Thinking through Course Design
Mary Gross

Still thinking about your course design? Modules? Pages? Discussion Boards? Studio? Quizzes? In this video, I explain and show how I designed my course and the reasons for doing it. Come in and take a look! I hope this helps you think about how Course Design is much more than just how your course “looks” but how it actually engages students.

First Impressions and Setting Students Up for Success
Mary Gross

In this series of vids, I provide an overview of how I will share resources with you all and then move into into some early communication with students to help them access Canvas and our course successfully.

In this video, I share my initial email communication with students and preview three student videos that are sent pre-semester to welcome, engage, and connect with students.

Here is a link to the video I send to students in the pre-semester email which guides them to logging on the Canvas and provides a basic overview of our course design/layout. 

This is the video which provides some tips and guidance once students are in our Canvas Course how to approach the content for each week and navigate the course more easily.

Finally, this is a video that shows students how to use some of the most basic but useful tools when viewing Studio videos.

A Lifelong Dream
Mary Gross

Hi, everyone! I can’t believe we are coming to the end of our online certificate program. Thank you all so much for the amazing learning experience. I have learned so much from each of you.

So, I’m going to try to keep this to the one paragraph curry asked. I think I answered a lot of these questions in my video posting of last week when I gave the overview of my English 100 online course I am developing and previewed the structure/organization, tools used, and weekly/unit plans. So here I want to focus a bit more on the experience I am hoping for students as they make their way through my course. I have shared that the theme of my course is going to revolve around living a meaningful or purposeful life. I want the readings, activities, and writing tasks to be inspiring to them as individuals. I will not go in with a “this is what it means to live a purposeful life” as what is meaningful to me might be quite different to another. The goal here is to get students thinking about their life, the advice they receive, observe, and/or give, and the rethinking or reimagining what their life could mean. I am still considering one anchor text, and I am leaning toward The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom written by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It is not a “self help” book but instead looks at ten different life lessons and views them through scientific and historical lenses. Basically it would serve as a model of the analytical writing that is the focus of the course. I would supplement this text with shorter readings, TedTalks, artforms, etc., that would get students thinking critically about the ideas, making connections to their own lives and observations, and ultimately be thinking about designing their best life, whatever that is. If you have any great texts that you already use or have used that would support this theme, PLEASE SHARE! So through this work, students will build their skills as analytical readers, writers, and thinkers. My dream is that they come to understand and appreciate the power of analytical writing in their life, not just for academic purposes, but beyond. Finally, I want them to become confident in their skillset and take the lessons they learn from the class far beyond my classroom. That would be my dream course.

Links to Prior Postings



Equity/Accessibility/Universal Design

Course Design

Equity, Accessibility, and Universal Design: So Much to Consider
Mary Gross

A few years ago, I took J. Luke Wood’s course on Teaching Men of Color in the Community College. Many of the same suggestions made here for the online environment were discussed in that course, but more specifically in the context of how we address and welcome men of color in our classes and in the college community in general. I remember thinking that much of what he advised seemed so inherent to what I was already doing. In particular, one suggestion he made was so simple yet powerful: when you are walking around campus and encounter a man of color, look him in the eye and say hello. Of course my thinking is we should be doing this for every student as basically we are acknowledging the individual and reinforcing that s/he is important, valued, and belongs. As instructors at a community college, I believe that much of our work is assisting underrepresented students gain that sense of empowerment and belonging that may evade some in other walks of life. I suppose because I have focused my career on teaching composition to ESL students, and my classroom is home for underrepresented, often disenfranchised students, much of what he promotes is what I have dedicated my life to ensure happens in my classes.

So as not to have too lengthy of a posting, I will focus on responding to how I address some of these issues in my classes and how it will happen online. First, I was happy to read his take on working with ESL/multilingual students and how the focus should be on communication of ideas (content) over form. This paradigm shift happened in ESL pedagogy back in the 1960s-’70s when the audio-lingual approach was replaced with the communicative approach (and all the later iterations of pedagogical constructs that grew from here.) But this is an important message to share with all educators: a second language learner will always have some “language variation” to vocabulary, syntax, usage etc., that might not be to exacting standard American English, but that should not drive our response to students’ work whether in speech or writing. But the challenge becomes where is that line when these issues interfere with communication? How do we address issues of language proficiency that might still need some development in order to address the higher order concerns? This continues to be a challenge for all of us and it is likely to become even more prevalent as developmental and even ESL classes are no longer viewed as positive or necessary in the era of placing all students directly to transfer courses. But is it equitable to not hold any standard or basic expectation? This is what I have been struggling with to find a quality answer (and sorry, I still do not have one.)

