Or: Why are We Getting Identical Comments?
I make it a point of reflecting on all of the end-of-course feedback commments that I get every term, to see if there is anything that I could/should be doing to improve the experience of students in my courses. One comment that I read this term has stuck with me for a few days now, causing me to think about the nature of the feedback that I give to my students, especially on paper writing assignments. I decided to write this blog post to share with future students because I don't think that the underlying issue relates to the quality of the feedback. Rather, I think my students deserve some clarification about how I go about the marking process and preparing their feedback, so that they can rest assured that I am not rushing, nor am I ignoring my obligation to provide them with customized individual feedback. The student commment in question was along the lines of:
"a lot of us got identical comments on our papers, so I'm wondering if he actually read them."
Well, the answer is an emphatic "yes!" I do read everyone's papers. And, I do provide customized feedback where needed! But, there is a reason why I often provide identical comments. After many years of grading research paper assignments, I have found myself commenting on a number of similar issues. I have compiled lists of ready-made comments to address those issues, to streamline my workflow. I have also spent a lot of time tweaking how I use a combination of Excel grading spreadsheets, and the mail merge feature in Word, to prepare rubrics with feedback comments for my students. I cover that process in the following video:
Since recording this video, I have further streamlined my grading and commenting process. Rather than just one column for "Comments" in my spreadsheet, I now have a column for comments on each of the main rubric categories. The reason why "a lot of us got identical comments" is because I use my list of ready-made comments for common issues to copy-paste the appropriate comments into each column. If there is something I need to provide more detailed feedback on for one student's paper, then I will prepare a new customized comment for that column for them!
Why Do I Do This?
It takes a lot of time to read through a batch of student papers. It can take much longer if I embed unique comments right into every paper, or draft new comments for each and every student -- time that could be better spent if a lot of the issues are the same. I try to "automate" as much of the process as I can so that my students can benefit from a quicker turnaround time for my feedback -- especially in shorter terms, or when they need that feedback in order to move on to the next stage in an ongoing project!
He Focuses Too Much on Formatting!
Another end-of-course survey respondant wondered why I focused so much on formatting issues in my feedback, rather than focusing on the content itself. Well, that couldn't be further from the truth... but I don't blame the student for getting that impression! That's because in addition to my general feedback rubric with the comments described above, I also provide each student with a 3-page checklist of general formatting, APA v7 formatting, and document accessibility issues noted in their submissions. I cover the reasons and the process for that, and provide ready-made templates that anyone can adapt for their own grading, in my blog post Adding Accessibility to Student Feedback.
Long story short on this one -- I use another Excel spreadsheet to record an "X" in any column for formatting issues that applies for a student's paper, and then use Word and mail merge to "spit out" the checklists for the entire class with one click of a button. So, I don't actually pay more attention to formatting than to content when grading student's papers. Instead, I review the document once for formatting issues, check them off, and then go back and read the paper in detail. This allows me so avoid the "red pen fatigue" of highlighting or commenting on these formatting issues as I go through the paper (and writing the same comments multiple times across multiple papers). It also allows me to focus exclusively on the content during that second read through!
Just because I'm using the same ready-made comments for a lot of the feedback I provide on students' papers doesn't mean that I'm ignoring individualized feedback. It actually means that I'm streamlining my processes so that I don't waste my time writing new comments where you don't really need them. This allows me to customize feedback for just the areas where there are things that you could tweak in your projects, and get that feedback to you as quickly as possible!
Power, R. (2020, February 6). Automating Feedback Rubrics Using Spreadsheets and Mail Merge. [video]. https://youtu.be/in0gx1iTTNc
Power, R. (2022, February 16). Adding Accessibility to Student Feedback. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/adding-accessibility-to-student-feedback
Sometimes we share videos with our students that are not narrated, and that contain just on-screen text. While viewers can technically read the text embedded in the video, this method does not truly meet Digital Accessibility requirements. That's because the use of embedded text in a video is the same as embedding text within an image in a document. It is not machine-readable, and thus it excludes audience members who may need to use a screen reader application for any reason (they may be visually-impaired, have low language reading ability, have a reading-related learning disability such as Dyslexia, or they may be a non-native language speaker who needs to translate your text for better comprehension).
