Think UDL Podcast Logo


Epic Meaning in Online Learning with Michael Kocher

Welcome to Episode 40 of the ThinkUDL podcast: Epic Meaning in Online Learning with Michael Kocher. Today’s episode is part of a Summer 2020 series on UDL in online environments. Michael Kocher is a UDL consultant at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. There he has created many faculty development opportunities to introduce instructors to Universal Design for Learning principles and help others implement them in seated and online environments. In today’s episode we talk about how to create “epic meaning” for students in online courses by valuing student choice and autonomy, and creating assessments that are authentic and worthwhile for students. Michael shares many other tips to make your online teaching experience a value-added class for both instructor and student, and I am excited to share this conversation with our listeners!


Here is the UDL designed and QM-certified “Start Here” Canvas course that Michael Kocher designed to make it easy to use or borrow for your own use. If you have a Canvas account, you can use this!

Find Michael Kocher on Twitter

And check out Michael Kocher on LinkedIn

What is Backwards Design? By Wiggins and McTighe 

Michael suggests Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou to read about Epic Meaning and relevance

Lillian mentions autonomy and authenticity in assignments to motivate students from Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink 

Lillian suggests chapter 4 “Learning How to Embrace Failure” in What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain


[Lillian]  Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast.  Where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. 


I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it, and why it even matters.  


Welcome to episode 40 of the Think UDL Podcast: Epic Meaning in Online Learning with Michael Kocher.  Today’s episode is part of a summer 2020 series on UDL in online environments.  Michael Kocher is a UDL consultant at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.  There, he has created many faculty development opportunities to introduce instructors to Universal Design for Learning principles and help others implement them in seated and online environments.  In today’s episode, we talk about how to create epic meaning for students in online courses by valuing student choice and autonomy, and creating assessments that are authentic and worthwhile for students.  Michael shares many other tips to make your online teaching experience a value-added class for both instructor and student, and I’m excited to share this conversation with our listeners.   

I’m here with Michael Kocher who is the UDL consultant at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina and I am excited to talk to him today about what he’s doing in the midst of our massive move to online.  So, Michael, thank you for joining me today. 


[Michael]  I’m glad to be here.  

[Lillian]  And, I know you were doing quite a few projects I wanted to talk to you about, and before I get to those interesting projects, I want to ask you something I ask all my guests, and that is what makes you a different kind of learner? 


[Michael]  Well, I’m a highly visual and auditory learner.  So, I prefer video and audio together as my primary means like learning things off YouTube, or listening to audiobooks as I’m able to listen to them much faster.  But, you’ll notice that even when I’m when I’m listening to something or I’m watching something I’ll have a pen out and I will be doodling and kind of creating images and symbols that help me form my thoughts together, create associations and have something to go back and trigger my memory later.  And so, yeah, I’m very visual when it comes to learning. 


[Lillian]  Have you noticed–has that been like since you were really young?  Has that been kind of a pattern for you as well? 


[Michael]  I think so.  Even when I was a young child I would always–and all through adolescence–if a book had pictures in it, even if you know there were just a few pictures, I would always gravitate to that, and when I was studying physics I would often be looking for images that could enhance the text that I was reading to help build those kind of associations in my mind. 


[Lillian]  This makes sense that you are a UDL coordinator then, doesn’t it?  Great!  So, you are doing some really astounding things and several of your colleagues have recommended you to me, and I really wanted to start off with this new project that you are working on, which is about a financial literacy course that you are making a UDL course that almost went–4000 people you think are going to be taking at ECU, is that right? 


[Michael]  That’s right.  It initially started off as a somewhat smaller project, but as we started to work through the pilots more and more people became interested and one of our larger enrollments of about 4,000 students is interested now in incorporating this into their class. 


[Lillian]  Wow. 

[Michael]  Yeah, it’s going to be a great opportunity to really showcase what Universal Design for Learning is capable of in a learning management system. 


[Lillian]  Oh, excellent.  Okay, so I must mention though you are in charge of a few other things which is like creating some Canvas templates, and ECU is in the midst of some big transitions that you have to have in your mind as you are creating all these.  What are those transitions to?  


[Michael]  That’s right.  We’re wrapping up our Canvas pilot.  We’ve been moving from Blackboard to Canvas and right now we’re open but blackboard officially closes at the end of summer.  So, fall, everybody is going to be into Canvas.  So, I’ve been creating some Canvas templates that focus on Universal Design for Learning as well as implementing the Quality Matters rubric so that it can really kind of create a “point and click” starting point where faculty can just get most of the points of the quality matters checklist in their course right from the get-go.  ECU is also in the process of transitioning, as everybody has been, we’re all online right now.  100% of everybody is online.  So, that’s been a fun transition and a great learning experience for us all.  And, we’re also in the process of working towards an 8-week system for the Fall just to accommodate potential changes with COVID-19 that may crop up again. 


