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Top-achievers are competitive yes, but to assemble world-class companies and ventures, the upper ranks of billionaires, CEOs, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs are increasingly using collaboration, teamwork and cooperation.


In response, many schools (such as the Harvard Business School, the University of Phoenix and others) have implemented “learning teams” to foster teamwork and improve grades among students.


Granted, forming functional teams can be a pain in the ass but the payoffs are huge and the technique is being used in almost every industry. From manufacturing to IT; from research to cardiac surgery, learning teams are turning the good into the great.


To form winning teams:


  1. research every resource you can lay your hands on. Many schools have team handbooks but there is also a wealth of free scholarly information used by professional educators on


  2. write a team agreement or charter just like you would if you were forming a company. Clearly describe each member’s role and expected contributions.

  3. design a conflict resolution system. How will you resolve disagreements? How will you respond to late-work? When (and how) will you “fire” members of your team? Focus on successful outcomes, not just easy ones.


  4. plan for disaster. A team has many resources to draw upon if a computer crashes or someone gets sick. To make your team as nimble as an individual, have emergency protocols drawn up in advance.

  5. become team-work experts. The ability to participate in and lead teams is one of the key skills needed to earn top level salaries or build your own company. Every member of your team should invest in leadership training.

Over the next few blog entries, we’ll explore some practical ways to use your teams within the educational environments (both on-ground and on-line).


We’ll specifically look at co-authoring/researching, using revision workshops, the advantages of new-knowledge creation, peer editing and editing committees.

Maximizing Feedback

Maximizing Feedback Right Out of the Gate

By Vincent Kovar

Written for:


Set the Tone through Modeling, Not Lecture

Over much of history, education was conducted in a traditional “lecture” format largely due to the cost of books and the centralization of information in the instructor. Even today, shifting to a non-centralized, online format can seem foreign both to students and teacher. However, a solid structure of communication practices can turn this situation around and leverage the open format for a stronger learning experience.

To accomplish this, it’s important to set the tone right out of the gate. Rather than assuming students will automatically read the course syllabus and/or trying to “push” the information flow, include a required syllabus scavenger-hunt in the very first communication. Include precise questions about what assignments are due when. Ask them to locate the class discussion forum and detail the expectations for student participation. Also include questions about the composition of the class itself. For instance ask them to list the cities where all the participants live, the gender percentages or what’s the most popular major in the class. Too often the participation model is introduced through lecture. Not only is a scavenger-hunt a fun icebreaker but it immediately models the style of discourse.


Support, Don’t Supplant, Technical Support

Always include a scavenger-hunt item that requires the class to identify at least one technical support resource. At most colleges there is a combination of live-chat help, email help and a toll-free number. Are there specific hours/days that the help-desk is open? What happens if the help desk is not available or not responding as quickly as the student hopes? Require the class to create an email-tree or back-up method of posting or sending in homework assignments. Do not make yourself the technical support for the class nor make yourself the point of first contact for breakdowns in inter-student communication. While most students in the online environment are self-motivated and individually driven, you may encounter the occasional “my dog ate my homework” student. In modern parlance this usually takes the form of “the file won’t upload” or “I emailed that to you last week.”


Allowing any form of these excuses inhibits the spirit of self-discipline that is essential to a successful distance-learning course. Problems in this arena shouldn’t be viewed as laziness or malice on the part of the students (a mind-set which is counter-productive) but rather as a sneaky virus that threatens to infect a class of well-intentioned learners.


Consider including a tech-forum where students can post the solutions to common problems. This strengthens the sense of community and provides yet another opportunity for students to share their knowledge –not only with each other but with you.


Model Personal Accountability

Keep lines of communication flowing both directions. Instructors can find themselves locked into a simple cycle of posting assignments and sending feedback without any of the benchmarks and assurances that are expected of the students. When you receive assignments, acknowledge receipt with a quick email. This cuts down on the “but I emailed it to you” or similar excuses described above and provides an opening for students to initiate conversation with you. After each assignment, post the grades anonymously so that students can put their own performance in context. Also post the percentage of class-members who sent it in on time (don’t mention specific students by name if they did not). This creates positive peer-pressure that helps induce a sense of team-work but also gives you as the instructor an early warning if something is wrong with the class community. For instance, I once had a class in which only 40% of the students got the paper in on time. I immediately put the regular agenda for the week on hold. It turns out that a fundamental concept was unclear to the majority of the class and, frustrated, many of them just “checked-out” on the assignment. Without the regular, personal contact of an on-ground class, a missed concept can snowball into a class-wide collapse. Ideally, we should be able to spot a common question in the discussion forums but from time to time a problem can appear and blossom into a crisis in a very short time.