The two best ways to help all potential viewers get the most out of your non-narrated video content are to:
Creating Captions In YouTube
YouTube Creators (2021) has an excellent overview of how to add or edit captions either when you are uploading your video, or after your video has already been published. Remember, for a video with no narration (just text on screen), you will need to transcribe that text into the captions editor (either manually, or copy-paste the "slide" text from your video, and insert it to align with the timings when it appears on screen.
Creating Your Own Captions File
Another option for creating subtitles or captions for a non-narrated video is to use an external video editing application, like Screencast-O-Matic (2019). This option works well if you have a copy of the video file (MP4 or other format) on your computer, but is less useful if you use a tool like PowToon (2022) to create your video and export it directly to YouTube (because you cannot download the video file unless you have a pro-level subscription).
While the following webinar demonstration video (Power, 2021, April 9) features the creation of captions for a narrated video using Screencast-O-Matic, the steps for creating, editing, and uploading your captions file to YouTube would be the same for a text-only video.
Adding a Transcript File
In addition to making sure your text-only video has Closed Captions enabled, I also strongly recommend adding a transcript file for your visually-impaired users. A transcript file can be opened or downloaded. Your audience members can then use any screen reader application (such as JAWS (Freedom Scientific, n.d.), NVDA (NV Access, 2023), or Google Read and Write (Texthelp, 2023)) to read the on-screen video text out load to them. The following video shows how I uploaded a transcript file to Google Drive, and then added a link to that transcript to the video description for my instructor welcome video in YouTube. Remember to make sure your transcript file meets basic document accessibility requirements before sharing it! For more on that topic, refer to my blog post Helping Everyone Access Your Online Learning Resources (Power, 2020).
Freedom Scientific. (n.d.). JAWS. [computer software]. https://www.freedomscientific.com/
NV Access (2023). About NVDA. [computer software]. https://www.nvaccess.org/about-nvda/
Power, R. (2019, November 9). Hi There! Meet Rob Power. [video]. https://youtu.be/ff-6GtdX9xM
Power, R. (2020, February 13). Helping Everyone Access Your Online Learning Resources. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/helping-everyone-access-your-online-learning-resources
Power, R. (2021, April 9). Creating Your Own Video Captions (Webinar Demonstration). [video]. https://youtu.be/4ghNMjCDOfg
Power, R. (2023, May 1). Adding Transcripts to YouTube Videos. [video]. https://youtu.be/q5z_ZHCVFjg
PowToon (2022). https://www.powtoon.com/
Screencast-O-Matic (2019). Video Creation for Everyone. [Web page]. https://screencast-o-matic.com/
Texthelp (2023). Read&Write for Google Chrome. [computer software]. https://www.texthelp.com/products/read-and-write-education/for-google-chrome/
YouTube Creators (2021, May 5). How to Add Captions While Uploading & Editing Your Videos. [video]. https://youtu.be/rB9ql0L0cU
Sometimes Using Graphics Does More Harm Than Good
Does the Graphic Contain Text?
There are lots of cases where the graphics we use contain text. Sometimes it is unavoidable. The questions you should be asking in this case are:
The following graphic illustrates a common example of graphics that I see in my email inbox where actual text should be used instead of the image:
There is nothing in this graphic that could not be put in regular text format, and a screen reader cannot "see" the text in the image to read it out to you. Sure, you could repeat the text within the ALT tag for the image, so that a screen reader will read it out... but what's the point? The graphic does not actually clarify or add anything to the message, and you are wasting time creating the graphic and typing the text into the ALT tag when you could simply type it right onto the page! Additionally, text within your image will NOT reflow and resize based on the reader's screen size and orientation, which could also render that text unreadable to your entire audience. You are also preventing anyone who uses an Accessibility plugin from modifying the font, color, or contrast of the text to make it more readable in their specific context. And, besides the message potentially being lost for anyone using a screen reader (if they do engage with the content at all), there is the potential that your intended audience may also view the message as SPAM, and thus ignore it!