[Lillian]  Wow, so the fall semester will be two consecutive eight-week sessions. 


[Michael]  That’s right, and we’re combining that with the majority of faculty will be moving from Blackboard to Canvas at the same time. 


[Lillian]  Oh my, wow!  This is a lot of movement! 


[Michael]  We’ve been busy. 

[Lillian]  Yes, you have!  Okay, so in the midst of all of that transition, you are coming up with this exemplary course called financial literacy, is that what it’s called, or maybe it’s what it’s about? 


[Michael]  It’s called that, and it’s about that. 


[Lillian]  Okay, great. 

[Michael]  Original naming. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, well you get what you pay for, right?  You want to know.  Alright, so tell me more about that and how you are making that a UDL course. 


[Michael]  Well, I’ve been teaching or developing online courses for almost 10 years now, and it’s been a trial and error process and I didn’t come in to Universal Design for Learning until much later, but I was–during the process of iterating, I would stumble upon things that would work and I mean pretty much anything that works is Universal Design for Learning when it comes to online teaching and even in-person teaching.  So, with this course my goal is kind of twofold.  I want a very well developed course to showcase what Universal Design for Learning can look like in an online class using our new learning management system Canvas, and it’s quite rare for a lot of people start teaching an online course without a paradigm of what is a good online course.  And something we see from our faculty is they’re often asking: “okay, so I hear all these things but you know what does it actually look like when it all comes together?” and we haven’t really had a great one place where we can go and see an example of what something can really look like.  So, I decided to design something completely from scratch that’s designed around Universal Design for Learning as well as incorporating a few other personal interests of mine, including social learning, putting that in with a class that’s roughly four thousand students are going to be taking it, it creates some interesting challenges to make it accessible and interesting, engaging for our students, and still providing multiple means of representation and an engagement for our students. 


[Lillian]  So, is that four thousand like one section, one professor?  Or is that multiple sections? 


[Michael]  I believe it’s split over multiple sections, or there’s many facilitating instructors.  I don’t know exactly the details that go into actually teaching that course. 


[Lillian]  Okay.  So, what are these design elements that you are trying to put in–I must say, as a UDL coordinator, starting my first online class, I have gotten to so many roadblocks because I will want to be “oh this needs to be engaging, oh I’m going to try this new tool, I want it to bring people in, I want there to be some recall exercises, I want it to do this and this and this,” knowing those design features, and then I might get through something and realize oh that wasn’t accessible.  Like, it was accessible when I started and then I used this tool and then somehow the subtitles are gone or the closed captioning.  It’s been so frustrating to have all of those design elements in the very beginning, and realizing that by the end it’s not exactly what I wanted.  So, I’m really interested to see what you’re doing. 


[Michael]  Well, I start the mindset of making it so that any student would be able to access it right from the beginning.  So, when I’m doing the backwards design process I start with my outcomes and I’m working towards what I want to accomplish. I then start looking at the video.  So, a lot of these are animations that I’m working with because like I said I’m a very visual and auditory learner, and when you put animations together you have the ability to pick an association like a picture that’s very simple and you can just put a slight movement on it which builds some engagement, and combine it with some audio or some text and it creates a very fun way of putting information into your head very quickly.  Now, with animation comes the issue of, not all students are going to be able to see the graphics.  Before I even start the design process around that, I work at my script and write my script as if that is the only piece of information that they are going to have, and I type it all up and I read it to myself to make sure that the way that I’m wording things provides–I’m able to build the picture in my mind for what I want them to see.  And the advantage to doing that is that when I then go to animate it, it’s very easy to find graphics that I want to use because I’ve already tried to use language that paints a picture to describe what I want.  And I’m incorporating micro learning into this where I try to make all the videos less than six minutes long, which means that I have to be very focused and deliberate with every word that I use in my scripts.  And so that’s where I first start because text is probably one of the most accessible things.  Screen readers can read it, it can be converted to text-to-speech.  It’s not the most exciting medium at least for me, but I know some people do prefer it.  So, I always make sure that the transcripts are available with every video.  So, that’s one mode of representation that I always provide.  The next is I start adding into the–I add the graphics in, I animate them, I try to make it as fun and as interesting as possible.  So, for this course I’ve used an emoji theme, and I use kind of flat graphics, everything that I use is pretty much an icon from like or those other sites that you can use to find pre-made graphics, and I put them in, I animate them, and the animations are very simple.  They’re–I don’t use any special program, I’m doing this in PowerPoint or Keynote.  So, I mean, we all know how to use PowerPoint.   So, the movements are simple, but they come together into kind of a funny way to reinforce the topic, and sometimes I’ll–when I put in the voiceover on top of that, I opt to use my own voice so that it provides a coherent theme and 


[Lillian]  It’s personal, that you get to know, yeah. 

