Author: Andrew Richardson

Instructor Presence in Online Courses

We are working this year with our wonderful partners in Social Work for an Innovation Project centered on increasing instructor presence in the online classroom. We believe that strong instructor presence increases students’ sense of learning and connectedness, which may ultimately lead to increased performance and retention. Being present in the classroom, we believe, is just as critical online as it is on campus.

The Department of Education seems to believe so as well.

At the end of 2014, the DoE issued a Dear Colleague letter that indicated some requirements for Competency Based Education (CBE). CBE is an interesting topic on its own, but the more pertinent part of the letter was a requirement laid out for any Title IV program (that is, any program who’s students are eligible for federal aid):

All Title IV eligible programs, except correspondence programs, must be designed to ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. (A9)

The letter clarifies a bit further on the next answer.

We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.  Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction. (A10)

The implications for online programs and online instructors could be huge; this turned out to be the case for Western Governor’s University after an audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General concluded that they should repay $713 million in federal student aid.

This conclusion was based primarily on a 1992 law defining eligibility for federal aid for distance programs, and its possible that this recommendation from the Inspector General will not be enforced. The law was created in a time before online education was a normal process for so many universities, and many have expressed that this law needs revising.

But regardless of how outdated the law may be, there is a lot of value behind the sentiment. Instructors in an on-campus course are expected to interact with their students in a classroom for 2-3 hours a week. Shouldn’t online instructors be held to a similar expectation? That interaction might look substantially different in an online classroom, of course, but students deserve this interaction. And as noted in Answer 10 in the Dear Colleague letter, perhaps the interactions should be instructor-initiated.

It’s easy to forget that online education is still very new. I’ve heard faculty ask “what is the online classroom? Where does it begin and end?” It’s a good question. The immediate instinct is to say “the learning management system is the online classroom.” But that doesn’t seem right when you consider that learning could happen in email, a Zoom session, or in the community with an experiential learning assignment.

I’m not sure that we’ll be able to answer that question in the immediate future, but we’ll continue thinking and keep experimenting with our campus partners. We’re working with multiple groups on campus to increase instructor presence, either directly or indirectly, but we’d love to hear from others what they are doing.

Innovation Team at BbWorld 2017

I attended Blackboard World 2017 in New Orleans last week, along with seven colleagues from The University of Alabama, including others in the College of Continuing Studies. The two keynote speakers, Jill Biden and Mae Jemison, were fantastic, but I was more interested in seeing what was happening in the Learning Management System that our campus uses. Below is a quick list of things to look out for.

Blackboard Ultra

It has been coming for a while, but the Ultra experience of Blackboard Learn seems to be rapidly approaching readiness for larger institutions. While there is still some basic functionality needed (they’ve just added True or False question types to tests, for example), it’s clear that Ultra is the priority for Blackboard.

Blackboard Collaborate

Collaborate seems to be rebuilt from the ground up. I didn’t attend the road map for this product, but it’s clear that there is heavy investment into (the new) Collaborate. It will be more integrated in both the course and the mobile applications.

A look at the Ultra gradebook.

Mobile Apps

Blackboard has split their main app into two apps:

Blackboard presented an ambitious roadmap for both of these apps, and I’m excited to see where they are a year from now.


Blackboard has opened up their developer program to anyone – there will no longer be a fee to become a Blackboard Developer! This is great news for developers building integrations, whether they work on a campus or in a small ed-tech startup. Furthermore, Blackboard has included the LTI 2.0 spec in some Learn environments, and they appear to be doubling down on their REST API. In theory, these two steps should help to reduce the need for Building Blocks, which are much more difficult to maintain and integrate.

Spotlight on Tech: Flipgrid

The Innovation Team is always investigating new tools for inclusion into online courses, and we like to share tools that we have discovered or have been introduced to. The tool I want to share today is Flipgrid.

What Is It?

Flipgrid describes itself as a “video discussion community” tool, and that is very accurate. Instructors create a “grid,” (optionally) add an introduction video and topic text, and then copy and paste a link (or code) into their course. Students then click the link, post a video reply, and view each other’s videos.

Why We Like It

Flipgrid is simple to use, both on the instructor and student side. It’s on pretty much every device, and while it does only one thing, it does it very well. Flipgrid’s free version is adequate for many use-cases, and its premium version is affordable.

What We Wish It Did

Flipgrid does not appear to have LTI grade book integration, though you can export activity into a spreadsheet on the paid version. We also wish that full embedding worked on the free version, but we understand why it does not.


You can view more specifics about the features available at each price point on Flipgrid’s website, but as of this post, it costs $65 per year for an educator to sign up for unlimited access for a year. You can also buy a 10-pack for your institution.

Try It Out

I’ve created a new Flipgrid and embedded a link on this page (in the paid version you can embed the entire grid with full functionality). Please read the instructions, watch the short intro video, and give it a shot! You can find Flipgrid and other tools on the Innovation Sandbox page.