Here is a better example of a graphic that could be used to accompany the same message. In this case, you can see that the image is being used to draw visual readers' attention to some key points. The accompanying ALT text tells a screen reader user why the image is being used. And the main points of the message are included in regular text format in the body of the page.
When The Message Gets Washed Away
If you are going to use a graphic as part of your message or content page, make sure you test that image in "dark mode." Most of the time, we are not working in dark mode when we create graphics. If our graphics have transparent backgrounds, they will display differently for any reader who has adjusted the color scheme of their screen. Parts of the graphic may end up getting "washed out" by a different color screen background, rendering them unreadable. Here is an example of an email message that contains a graphic with a transparent background, as viewed in dark mode on my mobile device. The message was unreadable until I got to my desktop computer!
The quick fix to this is to remove the transparent background before publishing the graphic, and choose a background color that has a sufficient color contrast ratio with the foreground (text).
I recently ran into an issue during a Microsoft Teams meeting, and did some digging afterwards to troubleshoot. The problem was that I could not hear any sound through my wireless headset during the meeting, while using a custom audio configuration that had previously worked flawlessly (a Logitech USB webcam, Blue Snowball external microphone, and a SkullCandy Hesh 2 Bluetooth headset).
It seems that Microsoft has made some changes to both Teams and Windows that now prevent anyone from using both a Bluetooth headset and an external microphone during Teams meetings. Windows detects a Bluetooth headset with a built-in microphone as telephone device – which means that Teams will want to use it as an all-in-one device and will prevent you from hearing sound once you turn on your external microphone. Previously, you were able to prevent this by turning off the “telephony” service for your headset (under the device properties) – but Microsoft has now removed the ability to access that tab and turn off that service in the latest builds of Windows 11.
I played around with my system, and determined that this issue does not impact other online meeting platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype – just Teams.
TLDR: If you encounter an issue with not being able to hear sound during a Teams meeting, it may be that you are trying to use a wireless headset and an external microphone at the same time – and you are no longer able to do that!
The Relationship Between User Experience/User Interface, Mobile First Instructional Design, and Digital Accessibility
I frequently received questions about using tables to organize content on web pages or course content pages in an LMS. I also frequently see novice instructional design students do this in order to make content line up for aesthetic purposes. The problem is, if you are not well-versed in HTML coding, and using tools like Bootstrap UI to create engaging, interactive, responsive page elements, then using simple "tricks" like aligning contents with tables, manually formatting text for emphasis, or manually inserting lines on your pages to create visual divisions between content can actually create more problems then they solve!
Insprired by a recent flurry of questions from my ID students, I put together this video to demonstrate what problems you create when you use tables to organize content (among other issues). The key recommendations to optimize course page layout, minimize cognitive overload, and minimize Digital Accessibility issues are:
Power, R. (2023, February 20). UX and Accessible Course Pages. [video]. https://youtu.be/QEvJ6r1ylDo
Everday Instructional Design: A Practical Resource for Educators and Instructional Designers provides useful background understanding of the principles and processes that guide the design, development, testing, and refinement of online course modules. This book has been developed based on a seriest of instructional design and educational technology courses taught by Rob Power at different Canadian universities, and follows a project-based learning experience that walks participants through the first few weeks of an instructional design and development project. These steps typically span the first six to eight weeks of designing and developing online courses as a contract instructional designer or as an in-house ID specialist. Everyday Instructional Design works through this process, exploring the rationale and pragmatics of all of the steps involved with determining what needs to be developed, creating our initial design plans, developing a prototype of a selected portion of the larger ID project, collaborating with other instructional designers to get “expert feedback” on our works-in-progress, pilot testing our prototypes with a “live” student audience, reflecting on the expert and student feedback we receive, and determining how we can tweak our prototype designs before proceeding with the rest of the course development project.