To ensure the success of the online model, instructors need to place an almost equal emphasis on communication structure as they do on content. Without timely intervention in the situation described above, the class could suddenly experience an overwhelming number of drops, lessen your standing as an online instructor and ultimately hurt the enrollment numbers of the school.


Making Mini-Lectures


Vincent Kovar

written for:


The traditional, hour-long lecture that is so familiar to on-ground undergraduates has little place in an online learning environment. However, shorter, tightly focused “lecturettes” can help engage learners and add some multimedia punch to your classes. You don’t need a fancy sound-studio or even a DJ friend with an editing board to get started. In fact, jumping ahead to the fancy “bells-and-whistles” can distract you from the design fundamentals of the audio lecture.


Listen First

First, go online and listen to a few audio-lectures yourself so you can get a feel of what works for you. You can find a selection of free audio books, lectures and articles in several places on the Internet. For instance: or the open courseware available from M.I.T.


Find Your Voice

Remember that these are professional produced, commercial resources that are mainly intended to be for sale to a broad audience. You’ll want to personalize your recordings to infuse your classes with the essence of you. Think about how many celebrity voices you can identify in an animated film or how you can recognize a friend who is trying to disguise their voice on the phone. Your voice is part your class identity.


By adding the element of your individual voice to your mini-lectures, you help to reduce the feelings of isolation on-line students can experience with an unknown, unseen and unheard instructor. You become perceived as friendlier, more approachable and reinforce that mysterious bond between teacher and student.


Less Really Is More

Notice that I keep calling them “mini-lectures.” This is an important point to remember as you begin to outline the content for each audio-presentation. The average, adult American has an attention span of between seven and twenty minutes. Given that mainstream media like television tends to produce programming in seven to ten minute blocks with commercial breaks in between, it would be a good rule of thumb to make your mini-lectures no longer than ten minutes.


Vary the Content, Repeat the Format

Build each mini-lecture around a single idea and resist the urge to cut a longer lecture into ten minute increments arbitrarily. While the content of each lecture should accrete around a unique idea, keep the structure familiar.


  1. Open with a short summary of what is contained in the mini-lecture. “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.”

  2. Have the main body of your lecture follow the same structure you expect to see in student papers. I find it helpful to write out an outline to keep myself on track. I prefer not to use a formal speech or script as this can make the tone sound too scripted and dull. Keep the tone lively and fresh. If you misspeak, don’t edit it out. Just correct yourself as you would in an actual classroom. These peccadilloes of speech remind your class that there is a real person available to them for questions and interaction.

  3. Include spots where you discuss and answer anticipated questions. Actually ask these questions aloud. For instance, “At this point, many people find themselves wondering, ‘why did Hannibal choose elephants?’ Well, most scholars believe that…” Model the behavior of formulating questions.

  4. Request interaction by telling your listeners to react in the class forum or logon to a scheduled chat. For instance, “When you finish this audio-lecture, logon to the class forum and post at least one question that you have regarding this material. Also, theorize answers for least two of your classmate’s questions…” Always include this listen-then-act requirement.

  5. Finally summarize the content of the lesson: “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” When using a single medium like sound, it is important to repeat the information. In an audio environment, your information may be competing with conflicting stimulus so this repetition is important.



The Mechanics

Most computers have a built in microphone these days or you can purchase a plug-in microphone quite cheaply at any electronics store. Find a quiet place and do a few practice recordings. Listen for the basics of clarity and volume. Don’t worry too much extraneous noises as long as they don’t overpower the mini-lecture. You can learn more about creating audio files by doing a quick online search. For instance:


You may want to provide your mini-lectures in multiple file formats. Again, an online search, will easily locate conversion programs like this one: though there are many others.


Making It Portable

Today’s students are highly mobile and the tendency is to take their media with them. The near ubiquity of MP3 players and iPods mean that many of your students will be listening to your mini-lectures on-the-go. Take advantage of this portability by making your mini-lectures a “podcast.” A podcast is like a radio program only it is designed to be downloaded to a portable player. There are many online resources that can lead you step-by-step through this process. For instance:


Short, focused mini-lectures help you establish your presence in the online class as a real, approachable instructor while also engaging the often overlooked audio opportunity of online learning. Once you have the hang of making audio-files, think about giving your students the option of posting audio-presentations as well. It’s a fun and engaging way to add multi-media to your virtual class.


