Tag Archives: Learner engagement













The brave (not-so-)new world of online learning

I have an online graduate course starting next week – this is my 11th year teaching in the “virtual classroom”, and the new term has put me in mind of some of the most valuable learning I have gained through experience, course evaluations and student feedback. Here are my Top 3:

1. Put out the welcome mat

Universities and organizations generally have a standardized, branded Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS is the platform in which the online course is delivered, so your customization options tend to be fairly limited. In other words, it is your words – versus the overall site design – that are key to a positive first impression.

For example, is the first announcement or discussion posting focused on technical instructions and course requirements? Or on how you will support students’ success in the course, and how enjoyable and inspiring the collective learning journey will be? Time spent crafting a warm and positive welcome helps set the stage for group safety and engagement.

2. Generate controversy

If fostering meaningful critical discourse is challenging in traditional classrooms, it can be even more so online. Students often feel more inhibited when posting messages as opposed to speaking up in face-to-face groups. And online conversation can quickly take on the flavour of a series of rather stilted “mini-essays” unless you model and shape conversational threads.

One effective way I’ve found to stimulate authentic and lively conversation is to post about a controversial topic related to the course content – preferably something that links to a website, video or social media site, or all three. In my addictions course, this might be the way that addiction is portrayed in popular media, and how that connects to broader theories of addiction. Now the class is critiquing theory in a context that highlights real-life applications and relevance.

3. Over-communicate but under-state

Over-communicate because people don’t read. That is to say, they read, but tend to skim or miss points that are buried in the “fine print”. It’s better to make the same points in different ways across the learning platform or course tools in order to ensure that no one gets lost or left behind. This refers to issues that are process-related (like assignment deadlines, accessing technical support or how students will be graded), as well as content-specific (for example key definitions, essential points or important references). In my courses I try to reinforce communication using discussion forums, weekly overviews, course announcements and email to make sure that everyone is on board and on track.

Under-state because there is a phenomenon associated with text-based communication known as “emotional magnification”. Without visual cues, the same content delivered in person with no ill effects can be experienced with greater emotional intensity and negative valence when delivered online. We’ve all experienced this in email and other digital communication modes, and the consequences can adversely impact the positive learning community you’ve worked so hard to foster. Special care in providing corrective feedback is warranted, and this is especially critical in group discussion forums.

There is lots more to online teaching than captured here, but these are my “Top 3” and will be front of mind for me next week as the new term starts.

calendar plan 










What (and who) inspired me in 2012?

As the calendar clicks over to 2013, it’s an opportune time to reflect on some of the inspiring tools and ideas that have engaged me over the past year – and will continue to have traction in the coming year.

Here is a reverse-ordered list with lots of links to explore. Happy New Year!

10. Playlists: Every course (or presentation) needs a good soundtrack. Songza is an auto-playlist-maker recommended by Mary Nisi on NPR’s technology blog

9. Infographics: We can all do a better job at presenting complex ideas visually and elegantly. Here is a List of infographics tools

8. Presentation Zen: (Re)imagining visual communication – Garr Reynolds has been a big influencer on my own presentation style and content

7. Personal Learning Networks (PLNs): The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts

6. Gaming: Networked learning and simulation can benefit from the principles of successful, immersive and authentic hi-fidelity game environments – and this is progressing in medical simulation in Canada and worldwide.

5. Virality: What is the “replicability factor” intrinsic to certain memes? How can we infuse knowledge products with that same DNA? Check out some emerging research by Berger and Milkman (2012) What Makes Online Content Viral? and Stanford now offers an online course on viral marketing

4. Another MOOC MOOC by Hybrid Pedagogy: Because information wants to be free

3. Motivational Interviewing: A clinical approach that maps equally well to teaching and learning

2. Y Combinator: A model with applications for curricular innovation, education research and student engagement?

1. Social Inclusion: Anyone can learn if they have the tools – like the instrumental support pioneered by the World Braille Foundation: Braille = Equality… Why? Because literacy is the key to opportunity, economic security and freedom. Yet in many countries 95 per cent of blind children don’t even attend school due to lack of skilled teachers and limited access to Braille materials.

This international foundation is dedicated to promoting literacy, independence and empowerment to blind persons, with past and current projects in Kenya, Swaziland, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Liberia and Lesotho. I make a donation every year. Plus, full disclosure, the WBF was started 10 years ago by my dad, Euclid Herie, and my #1 inspiration!