[Michael]  Nothing against text-to-speech robots, but I prefer a human voice to a robot voice any day.  And when you put it all together, you end up with you know a lesson that’s maybe 2 to 6 minutes long that carries a lot of content weight with it.  But then the videos are closed captioned, they also have the transcripts available, and you can access the audio file for it, so you have a lot of ways that students can access the content. 


[Lillian]  Wow, that’s great.  Of course, the UDL principle is multiple means of representation so students have that choice and sometimes maybe they don’t have the choice, they have to listen to it because they’ve got a job that they’re doing or commuting or something like that, so this is fantastic. 


[Michael]  So, it’s accessible by design through Universal Design for Learning. 

[Lillian]  And it sounds like you didn’t use anything that was expensive as far as your University didn’t have to buy some sort of animation creator.  You did it on the down low there. 


[Michael]  That’s right.  I use software that came free with my Mac or we have Microsoft Office at our University and it works with PowerPoint the same way and it can be done.  It had a little bit of, it took a little bit of time at the beginning to figure out, get in the habit of how I want to move things around on the screen.  But once I had some practice in that it went by very quickly and it creates a really engaging and themed learning experience. 


[Lillian]  That’s great!  So, and I really like the idea of what you called micro learning, those shorter lectures.  I know it’s really hard for me to pay attention to a let’s say 50-minute lecture.  I’d have to stop and take a break and go back to it.  I can do it better if I had let’s say a podcast to listen to, like I’d go walking and as I’m doing–if I’m doing something else I’ll have a longer attention span.  But if I’m watching, kind of trying to stay and watch a video, I know that I’ve got to have that shorter one.  And of course with videos you can pause it, you can rewind it, you can spend whatever time you need.  So, this is really fantastic for your learner’s.  Thinking that you might have four thousand people watching these or accessing these in some way, whether text or audio, having all those choices are going to be really important I would think. 


[Michael]  Yeah, and in addition to when we’re just having the videos, and I designed the videos to be short because early on I had the opportunity to look at some of the statistics from videos that were being recorded and played, and videos that were six minutes long for example had you know high 90s completion rate of watching.  Fifteen minute videos you know 80% give or take and by the time you had the one hour or even heaven forbid that some of the three-hour videos they were not being watched.  Or they would have high drop-off rates shortly into the film, or they would be skipped around and all that content is lost.  And by simply designing it, planning very deliberately the words that I use and splitting the videos up into much smaller chunks, all the videos get watched to the end and it’s a much more engaging experience. 


[Lillian]  So, this is a great design principle.  So, let’s say you had maybe sixty minutes worth of content, you would make ten six-minute videos.  Or, more like five minute videos or something like that, right? 


[Michael]  Yeah, I would break it up per topic, and just like in a normal classroom how we pause and we ask questions to our students, that’s a great stopping point for a video and split it, process it, and run with the next topic.    


[Lillian]  And do you have, so let’s say you in a class you would ask questions, you’d have maybe some sort of activity, what do you have paired with that video?  Do you have things where students are going to be in maybe some sort of social learning experience, as well? 


[Michael]  I do, and during this first iteration, I’m not having as many activities per lesson as I normally would due to some time constraints but also because it’s a–I like to find, run one round through, find out what works and then try again.  And if something really is popular do more of that, and if something really isn’t, do less than that.  But some of the things that I’ve included with this are I’ll ask some reflection questions, and either within the video or in a for example a Google forum or a web forum, I’ll ask a question and the students will go in and poll.  So, they’ll be able to see very quickly what their friends are thinking without necessarily being in the same room with them.  So, it’s an asynchronous type of polling that you can do for free with Google Forums.  I also will use discussion boards and I will have questions that are the questions are designed to pique interest in the students, and sometimes I will have a few different questions or I’ll take–I’ll have students take one side or another of a debate or a conversation and they will go and they’ll pick whatever side they want and they will discuss it.  And we’ve seen lots of success with that in huge networks like Reddit or Facebook groups or places like LinkedIn where these conversations can span thousands of people, but they’re still effective and people still engage with them.  And the other thing that we can do with very large classes is we can split them into small cohorts, so they get the feeling that they’re in a small group they may get to know the same you know maybe 20 people while they’re not seen necessarily what’s happening with the other 3,800 people that are going on in the class.  So, it can give them the opportunity to build relationships and build a kind of a cohort like you know the Harry Potter houses, even though they’re in a giant course.  With the technology we have now we can still scale it so certain aspects of it feel friendlier for our students. 


[Lillian]  Exactly, 10 points for Gryffindor on that one. 

[Michael]  That’s right. 


[Lillian]  And so this this is going to be the first iteration of this coming up this fall, is that right? 


[Michael]  That’s right. 

[Lillian]  And have you done other kind of UDL exemplar courses leading up to this? 


