Dutton Institute Blog

Pizza? No, Piazza!

slice of pizza

Credit: CC0 Public Domain


You may have heard recently that Penn State signed an agreement that officially allows for the use of the Piazza classroom discussion platform. Full integration with Canvas is in the works. Until then, faculty and learning designers can add a Piazza URL to a Canvas course to facilitate student access.

So, why would you want to use Piazza when you have Canvas?

Piazza can be a great enhancement to your course. Many instructors have found that it is a better way to manage class discussions. Posts are tagged for easy searching. Piazza can be set up to allow students to collaborate on a post wiki-style. It will even accommodate varying levels of anonymity. The interface also makes it easy for instructor and students to observe, interact and manage conversations. These are all functions that either are not available or are challenging to navigate in Canvas discussions.

In addition, there is a mobile app available as well as multimedia embedding capabilities. Many instructors also like the in-class polls and the robust LaTex equation editor.

Visit the Piazza website for more information, or contact the Dutton Institute Learning Design team!


It’s not just about the Nutella: Building a partnership between learning designer and instructor

One of my favorite parts of being a learning designer is working with instructors. It’s not only a chance to create a new course with ideas, but it’s an opportunity for a new work partnership. The idea-sharing, the collaborative work, and even the thrill of reaching a goal too close to a deadline are enriching.

Here are a few tips I’ve gathered over the years on building partnerships among designers and instructors:

  • At the beginning of the work relationship, hold a kickoff meeting to get to know each other. Discuss goals. Talk about communication preferences. Define expectations. This sets the stage for working together as a team.
  • Define roles. Decide how involved each will be in the technology aspects of development.
  • Find the tool that works best for your collaboration. Is it Google Docs? Slack? Trello? Another tool? Keep each other accountable for your checklists as you progress.
  • Decide how often you will check in with each other. Keep in good communication by asking how things are going, following up on tasks, asking how “XYZ suggestion” worked for a particular situation, sending short articles or ideas that you’ve found that relate to the course or to course design.
  • Designers - teach instructors to fish. Realize that there are different kinds of fishing - some enjoy deep sea fishing, where others like to stay closer to the shore. Instructors - be clear in letting your designer know what it is you need when it comes to learning the technologies and processes.
  • Be flexible-ish. Build some space (but not too much) for fluidity in your timelines knowing that research, work, and personal lives come up during the development process. On the flip side, it’s important for instructors to realize that the designer shouldn’t be expected to work burning the midnight oil when repeated deadlines are missed. (This goes back to expectation management.)
  • There should be a mutual respect between instructor and designer. The course belongs to the instructor. Feedback for the course is based on expertise and experience. Working as a team, appreciate each others strengths and weaknesses.
  • When all else fails, I’ve been told that occasional gifts of Nutella or cookies can sweeten the working partnership.

Beach Reading: Best Blogs for Online Learning

woman reading on beach
Credit: Michael Mol via Flickr

The sound of waves crashing onto the shore…

The feeling of wind blowing through your hair…

The crisp taste of a refreshing beverage as you sit in the hot sun…

And a list of e-learning blogs to add to your news feed….

Summer is here! For many of us, summer is an opportunity to make more time to explore our passions. At the Dutton Institute, one of our passions is creating high-quality educational opportunities for Penn State students. We are often motivated and inspired in this pursuit by connecting with resources that highlight current trends and best practices in online education. The curated list below is meant to provide you with a jumping-off point (a diving board, if you will) for finding helpful online resources to inspire your online teaching. Read on!

The Web 2.0 Connected Classroom. Steven W. Anderson provides many insights into ways that technology and social media can be integrated into meaningful learning experiences for students. For those of you on Twitter, he is also a prolific tweeter.

The Innovative Educator. Lisa Nielsen is a public school educator who has an excellent perspective on ways to use technology to enhance students’ classroom experiences (both online and in-person). A recurring post is The Hottest Posts Everyone's Reading, in which she shares links to high-traffic ed-tech blog posts from around the web.

