Focusing on Student Voice

In a Twitter chat this week, I shared that one our best PD experiences this year was when we hosted a student panel and asked them what was working for them at our school…and what wasn’t. It was powerful to hear student voices and have them call us out on some things we need to improve.

The Twitterverse asked for more details so here are the basics. We kept it pretty simple. I invited students to participate from a broad range of backgrounds, both those who have been successful and those who have struggled. I emphasized repeatedly in the invitation and follow-up that we really wanted to hear what they had to say and learn from them. One even took her role super seriously and gathered feedback from a whole bunch of other students to share with us. Then, on the day of the panel, I emphasized with the whole panel and the audience that the room was a safe space. Students may share hard things and that’s ok. And they may share great things and that’s ok too. We just want to hear what they think. Laying that groundwork was really important.

Here were the questions we asked:

  • Tell us your story:  When did you come to our school?  Why did you start taking online courses (since we’re an online program)?  How long have you been with us?
  • What has been good about your experiences at our school?  
  • When have you felt really supported as a student?  
  • When have you felt disconnected or lonely or stuck as a student in this school?  What led to that feeling and what did you do about it?
  • What’s a meaningful assignment or project from your coursework at our school that stands out to you?  What made it meaningful?
  • If you could give one piece of advice to our school for how to improve the student experience, what would it be?

Then we opened it up for teachers to ask questions. Much of what they asked was to follow up on themes students brought up in our initial questions. They were great at asking for more details.

Then, once the students left, we compiled a list of takeaways as a staff. These were the things that really stood out from the student’s answers that we wanted to think about. Our leadership team then used that list to think about action items to take in the coming year to improve the student experience. My big takeaway question: How do we bring in student voices more often in every area of our school? Our most important stakeholders deserve a strong voice and it’s up to us to build space for it.

Ownership of Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries lately and the role ownership plays in teaching and learning. It came from a conversation with one of my kids that went something like this:

  • Me: I’m worried because some of my students haven’t turned in a major project yet.
  • Kid: Isn’t that your job? To make sure they turn in their work?
  • Me: Well…my job is to make sure students have access to learning and to encourage them to do their work. But it’s not to make sure they do it, necessarily. [hem, haw, awkward mumbling…]
  • Kid: Kind of like you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force him to drink?
  • Me: Kind of…[deep sigh]

It’s interesting that my elementary and middle school aged children think that my job is to make students work. I wonder if they think that’s their teacher’s job too? That worries me! Why wouldn’t they think that it’s their job to decide to complete their work?

In some ways, it is my job. I want every student to be successful, and I need to do everything in my power to make sure that happens. However, I think we share that responsibility. Ultimately, the student has to take some of the ownership for their learning and their progress. It seems like many of the problems we see in education today stem from that exact question: Who owns the learning?

I want my students to grow into lifelong learners and the only way that will happen is if they take more and more ownership for their daily learning.

  • If the parents are owning it, we call them helicopter parents.
  • If the teachers are owning it, we call them enablers (or grade inflaters or easy teachers).
  • If the students are owning it, we call them super stars?

I wonder about those roles. In the end, it seems that all three need to own some of the learning and negotiate appropriate boundaries for that.

How do we, as responsible educators, help that to happen?

Project Management Tools for Teachers

As project-based learning has become more popular, I’m finding an increasing need for using project management tools in my classroom. Students are working independently or in small groups on projects, and I need a way to see and evaluate their plans, view their progress, and help to facilitate the process. It can all get very complicated, very quickly. Project management tools ease that problem by allowing all members of a project to view each other’s work and collaborate outside of email or other more linear tools (Levine, 2014). These tools help to facilitate our list-making, collaboration, and communication.

In this roundup, I’m sharing some of the most powerful project management tools I’ve used. They range in complexity from simple document sharing (like Google Drive) to complete project management solutions (like Basecamp). Although I’m never a fan of overwhelming students with new tools, the ones below definitely pass the “useful vs. shiny” test and can make your course run more smoothly. The key for any project management tool should be that it makes your work more efficient rather than distracting you from the work itself (VanderArk, 2016). I’d advise starting with one at a time and seeing which tools are the most powerful for your situation.

Check out the table below. You can click on a tool’s name to see the details or scroll the entries below to find the tool you’re interested in.