The Everyday ID eBook is available as an Open Access / Open Educational Resource via the Pressbooks platform, and can also be downloaded in both ePUB and PDF format, at https://pressbooks.pub/everydayid/
There’s an old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, that isn’t true is you can’t see the picture! Which brings me to the inspiration for this blog post, and for a series of videos that I just put together. I am working with a client that has a number of PDF versions of mock WHMIS information sheets (Canadian Council for Occupational Health and Safety, n.d.) that they want to make available as downloads to accompany a new series of workplace safety online training modules. The problem is, those PDFs are all image-only files. They reminded me of the photocopies and scans of course readings, like the one pictured below, that I used to find on reserve in the university library, or uploaded into online courses that I was a student in.
The problem with these image-only readings is that they are not machine-readable. They contain no text that a screen reader application could read aloud to students who have visual impairments. Thus, they are only as good as their ALT text – and you certainly cannot (or at least you should not) recreate all of the text embedded in the images in their ALT tags! If you did, you are probably only going to make things worse from a Digital Accessibility standpoint:
Luckily, there are ways to determine if a PDF you want to share with your students is machine-readable (and, at least somewhat accessible). In the following video, I demonstrate how to do this using both Adobe Acrobat Reader (2023b) (free!) and Acrobat Pro (2023a) (paid).
So, how do you create your own PDFs that you know will be (at least somewhat) accessible, and okay to share with your students? In the following video, I demonstrate how to use Microsoft (2022) Word to do just that be preformatting the required heading, paragraph, and image (ALT) tags before you export it to PDF.
Okay, but what if you have one of those image-only PDFs and you want to make it accessible for all of your students? To do that, you will need an actual PDF editor like Acrobat Pro, which has a number of built-in features such as optical character recognition (OCR) and a suite of Accessibility Tools (Adobe, 2023c, d). Watch the following video for a demonstration of how I use Adobe Acrobat Pro DC to edit an image-only PDF, convert it to one that can be read by a screen reader application, properly tag the text and images, and set the reading order (the order in which a screen reader will read the page contents out load to your students).
Adobe (2023a). Adobe Acrobat Pro. https://www.adobe.com/ca/acrobat/acrobat-pro.html
Adobe (2023b). Adobe Acrobat Reader. https://www.adobe.com/ca/acrobat/pdf-reader.html
Adobe (2023c). Creating accessible PDFs. https://helpx.adobe.com/ca/acrobat/using/creating-accessible-pdfs.html
Adobe (2023d). How to customize your toolbar. https://helpx.adobe.com/ca/acrobat/how-to/customize-toolbar.html
Canadian Council for Occupational Health and Safety (n.d.). WHMIS.org: Canada's Workplace Safety Portal. https://whmis.org/
Microsoft (2022). Word. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/word
Power, R. (2020, February 12). Two Basic Steps to Make Your Documents Digitally Accessible. [video]. https://youtu.be/AKzuXghQFnc
Power, R. (2020, February 13). Helping Everyone Access Your Online Learning Resources. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/helping-everyone-access-your-online-learning-resources
Power, R. (2023, February 2, a). Are Your PDFs Accessible? [video]. https://youtu.be/frOYI-y-XfE
Power, R. (2023, February 2, b). Creating Accessible PDFs. [YouTube playlist]. https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLIJ8QfsveW2Y5rFnTVytRkyVc46N3WXVI
Power, R. (2023, February 3). Fixing PDF Accessibility. [video]. https://youtu.be/33h70ytABkc
Power, R. (2023, February 2, c). Properly Exporting PDFs. [video]. https://youtu.be/F_QAGsHQ-FE
TPGI (2023). Colour Contrast Analyzer (CCA). [Web page]. https://www.tpgi.com/color-contrast-checker/
I recently received an email from a former student from one of my instructional design courses who is looking to jump into the game as an independent ID contractor. He was looking for some advice on getting up and running -- particularly with what to consider about setting up a website and promoting himself in the field. I figured that I'd share a few considerations that would be helpful to anyone looking to do the same (whether you're considering going into it as a full-time gig, or as a "side hustle."