[Michael]  I have.  One of the first things that I started with was before I came to East Carolina University, I designed a series of courses for high school students.  And the way the funding model worked at the–in the province I was in at the time was that the students–the school was funded by the amount of credits that they took, and so if the students took extra credits over and above their normal workload the school had more funding.  So, our goal was to get a Chromebook for every student.  So, what we did was I designed a series of five short online courses that matched with the curricular outcomes for students to take on their own.  So, it was completely optional and I needed ways to really engage the students.  So we had 300 students sign up which was at the time the biggest course I had designed for, and they had to be self-engaged, it was asynchronous, and that is what really taught me a lot about what works and what things don’t work when it comes to a large online class.  Like having a schedule time where I would go in and give a lesson for something like that wasn’t as effective as if I pre-recorded it and sent it out for them to watch on their own. 


[Lillian]  Right, right yeah I am learning from my failures a lot.  That’s such a very good teacher, yes it is and so this seems like it is a huge amount of work for any facilitator, but when you design as this UDL exemplar, how are you designing it so that it’s not overwhelming, too for a facilitator or an instructor of record to have this many students? 


[Michael]  So, when you have this many students it really helps to have some assistance designing the class and that can cut down a lot of the workload if that’s offered.  But, if it isn’t, one of the things that we offer are templates that you can get a lot of the stuff started at the beginning.  For example, all the quality matters rubric stuff can be done at a click of a button, put in the course, the syllabus templates we have to really save time and get started.  And then I’ll offer some advice on how they can create things that don’t take any longer and can actually start saving them time in the end.  So, one of the things that I recommend for a large class that I’m not necessarily implementing in this edition of the financial literacy course, but something I recommend is peer assessments.  And a peer assessment, if you have a class that maybe the class size has grown from 20 to 400 say  


[Lillian]  Wow, yeah that’s a big change. 

[Michael]  Normally, people would start abandoning the best parts of their class.  They would abandon the debates, they would abandon the project based learning or the multiple means of engagement; but, you could by splitting for example into groups like we’ve discussed and also adding in peer assessment, then you can still achieve those same outcomes where students are working on their projects, they’re sharing them, they’re presenting, but they assess each other based on rubrics, or what I like to use is an ordinal ranking system so that the students have to pick that they get an assignment of maybe five that they review and they order them from the most awesome one to you know down from there.  And then I can take all that data, I put it in a spreadsheet, and find–take a giant ranking of where all the students are from top to bottom and then I know exactly where I would need to spend my time reaching out.  And the same with discussion boards.  They can be such a valuable tool for a large or even a small online learning community, but one of the biggest worries is that professors feel that they will not be able to reach out to all their students.  But, with some of our learning management system features, we can for example have a like button that only the professors can have access to.  So if you want to reach out to a student that did a great job but maybe you’ve already made a similar comment, later you can just tap the like button and it’s like that old Facebook poke that just says I’m acknowledging you.  It’s not as great as giving an in-person comment but it still adds the personalization that I’ve actually looked at your content.  Because in an online course, it can feel very lonely if not designed to have a social aspect to it.  You can feel like you are alone in a vacuum having knowledge thrown at you and it can be a disheartening experience.  But just seeing like “oh, the professor liked my posts, I know he read it, he acknowledged it” and when there’s something awry with one of the posts, then you make a comment, and even better if you just click the video button and make a video comment right inside it doesn’t take any extra time but it adds a familiar face and a warmth to the course that normally wouldn’t be there online.  And adding things like that don’t take any extra time.  It’s going to take me about a minute to type it or it’s going to take me about a minute to click the record button and say “oh, I liked your comment, and this is what I would suggest,” for example.  So, adding in things like that are ways that I feel like anybody can add to their course to make a large course or any course of any size feel a lot friendlier, but don’t necessarily have to take up extra time.  


[Lillian]  Right.  That’s very humanizing.  Humanizing that online course, that’s great. 


[Michael]  That’s right.  Almost any strategy that works for a small course or a large course is a great example of a Universal Design for Learning activity. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, you know I was going to ask you too about discussion boards.  And when we’ve got a lot of faculty worldwide who are moving online, and it used to be an in-class discussion, and then when you move to the discussion board the old tried-and-true method is write your response and respond to two other classmates or something like that.  And, I find that students aren’t very engaged by that and they’re just sort of knocking it off in order to get their points or something like that, it’s not very engaging.  But you–the first thing you mentioned was assigning maybe a side of a debate for the student to take up as they move into the discussion board, maybe from whatever video they watched or some of the readings that they had, and then you either assign or they get to choose which side of the debate they want to focus on.  Do you have other strategies for making those discussion board discussions more interesting or more engaging for students? 


