Educating Minds Online

An outstanding new book provides a road map for truly effective teaching with technology

Saad Faruque / Creative Commons

December 08, 2014

This fall I attended a conference at Rice University where Anant Agarwal, chief executive of EdX, and Daphne Koller, president of Coursera, spoke on "teaching in the university of tomorrow." They highlighted the potential of online courses to expand access to higher education to people who have traditionally been excluded from its purview.

Both ended their talks by spotlighting specific cases of people whose life situations made a college degree difficult or unlikely for them. Yet they had started their trajectory in higher education as MOOC students and then gradually worked their way to more traditional universities and to career success. The obvious implication: Online courses cracked open a previously closed door for those students.

Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University, tells a similar tale about the role that online courses have played in opening access to students in the remote areas served by her institution. Miller’s primary research fields are language and memory, but recently her focus has turned to the role that technology can play in opening access and improving the learning experiences of our students.

"One of the reasons Northern Arizona University values teaching with technology is our geography and location," she explained to me in an interview. "We’re located in the middle of some vast, sparsely populated spaces, and a major part of our mission as an institution is to serve the educational needs of the people spread throughout these spaces. Especially critical is our commitment to serving the needs of Native American students, many of whom live or spend time in rural reservation communities. Offering educational options that are partly or fully online is of real benefit to these students, who face long and sometimes treacherous commutes to our central Flagstaff campus."

That mission is why administrators and faculty members at the university became early adopters of many technological innovations in education but also careful analysts of those online tools and strategies. That tradition, coupled with Miller’s background in learning and memory, led ultimately to her new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology, published this fall by Harvard University Press. If you teach with technology in any form, at any level, I recommend you put this book at the top of your tottering pile of required reading on higher education. It’s an outstanding book that provides a road map for truly effective online teaching.

What distinguishes her book from much of the research available on teaching with technology, and pushes it beyond arguments about improving access, is her emphasis on the ways in which online teaching tools can actually improve learning for all students—not just those who have no access to traditional face-to-face classrooms.

Online courses—or an online component of a traditional class—offer a way to "give students repeated, challenging practice with the concepts we want them to know and the skills we want them to master," Miller said. "When I started out as a teacher, we cognitive psychologists already knew that things like frequent quizzing were incredibly beneficial to learning. I was excited to apply these findings, but when I got into a real classroom environment I found that it was overwhelmingly difficult and time consuming to actually do so. In many traditional courses you also can’t do things like offer repeated quiz attempts with different questions, or adapt the quiz to the topics that individual students are having the most trouble with."

Miller is referring there to the well-established "testing effect," which describes the learning boost that comes when students are required to make frequent efforts to draw material from their memory and use it in different contexts. As many researchers have argued, the power of the testing effect is not limited to testing or quizzing: Any time we ask students to recall and work with information—rather than simply presenting it to them for review or study—we are strengthening their learning.

The same is true, Miller noted, "for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice."

"In a way," she added, "this approach to technology is an extension of the idea that students should spend more time actually performing the skills we want them to master and less time listening to other people talking about the skills we want them to master. This mind-set is one that prevails among the best teachers, and it’s one I think more of us are coming around to."

Throughout the book, Miller highlights specific strategies and even technological tools that give students frequent practice at the challenges we want them to meet. For example, she writes, "to strengthen thinking abilities, practice needs to be frequent, challenging, and specifically targeted to the desired cognitive processes." She recommends tools like Carnegie Mellon University’s Causality Lab, a free and interactive site that teaches reasoning skills through simulated experiments and data analysis. She also recommends Sniffy the Virtual Rat, a digital rodent that students can attempt to train as they learn principles of psychological conditioning.

In another useful chapter, Miller surveys the research on multimedia presentations, drawing especially on the work of Richard E. Mayer, and makes recommendations to both face-to-face and online instructors for how to design better presentations. Read this chapter and you’ll think more carefully about the illustrations you include in your next PowerPoint presentation, and the balance between graphics and text on your slides.

In a chapter on the thorny problem of student motivation, Miller offers a host of small suggestions to help faculty members personalize an online learning environment, engage students in discussion boards and other course activities, and minimize two common problems in online courses: student procrastination and distraction. "In general," she writes, "structure is the enemy of procrastination." And so she advocates an "early and often" assessment philosophy, one that involves students from the first class session and then throughout the course.

A final chapter on "Putting It All Together" lays out all the issues that instructors need to consider in creating online courses or in using technology in teaching. She offers a sample syllabus for an online course with commentary linking the policies to the cognitive principles covered in the book. It’s an excellent overview of her recommendations, and should help instructors envision how to use her ideas in their own teaching.

I was curious to know what Miller saw as the primary challenges still facing teachers in online environments. For instance, many faculty members have raised concerns about academic dishonesty in online courses. However, the research thus far suggests that cheating rates for online courses are roughly equivalent to those in face-to-face courses. Although Miller writes about academic dishonesty in her book, she pointed to a different problem in our interview.

"We’re at a challenging time with respect to aligning our online pedagogy with learning science," she told me. "In nearly every talk I’ve seen recently about online learning, the speaker issues a rousing call to base instructional design on cognitive science. But too often, it either doesn’t happen or important principles get garbled as they are being translated into practice. Part of the problem may have to do with the sheer difficulty of parsing this massive, rapidly developing field of learning research into usable design principles."

That problem is facing all of us who teach in higher education. We seem to be in the midst of a flowering of new research and crossover books on learning that can help inform our teaching practices. Understanding how to apply a laboratory experiment on learning to a real classroom environment, though—or even figuring out whether that sort of experiment belongs in a real classroom—will continue to challenge those of us who wish to teach in ways informed by all the new research at our fingertips.

Miller’s book, Minds Online, represents an important new tool. It can ensure that we not only expand access to higher education to traditionally excluded groups, but do so in ways that ensure that those students receive the best possible education we can offer.

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.