Category Archives: research

Research-based Frameworks for Addressing and Assessing Online Learning Engagement

I begin this post with three hypotheses about online learning, based on my experience as a community college composition and humanities teacher in both face to face and digital formats, and on my experience as a graduate student who has taken digital courses from two public research institutions and one private university. The first hypothesis is that the ratio of nontraditional to traditional students is greater in digital than in brick and mortar formats. The second hypothesis is that despite the prevalence in #edtech online instructor training of “frameworks” and lists of “best practices” and available technologies, most college teachers and institutions that are implementing online learning formats could do more to align online course design and instructor behavior with cognitivist and constructivist learning theory, with empirically verified pedagogical strategies, and with systematic piloting and review of digital innovations at the course and program level.

At the intersection of these two hypotheses is the crux of the matter: if a higher ratio of first generation, English language learner, adult, and other nontraditional students is enrolling in online (defined here as any combination of synchronous or asynchronous learning) courses, and the shift to teaching in digital spaces and/or new technological innovations requires teachers to develop new communication, technology and pedagogical design skills while amplifying the negative effect of the lack of such skills, do resulting negative impacts on student retention and motivation create a significant disparate impact for nontraditional students? On the flip side, how can implementation of learning theories such as andragogy and social constructionism, together with more evidence-based review of digital teaching approaches, result in increased success for the less traditional student population that tends to take online courses?

A number of studies confirm that nontraditional students comprise the majority of online leaners (Chen, Lambert & Guidry, 2010: Thompson, Miller & Pomykal Franz, 2013). Teachers and institutions who create online learning experiences thus need to consider both the assumptions of adult learning theory, such as that adult learners have and use more personal experience in learning, maintain responsibility for their own learning and resist situations where learning appears to be dispensed or controlled by others, and are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated (Holton, Swanson, & Naquin, 2001), as well as the issues of diversity such as adaption, acculturation, identity formation, and diverse practices and understandings of knowledge acquisition and demonstration (Nielsen, 2014).

I would like to posit that a question as complex as how to build capacity at the course and institutional level for supporting such learners in online formats cannot be addressed effectively without systematic analysis, design, and evaluation of possible solutions that consider not only what innovations may work but why they work and whether they are scalable.

In this post, I respond to recent literature seeking to put principles of learning theory into conversation with systematic qualitative analytical approaches to problems of student engagement by suggesting that other educators join in early implementation of these models as well as in systematic review of results. I’ll discuss two research-based frameworks for online course design and one for course/program review.




Chen, P., Lambert, A., & Guidry, K. (2010). Engaging online learners: The impact of web-based learning technology on college student engagement. Computers & Education, 54, 1222-1232. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.11.008

Ford, C., McNally, D., & Ford, K. (2017). Using design-based research in higher education innovation. Online learning, 21(3), 50-67. doi:10.24059/oli.v%vi%i

Holton, E.F., Swanson, R.A., & Naquin, S.S. (2001). Andragogy in practice: Clarifying the andragogical model of adult learning. Performance improvement quarterly, 14(1), 118-143. Retrieved from

Lehman, R.M. & Conceição, S. (2013) Motivating and retaining online students: Research-based strategies that work, Jossey-Bass / Wiley. Retrieved from

Nielsen, K. (2014) On class, race, and dynamics of privilege: Supporting generation 1.5 writers across the curriculum. In Zawacki, T.M. & Cox, M. (Eds.), WAC and second-language writers: Research towards linguistically and culturally inclusive programs and practices (pp. 129-150). Retrieved from

Oremus, W. (2015, October 25). No more pencils, no more books: Artificially intelligent software is replacing the textbook—and reshaping American education. Slate. Retrieved from

Redmond, Pl, Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online learning, 22(1), 183-204. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

Thompson, N., Miller, N., & Pomykal Franz, D. (2013). Comparing online and face-to-face learning experiences for non-traditional students: A case study of three online teacher education candidates. The quarterly review of distance education, 14(4), 233-251.

Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century Take on Research Skills

Throughout this quarter in the Digital Education Leadership MEd program, I’ve been working on a unit plan that encompasses the Understanding by Design teaching model, Common Core English Language Arts Writing standard 8 which deals with research skills, and ISTE Student Standard 2c which asks students to consider the rights and obligations of using others’ intellectual property online. This blog post serves to outline the process I took in applying the Understanding by Design Model as well as sharing the unit plan I created.


In my prior district, all of our 8th-grade students completed an interdisciplinary research project where the English teachers, History teachers, and librarian worked together to assist students as they researched an issue of their own choosing within the umbrella of Human Rights. By far, the most difficult aspect of this project for students was in determining which sources they should use. Even when given a specific database to use, students had difficulty in determining the best source when multiple options were presented. The problem was compounded when using Google to find outside resources. Too frequently, students attempted to use websites that were not credible or they simply chose the top results on Google. As a teacher, I was so focused on the end result (a presentation supported by a digital presentation tool of student choice) that I didn’t spend enough time thinking through this critical element of the puzzle. Throughout the quarter, I was asked, “Is this a good source?” much too often. Other teachers argued that students’ online research should be limited to school-subscribed databases like SIRS to avoid this issue altogether. I felt (and continue to feel) passionately that effective, real-world searching skills are necessary so I diverted from the department norm. However, I clearly could have done a better job of scaffolding the individual research skill sets.


