Five Key Takeaways from the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference 2016

by Kristina Wilson


In the first week of August, I spent three days soaking up the latest in technology, strategy, and policy at the 32nd annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference held at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin by–you guessed it–the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Started by distance learning theorist Michael Moore in 1984, today the conference contains over 130 sessions, including keynote speakers, panels, presentations, posters, small-group discussions, and networking events. At the general session and opening keynote, Moore sat at my table. When a slide came up saying that this conference would never have happened without him, we shared raised eyebrows as if to say, “Not too bad!”

There were many such opportunities to interact with peers and industry professionals in the distance learning community.

I was even lucky enough to lead a small-group discussion on Tools for Teaching Creative Writing in Online Classes. Considering it was the last concurrent session of the conference, it was well attended and included, among others, participants from the Air Force, the University of Guam, and Florida International University, not to mention Anna Diakow, lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences! Our conversation was lively as we debated the use of tools such as the IBM Watson Tone Analyser and the N+7 Machine for use in revision.

Overall, the conference was a phenomenal experience, filled with countless ways to improve online courses. Here are 5 key takeaways for online faculty.

1. Reach all of your students with Universal Design for Learning.

Thomas J. Tobin, Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, led an interactive workshop on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). CAST defines UDL as “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.”

In addition to describing the business case for UDL (it increases retention, persistence, and satisfaction by more and 4% over the baseline), Tobin also provided many easily-integrated UDL techniques.

For example, you can provide a variety of media choices for assessment. Using this technique, students could have the opportunity to turn in a written document, podcast or audio recording, or video. It may help students play to their strengths and reduce anxiety as well as improve digital literacy skills. Plus, as an instructor it also can be more interesting to assess a variety of media types!

2. There is a place for retrieval practice.

In her keynote presentation, Michelle Miller, Professor at Northern Arizona University made the case for quizzing “early, often, fast, and frequent.” As a cognitive psychologist whose research focuses on memory, her insights provided legitimacy to using quizzing in online courses in integral and formative ways.

She encourages the use of low-stakes quizzing in every field, supplemented by assignments that require higher orders of thinking. “Quizzes force you to look at what you don’t know,” she said, and can help build confidence and motivation, especially when students are provided with opportunities to reflect on their quizzing experiences.

She also presented her blog,, and shared an infographic, How to Remember Almost Anything, that I keep pinned up at my desk. It suggests quizzing over rereading, visualizing concepts, structuring concepts, understanding before remembering, relating to concepts, and creating links between easily-remembered and often-forgotten content.

3. Big data and mastery paths are coming.

It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that the intersection of distance education and big data was a popular conference topic. Recent articles in leading publications seem to publish articles on the topic almost daily. For example, just this week The Chronicle of Higher Education released “What Clicks From 70,000 Courses Reveal About Student Learning,” where John Whitmer, Director of Learning Analytics and Research at Blackboard, discusses his analysis based on student use and performance data in online courses.

In addition to many smaller sessions, two keynote presentations focused specifically on data analysis and its potential for intervention in online learning. First, Chris Jennings of the Google Analytics Academy, spoke on custom learning paths. Then Alfred Essa, Vice President of R&D and Analytics at McGraw Hill Education, who described three different course structures–conventional, mastery learning, and mastery learning with a one-on-one tutor–and touted the final option as the most successful. “Differentiated instruction does not scale,” he noted. “With that in mind, he showcased the latest McGraw Hill LMS, ALEKS, which is built specifically to support mathematics, accounting, statistics, and chemistry through branching mastery pathways.

At a recent CanvasCon event, Mitch Benson, Vice President of Canvas Product and Product Management for Instructure, showcased the mastery pathways capabilities coming to Canvas in the near future. But it’s not here yet! If you want to learn more, consider joining the Experimental Teaching and Learning Analytics Workgroup (ETLAN) for analytics webinars, a speaker series, and workshop drop-in hours.

4. Accessibility is coming.

Web accessibility considerations are a key part of our course development process, from your meeting with our content editor at the start of development through your technical editing review at the end of development. However, other institutions of higher learning are still catching up. As Wendy MacColl (Director, Office of ELearning) and Mark Nash (Course Designer, Accessibility/Universal Design Specialist) of Pike’s Peak Community College discussed in their presentation, “Web Accessibility: Charting a Course Toward Implementation” it is important to be proactive and get ahead of the game when it comes to web accessibility.

Nash noted that the Department of Justice will be updating Title I, Title II, and Title III to address web accessibility on the AA WCAG level. If that link seemed a little intimidating, you’re not the only one! Luckily, accessibility is written into the job descriptions of the entire DL team, something that MacColl mentioned is a good first step.

At PPCC, they created a self-paced courses, asynchronous online courses, and in-person courses to help train faculty on web accessibility. In the past, Northwestern IT has offered a workshop series on the topic. If you are interested in more professional development opportunities related to web accessibility, just let us know! We can easily develop webinars and blog posts to suit your interests.

5. Select course technologies mindfully.

In my small-group discussion, Tools for Teaching Creative Writing in Online Classes, I prefaced my selections with a few suggestions.

First, avoid using technology for technology’s sake. Is the technology you want to use shiny and new but only tangentially related to the learning objectives in the course? Or is it being thoughtfully integrated into the course in a way that will help students show that they have met the course learning objectives?

It is also important to avoid add-on overload. It can be tempting to use interactive tools for every component in your class, but mastering all of those technologies can be time-consuming or just downright frustrating for students. Instead, choose just a few that add the most value to the course, weighing the amount of time that it takes to learn it (less) with the amount that it is used in the course (more).

Finally, remember that technology is not always an equalizer. Some webapps and LTIs run only on specific platforms, and students with older computers may not be able to use them. Likewise, choose free or affordable webapps and LTIs as much as possible. Costs for tuition and books are rising, and it is important that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds participate in the course. Accessibility should also be a consideration. Will all students–including students with disabilities–be able to use the technology? If it cannot be navigated using a keyboard and screenreader, reconsider its use in your class.

What’s next?

If you would like more resources or details about any of presentations discussed, including Tools for Teaching Creative Writing Online, please feel free to contact Learning Designer Krissy Wilson.