Tools Basic UsesCollaborateCommunicateProject 
Google DriveDocument sharing and creationxx
Google SitesDocument sharingxx
WunderlistProject tasks and to-do listsxxx
KanbanchiProject lists and document sharingxxx, for teachers and students
OneNoteDocument sharing, project notes, to-do listsxxx
LMS: SchoologyDocument sharing, discussionsxxxx
BasecampDocument sharing, discussions, to-do listsxxxx, for teachers and students

The Tools

Tool #1: Google Drive

Google Drive has become the standard in collaborative tools and for good reason. If you’re not using it yet, now is the time to jump in. Students can share documents with each other and with you for collaborative creation and revision.

Web address:

There are a ton of different document types, beyond just basic word processing. Spreadsheets, forms, drawings, and slides can all be shared and built collaboratively. There are also comment and reply options.

Google Drive does lock you into a Google infrastructure. All users must have a Google account in order to share or create documents. If a document is downloaded in another file format (such as .docx or .pptx), formatting is sometimes lost.

When sharing a document with a group of students and you’d like them to make a copy instead of using the original, change the word “edit” in your shareable link to “copy” to force the new user to make a copy of the original document.

Google Drive Demo

Tool #2: Google Sites

Google Sites is a fantastic tool for creating a website. The editor easily creates beautiful webpages and the collaboration options mean that students can create content together.

Web address:

The templates in Google Sites are beautiful and create a visually pleasing site without a lot of headache. There are a lot of built-in themes and backgrounds for customizing content. Any content, including forms, can be embedded straight from Google Drive onto a Site. This means that students can embed docs and spreadsheets onto their website and those files will automatically update. It’s also easy to add collaborators to the site.

Students will need some training on how to work in Sites. The difference between the Add menu and the Pages menu is key for them to understand (as shown in the video below). It is possible for one student to overwrite another and it’s hard to recover lost work.

Because it’s possible for one student to write over another, try to create a template where each individual student is working on a separate page. That way students can see each other’s work and make suggestions but they are less likely to write over each other.

Google Sites Demo

Tool #3: Wunderlist

Wunderlist, at its core, is just a to-do list. It excels at creating easy to manage to-do lists that can be organized by category. However, when you add the option to collaborate on a list, it becomes a wonderful project management tool.

Web address:

Wunderlist is beautifully simple. You can create your lists in no time and be a power user in moments. You can invite other users to collaborate on a particular list, which means that groups can keep track of who has done what tasks.

Wunderlist is owned by Microsoft so users will need a Microsoft account to login, something many students will not have.

Also, in some ways, it’s overly simple. Students may feel limited by the functionality of Wunderlist and want something that can go deeper.

Be sure to click on the “Show Completed To-Do” option so that all users of a list can see what’s already been done. You may also want to train students to add their name to list items that they’re currently working on so no one duplicates a project.

Wunderlist Demo

Tool #4: Kanbanchi

Kanbanchi is built off of the Kanban method of project management. In its simplest form, it’s a “to-do” list, a “doing” list, and a “done” list. However, with Kanbanchi there’s a lot of flexibility in how you set up your lists. It also has a full integration with Google Drive.

Web address:

Kanbanchi is super flexible. You can create any type of list category and then add cards to that list. It can be great for organizing a project or ongoing research. Each card can include a start date, due date, checklist, or attachments. Collaborators can share the same board and Kanbanchi keeps records on all changes.

Kanbanchi is completely integrated into Google Drive so students will need to have a Google account.

Try moving your Kanbanchi boards into different folders in Google Drive. You can keep your research and docs/slides/sheets all in the same folder for one project. You can also use the “attach” function in Kanbanchi to attach a Google Drive document to a card.

Kanbanchi Demo

Tool #5: Microsoft OneNote

OneNote is a note-taking tool on-par with EverNote and other similar programs. It provides the option to create collaborative notebooks, organized into categories. Students could use OneNote to take notes on a project, organize to-do lists, or create a final product. They could even do all three within the same notebook in different categories or pages.

Web address:

OneNote is incredibly flexible. There are options to add pdf’s, images, drawings, and text notes. Students can even record audio and embed it in a OneNote page. Notebooks can be shared and built collaboratively.

Students may find the OneNote distinctions between a notebook, a category, and a page to be unclear. They’ll require some training to understand how OneNote is organized. Also, the online version of OneNote is a bit limited. There are times when a file can’t be displayed in the online version and it offers to open it on a local version of OneNote. That could be a problem if a student is using a Chromebook or a device without OneNote.

The “Insert file printout” option lets you embed a pdf or Word doc directly onto a OneNote page. From there, you have the option to highlight elements on the printout.