How can we bridge the teaching/learning gap?


The evidence-based clinical practice model that I use and teach, Motivational Interviewing, is a respectful and collaborative way to talk about change with people who are ambivalent or unwilling.

In fact, conversations about change are clearly relevant beyond counselling, therapy or health care. The new edition of Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick outlines four essential processes that map well onto processes of adult education, particularly in contexts where learners may be less than enthusiastic. These processes are somewhat linear but also recursive –  one naturally leads to (and provides a foundation for) the next, but we may also circle backwards and forwards as needed.

1. Engaging:

This is about establishing a relationship with the group and creating a positive learning community. Is it safe to speak up, disagree, critique and explore? Meaningful discourse hinges on successful engagement.

2. Focusing:

Engagement comes first, but it is also important to understand and highlight the relevance of the topic/learning objectives to real world problems and issues. What will I learn, and why should I care? How will mastering new knowledge and skills make my work easier and better? Individuals may raise topics or issues that instructors hadn’t anticipated. These are the burning questions that need to be resolved through successful focusing. Optimally, adult learners are engaged in co-creating curricula.

3. Evoking:

Learning is 100% volitional. Constructivism and paragogy mark a shift from installing knowledge and solutions towards evoking these. Although faculty bring expertise to the table – and we shouldn’t shy away from sharing this – a motivational approach presupposes doing so in partnership with learners, and with a spirit of nonjudgmental acceptance and compassionate empathy.

4. Planning:

We’ve engaged learners in an active partnership, linked curricula to real-world issues, and evoked new connections, insights, ideas and approaches. Now what? Identifying implications for practice and committing to an action plan are key. The planning process helps bridge the gap between learning and life. If new learning has no real-world implications, then we’ve missed the boat somewhere along the way.










Are the most important health care competencies the ones that can’t be taught?

 What, in your opinion, are the core competencies for practitioners working with women and girls who have concurrent mental health and substance use problems?

This was the question that I posed to a group of about 100 interprofessional clinicians at a recent conference session titled “Women and Concurrent Disorders (Addiction and Mental Health)”.

I posed the question before referencing the core competency domains identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s 2011 document Addressing the needs of women and girls: Developing core competencies for mental health and substance abuse service professionals:

 SAMHSA Core Competency Domains

Sex and gender differences

Relational approaches in working with women and girls

Family-centred needs

Special considerations during pregnancy

Women’s health and health care

Interprofessional collaboration

I was curious to hear what this group of experienced and seasoned health care providers had to say about the core competencies that were top of mind. Without hesitation, hands went up and people called out examples: 

Practitioner-Identified Core Competency Domains







It’s striking that no one mentioned any of the SAMHSA competencies, which focus on domain-specific knowledge and skills. Rather, the areas addressed by the audience emphasized process over content. Now, this is not to minimize the centrality of scientific and clinical knowledge and skills. Healthcare consumers expect this of us, and we as professionals expect it of ourselves.

But in those moments when the group named these key areas as most important, we collectively moved to the tacit underpinnings of excellence in healthcare: the human interactions that form the basis of helping. The things that are much harder to teach – if we can teach them at all.

View the full presentation on slideshare 







Network of networks = your very own PLN


Today, there’s no problem finding information – the challenge is sifting through and locating the right information at the right time. And not just the right information at the right time – it’s also about access to tools and ideas that you never even knew you needed until you saw them. That’s where PLNs come in.

In the olden days before the advent of online academic journals and research databases, I always made at least one serendipitous discovery while browsing library holdings or leafing through print materials. I would be scanning a row of books looking for a particular call number, and suddenly notice a different book that was a great fit for some other topic I was researching. It’s hard to replicate that kind of happenstance when digital searches yield a specific document or information source with laser-like precision.

Plus, learning is not just about acquiring information – paragogy (a.k.a. the new andragogy) views learning as inherently non-linear and socially constructed via networks/peers. So PLNs – because they’re naturally hyper-textual and social – fit beautifully within a paragogical frame.

This article about PLNs at gives a great overview and rationale for the functions of various social media tools in building, customizing and contributing to your own composite, ongoing knowledge stream. Your very own PLN.

3 tips for success


Students want to know: “What do I need to do to succeed in this course?”