I appreciate that Wood’s also clearly states that as equity-minded instructors we need to continually reflect on our role in and responsibility for student success. I do think we need to be “intrusive” (I wish there were a better word) with regularity in our work with students. The first day of class, I have students complete a basic survey (phone, email, college schedule, work etc.), but one of the most important questions I ask is: is there anything happening in your life situation you would like me to know about? This has been a very eye-opening experience, and sometimes I am surprised by how candid the students are to share some very intimate and personal details with me in the first week. I have learned that some students are temporarily homeless; others dealing with a court issue; some concerned about deportation; others sharing their sense of insecurity or depression. This information helps me understand the student and their larger life and the impacts these can have on their education. Then within the first couple weeks in the semester, I have a mandatory office visit. It is simply a fifteen-minute chat at my office where we see each other outside of the classroom. We can talk about these issues or any other the students might be experiencing. It also gives me an opportunity to offer some personalized feedback of something they have done in class. I think both the survey done electronically and the office hours converted to the online classroom with Skype or Zoom would work quite well.

Another important aspect to equity and accessibility in my classes is ensuring that all students are active, contributing members to our learning community. I don’t want any student to feel invisible and in fact have created multiple opportunities that require that each student’s voice is heard each class. For example, in my first class meeting, students are put into groups of four, and each group member is responsible for recording and then reporting out information discussed in response to one of four prompts. This is a low-stakes way for each student voice to be heard in the class by all. They will receive positive reinforcement for their efforts and this helps build their confidence. I can see this translating online quite naturally in other group work and/or by simply having students record a video doing things like introducing themselves, responding to a reading, or sharing a journal response. Then ensuring that I provide personalized feedback to the students not just publicly but also individually is very powerful. It takes me a few minutes after each class to compose a couple sentence email to individual students identifying something positive they did in class and thanking them for it. Students have regularly told me that this simple email was impactful and a great motivator for them to continue those efforts.

Yikes, this post is getting long, so I will move to my final issue of universal design in an online course. I have commented on this in the past but I think it is critical that we structure our courses so they are completely accessible to view and work through on a cell phone. Yes, this is an issue of accessibility for students who don’t have computers or easy access to them, but most of our students do have smart phones. Even for the students who do have laptops, I think the phone is becoming the device from which students conduct their lives, including school. So it is critically important to me as I design my online class that I pay attention to the details and learn the coding necessary to ensure as seamless transition from a computer or tablet screen to a phone screen. I know I have slowly moved more of my work away from the laptop and to my phone- my email, my calendar, my checking in on Canvas, my composing of ideas. . . I am not at the point of composing lengthy text like this on my phone, but as the cell phone screens get a little larger, it is a distinct possibility. I think for many of our students, the cell phone will act as their primary computer.

Online Collaborative Tasks that Build to Group Projects
Mary Gross


Today, so many options exist that allow for effective and meaningful collaboration in the virtual world. I have found that online collaboration often allows for much more engagement and interaction by each student than sometimes occurs in an f2f class. It is not easy to sit back and not contribute in an online group… it becomes so much more obvious and typically students will call out the non-engaged student. Interestingly, students might elect an online class because they prefer a more independent experience and don’t expect much collaboration. But in a process-based course, collaboration is going to be a key to students’ growth and success, and if set up from the beginning in our online (or on-ground) writing courses, students come to expect and enjoy the experience.