[Michael]  I think discussion board question topics take a lot more thought to do online than they do in person.  So, a debate is a really easy way out because you automatically have two sides, students have to either pick a side or they take the side that they’re assigned, and then they go.  But, another way that I’ve had good success with is I will say use it–share an experience that you’ve had or that a friend’s had regarding this topic.  So, when you make it as specific as you can so that students aren’t necessarily getting topics like read this and comment on it and then comment on your friends, because you will get–the first person is going to be in there as fast as they can, writing their thoughts because there’s always those students that are just waiting for the assessment or the discussion open and they will tie in everything they want.  And then the next student will come in be like I would just like to say the exact same thing that the last person said to get my points, thank you.    


[Lillian]  It was slightly different words. 

[Michael]  Yes, but when you personalize it for them, say share an experience from your life when XYZ happened to you and how did you deal with it?  Or, another one that I’m using in the forum is for student loan debt, share an experience that you’ve heard about from one of your friends.  Not you, of course,  


[Lillian]  Yeah, because we know you are financially savvy, but we know your friends are dumb, right?  


[Michael]  Where one of your friends has done this and how it’s affected them and what you would suggest to somebody having a similar situation.  Or, providing more than one topic question they can choose to answer.  Because even though they’re answering the same outcome, by having more than one option it raises the perceived ability to succeed, and when students believe they can succeed they become more engaged and they’re more likely to succeed.  So, if you for example, if you were doing a topic on I don’t know, say Romeo and Juliet.  Instead of saying discuss this from the perspective of Romeo, say from Romeo, from Juliet, from the friar, and then students will then say, “oh, well I’m going to pick this one because that’s the easy one,” even though they’re all the same, but one they relate to more and because they’ve picked something they become more engaged with it and there’s more buy-in because they made the choice, not you.  And so then they want to prove that their choice was the good one.  


[Lillian]  That’s right!  This is great.  It’s so hard I think sometimes to bring that personalization and agency into online classes, and you’re right that there is this depersonalization where often as a student you might feel like you’re speaking into a void, and we need that feedback.  So, even though simple measures of a clicking a like or a really quick feedback from the professor are going to radically change that sentiment for the students I think.  These are all really good affective you know social emotional learning parts that we often forget about if we’re only focused on things like the QM rubric that’s very specific, very good, but very granular and we have to still remember that our students aren’t just brains on sticks, but they’re going to thrive with that interaction of a person-to-person interaction and I love the way that you are leveraging the size.  Like, size doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  You’ve got more people to bounce ideas off of directly, right, rather than just the teacher has to or instructor has to go back and forth back and forth.  So, that’s a fantastic way to be kind of making this huge change. 


[Michael]  A couple years ago, I read a book from Yu-Kai Chou called Actionable Gamification and within that book he talks about you know the eight core drives that get people engaged.  Which is essentially the giant Bible on multiple means of engagement.  But, one of the most important aspects of engagement is relevancy and a meaningful context, and he describes it as epic meaning.  So, I was just thinking back, I’ve started to learn woodworking and it’s something I’ve loved my entire life but I–let me tell you, I’m so awful, I mean I still think back to the day when I made this wooden dog when I was a child and my parents threw it out because they thought it was a hunk of trash, that’s how bad I am.  But, over the years and recently I’ve taken time and I’ve worked and I worked and I worked and I worked and eventually I accomplished something that it was a dovetail joint and I literally pumped my fists in the air and showed it.  When I did it I was so ecstatic for being able to accomplish that, and then I thought you know I see people doing this with video games all the time, where they will work and work and work and work and work on something and then they accomplish it and it’s “oh yes” and they do the fist pump in the air, and we have that–that is epic meaning and relevance and we can find stuff like that that is relevant and meaningful our students in the course, and when we find–when we hit on that nerve, something that is relevant and something that is meaningful to them, they will pick it up and run with it.  And you can–the surefire way of knowing that you have not found that is on a discussion board where all the students are saying the same thing that the first person said.  But, by finding something, making it relevant to them and meaningful to them, it doesn’t matter what that topic is, they will be writing paragraphs, they will be responding, you may not even have a post.  You may say like respond twice to your students, you know I just leave that completely off and they will just keep going back and forth in the discussion, friendships will be made, hopefully not lost if there’s a big debate, but it will–it really brings in the energy when that is like the secret sauce, I think, of multiple means of engagement is finding what is meaningful and relevant to them.  When you tie that in, everything else kind of falls into place. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, and when you frame that conversation, I love the way you’re framing it.  Asking for students to bring in their personal experience.  So, it can’t be wrong.  When you ask one of those pointed questions like–which may be a very good question–like, from this theorist, what–how would you know say this theorist blah blah blah, and there’s a there’s a correct answer.  But, if you’re saying, “okay, how is your life representative of this lesson or somebody another experience,” then they’re learning with that social learning and they’re making it meaningful for themselves, and they’re saying, “wow, the stuff I’m learning here in this class is actually applicable to my life, like there’s a reason that I’m taking this and paying money and you know spending my time on it,” that it’s not a waste, right? 


