Who is Learning Online?

by Sandy Gambill, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

When I signed up to write this blog post, I thought it would be a simple matter of finding some statistics and framing them in the context of the Reinert Center’s annual theme– justice. After several false starts, I can tell you it was not that simple.

There was no difficulty in finding statistics. Enrollment data reported to the federal government in fall 2016 indicates that 13% of all undergraduate students and 28% of all graduate students in the US exclusively take online courses. Students who take both online and face to face courses make up 18% of all undergrads and 9% of all graduate students.  Combined that tells us that 41% of undergrads and 37% of graduate students have taken online courses.

What the statistics don’t tell us is much about the motivation of these students–why are they taking online courses? I’m sure you can list reasons like flexibility and convenience, but  how does that square when we think about justice? When I think about distance education, I’m excited by framing justice in terms of access. Online learning provides access to education that many people would not otherwise have. This means opening the opportunity for better paying jobs and different ways of looking at the world.

Think about that 13% of undergrads who take all their courses online. I wonder how many of them fall into the category of adult learners. Many institutions offer online degree programs to adult learners, and limit traditional undergrads to the traditional classroom. For example, according to their website, SLU’s School for Professional Studies (link https://www.slu.edu/online/index.php) requires students to be over the age of 22 and have had at least three years of work experience.

It’s easy for me to relate to that group because I was one of those students.  I was well into my 30s and working full time, when I did an online Masters degree program that allowed me to advance in my career.  I wasn’t in a position to leave my job to go to school, and couldn’t find a traditional program that was flexible enough to fit my schedule.

There is a long tradition of working adults taking correspondence, and now distance courses, hoping for better jobs and higher pay. If you were a fan of Downton Abbey, you might remember the character Gwen Harding, a housemaid who took correspondence courses to learn to type, and was able to leave service to become a secretary. That story line was historically accurate. The first well-documented correspondence course began around 1840 when Isaac Pittman offered stenography courses through the UK’s Penny Post system. (Britain’s Uniform Penny Post Act of 1840 created affordable prepaid postage through the issuance of the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black. See the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_Black for more on this.)

What about adult students who want access to education to learn one new skill or connect intellectually with others? MOOCS (Massive Online Open Courses) aren’t as trendy as they were a few years ago since no one has really figured out how to monetize the model, but Coursera and EdX, the most popular MOOC platforms, still have a few thousand free courses on everything from 18th Century Opera to Justice, the Harvard course taught by Michael Sandel.  I don’t think you can discount the impact one of these courses could have on someone’s life, whether they’re trying to improving their accounting knowledge, or enrich their personal time by connecting with others interested in postmodern European literature. Sometimes learning for the sheer joy of learning is a powerful motivation.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the students in MOOCs are motivated by the same forces that drove students to enroll in the televised courses taught by Father John Francis Bannon, SJ, of SLU’s History Department. KETC, aka Channel 9, started broadcasting in 1954 and by 1955, Father Bannon was on the air, teaching “The Great American West to 1848,” the same course he taught for students matriculating at SLU. This was the first of several courses he taught over the KETC airwaves.

I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the artifacts from Father Bannon’s televised courses in Saint Louis University archives. Syllabi for the Father Bannon’s courses were sixty page booklets that included detailed instructions to the students, in addition to printed versions of the lectures and supplemental reading lists. They proclaim: “You are becoming involved in an experiment in education which is still in its infancy, college credit courses by television. Perhaps, your experience can contribute in very valuable fashion to the growing fund of data regarding the validity and practicality of this great new potential medium of organized learning. In all, events, it is our hope that you enjoy and profit by the experience.” Students in these courses had the opportunity to attend live discussion sessions and then if they wanted credit, take an exam in a room on the first floor of Du Bourg Hall.

Little demographic information is available about Bannon’s students. A 1957 Jesuit Bulletin article asserts that Bannon “counts his students in ten and twenty thousands.” While this is probably an overstatement, the courses were distributed across the United States as part of National Education Television and Radio Center Network. The article says the shows were used by public and private high schools of St Louis, and that Bannon frequently had requests for his reading lists from public libraries in other cities where the shows were available. Predictably, he also faced questions from other faculty members about what he was doing and why he was doing it.

When we think about undergrads taking online courses, the issue of motivation seems murkier. Are they trying to fit in required courses that otherwise don’t work into their schedules? Are they taking an online course somewhere they think it will be easier than at their residential institution? Did they fail the course and are trying to fit in a convenient do-over?  Are they go-getters, doing everything they can to graduate quickly? Is justice different for these students?