E-Learning Acupuncture. Eric Tremblay is an educational developer in Ontario. His blog is full of helpful information about a variety of topics, including active learning in an online environment and current trends in ed-tech.

E-learning by Tracy Parrish. Tracy Parrish has curated this enormous list of e-learning tools, most of which are free. They are listed by category for easy navigation. Very helpful!

For those bookworms out there, here are some recent releases that we have read and that you may want to check out as well:

Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth

Jane recently presented a workshop on showing your work at the Elements Web Conference at Penn State. She inspired Dutton learning designers to rethink how we share our work with others.

Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen

Julie participated in a Q&A this spring with PSU learning designers who had read her book. Her book does a great job of reminding us how the brain works, and how we can maximize learning by making some important adjustments to our instruction and online presentation.

If you are interested in checking out a more extensive list of resources, including YouTube Channels and Twitter accounts, you can check out this collaborative document created by two of our Dutton Institute learning designers. 

Happy reading!

What Do You See?

The probability of encountering a student with color deficiency (color blindness) in your online course is higher than you might think. By following accessibility best practices you can eliminate potential issues with image interpretation from the start. However, what about images from outside sources that you require the student to analyze? Are there strategies that you can employ to assist a student with color deficiency? The answer is “yes.”

Consider a case study from an online Meteorology course. Meteorology uses many different types of images, both color and grey scale. Often color is used to convey differing atmospheric properties and color distinction is key to an accurate analysis. In the image below, the student is asked to place the following radar scans in order from lowest altitude to highest altitude.

Radar Reflectivity

The variable being displayed is called radar reflectivity; you can think of it as rainfall intensity. In this image warm colors represent higher intensities. The key concept being assessed is that radar reflectivity decreases with increasing altitude in the cloud. You can see that the correct answer is (1, 3, 4, 2) because the overall intensity as well as the distribution of the high intensity region decreases when following this order.


But what about a student with a red/green color deficiency (Protanopia/ Deuteranopia)? They will see the above image like the one below. This image was created using the Colblinder Color Blindness Simulator in order to simulate what a student with deuteranopia (red-green color blindness) would see. Using this image, the answer isn’t so clear. The high levels of reflectivity (red) look almost identical to the low reflectivity (green) regions! A student trying to interpret this data would be at a distinct disadvantage. They could ask a friend or spouse to help them interpret the information but that may not always be practical and it doesn’t meeting the accessibility standard of providing perceivable content to all students, including those with color deficiency.

Radar Reflective as seen by a student with Deuteranopia (Red-Green colorblindness)


In this case, providing labels is a good solution. Below you will see the original image with labels and then the image as a color blind student would see it. This solution allows the student to perceive and interact with the content and perform the assessment independently.

Radar Reflective with labels

This is a fairly complex example, but one with a relatively simple solution. The first step to helping the student is to simulate what they are seeing. Then you will know how to proceed. You might use annotation, labels, symbols, an alternate image, or a text description. If you know that you have a student with a color deficiency, make sure you consider (and test) images that are time sensitive (such as those on a quiz) ahead of time in order to prevent issues from arising where the student is at a disadvantage.

Additional Resources

Colblinder Color Blindness Simulator

ColorBrewer Pallets

Orient Yourself!

A Compass


The Dutton Institute Canvas Orientation is a primer-style, self-guided, introductory-level orientation to help you navigate and understand all aspects of Canvas. Follow this link and dive into Canvas:  Dutton Institute Canvas Orientation. When you’ve worked your way through the orientation, create a sandbox for yourself and keep exploring, build a course, or follow the instructions for importing an existing course.

The Dutton orientation is aimed at all EMS faculty, whether you teach resident or online courses, or both. Find course set-up information, suggestions for how to organize your class material in Canvas, links to in-depth instructions for all aspects of Canvas, and access to the Dutton learning design team and its training session offerings

Screen shot of the Dutton Tutorial's home page


Canvas Help Has Arrived!

life preserver hanging on wall
Credit: life preserver via flickr, CC BY 2.0


Penn State has begun the transition from ANGEL to university-wide adoption of Canvas. No new courses will be started in ANGEL after June 2017, and instructors will be able to access ANGEL online only through the end of December 2017.