[All links contained in this blog are merely publicly available examples, not endorsements or recommendations.]




Online Assessment

Online Assessment- Real-world learning or unseen cheating?


By Vincent Kovar

written for:


In the real world, people use any and probably all available references and tools to complete a given task. Yet for some reason, on-ground education has traditionally relied upon memorization and “closed-book” testing. This can create confusion, both for the instructor and the students, when moving to an online model.


Instructors may find themselves wondering: how can I ensure that students are keeping up with the reading and engaging the material? The short answer is, you can’t.; at least not from an instructor-as-test-giver model. Without in-person proctoring, there is really no way to guarantee that remote students are not using resources other than their own memory. Yes, you can check for plagiarism but, especially with lower taxonomy testing, your learners can and will use all the materials at their disposal: textbooks, the Internet and each other.


So is there a point to multiple choice or short answer quizzes? I think there is. For starters, mentally frame the quizzes not as a way to check-up on your students but as a way for them to self-assess where they are in the progression of mastering the course objectives. If you design these short quizzes with the idea that they are “open book” you’ll find that you begin to frame your questions around the most important concepts in a text. The quiz questions therefore, become part of the learning. If you really want your students to define a given type of mortgage or list the components of a certain alloy, don’t worry about how they get there, only that they do.


Some students will skim material that others will read closely. Some will use the index to target only specific passages while still others will ask a classmate. In the professional workplace, these are all valid and acceptable ways of achieving the objectives of even the most complex tasks.


For higher level projects where students must analyze, synthesize and apply their learning, always ask your students about their real-world goals. For instance, in a recent Professional & Technical Writing Class, my goals were for the students to:

  • Learn research skills
  • Create a focused thesis
  • Persuade a reader
  • Apply a professional format to a body of writing
  • Achieve college-level benchmarks in syntax, grammar, proofreading etc.


First I created a multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank quiz that asked simple questions like “what are the parts of a grant application?” and “what are three resources where you can find available grants?” etc. These quizzes were not a measure of where the class was succeeding or failing. They just pointed to useful resources. The class almost immediately became student driven. Instead of my measuring a minimum absorption of material, the learners began sharing useful resources between themselves.


By transposing these goals from an academic context, amputated from reality to the students personal and professional lives, the question “Am I ever going to use this in real-life?” was immediately answered. The learners not only revised their work but asked their classmates for additional rounds of revision. Their theses were not regurgitations of an instructor assigned question but passionate, focused statements of belief. Students actually asked for additional grammar exercises. The projects were personalized and the students were engaged. The question of “cheating” became moot.


Whether or not you should assign points to low-level quizzes is debatable. Points help some students feel a sense of progress and security but they can also distract from the idea that these mini-tests are little more than study aids.


If nothing else, assigning simple quizzes frequently in your online courses gives your students a reason to logon to the class website and gives you a tool to draw their attention to various readings and resources. However, banish the idea that they are really a “test” where cheating is possible. Design quizzes as strength-building-exercises to be used toward a goal, not the goal itself.


Branding Your Classes

Part 1 in a Series: Course Titles


Vincent Kovar

written for:


“About two years ago I realized I was no longer a person but a brand.” Martha Stewart


In a good on-ground class, students leave the course with a sense of knowing the professor. They may return to visit or send messages in order to share their progress through life or to recapture the feelings they had while a student. In marketing terms, they are seeking to reconnect with your “brand.”


What Is It?

Branding is the process of creating a specific identity for an institution, product or even a person. These identities are a composite of emotional cues that convey a sense of the brand’s values. In an Aristotelian sense, a brand is a portrait of ethos, it expresses the "who," not just of who you are as a teacher but of your product; your class.


Why Brand?

The initial question always seems to be, “why should I brand myself/my classes?” In the past the assumption has been that only entire schools or perhaps large departments were branded. The rest of us cruised along saying “I teach such-and-such at so-and-so University." The quality and prestige of our teaching products were largely determined by the reputation of our employer. Aside from the size of the paycheck, there is a perceived difference between an instructor saying "I teach an online class at Ivy-League U," compared to, "I teach an online class at Our Town Community College." The brand of the school immediately sets the perceived value in both price and quality. It shouldn't. The brand of a school doesn't make you a better teacher. You do.