My former student asked for advice on:
What Are Clients Looking For?
Let's start with "ideas of what clients would be looking for in terms of skill sets." There is no definitive answer to this! My advice (which was shared to me by a former colleague with expertise in entrepreneurship) is to promote what you are good at and interested in doing. Don't expect to be a one-stop shop that can offer anything and everything a potential client may need in terms of instructional design work. If your experise and experience is in the area of creating multimedia resources, then focus on that. If your background includes experience managing course development products, emphasize that. If there is something that you have a bit of "technical" experience with, but you have a solid understanding of what needs to be done and why (i.e., you have a strong understanding of the principles and processes, but have only dabbled with specific applications common in the industry), and you are interested in doing that sort of work for clients, then focus on that, too! You can always master specific tools or applications if you know what you are trying to achieve and why! But, if there is something that you don't have a strong background or experience in (say, curriculum development, or organizational needs assessment processes), then don't emphasize that. If you promote yourself as a one-stop shop for everything, you run the risk of getting yourself in over your head with work requests that you can't handle. Plus, you run the risk of not appearing to be someone with specialist expertise.
Remember -- your potential clients could recruit an in-house developer (or go to a job board or recruiting agency to contract one) if all they need is someone with the technical skills to build a product in a given system. What they're looking for in an independent contractor is an expert consultant -- someone with a background that they can't easily recruit for a short-term in-house position! So, promote yourself as that expert in your niche of expertise!
Setting up Your Website
Your website is one of your primary vehicles for promoting your expertise and services. Here are a few tips.
Showcasing Your Work
When it comes to what types of digital artifacts you can include... that is completely up to you! If you have blog posts, instructional videos, interactive instructional resources you can share, then share them! I have a fairly extensive list of currated resources from over the years shared on the Power Learning Solutions site. But, another useful strategy might be to use a free LMS platform such as Canvas Free for Teachers to create a sample course site. In that course, you can include sample modules created in different ways, using different tools. For instance, you could include a sample module that follows a standard higher education course format, and one that uses the tools and structures frequently seen for shorter workplace training modules (using tools such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, etc). You can either post the self-registration link so that your website visitors can check it out at their leisure, or post an overview of the site on your website, with a note that clients can be provided with free access upon request, following an initial consultation. Think of it as a menu that you clients can choose from when you are consulting with them about the unique instructional design needs. Creating a sample course site allows you to keep expanding your showcase platform, without having to have everything ready for your main website right away!
If you are looking for more ideas about the types of resources that you can share, check out the Resources section here on the Power Learning Solutions site.
How Much Should You Charge?
Now... this is a tricky question! Again, I'm going to fall back on the advice my entrepreur expert colleague shared with me. Do NOT post set rates for products and services. You are not a department store. Your clients are looking for a specialist, and they'll expect to be charged for specialist services. If you post rates on your site, you could end up under-selling yourself (by accepting contracts that take far longer than what your posted rate will actually fairly cover). And, you run the risk of being underbid by a potential competitor who sees your posted rates, and snatches a potential client out from under you in the early consultation stages.
What you charge for your services should be determined in consultation with your client, based on your initial consultations about their unique needs and the anticipated time and resources needed to do the job. Consider how much you would expect to be paid, by the hour, for doing the same work for a full-time employer. You don't want to spend the same number of hours on an independent contract for less pay! You'll also want to consider using a sliding scale on your service quotes, that varies depending on either the actual amount of time it takes to do the work, and the amount of deliverables actually produced for the client. I frequently do provide "hard figure quotes" to my clients after an initial consultation -- but that's because I've gained a good sense of how much work will be involved once I have that initial consultation. However, there are some cases where I do use sliding (hours of work) based scales, because the initial consultations reveal that the full scope of the project work may evolve as we progress through the project.