OneNote Demo

Tool #6: Schoology

Schoology is first and foremost a Learning Management System (LMS) but there are some great features inside Schoology that can also make it functional as a project management tool. Portfolios, groups, grading groups, and resources are all wonderful options for project management.

Web address:

If you’re already using Schoology as an LMS, then using it as your project management tool means that students don’t have to go to another tool in order to complete their project. Instead, they’re using features that are built in to the LMS.

Since Schoology isn’t specifically built for project management, it may be missing key features that you’d prefer to have like the option to create lists or collaborate on a document. However, by adding Google Drive links or assignments, some of those functions can be built in.

For student collaboration, try having students work in a Group in Schoology and then giving them admin rights in the group. That will allow them to add files and documents as well as lead discussions but only within the group.

Schoology Demo

Tool #7: Basecamp

Basecamp is a project management tool meant for companies. It gives you the option for message boards, chat, file sharing, etc. It’s a fairly intuitive system and it’s free for educators.

Web address:

Because each individual area of basecamp is shared with individual students, students only see the information that they need to. Students can share files, communicate, and create to-do lists all in one app.

Since Basecamp was designed for companies, it doesn’t have all of the student security features such as moderation or limited connections that we might desire. Using this tool requires careful monitoring by an adult to be sure that all activity is school appropriate.

Though Basecamp doesn’t integrate fully with Google Drive, it does allow you to share a Google Drive document link within a Basecamp board for easy access.

Basecamp Demo

What about you? What’s your go-to project management tool and how do you use it with students?


Levine, A. (2014). Social networking tools: An introduction to their role in project management. In P. Dinsmore & J. Cabanis-Brewin (Eds.), The AMA handbook of project management (p. 448-459). Retrieved from

Vanderark, C. (2016, February 16). Project management tools for school and work [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Building Engagement in K-12 Online Learning

Check out chapter 8!

I wanted to share another publication with you. I co-wrote a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Emerging Practice and Methods for K-12 Online and Blended Learning with the lovely Dr. Kerry Rice. Our chapter focuses on learner engagement–what is it and how do we develop it in a K-12 online classroom? There are some wonderful chapters in there about all aspects of K-12 online learning written by some of the biggest players in the field. You can check it out here: IGI Global Handbook of Research on Emerging Practice and Methods for K-12 Online and Blended Learning

Useful vs. Shiny

Recently on Jeffco’s Ed Tech blog, a post by Andrew Gitner caught my attention when he said that he’s, “learned to find what’s useful instead of what’s shiny.” That idea resonates with me. As much as I love new tech tools, the key to strong instruction lies with finding what’s useful and applying it well. Maybe we need to ask ourselves a few questions when we consider whether or not to use a particular strategy or tool, to determine if it’s useful or just shiny:

  • Is this really the best tool for this particular task? Why?
  • What will my students learn from using this tool? Is it more powerful than an alternate, simpler option?
  • What are my learning goals? Does this tool help me to reach them faster, better, or in a deeper way?
  • Can I use this tool for more than one student project? In other words, will the mental energy that it takes to teach students this tool pay off over time?
  • Is this a tool my students would benefit from after they’ve left my class? In the workforce? In college? In life?

If I’ve run through those questions and I still think that my tool is worth using, then it’s passed the useful vs. shiny test and it’s worth using in class. Huzzah for focusing on a few really useful tools rather than overwhelming students with shiny objects. (Though maybe there’s also a place for shiny AND useful! Adobe Spark comes to mind in that category…!) It’s a topic I’ve covered before. I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you tell if a tool is useful instead of just shiny?

Exploring the Future of the LMS

I have a new journal article out there that I’m thrilled to share with you. In this article, I explore the future of the Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS is basically an online organizational system for classrooms with discussion boards, content sharing, gradebooks, and dropboxes. The best known ones are Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. My district uses Schoology.

Writing this article was interesting for me. On the one hand, I love Learning Management Systems. I think they make teaching and learning easier for everyone, both in f2f classrooms and in the online world. As an over-the-top organization queen, the LMS is my BFF. Folders, online dropboxes, digital feedback, and supreme communication make me happy. However, as with any BFF, there are things that bother me and areas where I think the LMS can improve. This article outlines some of those concerns about current LMS systems and explores some possible visions for the future.

You can check out the complete article here: Exploring the Future of the LMS Thank you to the International Journal on Innovations in Online Education for publishing it!