Course Titles: Your First Impression


First, look at your course title. Most likely, this is the most published piece of information about your class. It appears in all the catalogs, all the registration materials and, it is how students label the class when speaking to each other. The more a message is used, the more energy you’ll want to invest in it as a vehicle for your brand. Your course title is your tagline.


Does the course title sound enticing or does it sound generic? Think about the generic grocery products in the 1970s. Their lack of a brand became their brand. They weren’t just boring, the generic products sounded cheap and were associated with low quality. A flat course title does exactly the same thing; it leeches perceived value from your class.


Read this list of the most influential taglines in modern America. You'll probably find that you immediately recognize most of them.


Notice how these taglines (also called slogans) are short. Most modern taglines are only about seven syllables or less. Keeping things short makes them more memorable. Memorable is good.


Punch up your language. For instance, notice the difference between “Psych 200- Human Sexuality” and “Psych 200- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.” Feel that little bouncy flutter in your brain when reading the second one? Try on “Project Management 150- Efficiencies” compared to “Project Management 150- Bigger, Better, Faster, More!”


These are somewhat crude and flip examples but you get the point. Your course title should be attention-getting and it should never be written in “academicese.” Throwing ten-dollar words at your students has the same effect as tossing them around on the train. It’s not often that words like “dialectic” or “pedagogy” come up in common conversation so use them with the frequency with which they naturally occur…which is rarely. At best, they make you sound stuffy and pretentious. At worst, your brand comes off as hollow and inauthentic. Use the language you use in everyday life. Use words that sound specifically like you.


To create a powerful course title, look over your materials and distill out the themes. Following the belief that education makes life better, ensure that the language you choose expresses how. Why is this material important? What human needs or interest does it address? Will your students be entertained? Will this class make their lives easier? Will they earn more money, become a better leader, find philosophical satisfaction or be sexier?

There are numerous online articles available about how to write a slogan quickly and easily. Here are just a few examples:


Generate at least five potential titles for each course you teach then find the best. Ask colleagues, current students and friends which sounds the most attractive or try this online form.   


Once you have some great course titles, follow along in this series of articles for more discussion on why you should bother with all this branding as well as ideas about where and how to apply your new and improved identity.


Team Together- Team Apart: Maximizing Remote Student Interaction & Participation

By Vincent Kovar

written for:


As education has moved philosophically toward a cooperative, interactive modality we have been equipped with a variety of computer-based solutions to the obstacles of distance. However, the problems we need to address are essentially humanistic not technological. The participation issues that emerge in the remote learning environment are largely the same as those in an on-ground classroom. Students may feel:


  • A personal sense of isolation that makes it difficult to engage the class concepts
  • A lack of trust, particularly as they work with strangers on group assignments


Clearly these are issues that can emerge in any classroom but they can become particularly pronounced in an on-line class.


Overcoming Isolation

Stay constantly visible- post regularly in the discussion forums and email individuals regularly. Ensure that every student gets at least one personal email from you during each week of the class. These messages should be in addition to regular assignment feedback and might be as simple as just asking a student how they are enjoying the class or you might refer them to specific research sources or outside reading you think they might enjoy. Of course, friendly words of encouragement and praise are always a great way to check-in!


Conference calls and chats can be rather sterile, especially if you have not met in person so make sure to have a short “ice-breaker.” You might even make these humorous but somehow related to the class. For instance, if you are teaching literature, you might make a 5 question, “Cosmo” style quiz that determines which character from the reading class members most resemble.


It also makes sense to vary the times group chats and live-conferences are held, especially if you have students in different time-zones or with different work schedules. Using online polls and other methods is a good way to determine convenient times but ensure that the “tyranny of the majority” does not always inconvenience the same few students.


Building Trust

It is essential that remote learning teams move away from the idea that simply because they cannot see each other working, some of the colleagues will be “skating by.” Groups must also trust you as the instructor. The more frequently there is communication, the more quickly trust will build. To maximize both participation and accountability, you must build trust.


