Thoughts about how we can use Active Personal Technologies (APT) to interact with our audience and enhance learning opportunities.

When you were young, what distracted you in class? Was it looking out a window? Doodling? Glancing around the room? Testing the tensile strength of a #2 pencil?

Today, participants have so many more distractions in the form of active personal technology (APT) (i.e. cellphones, tablets, and computers, along with installed apps that are “actively” connected to a network). The “instant response and notification characteristics” of new technologies we carry with us means we may not be able to escape the distractive properties (as long as the device is connected/turned on).

The problem of distraction exists in every learning environment. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan discussing the brain’s ability to multitask, tell us “under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

More than 90 percent of students according to Barney McCoy (2013) admitted to using their devices for non-class activities during class times. Asked why they were using their devices in class, the top answer was texting (86 percent), followed by checking the time (79 percent). e-mail (68 percent), social networking (66 percent), web surfing (38 percent) and games (8 percent). The top advantages they cited were staying connected (70 percent), avoiding boredom (55 percent) and doing related classwork (49 percent).

So, how do we effectively teach or train in a learning environment where APT disrupt, distract and disturb? We know from recent studies that the use of technology and the Internet in learning environments can result in positive experiences for the learner (Pew Research Centre, 2014).

The question is, can take advantage of reported positive experiences to design active learning experiences for participants? Can we attack distraction using the very same tools of distraction that are in the hands of participants? Can the presence of APT be viewed as an asset?

It is rare today that a participant shows up for a training session without at least a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer. Therefore, we must embrace this as we prepare training/learning opportunities and to maximize learning potential.

The first step is to realize the potential of these APT. Each one has the ability – at any moment in time – to actively engage with Internet content and other individuals. They can provide instant updates about their family, friends and the arrival date of recent online purchases, entice with games, and provide current sports statistics, all of which may appear more interesting than the session they are currently attending. Armed with this information, it is possible to design a training session that requires the participant to use their APT to engage, interact and connect.

Designing a Training Session

Methods of instruction common today often take their structure from Bloom’s Taxonomy (cognitive, affective and psychomotor). The idea is to create learning objectives and then design instruction based on meeting these objectives. Learning objectives are turned into topics to be covered over the span of the course and presentations, lectures, and activities for the participants.

A problem with this method is that it does not always take into account situational factors (what and how participants learn) and the multi-modal learning styles of participants. A suggested alternative approach would take advantage of a “Systematic Learning-Centered Design” model (Fink, 2003). Fink’s model addresses new kinds of learning, such as “learning how to learn, leadership and interpersonal skills, ethics, communication skills, character, tolerance, and the ability to adapt to change. This model asks what and how participants should learn.

For this model to be effective, we would need to spend time learning about how our participants learn, interact and communicate. This can be difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Therefore, it is may be reasonable to assume that any participant population is likely to contain a variety of learners and learning styles that need to be considered when developing effective instruction.

Using carefully selected instructional technologies; it is possible to address multi-modal learning needs as well as individual learner needs. If we accept the following assumptions, we can design technology enhanced learning experiences that support meaningful interaction and engagement.


  1. No two learners have the same learning needs
  2. Offering multi-modal learning opportunities meets the needs of most participants
  3. Opportunities for real-time interaction and expression by participants will help to sustain interest and connection with the content being presented
  4. The use of visual media (images, video, audio) is essential to meeting the needs of a variety of learners

Guidelines for developing more interactive training sessions (correlated with Fink’s Six Taxa)

  1. Increase the frequency of interaction.
    1. Learning How To Learn. Carefully consider how, where, and when you can engage your participants with questions, surveys, polls, brainstorming, etc.
  2. Establish a meaningful interaction with participants within the first 5-10 minutes
    1. Foundational Knowledge. Bring your participants into the session early. Allow them to share and contribute to the session.
      1. Continue to interact at frequent intervals – keep your audience engaged
  3. Support and/or encourage the use of personal technology for interaction.
    1. Application. Take advantage of participant skills, and practical thinking skills. Require participation using APT.
    2. Integration. Participants can connect, share and imagine using available technology tools.
  4. Offer multi-modal solutions whenever possible.
    1. Use graphics, audio and video to enhance sessions.
  5. Establish learning centers (groups) to promote more in-depth understanding and exploration of content.
    1. Integration. Recognizing and understanding new connections. Realizing cause and effect, discovering new relationships, constructing new knowledge.
    2. Human Dimension. Working effectively with others. Sharing information, discussing information. Working collaboratively.
    3. Caring. Change and support the way participants work with each other and the way they share information.
  6. Offer opportunities to “learn more” independent of the session. Give your audience something to “take away” from their experience.
    1. Learning How to Learn. Developing skills that enable self-directed learning. Using technology they have access to all the time in a way that embraces discovery.