[Michael]  When I think back to the best classes that I had, they were that often the times when the teacher went off topic and we started having these great discussions and we learned from each other.  That is social learning and we are built for that kind of storytelling.  I mean, as soon as somebody says “once upon a time,” all the ears open up in the room, and when it’s a personal experience everybody is listening, everybody is engaged, we are social creatures, and so that is the kind of the barometer of whether we are engaging our students with something meaningful to them is whether it “oh, oh, oh, I know!  I have a story!”   


[Lillian]  Yes, you know and when you said it’s when you learned so much when the instructor goes off topic, I think they’re not even, it’s not even off topic.  It’s related to the topic and it’s broadening out, it’s creating a nuanced understanding of how this applies.  Like, “oh, this sounds like a boring concept but no, this is how it really works in in my life,” and that really makes me think about when I was in high school and had Spanish.  I had wonderful Spanish professors and teachers, I grew up in Florida and had a lot of Cuban Spanish professors and when–or, teachers I should say, in high school–and their stories were so amazing and I would just love to like, “oh, can we find out some more about your history?” you know and so that’s learning about the culture, and maybe we thought we were like “oh, we’re not having to do any you know verb declensions” you know or translations, but really we were finding out about people and culture that was directly related to the language you know that we were learning.  And that was like, I remember being in high school and sorry to my Mrs. Cowan, sorry Senora Cowan about this, but we would like “oh, so tell us more about your family or tell us more about that,” we thought we were you know making it easier for us, but it was just so much more interesting and we learned so much more about it.  It’s such a social thing.  So, these are fantastic ideas.  I know there are so many instructors, professors who are having to move quickly online, and having these ways to make their discussion boards engaging.  It’s going to be a huge help as they’re trying to think, “alright, how am I going to make this an interactive piece to the class.”  And I would be worried if I had 20 students usually and now I’ve got 40, 60, 80 and we know that’s happening right now.   


[Michael]  It’s only going to get moreso. 

[Lillian]  Yeah, yeah it really is.  So, we’re not exactly sure as we’re moving forward how this is going to play out.  So, having these UDL designed strategies are going to make our class, our classes, our courses agile and flexible.  So, these are really fantastic ideas and I guess I want to push it even just one step further.  How are you thinking about ways for instructors to be flexible in this–in case like so they’re not overwhelmed, what are some strategies that you have in place that is kind of allowing students to take the lead like you have on the discussion boards and allowing for that social interaction where let’s say the instructor doesn’t have to be the arbiter of everything? 


[Michael]  I’ll share one little secret that I like to recommend to people when they’re getting overwhelmed, or they’re perfectionists, or they’re trying to develop like a legacy course that people will love forever and remember throughout their lives.  And I call it the Student Legacy Project, and it’s essentially student created content.  We found that, for example with Wikipedia, people don’t write Wikipedia pages for their own self-glory, they are doing it for the betterment of mankind because you know they honestly believe that by me doing this I am saving humanity’s knowledge.  That’s that higher meaning and that relevance.  With a Student Legacy Project, this is something you would run periodically and the way that it works is that you have some projects, you say “ok, we’ve often seen instructors say by the–at the end of the year, you have to create a presentation on one of the topics that we’ve covered through the year,” that’s a fairly standard, fairly centered thing.  But, instead of just doing that we take that a step further and say I want you to create this lesson that really shows it in the best way you can, and you could maybe say there’s going to be five of you per topic, and the best one as either voted on by you or me however you want to do it, will stay and be used in the content for next year, and you will have your name on there and you will receive the glory and honor, and I don’t have to make that lesson better next year.  So, it’s kind of a win-win, but when students know that this is something that isn’t going to be just seen by their entire class but by next year’s class or maybe you’ll share it with future employers or it’s a portfolio item, they will take that and they will put every effort in and you will see something come out that will amaze you.  Now, you’ll always have the students that maybe didn’t quite get the idea or they weren’t able to produce something so amazing, but that’s okay because you have several to choose from and if the next year something even better comes, well, you use that.  And students love knowing that the work that they do is part of something bigger than themselves, and so when you do that with a project you can really have the students help build your course.  It’s something we’ve seen in the private E-learning industry where people are making their own online courses for small niche markets.  They will run pilot courses for example, and they will have the subject matter expert giving the lessons, but then they will have discussions with the students and say what can we do to make this better for the next generation?  And even though these people are paying money for it, they are thrilled to help build the future of this.  They become very invested, and the quality keeps growing and growing because the community is investing in it and there’s no reason why we can’t apply that into higher education.  We have the subject matter experts and we guide the students into creating something great, and the student wants to be part of that.  And the great thing–imagine having a letter of recommendation from a professor that said not only was this such a great student, but they created a piece of content for me that I’m using for years to come.  The student will look at that and say “oh, this makes me feel so good inside,” and the employer would say “wow, this person is really a go-getter,” and it’s a win-win for everybody. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, anytime you can widen that audience so it’s not just the teacher, I think, is a win because then the student doesn’t think it just gets sort of lost.  Like, all I have to do is hand this in and get my grade and leave.  They’re thinking about wow, helping my peers, or showing off to my peers, and getting that adulation from others is a motivator for some, maybe not everybody, but a motivator for some.  But, having that authentic, it’s an authentic assessment that it’s as serving a greater good.  It’s not just, I have to get this done because it’s required for the course, but it does have some authenticity about helping others or being for that greater good are really important and I read a book a few years ago too called Drive by Dan Pink and it was, it talked about those–what motivates people.  And having ownership, so choice and also authenticity, you know that it’s not I’m in–there’s a kind of assignment where you’re just required to do it for the professor for your grade, and then there’s another assignment in which you are given the option to use your talents to perform or do things for others and there’s a big difference between those two kinds of assignments. 