If we look at teaching as situational and context driven, I have a challenge for you. Ask your students why they’re in the course. This could be a discussion board  icebreaker, or if you want to give students the privacy to disclose to you things they may not want to say to their classmates, ask them in a journal post or paper assignment the first week of class. Their responses might help you form a more just course by modifying times assignments are due, selecting readings more applicable to their lives and interests, or simply by showing that you care about them as an individual. In a future blog post, I’ll explore these strategies and other pedagogical tips for making your course more just.



The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE)Chloe 2 Report:


Mackenzie, O. (1971) The Changing World of Correspondence Study. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press


Universal Instructional Design (UID)

by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Universal instructional design (UID) is a pedagogical framework used to help design courses that are accessible for all students, including students with disabilities. We have described this approach to course design in previous blogs [LINK] and considered ways to apply it to different teaching contexts and situations (e.g., online learning [LINK]). Here are three additional online resources to help you think about the important role of accessibility in your courses:

Because we are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as values rooted in Ignatian spirituality, we believe UID is an important pedagogical framework to re-consider in and through this year’s theme of “Teaching and Justice.”

If you would like to discuss ways to apply the principles of UID to your courses, you can request a confidential consultation with someone from the Reinert Center by submitting our online form [LINK].

Teaching and Justice

by Gina Merys, Acting Director, Reinert Center

The university must carry out this general commitment [to transform and enlighten the society in which it lives] with the means uniquely at its disposal: we as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover remedies; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and continually hone an educational institution that is academically excellent and ethically oriented.

–Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., The Task of a Christian University

Jesuit universities have stronger and different reasons, than many other academic and research institutions, for addressing the actual world as it unjustly exists and for helping to reshape it in the light of the Gospel.

–Peter Hans-Kolvenbach, S.J., The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education

The start of an academic year is a time for new beginnings; faculty and students alike have renewed energy to devote their minds to what happens in their courses, and a greater capacity to see with new eyes the many ways to ignite a thirst for learning and how an education can be used to transform the world.  I see the ideas from Ellacuria and Kolvenbach, in the epigraphs above, as models for how we can approach the Reinert Center’s theme for the year, “Teaching and Justice.” Such a theme draws on and from the many facets of a university, specifically the variety of disciplinary knowledge and skills, theoretical perspectives and concrete practices present in the classrooms, offices, residences, and social spaces here. Simultaneously, this theme of teaching and justice taps into the multiple perspectives of humanity through the scope of the Jesuit mission that calls us to use what we draw from the university in the service of bettering the immediate community around us as well as the world beyond, for everyone.

The goal of focusing on the intersections of teaching and justice neither supposes it is a singular topic nor one that can be (un)covered in one academic year. It does, however, give us an occasion to exercise the particular context of the university to refocus our ways of being in relationship with our content areas and how we invite our students into that relationship as well. Regardless of the place on the spectrum of novice to expert we encounter students, we have the opening to create spaces for them to make connections with ideas, to develop proficiencies, and create new knowledges through our own unique courses and classroom spaces. When we see learning experiences through the lens of Ignatian pedagogy, each meeting with student minds is a great gift and immense responsibility to their humanity and the humanity of all those they encounter through the lenses we design with them; therefore, the partnership between teaching and justice becomes all the more important to examine.

Throughout the academic year, the Reinert Center will create opportunities to encounter the theme through several subtopics as a way of exploring, scrutinizing, and developing teaching and justice including: Student Identities, Ability and Accessibility, Classroom Practices, Course Content and Curriculum, Technology, Experiential Learning, Assessment, and Mentoring. We invite the Saint Louis University community to discover the multiple layers embedded within our theme and the ways in which we can use those layers to teach ourselves to embody, enact, and engage the gifts of the university context to, in the words of St. Ignatius, “set the world on fire.”


Icebreakers in the Classroom

by Gina Merys, Acting Director, Reinert Center

Icebreakers, often defined as techniques to introduce people to each other, are frequently used during the first week of classes to help instructors and students get to know one another. While this can be useful, when designed with the skills and knowledge of a specific course in mind, icebreakers can introduce students to the content of the course as well. Learn how to use “icebreakers” to build community and introduce skills in this brief resource guide: https://www.slu.edu/cttl/resources/resource-guides/icebreakers.pdf


You can find additional resource guides on our website at https://www.slu.edu/cttl/resources/resource-guides.php

New Semester Resources

As you prepare for the year ahead, consider reviewing some of the online resources available on our website.  For example, the Reinert Center’s brief Resource Guides offer a few practical strategies for a number of teaching topics.  While they are far from comprehensive solutions, they may be useful suggestions as you prepare to teach this semester.