As in many things, the answer is simple (but not always easy). At the start of each semester I share the following three elements that, in my experience in university teaching, almost always translate into academic success.

  1. Show up: If you don’t actually come to class you miss important stuff.
  2. Be 100% present: If you show up and spend the class on your smartphone, you’re not really present.
  3. Do your homework: The real learning happens outside the classroom.

BUT here’s the caveat: It’s a three-legged stool. You need all three elements or you “fall off” (and if you start shaving away any of the legs, it gets a bit wobbly).

And I’ve found that these are pretty good rules to live by in life generally, whether in work, relationships, travel, and so on. When things get complicated it’s nice to take it back to the basics!













Last week I did a talk for about 60 members of the general public, for a short annual series called “Mini-Med School” offered through the University of Toronto. The title of my talk, “Alcohol: A Delightful Poison?” was meant to pique peoples’ interest in a substance that is pretty thoroughly integrated into everyday life in Western culture. The focus was on challenging assumptions and providing a few “aha” moments – we looked at standard drink conversions, low-risk drinking guidelines, health effects of alcohol, brief screening tools and treatment options.

Since didactic lecturing is counter to constructivist approaches, here are a few ways that I encouraged learning by doing in this 90 minute session:

– At the beginning and the end I invited the audience the consider 3 things: (1) A feature that resonated for me (2) A question I want to think through (3) A seed I could plant now.

– A “bar” set up at the front of the room had a white tablecloth and liquor bottles full of coloured water and empty glasses of different sizes. A volunteer bartender and customer from the audience poured drinks, while another volunteer measured. The results? The “martini” was close to 4 standard drinks; the highball glass contained just over three standard drinks, and the wine was just under one standard drink.

– I asked people to turn to the person next to them and guess the percentage of Canadian men and Canadian women who consume over 14 standard drinks in a typical week. The large-group polling revealed a massive over-estimate of Canadian drinking norms based on research data – in other words, marketing trumps science in the popular imagination.

– Q & A after each section distributed questions throughout, instead of asking people to save everything up for the end. This elicited some of the “burning questions” and relevant issues as they occurred to learners.

– When it came to exploring screening tools to see who might be at risk for alcohol-related problems, we collectively, as a large group, went through the various tools using a fictional case example (“Alex”).  This evoked some great comments and questions about the shortfalls of brief screening (sensitivity and specificity), and made the tools more relevant to real-world applications.

– We held a raffle for prizes – a few books focused on alcohol and alcohol treatment – which kept everyone in their seats until the conclusion, and helped to end the session on a high note.

– Along with the slides, I put together a “playlist” of songs related to drinking – as a way of further underlining how alcohol is culturally interwoven with relationships and experience.

It’s not easy to keep people on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes on a Thursday evening, but I felt like the group stayed present and brought home some memorable key elements and applications.

You can check out the slide deck for this talk on Slideshare…or see it on Vimeo.


Remain a beginner always in teaching (and learning)

Clinical education can be a challenge given the diversity of learners’ experience, standpoint, discipline, areas of interest and perceived relevance of the topic. My approach to this blog is similar to my approach in working with health practitioners: regardless of how many months, years or decades of experience we bring, an open mind and willingness to learn are the key attributes to help take knowledge and skills to the next level.

The title of this blog post was inspired by Garr Reynolds‘ book The Naked Presenter, where he talks about applying the principles of Zen to presenting and facilitating. These include simplicity and authenticity, as well as keeping an open mind. Here is a Zen story about bringing an empty cup to the learning context:

A scientist went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the scientist talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The scientist watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the scientist blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Lately, I have been using this story to kick off a training or workshop by asking for a volunteer from the audience to read the story, and then inviting the group to collectively reflect on the implications for the work that we are going to do together. It’s a nice way to “level the playing field” when there is a mix of new versus seasoned practitioners – especially as those who are newer to the topic often feel constrained from contributing and participating actively. Underlining the reality that we are all engaged in a continuous process of learning and development – regardless of skill level – affirms the value of every voice.
Connecting and engaging the group at the start is essential in any presentation or educational session, and I like how the concept of “first, empty your cup” sparks peoples’ interest and immediately communicates respect and equity. As George Bernard Shaw said, “In the right key one can say anything, in the wrong key, nothing. The only delicate part is the establishment of the key.” A strong start helps establish the right key.
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