[Michael]  Yeah, that’s right.  Every time you can create something that they buy into and that they love and that is bigger than themselves, it will–these are the things that they will remember forever. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, this is “epic meaning” that we’re finding, that’s great.  That might be our title for this episode.  So, okay, so you are already thinking really big for this UDL exemplar course, but you are doing it in the midst of several transitions.  So, as the UDL coordinator on campus, can you tell me what you are doing as you’re moving faculty online, like everybody’s online now as your you know traditional to these eight-week courses, two sets of eight-week courses for the fall there’s lots of transitions, and your whole faculty is moving to Canvas.  So, all these enrollments are moving online and as you mentioned to me before, before we started recording, these changes bring opportunities.  What do you mean by that? 


[Michael]  Well, we often get so busy that we don’t take the time to iterate our work, and I  believe strongly in the principle of iteration.  We never get it right the first time, and even if we did, well that was, that’s old stuff now. 


[Lillian]  Right, it’s a new context next time. 

[Michael]  We have improved since then.  We are lifelong learners, we’re always improving, and there’s always something new; and so when big changes like this happen it’s a great opportunity for us to sit back, reflect upon the things that worked well, think about the things that didn’t, and try something new, add it in, and we have to make this work anyway.  We have to migrate our courses from Blackboard to Canvas, or we have to modify our assignments to be more accessible online.  Why not take a look at it from another angle and say okay, I’m spending the time on this anyway, why don’t I use this time to make something that I’ve always wanted to do or some area that I always wanted to deal with and I never had the opportunity before.  So, sometimes these forced opportunities that we sometimes get when the world makes us change the way we’ve been doing things, it’s a great opportunity to apply the new things we’ve learned and try something better.  And if it doesn’t work, well, we go back to what did work before or we try something new again later, and that is the great thing when we have an opportunity to iterate.  And sometimes just the fact that we take some time and we modify things because we have to, gets us in the habit of saying you know that maybe only took me five extra minutes to do, maybe next year before I start this lesson I will put another five minute change into this course and see how that changes the aspects of it.  And if it’s better, well, I’ll start doing that to some other lessons. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, that experimentation is key and keeps things new, and that’s easy for us to also say alright that didn’t work so let’s leave that behind.  Yeah, we learned so much for failure again. 


[Michael]  We probably learn more from failure than we do from our successes. 


[Lillian]  Yes, we do.  I have a whole unit on my first-year seminar on failure and why it’s good and we can learn from it and we should embrace it.  In fact, it’s from Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Students Do, is all about embracing that failure and it’s been a huge concept for me.  I asked my students I said we are going to fail, or we’re going to fail spectacularly.  But, we have to also–I put that in the course, like we have to be able to let students fail, that they’re not afraid for it.  So that means there could be assignments that they can drop, right, so that they can take that risk and try something new, and if they fail spectacularly they are, in a sense, rewarded, right?  They could try or they could re-do it.  Yeah, they can be rewarded for failing that is what I’m trying to put into my newest class and not exactly sure how it’s going to happen, but I think there will be multiple ways for students to try something and try again, and also opportunities to say well, that didn’t work and I’ll go into a different direction.  But as long as they can tell me that they’ve learned from it, then it won’t hurt them, let’s say, in in the long run.  But those are some of the things I’m thinking about now. 


[Michael]  Just–we should call it multiple means of failure. 

[Lillian]   That’s right, that’s right maybe we’ve got to come up with our fourth column on that UDL spreadsheet, so multiple means of failure.  So, how are you helping your faculty or moving this transition especially into two eight week systems?  I’m really interested in that, how do you see that playing out? 