Changing our ways

We can observe differences in the way in which we approach learning. To do this, we may have to abandon previous methods, approaches, and techniques for delivering training in order to embrace new ideas and concepts that leverage APT.

Thoughts On First Steps To Online Course Development

When developing  an online course for the first time you should focus your intentions on making the course experience positive. This generally translates to taking your time developing the right course materials and considering a variety of delivery options for presentations, lectures, or assignments.

Begin by outlining your course needs followed by you desires. Try to keep things  clear, concise, and comprehensive. Remember to stay organized and make sure you have included everything you need in your online course before you offer it. When your course is ready, have someone test it out and provide feedback. It is rare when we get it right the first time. No one wants to have to apologize for mistakes or omissions once the course has started. It is best to get everything worked out in advance. Test your course using the recommended browsers (all of them) to make sure that your course appears and functions as you intended. Desire2Learn recommends Mozilla FireFox and Google Chrome. Make sure your students are reminded of this.

Course appearance and navigation are important considerations as well.  You can alleviate frustration and confusion by keeping the design and navigation of your course logical. Check yourself: Do you provide clear instructions or a “Start Here” section? Can students move through your course with ease? Have you organized your content so that students can find what they need easily, and in one place? Have you checked due dates, published and draft dates, etc. for accuracy?

A best practice, consider how you might keep your course content manageable. Is there time to fully comprehend instruction and to develop meaningful understandings? Can you provide the material in ways that make it easier to understand (through audio or video)? Have you allowed sufficient time to complete the course requirements.

Once your course goes live, try to avoid making last minute changes. Often, students do not visit the course at the same time, so they may not see these changes in time to react to them. It is best to make changes when you have time to make sure you did not introduce any problems in the accuracy of the course flow.

Consider providing extra resources to help students succeed in your class. Do not assume that your students have all the knowledge and expertise to succeed in an online course format. Providing some additional tools, resources, or links can augment their online learning experience.

Thoughts about leveraging today’s web-based learning solutions…

Faculty who use Learning Management Systems (LMS) to assist with the delivery of courses in online, hybrid or even ground-based courses have a variety of tools from which they can strategically devise interactions with students to promote learning. Originally, these LMS were designed to facilitate transition from ground-based to online teaching without having to learn complicated or archaic programming or coding languages. And today, despite many advances, these tools and technologies have either been underutilized or the benefits have been misunderstood.

It is always surprising to me when I discover yet another faculty member who uses the LMS to teach courses in which students read independently and demonstrate their knowledge through multiple-choice exams without interaction of any kind between the instructor and the student, or between students. Despite efforts at providing quality professional development programs, online resources, and consultation services, some faculty have resisted the change that is a requirement of online teaching; stimulating learning through interaction.

Interaction is the bridge that brings everyone together in an online learning environment. And, technology resources such as online threaded discussions, chat rooms, video conferencing, document sharing and a variety of effective web-based technologies facilitate interaction and stimulate engagement and participation in an online course.  Most LMSs will have some or all of these technologies available, however, if they are not a part of your LMS, you can provide links to these tools online.

The rapid development of web-based tools (sometimes referred to as Web 2.0 Tools) has offered up an ever-changing menu of resources that, when added to the existing set of tools currently available in LMSs, can provide the instructor with an even richer palette from which to select the appropriate strategy or interactive experience.

What makes the online resource even more enticing than the LMS is that the user has more control over the environment. The instructor no longer has to rely on professional development courses to become proficient in the use of expensive and overly complicated software or LMS tools. Many of the web-based solutions are simply easier to use because they focus on one thing, and one thing only – the task at hand, without a lot of “extras”.

Here are some of my recommendations for “add on” tools to enrich your online teaching experience:

Connecting Visually Online - (WebEx/Skype)

Both of these programs offer solutions that allow an instructor to engage visually with their students. In the case of WebEx, you can also share documents, videos, and your computer applications; anything you have on your computer. Add to that the ability to illustrate, draw and share a whiteboard environment. Skype offers screen sharing with its free service, but unlike WebEx, all users must have Skype accounts. With WebEx, only the host user (most likely the instructor) needs to have an account. Both web-based tools offer excellent connectivity, real-time chat environments and video compression making them excellent choices for establishing interactivity with and among your students.

Creating Knowledge and Brainstorming – (MindMeister)

Having a way to challenge student thinking while visualizing their contributions in real time is something that MindMeister does very well. This easy to use application allows an instructor to generate a topic for discussion and invite students to participate in the development of the topic. Users may establish a free account if you like, or you can share content with them through a public channel. The free version of MindMeister works great. Students can create their own mind maps (concept maps) and share them with others. Instructors can watch as ideas are created and begin to populate the screen.  This tool provides an excellent platform for generating ideas and developing thoughts. In addition, the newest version of MindMeister can be used for delivering interactive presentations to students very much like other presentation programs (Prezi, for example).

