Attendee’s Notes from AppState’s 2018 Free-Learning Conference

I attended Appalachian State University’s (AppState) 1-day, virtual, Free-Learning Conference in July. Their website stated it would be “…a day of exploration designed to promote and evaluate effective uses of technology for teaching and learning while also providing opportunities to network with others in the field of higher education.”  It included presentations and interactive discussion sessions via Zoom on the following educational topics: active learning, andragogy, badges, course development, culturally responsive teaching, design thinking, professional development, Quality Matters, scaffolded syllabus, student recruitment, student-student interactions, video assessment, universal design for learning, virtual conferencing, and VoiceThread. It was hosted by their Center for Academic Excellence, which has offered this conference annually since 2011. I missed their pre-conference commercial session with FlipGrid. Read AACE Review Editor, Stefanie Panke’s blog on FlipGrid News to learn about it.


Dr. Jim Ptaszynski, Vice President for Digital Learning for the University of North Carolina (UNC) System, was the Keynote presenter and spoke about whether we will go through an Evolutionary or Transformational Change. I was impressed with his framework of perspectives based on social, economic, political, and technological future trends (and his background experience at Microsoft and advocacy work at the US DOE). He noted the decline in numbers of traditional college students aged 18-24 and the rise of older adults. Based on these shortages, some educational institutions (e.g., Arizona State University) have gone after the high school online market. ASU also offers a free ‘Global Freshman Academy’ with the expectation that these students will remain at the university and pay to complete their degrees. Dr. Ptaszynski sees three competitive forces for change management in terms of digital transformation: us versus us, traditional university, and corporations. He recommended institutions look at Big Data, learning analytics, and LinkedIn. He recommended addressing problems of practice, such as transmissive learning, with transformative learning for individuality. He highlighted the need to use adaptive learning utilization software such as polling (share/pair) in class and in online courseware. He stated that courses need to be ‘born digital’ instead of retrofitting them to the online learning environment as part of the evolution in technology. He urged us to become aware of the competing forces and be creative in growing through transformation because traditional higher education may fall to the wayside.

Design Thinking Session

­­­­I attended Dr. Stefanie Panke’s session on Design Thinking For Intergroup Empathy: Creative Techniques in Higher Education. She also works at UNC. She described how design thinking can be used as a team-based and/or community approach for addressing wicked problems. She identifies problems by asking, “what’s on your plate right now?” She extracts deliverables by asking, “What can we do to get this off your plate?”  Her first example was a website redesign task that she proposed to the team as a taxonomy with information curators. She recommended participants create a flyer like that at a museum with the top 10 things to highlight on the website. She used visuals (e.g., chart paper) with building blocks (e.g., sticky notes, popsicle sticks, lego bricks) for prototyping to structure content. She advised going two rounds with reflection/feedback loop from group to build consensus on the direction of the design. She acknowledged time and empathy as crucial for success. Another tactic of hers is to use fictional, yet, data-driven biographies to develop personas so teams can relate to the user’s perspectives instead of their own personal agendas. For blended workshops, she recommends FlipGrid to engender an interactive conversation among participants through video recordings.

Distance Education Assessment Projects Session

Dr. Samantha Harlow, UNC-Greensboro, presented on Lessons Learned: Assessment Projects for Distance and Online Students. She encouraged us to do more authentic assessments. For example, she recommended using Google analytics from your website to gather free data to inform instruction and other school-related initiatives. She also recommended conducting surveys. She referenced the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Standards for Distance Learning Library Services as a resource. She works with the Distance Education Student Advisory Board meetings to obtain feedback and test new ideas much like a focus group. Besides students, the Board includes advising, library, program directors, and instructional designers. These meetings are recorded for those who can’t attend. Additionally, Dr. Harlow conducts various teach-ins with technology tips on software and digital devices. She gathers information on how students interact with the technology and the types of questions and/or comments they make. She offers small gift cards to the on-campus coffee shop and hosts the teach-in nearby to increase participation.

Upon hearing this, I realized online students at my campus really don’t have a voice other than feedback on their teacher evaluations; oftentimes, these don’t fully collect data on the course design. As of now, our college has one student on our Education Technology Committee with representatives from library, learning management administrator, instructional designer, and teaching faculty—but no student-specific distance education Board. I also liked the teach-in, focus group, two-way (designer and student) learning opportunities for authentic assessments. I hope to incorporate both ideas at my college.

Online Course Design Session

Drs. Kisha Carmichael-Motley and Susie Boles, both from UNC-Greensboro, presented on Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance: A 3-Part Online Course Planning Process. Their iterative process includes an initial meeting with the instructor to discuss the learning objectives and existing course content. At the second meeting they discuss assessments. The third meeting focuses on the course outline but can also revisit learning objectives and assessments. This is when they walk through the pros and cons of various multimedia for delivering the content. Their backward design approach to course development addresses the learning objectives prior to the consideration of assessments and leaves content selection last. This ensures that the course is based on the desired student learning outcomes (SLOs) instead of the other way around where faculty are trying to write goals and objectives based on existing content and the syllabus.

Dr. Boles stated that “backward design avoids irrelevant content.”  She went on to say how backward design avoids redundancy and reduces the need for any reworking of the course. The assessments will provide evidence on the efficacy of the course design based on the SLO. They cited Wiggins and McTighe (2000) recommendations for more authentic pedagogy to improve academic achievement; for example, students appreciate authentic learning goals that are clear, relevant, and doable. Drs. Carmichael-Motley and Boles use a standard list of questions. For example, “What SLO/goal does this assessment align with?” They also ask instructors about their final projects, so they can scaffold it over the length of the course through various activities.

Note. Use the hashtag, #FLCon2018, to find mention of this conference on Twitter.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2000). The understanding by design study guide. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria: VA.

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  Comments: 1

  1. Thank you! Great notes and I really appreciate hearing what you thought was most compelling in the different talks and specific strategies (like the student surveys/board) that you will be bringing back to your classroom. Thank you.

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