Are you breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it? Never fear! In order to ease this transition, there is a wide variety of training and support resources available, both virtually and on campus.

To begin with, the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute has created an online Canvas tutorial that is specific to faculty and staff in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The Dutton Institute Faculty Orientation is a primer-style self-guided learning path with links to additional Canvas resources for in-depth instruction. The Dutton Institute is supplementing this resource with a full docket of Canvas training sessions. You can sign up at http://bit.ly/cookiesandcanvas.

February 9: 11:30 am - 1:00 pm
Orientation - 11:30-12:15
Communication/Notifications - 12:15-1:00

February 25: 11:00 am - 12:30 pm
Orientation - 11:00-11:45
Assignments/Rubrics - 11:45-12:30

March 14: 10:00 am - 11:30 pm
Orientation - 10:00-10:45
Quizzes/Assessments - 10:45-11:30

March 23: 2:00 pm - 3:30 pm
Orientation - 2:00-2:45
SpeedGrader/Gradebook - 2:45-3:30

April 12: 11:30 am - 1:00 pm
Orientation - 11:30-12:15
Groups/Teams - 12:15-1:00

April 28: 11:00 am - 12:30 pm
Orientation - 11:00-11:45
Faculty Roundtable - 11:45-12:30

Penn State also has a wide variety of Canvas transition resources available. The Canvas at Penn State website (canvas.psu.edu) is continually updated with Penn State-specific Canvas transition information, including a link to Penn State’s Canvas Learning Center and schedules of upcoming Canvas training sessions.

The University will also be sponsoring a Canvas Day from 1-6 p.m. on Friday, March 18th at the Penn Stater. The event will feature a variety of learning sessions, as well as networking opportunities with those already using Canvas. More information can be found at the event website.

As always, the Dutton Institute is here to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance with your conversion to Canvas!

Maps You Can Hear and Touch

As I was considering the topic for this month’s accessibility blog, I came across a great article, “Maps That You Can Hear and Touch” by Laura Bliss. Given the College’s emphasis on STEM material and use of all types of maps (GIS maps, Geography maps, weather maps, etc), and the University’s growing interest in 3D printing, I thought this would be the perfect topic.

Please take a minute to read this short article. It is certainly interesting and hopefully inspiring. If you have any questions or thoughts on the topic, please let us know. 


The Three Essential Functions of Your Syllabus

James Lang has written an excellent two-part article on the essential functions of your course syllabus. He argues for a “learning syllabus,” where the syllabus helps the student to learn rather than merely serving as the course “contract.” He outlines how the syllabus should convey a professor’s “energy and enthusiasm” for the subject, that conveying the value of the content is important. In addition, the syllabus should serve to orient your students to the framework of the course, explaining how the course will unfold over the semester, and to show students the course’s “learning arc.” Finally, the syllabus should make the reasons you do what you do transparent. Why will there be discussions? What’s the purpose of the project? Lang rightly says that, while the rationale for the assignments and assessments might be clear to you, outlining it in the syllabus helps to make it clear for students—something important when they may be struggling with an assignment or task.

In the second part of his article, James Lang discusses how to make your syllabus, however long, a “living document” that will help students and motivate them throughout the semester. Quizzing students on the syllabus, allowing them some control over the crafting of it, and creating detailed learning objectives that connect the assignments and tasks with the overall goals of the course are just some of the ways to accomplish this. I especially liked the “syllabus quiz” where the instructor has the students pull out the syllabus again, the instructor points out a past topic,  and the students write what they remember about the topic, how it connects to the day’s lesson, etc.

Overall, these two articles were an excellent, digestible way to look at the syllabus as a way for instructors to connect to students and to help them learn.