge to agree in the value of this knowledge that you created.

While everyone’s dissertation experience is different, the three stages of prospectus, proposal, and dissertation unify the experience among all scholars. I think most who have earned a PhD will understand what one means by these three documents though they may not actually have the time to explain the nuances, and will often take the easy outs provided by the adages. The misinformation is not borne of malice, rather of trepidation that their experience is unique, which it is. At the same time, I do not believe anyone who actually went through this process knew the differences among these docs when they started. I sure didn’t.