I began my unit by formulating an essential question: How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources? I then broke my question down by considering what I really wanted students to accomplish. I followed the advice of Wiggins and McTighe: “Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results” (14). Or, to put it simply, begin with the end in mind. The end result of this backward design thinking was the separation of the unit into four skill sets.

  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Effectively searching requires that students find online sources that are credible. It also requires students to evaluate multiple sources in order to determine which source best meets their research needs.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Ethical sourcing of information online requires that students avoid plagiarism by giving credit to source authors/creators. This includes knowledge of HOW to cite (MLA format for the English classroom) as well as the knowledge of WHEN to cite.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Finding information online requires that students do more than just pop their essential question into Google. Students can use Boolean search operators and advanced search options to get better quality results.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Using sources online can take many different forms. Regardless of the end project (be it the traditional research paper, a blog post, or a paper poster), students need to know how to actively read and interact with online sources.

Stage 1 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of desired results.

Established Goals (with standards)

  • Students will effectively and ethically find and use online sources. Throughout this unit, students will: 1) use search terms effectively, 2) assess the credibility of each source, and 3) use online information while avoiding plagiarism and citing sources.
  • Unit addresses CCSS ELA Writing 8 (which covers researching, evaluating, citing, and synthesizing multiple sources) and ISTE Student Standard 2c (the respect of intellectual property online). The unit is appropriate for students grade 7-10.
What essential questions will be considered?

  • What tools can be used to find relevant sources online?
  • How can a reader determine if information online is trustworthy?
  • What makes one source more beneficial than another in terms of answering an essential question?
  • How can writers avoid plagiarism and properly credit their sources?
  • What does it look like when researchers actively read and interact with sources? Why is this important?
  • Why is it important to curate and publish information online?
What understandings are desired?

  • Students will understand how to refine their online searches for more precise results.
  • Students will understand what makes an online source credible and relevant to their research.
  • Students will understand how to use information from online sources in a legal and ethical way.
  • Students will understand how and why to actively read (using notations, underlining, and comments) online sources.
  • Students will understand how and why to curate information online.

Stage 2 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of acceptable evidence.

For the unit’s performance task, I wanted to include an authentic and engaging way for students to demonstrate their understanding of research skills. When I came upon a blog post on curation from Jennifer Gonzalez, the idea for a project was born.

Show You Know with a Curated List: Students will research, evaluate, and critically respond to a topic of their choosing. The research and evaluation process will look similar for all students, but the topic and curated list is unique to their interests. They can choose to explore a future career, a hobby, social or political concerns, etc. The end result will be a curated list published online via  A curated list is essentially a collection and synthesis of information on a single topic from a variety of sources. It requires the traditional research elements taught in the ELA classroom with the addition of analyzing and evaluating the quality of sources in order to meet a specific publishing goal. For example, “3 Must-Read Harry Potter Fanfictions” would involve the creator’s personal preference and also their ability to summarize the stories and persuade readers to read them. Instructional topics such as “So You Want to Play the Drums” require students to present their findings in a sequential way that is clear enough for a beginner to benefit from their curated list. In addition to the academic benefits, curated lists are an ideal classroom tool because they require higher-order thinking and they may be published to an authentic audience (at teacher/parent discretion). Student example on differing interpretations of free speech. On the platform, students customize each element of their list (title, photo, and commentary). Because of this, the possibilities really are endless.

Stage 3 of the Universal Design process includes the specific learning experiences that will guide students through the learning process.

As I frequently do with my teaching, I blended existing online sources with unique sources I made specifically for this unit. My unit is broken up into the 4 skill sets I identified in Stage 1: Strategic Searching, Credible/Quality Sources, Credit Given to Authors, and Meaningful Interaction with Sources. I used a puzzle piece metaphor to help students visualize the various skills coming together to support solid research. This metaphor extends to the student note page which provides students a way to collect evidence from class discussions and work through an essential question for each skill set. At the end of the unit, the note page is a reference sheet that students can use in the future for any research assignment (including the performance task). Below is my complete, 2-week unit, “Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century take on Research Skills.” To access the resources linked within, please open via Google Docs, here.

For a preview of the Performance Task (and explanation of curated lists) please check out the video tutorial I made below.


Understanding by Design was not a new concept to me, but it was extremely helpful to take an existing learning objective and rethink the learning process using the framework. If my experience is like that of other teachers, the best practices we learn in our credential programs occasionally must be sacrificed in the interest of hundreds of papers to grade, clubs to advise, meetings to attend, and lessons to present.

I’m thankful for the opportunity through my MEd program to take a deep dive into previously taught material while considering the lens of the ISTE standards. ISTE Student Standard 2c is a key component of any research project. Students must learn when and how to credit other sources. Students often think that they only need to credit a source if a direct quote is used. Or they change a few words and believe that is not plagiarism. For this reason, I wanted to incorporate not only the formatting guidelines of MLA, but also give students practice with crediting the various types of note-taking (quotes, paraphrasing, summarizing, etc).