Effective and Interactive Lectures/Presentations – (NearPod)

NearPod is a web-based tool that offers the instructor a superior format for designing and delivering interactive lectures and presentations. With this tool, the instructor can embed questions into their presentations, receive real-time feedback on responses, and analyze or share the results to make time-critical decisions about how well the content is being received and understood by students. The tool set includes a variety of questions formats, the ability to use draw tools to express and respond, image libraries, video, linking to websites, and more. The complete package (also including content created by other educators) allows instructor to import their PDF or PPT presentations, videos, and images to start creating interactive content that can be shared in real-time or viewed independently by students. Nearpod can't be beat for its simple design and ease of use.

Presentations and Document Sharing – (GoogleDocs/SlideShare)

Many course presentations/lectures are constructed using PowerPoint or other presentation software. And, some instructors even require students to create their own presentations. An excellent web-based solution for building “powerpoint-like” presentations is GoogleDocs. In fact, the entire user interface resembles PowerPoint. With this application, students can create powerful and professional presentations that they share via email, download or via sharing services like SlideShare. SlideShare is similar to YouTube by design. The user can post their presentation online for others to view and share, but maintains control of the presentation. Some faculty use SlideShare as a way for students to share and peer evaluate each other’s work. The process of creation to sharing to evaluation is very simple and straightforward using these tools.

Quick Information/Announcements – (Twitter/Remind101)

Twitter is a web-based application that facilitates the sending of small chunks of information (140 characters max.). Students can receive this information quickly and act on it. For instance, an instructor could “tweet” (send a twitter message) from their smart phone reminding students that there is a quiz or guest speaker for the next class session. Students can reply with short questions and perhaps read a response from any of the other students in the class. If used with consistency, tweeting can be a very easy, and very engaging way to interact with your students. Remind101 is an online tool that lets the instructor send instant messages (SMS) to students. However, unlike other services, Remind101 does not allow the recipient the ability to respond. This service is one-way which makes it safe and easy to use for most instructional situations. An instructor can send out reminders, tips, suggestions, or anything they like to students who receive these messages as text messages on their mobile devices.

Creating Knowledge – (WikiSpaces)

Wikipedia is an online repository of information about everything you can imagine. But what if we could make this repository smaller and much more refined? That would be the purpose behind using WikiSpaces. WikiSpaces helps an instructor create a “wiki” environment. An instructor could use a wiki to develop a lexicon of information and knowledge about the subject being studied in the course. Practices, terms, case studies, etc., could be collected and organized into the wiki. Students could participate in the collection and editing of the articles that result. The peer participation and opportunities for individual and group expression are enormous. An added benefit is that the wiki can continue to grow indefinitely over the years the course is taught creating a rich archive.

Web-based media tools and applications such as those discussed here require very little management and are set up in minutes, often without the help of the LMS technology support staff. Faculty, and/or students can take advantage of web-based tools to communicate, share, collaborate and learn while fostering creativity and developing user-generated content.

The LMS is good for education, but it should not be considered the “total” solution to delivering courses effectively to students. Instead, consider the LMS your building block from which you will add your own personal tools. What you need to add are resources to make your course exceptional.

Thoughts on Lecture/Presentation Development for Online Courses

One of the pitfalls of teaching online that instructors often experience is that they replace face-2-face teaching lectures with large quantities of online text. Screen after screen of text will only “lock” the student into a linear sequence of learning. While this will provide data to support their participation in your course, it is not providing interactivity, a vital component of a quality online course, and, can make it difficult to assess what a student has learned.

So, is it possible to turn any lecture into an interactive experience? Yes! To begin, take a second look at your objectives and cut out unnecessary material and focus on the most important content. This will allow you to create rich content that includes visuals, animations and other interactions to promote a quality online course experience for your students.

One way to create rich content would be to create “scenarios.” Scenarios immerse learners in situations that require them to apply newly acquired knowledge. You can base scenarios on common issues or problems related to your lecture content. To engage your students, you could include multiple-choice questions or group activities that engage students with the analysis of content and strategies for solutions. The goal of the scenario is to engage your students in the presentation.

Careful selection and use of graphics can also provide an enhanced experience. Since your students have different learning styles or combinations of learning styles, consider designing activities that address their modes of learning. In designing online courses, this can best be accomplished by utilizing multiple instructional strategies like those that support visual/nonverbal and auditory/verbal. These two learning styles focus more on listening, or the use of graphics or diagrams to represent information.

Another strategy would be to develop lectures/presentations that are smaller, or “chunked” for easy consumption. Smaller content offerings provide an optimal environment for periodic reflection.

No matter the strategy, including interactive opportunities will likely open up new ways to engage your students at a distance and maintain a high level of connectivity with your online students.