  • Assign several group projects in which each gradually increases both the value for the assignment and the level of interdependence.
  • Break down your objectives to a granular level and give detailed rubrics for each
  • Require that groups write a “charter” which assigns each student both a portion of the group assignment and a team role i.e. project manager, proofreader, visual designer, etc.
  • Require that they include a conflict-resolution plan. Provide referrals to conflict resolution resources but again, require the students to do the heavy lifting themselves.
  • Establish frequent and regular benchmarks where all team members make individual progress reports in addition to the group report. Emphasize that students are communicating with each other. You are merely monitoring.
  • With IM, conference calls and other transitory methods, require that they log and summarize these communications in their progress reports.
  • Restate and reinforce. With every achieved benchmark or timed check-in on the team projects, the instructor should summarize what has been done so far, restate the next immediate objective in detail and describe the remaining steps.
  • Minimize “off-line” communication between yourself and individual team members where the subject is group work. The idea that some students are “going behind the back” of the team may cause an otherwise functional group to degenerate. Train the groups to expect transparency with the instructor.
  • Provide mechanisms for positive feedback between team members but minimize blame channels. For example, give points for team-work such as students praising each other or communicating regularly.


These interpersonal elements are not only critical to the success of an online-class, they are skills that are becoming increasingly valued in the professional workplace. To be truly successful, your students must actively learn to engage other members of a team and quickly build a functional, trusting relationship. 




Branding Your Classes -pt.2

Part 2 in a Series: Dynamic Descriptions

By Vincent Kovar

written for:


If twentieth-century marketing had a problem with supply, the twenty-first is having a problem with demand. Every day new, online colleges are being established and with so much information being constantly streamed at your students, it can be difficult for them to find the classes that are right for them. Every instructor should invest in helping his or her school correctly market their classes to potential students. Correct branding of your class not only attracts interest and increases enrollments, it helps to accurately describe the course and set your students’ expectations.


In part one of this series I talked a little bit about how to create a catchy title. This isn’t just crash salesmanship, it is an aid to students to help locate the classes that interest them. The highest and best use of the title is nothing more than to motivate the students to read the course description.


This provides you with an excellent opportunity to set the tone of the weeks ahead as well as perhaps create some excitement. Just like with the course title, you want to pack a lot of information into a small space. Course descriptions generally run between 50 and 100 words but don’t let the length constriction push you into writing a summary that has the tone of a conclusion. Write a description with the tone of an introduction.


Listen to the text of radio and television advertisements. They don’t read off the entire back panel of the product box or list every ingredient. They just give you the highlights.


Ask yourself, what am I teaching? Write down a short description while being as short and specific as you can. Read it again. Do you find yourself writing “we will learn about…” or “this class will cover…?”


The Power is in the Verbs

Look at the behavioral verbs in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Here is a link where some are listed:


They’re specific and measurable. When correctly written into an objective, they are often a binary yes/no. Either you did the thing or you didn’t. Write your class description the same way. Verbs like “discuss” and “cover” are vague and don’t tell your students how they can succeed. Remember, online classes can be quite expensive for the average student. You want to assure them right off that your classes are valuable and worth the investment. Behavioral verbs tell them what they as students will be doing, not what you as and instructor have already done.


Also use verbs to depict the movement of your class. Are you “building” on the foundations of basic architecture? Are you going to “sweep” across the plains of northern Asia with Ghengis Khan? Only a small percentage of learners are really satisfied sitting in place and reading a book or facing a computer. Tell them how their mind’s will be moving, plunging and climbing.


Again, this isn’t just flash. If you’re excited about your subject area (and you always should be) then share that excitement with potential students. A good description supplies the students with these pieces of information:


  • the beginning and the end of the content

  • the goal(s) the class will be exerting itself toward (i.e. mastery of a skill, improvement of a positive, reduction of a negative, inspiration to take an action, the steps to perform a task, etc)

  • what questions the class will answer

  • what specific skills will be utilized (i.e. critical thinking, time management, diagnosis of an issue, etc)

  • who might be interested in it (students of education, law, psychology, etc). If your class has the potential to cross the lines of department and major to attract more students, do it!

  • the tone of its ethical orientation. Does your class seek to reduce the impact of global warming, drive individual ambition through computer programming or empower community leaders? From eco-friendly dish soap to organic champagne, every experience and product has an associate value.


Be specific and accountable. There is a lot of talk about these ideas and then we pussy-foot around their application. Get rid of blah-talk like “…provide an opportunity to…” and “students will try to…” To quote Master Yoda, “There is no try. There is only do or do not.”


Once you have this description written up, edited, re-edited and polished, attach it to the top of your syllabus to keep yourself focused and on track. Ask your department to include the description on your course evaluations and ask your students to comment on how effective it was in inspiring them to sign up for your course.


Now that you have a name and short description for your class, we’ll start thinking of more ways to bring your brand into focus and then implement this attractive, new identity.





Vincent Kovar