Another key piece of advice from my entrepreneurial colleague -- do NOT undersell yourself because you are afraid that a potential client may balk at your quote. If you go too low, you run the risk of not only getting underpaid, but also of losing the client because they don't view you as a serious expert in the field!
Of course -- there are some cases where you may deem it appropriate to offer a potential client a low-ball quote. For instance, you may connect with a non-profit organization or another small business operator who either does not have the budget of a larger organization, or who may be a valuable connection to build upon for future collaborations (and word-of-mouth promotion).
Some Legal Considerations
Your legal considerations may vary, depending on where you are physically located. Please note, I am NOT an expert on either business or tax law! But, here's what I had to keep in mind:
I recently had a recent discussion forum conversation with some of my instructional design students about whether or not to include the instructor in an instructional video. Personally, I believe that doing so increases Teacher Presence, thus promoting the other presences in a Community of Inquiry (Athabasca University, n.d.). It reassures students that the instructor is present, and paying attention to their progress, even in a distributed learning context. Also, while many users may overtly ignore the on-screen instructor (especially when projected in a smaller window in front of a screencast type recording), they can still subconsciously pick up cues from the instructor's body language that can aid in engagement and overall learning.
An interesting article from 2021 just came across my Twitter feed. Henderson and Schroeder's (2021) A Sytematic review of instructor presence in instructional videos highlights many of the reasons to include an on-screen instructor in an instructional video that I just mentioned, which they found as part of their systematic literature review of the impacts of on-screen instructors. However, their actual findings are quite interesting. The authors include the following highlights with the paper's Abstract:
- We reviewed the literature around the use of on-screen instructors in video.
Essentially, there is no definitive answer as to whether the presence of an on-screen instructor actually increases engagement and learning! That's because of inconsistent findings across the literature reviewed. But -- and this is an important "but" -- there is also no evidence to indicate that it is detrimental to include the instructor in the video! The authors call for more research (using a consistent, systematic approach) to determine the actual impact level of instructor on-screen presence, and to offer sound guidance on when to include it, and when it is best not to.
In light of this, I find myself "sticking to my guns" on this issue. Even if there are inconsistent findings on the pedagogical benefits of including an instructor on-screen in an instructional video, I do believe that this little bit of extra presence contributes to the bigger picture when promoting engagement, and maximizing the benefits of promoting a Community of Inquiry in our courses!
Power, R. (2020, September 3). Maximizing the Impact of Instructional Video Length. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/maximizing-the-impact-of-instructional-video-length
Power, R. (2020, April 17). Creating a YouTube Channel for Educators. [YouTube video]. https://youtu.be/Uy_5gOV80LY
Power, R. (2019, January 14). Using YouTube to Share Video in an Online Course. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/using-youtube-to-share-video-in-an-online-course
Power, R. (2019, January 22). Adding a Human Touch to Online Learning, Right From the Start! [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/adding-a-human-touch-to-online-learning-right-from-the-start
Athabasca University (n.d.). CoI Framework. https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/
Henderson, M., & Schroeder, N. (2021). A Systematic review of instructor presence in instructional videos: Effects on learning and affect. Computers and Education Open, 2(2021) 100059. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeo.2021.100059
You may have noticed something different about the Power Learning Solutions website! It's been a while since I rebranded the site from an ePortfolio, and even longer since I originally launched the site. I figured that it was time I freshened up my site theme to give it a more modern look-and-feel. More importantly, I want to make sure that I "practice what I preach" when it comes to general web design, user experience, and (perhaps most importantly) compliance with WCAG 2.1 Digital Accessibility standards. I know there's probably some legacy content on this site that might cause some aesthetic and accessibility issues... but hopefully the new site design is a step in the right direction. And, hopefully, you like it!
Rob Power, EdD, is an Assistant Professor of Education, an instructional developer, and educational technology, mLearning, and open, blended, and distributed learning specialist.
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