Part of the Understanding by Design framework is evaluating what it means for students to truly understand the material you are presenting. Through the Performance Task, students were asked to apply the various elements they’d learned about research in publishing a curated list of sources and information on a topic of their choosing. I love the idea of having students create a curated list of sources because it is an ideal project to demonstrate knowledge of searching strategies, website evaluation, proper citations, and synthesis of information. Throughout the project, students much choose the BEST source, not just any source, and the justification they write allows their thinking in this aspect to be visible.


Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

ISTE – Knowledge Constructor – Empowering Skilled Researchers


As part of my ongoing exploration of how ISTE Student Standards can be implemented in the classroom, I am focusing this week on ISTE Student Standard 3: Knowledge Constructor.  Addressing how students will locate and use information from digital sources using a variety of tools and methods to create collections of artifacts that demonstrate meaningful connections or conclusions. I am specifically looking at the following performance indicators:

3A: plan and employ effective research strategies to locate information and other resources for their intellectual or creative pursuits.
Enabling students to discover their own sources and to also empower them with the courage and skills to research their own reliable sources is difficult particularly in the middle school level.  Students range in their ability to scour the internet for new sources that would pass a CRAAP test. “It is not sufficient for readers to solely find the information posted online— they need to connect and synthesize ideas across multiple Internet texts. The integration of knowledge and ideas illustrated within the CCSS calls for an analysis of two or more texts to build and present knowledge around similar topics (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), 2011 ) (Kingsley, T., & Tancock, S.2014).”  Because of this fact teachers like me need to encourage students to continually push themselves further when it comes to research techniques and skills.

As Baker explains it in his book Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom, “today’s average youth spends over 10 hours a day consuming media. Aided by technology, young people can instantly share and engage with media messages to find answers, get directions, shops or connect with friends” (Baker, 2016). But access alone doesn’t lead to critical thinking. Media are texts, designed to be read, analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed. Understanding how to interpret advertising messages, check for bias or avoid stereotyping are among the skills students need to become knowledgeable consumers and producers of media.


What are ways in which students can critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produced creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others?

The book I acquired is by Frank Baker, is about his perspective on Media Literacy. I also found an interview he did on a blog podcast just last week.  He talks with the interviewer Larry Jacobs about the decisions that students are making when it comes to finding credible sources on the internet.  He references a public website and often referenced as a bad example ( where “most people if they went to (Martin Luther, don’t scroll down and don’t see that it is presented by white Aryan nation group” (L. Jacobs, 2017).  Then Frank Baker goes into the series of questions that make up his concept of media literacy for students in K-12 school. Baker calls out in the interview that middle school age students have a hard time identifying credible sources.  Being able to discern between reliable and reputable sources in their research is crucial for setting them up for success. They go on to discuss two big events that can help teachers introduce media literacy to students in an engaging manner. “The key to successful instruction lies in embedding competencies within an authentic inquiry-based process. When students are searching for an answer to a question they have formulated about a topic, it allows for a meaningful investigation. They are motivated and have the stamina to seek many Internet resources for answers” (2014, pg 398).  Students need to ask themselves a series of questions when encountering media.  It is essential that we instill the capabilities and curiosity in the students so they can dive deep into research to find what they are looking for.  Educators need to keep in mind that students require wonder to push through the tough times during research. And as Sarah Patillo explains in her blog post 17 Ideas to Help Combat Learned Helplessness we need to; 

Always encourage wonder – 

IF: You ask all the questions…

THEN: Students never learn to ask their own or invest themselves enough to wonder.

SO DO THIS INSTEAD: Create time for asking and answering questions about the text, problem, or content at hand. Invest students in seeking their own answers. Keep the wonder alive!” (Patillo, 2016). Allow the students to ask the questions and create

I need to allow the students to ask the questions and create investment in their topic so they will work towards a real solution or answers instead of just fulfilling a credit amount on an assignment.


How can I best teach my students to use effective research strategies to locate accurate and reliable information and other resources for their research projects and reports in my humanities classroom?

Getting our students to become critical thinkers (and viewers) by questioning media messages is an important goal. Over time, I have seen a bunch of different tools as a high school and middle school language arts and social studies teacher.  I have seen the evolution of the CARS test to the CRAAP test.  But I wanted something a bit more developed and with more explanation.  The Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom uses Shepherd’s media literacy triangle to help students like mine, in middle school synthesize what are the very basics they need to question when encountering new information. “A text is any media product we wish to examine. Anyone who receives a media text is a member of an audience. Production refers to everything that goes into the making of a media text (Baker, 2016).”

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-3-37-51-pm screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-3-41-24-pm
  • The text is typically associated with something in print. A text can be a film, a TV show, an advertisement, a radio program, a photograph, or video game.
  • The audience is the particular demographic that each text is designed specifically for.
  • Production is the process of making (putting together) or creating media texts.