[Michael]  Right now, we’re taking part in many–like, once or twice a week, we are having many trainings on various topics and for example every other week I am switching between UDL for 8-week classes, and UDL for large enrollment which, pretty much are the same thing because the problem is one in the same.  There’s lack of time, that’s essentially the problem.  And we are providing a lot of Canvas trainings at this time and so almost every day there are trainings being offered that our departments are offering that people can sign up for and take.  But the other thing that we’re trying to do is make asynchronous resources available.  So, I’ve created a “Getting Started with Canvas” course that is completely asynchronous that people can find just the topics that they want to, it has help areas, it has a wealth of resources so that people can come in and see the course, they can take with the parts that they need, but it also serves as an exemplar of a very simple and easy to setup course.  So, they can log in back oh that’s interesting there’s a big start here button at the beginning I should have that in my course because I’m getting 500 emails at the beginning of every semester saying where’s this, where’s that, what am I supposed to do.  So, it provides kind of a hidden lesson within the resources that we provide and by showing people what it can look like, and it’s a very simple layout, it’s not designed to be shock and awe, like this is all the amazing things here at once, that when they see it they go, oh, you know I really like this, I’ve been getting a lot of emails saying hey how did you put that button here, I’d really like to do something like that.  So, a lot of little things like that just by just by having good examples out there.  And when you teach correct principles, people tend to follow them and you take them and run with them.  So, if they say, oh, you know this I really liked how you laid this out, how did you lay this out?  Or they’ll even say I’m going to steal his layout, and that’s great!   


[Lillian]  Well, I must say I was in a group of four.  I was with three other professors as we created our online courses, even before the COVID-19 pandemic we had started this.  So, it was quite serendipitous that we had already started.  And we would meet together and find out–and we’re all really doing this for the first time and from multiple disciplines.  So, that’s one of the best advice I could give is as you’re trying to retool and figure out what you’re doing for the you know fall, get in a cohort or ask a friend, and they don’t have to be in your same discipline.  Like, that sharing of ideas is so important, and one of my colleagues used a bootstrap element, which was like just a little button that you could click and then the module objectives would show up.  Instead of having every module, you’d say objective one, two, three, or ours are really 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 for each module.  It’s very quality matters, this is how they like to see that, so we worked with the quality matters, QM, and I thought, would my students really want to see module objective one point and this like list of 1.1 to 1.7.  I want them to be there and so I have a module objective bootstrap and they can click on it and says here’s what you’re going to learn, and then it collapses.  So, it’s not up there.  But I never–I didn’t even know that existed until my colleagues showed the course and showed how this was doing.  I was like what I’m stealing that for sure!  And so that cohort model has been really helpful. 


[Michael]  Yeah, that’s one of the things we’ve been working on building.  We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve been collecting some of the faculty exemplars, some of the best of the best, and especially trying to get from various subject matters so that people can see something familiar.  And, we’ve also, for every department on campus we have an expert that has been going through the whole pilot program and being trained, and these people are great.  They have amazing courses and they show, they’re great leaders, and having a great structure where everybody knows somebody who’s really good at it is the key for when you have these big transitions, because they can just pick up their phone and say “hey, what do you think I should do for this?” and it’s a two-minute conversation and it saves a whole lot of stress and well the more stress we can cut– 


[Lillian]  The better!  That’s right.  Yeah, our campus has instituted something and it was actually really quick and very agile, I think, how our campus did this, I I’m proud of our campus, is they created something called faculty champions.  So, trying to get yeah one person in each of our different departments, really, colleges, and there may not be one from every department but quite a few from each college.  We’ve got about six different colleges and there’s about 50 faculty members who are called faculty champions.  And so, they were–I was one of them for our first-year seminar–and we had a weekly kind of chat, “how’s it going, what can we do, what are your problems and questions?” and then these are people that everybody can tap to ask, alright, what are you doing or how could I do this or something like that, and that pulled the pressure off all of our IT and our instructional designers or ID, because that’s overwhelming.  I mean, they any college that had instructional designers they were working you know 80 hour weeks during this whole transition.  So, if you are a faculty member and you are trying to change everything over the summer think about you know talk to your instructional designers on your campus and if you have colleagues or champions talk to those folks, too. 


[Michael]  And all universities have a ton of support people that are just waiting for somebody to ask them the question of their expertise and they love helping out. 


[Lillian]  Yes, and you know also librarians.  I must say librarians are different than what I thought librarians were 20 years ago.  They are like incredible magicians I would have to say.  They know so much about how my students can access the things I want them to access and really incredible ways to research.  I found that our librarians are just Mavericks at what they do.  So, those are you know faculty champions around, your colleagues, instructional designers, and librarians can be huge helps during this big transition I would say. 


[Michael]  For sure. 

[Lillian]  Well, thank you so much, Michael, for just all of this dropping the knowledge on us about epic meaning and really great UDL principles that you can put in your course or your move as your courses–as you move online.  So, I just want to thank you for such an incredible conversation and all your great ideas that you were able to share with me and our listeners today. 


[Michael]  Thanks, it’s been a lot of fun. 



[Lillian]  You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access, and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.  


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: