Monthly Archives: February 2015



Artifice and performance are the enemies of engagement


I gave a talk yesterday on presentation and facilitation skills, and one of the key themes was the importance of shifting our focus away from ourselves (“Am I doing a good job?” “Do I measure up?”), and directing our attention to the needs and interests of the audience. This marks the crucial shift from performance to conversation.

Paradoxically, at the same time we also need to pay attention to being ourselves. I was struck once again by the “simple but not easy” axiom as it relates to authenticity. On one hand, what is simpler than just being who we are? But on the other hand, what is harder than offering our real, true self in front of a large (or smallish) group?

“The snow goose need not bath to make itself white.

Neither need you do anything but be yourself.” (Lao Tzu)


I’ve never seen a snow goose, but I’ve seen quite a lot of snow this winter. And up close every snow flake is unique and beautiful.

The most engaging presenters are fully focused and radically authentic.









Six ways to make your online course even more awesome


I love classroom teaching. It’s hard to beat the opportunity to connect with a group of learners face-to-face. But just as there are many ways and experiences of classroom teaching, online teaching is every bit as variable and demands some unique strategies to create engaging and transformative learning environments. Plus, anyone who has ever designed and taught an online course can attest to how time-intensive online teaching can be. How can we structure a positive and engaging course climate while also finding ways to make more efficient use of our time as faculty?

A few months ago I came across a delightful little book by artist Austin Kleon, titled Show your Work. Kleon’s basic premise is that our internal creative process can be even more helpful and engaging than the polished, finished product of our work. In that spirit, here are my top six ‘trade secrets’ of online teaching, gleaned from 12+ years as faculty for a Masters-level online social work course.




The most important things that students want to know are: what the expectations are, how to access the course, where to get help if they need it, and how they can succeed. I make a point of addressing these questions by mobilizing multiple communication channels: A detailed “Welcome” email to all registered students sent out approximately one month before the course start date; “Welcome” announcement (the first thing they’ll see when they access the course for the first time); “Welcome” post in the small group discussion forums; “Welcome” video uploaded to the course materials repository; and an outline of “Frequently Asked Questions” in the Course Syllabus itself. People access and attend to information selectively – this way I make sure that the important information cuts through the “static” of students’ other, competing priorities, and I also get fewer panicked emails and phone calls in the first weeks of the course.



Institutional Learning Management Systems tend not to be the most intuitive or visually appealing. I create folders for each week’s content, populated with the same kinds of materials in the exact same sequence:


This offers a sense of continuity to the online classroom – analogous to holding a face-to-face course in the same room every week.



We live in an online culture of continuous and immersive sharing and collaboration. The trouble is, as course faculty, I’m not able to be accessible 24/7. It’s important to be explicit about how often I check in to the course (typically 6 days per week in the first two weeks of the course, and 3-4 days per week thereafter). I also let students know that I don’t always respond to emails on week ends. I do make a point of responding to emails/phone calls the same day or within 24 hours.

Even better, I ask students to share their questions in the small group discussion forums in a new thread titled “Question for Marilyn”. This accomplishes three things: (a) Other students can benefit from seeing the question and my response; (b) This cuts down on my having to respond over and over to the same question from different individuals; (c) If I only have a few minutes to dip into the course, I can quickly see questions and get to them as a first priority.



Incorporating a short video of myself at the beginning of each “class” (weekly module) helps to establish instructional immediacy, a key component of effective online teaching and learning. We’re not talking high production values, but just helping students to put a face and personality to my name helps foster a sense of connectedness and engagement.

It’s also good to mix things up and harness the rich array of web based applications and resources that are out there: videos, websites, blogs, news aggregators, and more. I also encourage students to find and share their online discoveries.


1 Online Teaching Trade Secrets PUB

This took me a shockingly long time to figure out. I am embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until 2012 that I began to personally archive all of my postings in the group discussion forums, and I now use these as a base from which to continuously adapt and reframe year over year. Although I refresh and update the course content every year, many of the same issues, discussion points, questions and reflections come up. Having a resource archive to draw from has immeasurably enriched my own contributions to our online conversations.



This is no big secret, but paying close attention to the affective dimension is key to learning and teaching. The majority of online courses at this time are still largely text-based, so I pay special attention to the nuances and emotional tone in all of my communications with students, whether via email or in the course discussion board. I also encourage students to reach out to me by phone or video chat in real time when they get stuck or more complex issues arise.


Check out the complete slide deck here.


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