Just as in the traditional classroom, we must provide clear instructions, expectations, and outcomes which will more likely result in a successful outcome for any collaborative/group experience. And just as in the f2f, our role does not end with these tasks, but we often have to model, encourage, and facilitate to ensure that meaningful collaboration and learning occurs. I think the greatest challenge could be if the technology for some reason doesn’t work on the students’ computer, phone, or pad. So, the way I would work around this is before any group type project, students will have had to utilize the different technologies that are expected in the collaborative  group experience. In the group project I propose below, we are in about week 4 and students have managed to utilize the different technologies in simpler tasks that have been done on Canvas’ Discussion Board.

I’m in the process of developing an English 100 with a theme of uncovering what it means to live a meaningful/purposeful life. This would serve as a first group project that brings together other writing tasks students have done to work collaboratively to create an essay together. I do want to point out that many of these ideas have sprung from my observations of Jim Sullivan, Tony Burman, and curry’s English 100 classes. What I see these classes all have in common for the first couple weeks is that they are teaching and providing a lot of scaffolding to get students to write analytically and employ user-friendly tasks that the students connect with and enjoy writing about. So here goes:


1)     I will place students into groups of 4-5 based on previous paragraphs the students have written where they analyze a piece of advice or life lesson they have learned from someone in their life, e.g.- power of forgiveness, balancing work and play, spreading kindness, etc. If I can get the groups to have sort of a shared theme, I would go with that as they would already have a connection.

2)     Using Canvas’ Discussion Board as their work-group platform, students will each select and upload a YouTube music video and write a post about what life lesson is being communicated in the song/video and why this is meaningful to them. Further they will comment on what moves are being used (lyrics, rhythms, video images, etc.) to communicate the lesson.

3)     Once the videos and corresponding posts are uploaded, other members of the group will use the video feature on the Discussion Board to respond to each other’s posts, being directed to ‘communicate as if you are having a face to face conversation’ (in other words, it is video, not just audio). They will comment on the song/video, the writer’s ideas in the post, and add his or her own thoughts about the life message they perceive and other comments about how the message is communicated. The original writer will craft video responses to each member with his/her thoughts to close the loop.

4)     Once this interaction has occurred, the students will be directed to write an analytical paragraph about the song, with the life lesson identified in the claim/topic sentence and then providing their evidence and analysis which they will color-code to ensure balance. This will be the fourth analytical paragraph the students have written, so they would know the drill. Students will comment on the Discussion Board post using the designed peer review worksheet provided.

5)     After receiving feedback, the students will move their paragraphs to ONE shared Google Document. They will then watch an online video lesson about crafting a thesis statement and introductory paragraph. Based on the paragraphs and claims that have been submitted and using the online lesson as a guide, they will each propose an intro/thesis on the google doc in pre-set tables that would work for their collective paragraphs. They will then look at each other’s work and collaborate in writing to compose the most effective intro/paragraph, hopefully building on the initial entries, not simply picking one to use.

6)     The students will watch one final video on creating 1) an MLA Works Cited entry and will each be responsible for building their own based on the YouTube video, and then 2) formatting an MLA document.

7)     The final task will be to take the Google doc, format the work into a correctly formatted MLA document with Works Cited page and upload it to a new Class-wide Discussion Board Forum so all the students could see. I would then create a Camtasia video reviewing and commenting on each of the drafts.


 Okay, if you have any feedback and/or suggestions, I’d love to hear it. Thank you and looking forward to reading all your amazing ideas!


Reimagining Feedback & Rethinking Grading
Mary Gross

Hello, everyone! It is great to be back in this learning platform with you all, and I look forward to sharing ideas, resources, and tools.

I thought I would address my response to this blog by going back to the three areas I identified in the google doc as the writing concerns that most often elicit my feedback in the writing process, and then highlight which tools/practices I am likely to use in onground vs. online environments and how although the goals may be the same, the methods vary.

  1. Issues with interpreting the topic/prompt (e.g. is the student’s initial work/claim clearly responding to the assignment; does it need some redirection or strengthening).

This takes center stage in the ESL classroom (as I’m sure it does in a more traditional classroom), but it can be quite a challenge due to students’ experience (or lack thereof) of expository, reading-based writing assignments in their home countries as well as the linguistic gaps that might hinder their initial understanding of the depth and breadth of an assignment. In a f2f classroom, students can orally share their thesis statement for immediate feedback; students can post their initial ideas on the board for a walk-around feedback from me and their classmates; we can select some strong thesis statements and direct it back to the writing prompt to ensure the topic is being interpreted correctly and the claim is one which will work for a given assignment. It is pretty second nature to do a number of these activities early in the process in the classroom.