Pursuing Excellence in Online Course Design

One of the things that I’ve learned in my years in online course design is that a course is never really “finished.” Sure, we talk about course design projects and delivering a final product, but the truth is that a course is a living, breathing thing. Each time we teach it, we tweak the content and make it better. We customize the content for the group of students that are in it, and, over time, the course gets better and better. It evolves as our skills grow and as we learn more about what works with students. If we’re looking at an online course as a textbook, printed and done forever, then we’ve missed the mark. The beauty of online learning is that it can continually evolve into something much better.

This semester, I have the unique experience of teaching a course that I last taught four years ago. It’s been funny to pull up my old course and start from there. It has weird quirks in it that are practices I’ve outgrown in the past four years. For example, many of my assignment pages have an assignment and then a dropbox on a separate space. Why did I do that? It was a holdover from an old LMS that I eventually outgrew. My redesign work, in some ways, is bringing the course up to date with the best practices I use now vs. the ones I used four years ago. What a lovely affirmation that I’m still growing as a designer!

So, today, I’d challenge you to take a look at the courses you’re using. Think about how they have evolved in the last year and, if they haven’t, why? Are there policies in place at your school or university that prevent growth in course design and in quality? How can you help change those policies? OR Are you allowing your course to stay stagnant, perhaps because you’re feeling a sense of burn-out? What can you do to re-energize yourself and your course? I promise that in implementing changes over time, even small changes, and trying new practices, you’ll find a new sense of yourself as an online instructor and a new passion for this work. Let your courses grow, breathe, and evolve. Your students will thank you and you’ll find new passion for the work.

Defining Engagement

This summer in my graduate work I’ve been diving into the question of learner engagement.  Teachers intuitively know that engagement is important, but it’s often a struggle to know how to build learner engagement or even how to define it.  Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of obscenity, we sometimes say about engagement, “Well, I know it when I see it.”

Even in the research, engagement is a sneaky term.  Some researchers define engagement as effort.  So, if a learner puts in a lot of time and effort into a course or they visit the library a lot, they must be engaged.  I know I’ve taken several courses where I put in lots of effort but had very little engagement in the content.

Other researchers focus on attention.  So, attention to a topic or a task means that we’re engaged in it.  Yesterday, Robert Marzano (@robertjmarzano) challenged that definition by tweeting that it’s more about attention and time:

I like the addition of time as a key element of engagement.  If a topic, task, or course holds my attention for a longer period of time, then I’m engaged in it.

I’m beginning to think that engagement may have more to do with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.”  Flow is when we’re completely absorbed by something and all sense of time disappears while we work on a task that we care about and that brings meaning.  Flow seems like a key element of engagement.

But defining the term is only the beginning. Our next step has to be to figure out how to consistently create engagement in online learners.  There are multiple actors in engagement.  There’s the teacher, who creates activities and content that will engage learners and also connects with students to build engagement.  But there are also the students, whose level of engagement depends on a lot of factors including their internal motivation and effort as well as the course design. We have to consider engagement from all these different lenses if we’re truly to understand how to support it.

I’ll continue to explore engagement this summer, adding posts here about how we can build engagement in online learners.  I welcome your thoughts along the journey.  What do you find engages online learners?

Graphic Design 101 for Online Teachers

Graphic design isn’t a skill that we teach in education courses.  After all, when would a teacher need to dabble in layout?  However, when a teacher moves into online learning or even blended learning, graphic design becomes an absolutely critical skill.  In today’s world, being able to create a page that clearly communicates information while being visually pleasing is a necessity.  As an online teacher, I work in graphic design all the time, putting together pages and graphics to help engage my students.

Thankfully the basic principles of design are easy to understand and make a world of difference.  I’ve created a resource that you can use to learn the basics of layout.  It’s located at:

The tutorials there will walk you through the basics of graphic design including contrast, alignment, repetition, and proximity as well as design sins to avoid and different types of graphics that can make a big difference in your instruction.  Though the tutorials encourage you to try out your skills in Photoshop, any image editor or even WYSIWYG page editor can work to create beautiful pages.  I can’t wait to hear what you think!


How To Raise a Reader

One of the great passions of my life is reading.  I adore books.  My to-read pile is huge and continually growing.  Interacting with ideas and stories is one of the great passions of my life, and sharing that love with students is one of the many reasons I love teaching.  So, when a professor asked me to create a Pecha Kucha about something I’m passionate about, it was a no-brainer to focus on how parents can go about raising readers.  For those who haven’t heard of it, a Pecha Kucha includes 20 slides that display for 20 seconds each.  It’s a highly distilled, highly focused, and visual way to share an idea.  So here’s mine…all about raising readers.