In a completely online setting, we would need to get the same accomplished but use the technology to assist. A couple of immediate ideas would be to use a google doc to have students post their work and have written feedback/suggestions provided. Based on that work, I could create a Jing or Camtasia video looking at the google doc and its comments and work through orally and with highlighting etc., some of the stronger ones showing the connections we are looking for, and/or selecting a few that might need some redirecting and using those to talk through some options and suggestions.

  1. Developing support in the body paragraphs. I often need to encourage the students to “dive deeper” vs. staying surface level in supporting their claims through the evidence and analysis (usually the area I need to spend more time addressing) provided.

Again, we spend a lot of time in a traditional classroom working to get students to develop their evidence and analysis more specifically and convincingly. In f2f, I might ask students to select a paragraph that is brief or that has already received some initial feedback that offers suggestions for further development. I might have students underline their topic sentence and then for the supporting sentences that follow use a colored marker to highlight whether the sentence seems to offer evidence for the claim or is analyzing it. This works to get them to see what type of development they might be favoring and where they need to go deeper. For this type of activity online, I might use the Discussion Board to have the student do this same activity, highlighting sentences as evidence or analysis. This is a good check for me to see if they are understanding the difference and it allows for them to easily compare their thinking to their classmates. I could then assign others to use directed questions to ask their classmates and offer suggestions on how they might more specifically develop content.

  1. Clarity issues- I don’t typically comment on students’ grammar but instead focus on their clarity, particularly in the early stages.

In an L2 classroom, it is very commonplace to offer suggestions for language/word choice issues. When students are grappling with an assignment and a number of readings on a new topic of exploration, they may not have some of the targeted vocabulary necessary or expected in an academic response; they also typically need help with collocations and other more discrete word form issues. For example, on an assignment addressing issues of what it means to be financially independent, they would need to understand the differences between word forms, e.g. finance (as both a noncount and countable noun), financial, financially, etc. They would also need help with collocations related to finance: frugal, budget, investment, credit, debt, consumer, etc.  And of course, they might need help understanding other idioms of finance like “a ballpark figure” or “cutting one’s losses.” In an f2f class, we start a Vocab/Word Form list of common vocabulary they are likely to encounter and/or use in their own writing. Each class as something comes up, we add it to the list, I take a picture of it at the end of class, and it gets posted to Canvas.

So this can also be done virtually using a google doc specifically designed for these sorts of global vocab needs. As for more personal responses to student writing, again I would likely either offer some typed feedback suggestions or use a simple audio feedback option on a discussion board.

In all honesty, I think that doing the feedback online is much more time consuming than doing the feedback collectively in a classroom. But the benefit of the online systems is that they are a more “permanent” experience that students can go back to, review, reflect, model, etc. I know even though I do the same sort of feedback in a classroom, in writing and/or orally, it can be more fleeting or the students might only capture part of it. With online, I can redirect them back to the feedback and they can also learn from feedback I provide to classmates.

So for the last bit of this (sorry, rather lengthy) blog, I wanted to comment on Chapter 12: Grading: Should It Change When You Teach Online? I think this is such a critical conversation and one which I have been thinking about a lot. Warnock provides his breakdown of grading percentages of his onsite vs. online class. I have never been one to give quizzes in a comp class or a number of smaller point-based assignments; instead, I build in a number of scaffolded assignments that culminate in their essay assignment. Each essay assignment through the semester builds on the previous and point values increase. I do have additional points for their final portfolio, active participation, and journal. However I think I would really need to restructure some of this for online. I am fortunate that I get to observe three online 100 classes this semester by our online gurus- curry, Tony B. and Jim. I am noting that each of them has a lot of regular, weekly points assigned for anything from small quick-check quizzes on lessons to postings made to google docs, to graded discussion board forums. This would be a huge shift in my teaching approach but one that I think is necessary and would be beneficial in the online arena. As I see more of this play out and read your perspectives, I see that this is likely to influence and change the way I grade in my f2f as well.