Below are a few sample guides.  The complete list of Resource Guides can be found on our website.

Starting the Semester: Student Engagement

The Syllabus as a Communication Tool

Using Ground Rules to Support a Diverse Learning Environment

Two Paths to Student-Centered Rubrics

Supporting Active Learning in Large Classes with PowerPoint

Seeing the Diversity in Your Classroom

Also, consider checking out our ejournal, Teaching with Technology.  The journal is a semi-annual publication from the Instructional Developer team.  Each issue explores innovative ways technology might be used in teaching.  The current issue includes an interview with Dr. Mary Gould, Associate Professor in Communication.  Dr. Gould talks about digital storytelling and how to create, assign, and assess video-based assignments.  Those who may want to incorporate video and/or digital story telling into their courses will likely find Dr. Gould’s thoughtful insights helpful.

If you would like more information about these topics or anything related to teaching, we’re here to help.  You can request a confidential consultation with someone from the Reinert Center staff by using our online form.

Book Review- Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning brings the promise of increased productivity, efficiency, safety and access to a wealth of new information; however, these technologies also raise difficult questions about the nature of work.  What jobs, skills and labor will be needed when most work has been automated?  Furthermore, how do we better prepare college students to enter into a heavily automated work environment?

Joseph Aoun, renowned scholar in linguistics and president of Northeastern University, explores the impact of AI and higher education in his book, Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.  In order to prepare college graduates for an automated workplace, Aoun proposes a new educational framework centered on humantics – inter- and intrapersonal-based skills in creative thinking, empathy, teamwork, and judgment.  While these skills are familiar outcomes for liberal arts education, when paired with the coming AI workplace, they take a context that is more vital than aspirational. Aoun states [humantics], “enables learners to understand the highly technological world around them that simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans – namely, their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility” (Aoun, 2017, p. 53).

In order for higher education to help students develop these skills, Aoun describes a learning paradigm that prioritizes three literacies: technical literacy, or the understanding of how technology works; data literacy (big data, media, analytics) which is the ability to understand how information is generated; and finally, human literacy which is the human capacity to engage with others, and “tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty” (Aoun, 2017, p. 59).

While there are many ways educators can help build technical, data, and human literacy, Aoun suggests one of the best ways to prepare for the AI workplace is for educators to create experiential learning experiences that connect learning with the outside word.  Not only does experiential learning help students build the relevant skills in a rapidly changing workplace, but they offer a way for students to build lifelong learning skills through the connection of others.  “If students are to be lifelong learners, they must engage with a diversity of perspectives, including ones that challenge their presuppositions.  Only though the full and respectful including of people of different backgrounds, identities, and creeds can we learn, cooperate, and create to our full potential” (60).

While the rise of artificial intelligence offers a complex set of questions, thinking about how higher education can/should respond is a worthy pursuit.  While some of the aspects of Aoun’s book may seem to nod to some familiar work within higher education, the book underscores how the process and context of learning are profound components to the educational experience found in higher education.  As we head towards a new semester, consider how students are experiencing learning as much as the content that will be taught in their class.

If you want to discuss experiential learning, ways to incorporate inter/intra personal skills into your course or to address how to facilitate deeper learning contexts in your teaching, you can always request a confidential consolation with someone from the Reinert Center.




Aoun, J. E. (2017). Robot-proof: higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press.

Book Review: Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusive Excellence

by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Staff in the Reinert Center are continually researching and developing resources to support inclusive teaching and learning at Saint Louis University. You can access the current inclusive teaching resources available on our website by clicking here [LINK]. A goal of this ongoing work is to share resources that are applicable across all disciplines and teaching contexts. We also seek out resources that offer global perspectives on inclusive excellence in higher education to help “foster, support, and expand SLU’s global instructional activities” (Strategic Initiative Goals, 2018). Recently, I read an edited volume that advances both of these important goals for deepening our understanding and practice of inclusive teaching.

Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusive Excellence: Transdisciplinary and Global Perspectives (Asumah & Nagel, 2014) is a collection of essays written by scholars and activists from around the world. The authors’ ideas will be most useful for instructors wanting to re-consider why and how concepts like “diversity” and “social justice” are discussed in the context of their teaching. For example, Christopher Latimer (2014) offers different global frames to help students analyze the same-sex marriage debate and Janet Duncan (2014) complements his discussion with a chapter on understanding disability rights in a global context. Other contributors tackle topics ranging from transnational feminism to immigration policy and the politics of exclusion. At the core of each essay is a consideration of why the topic is important and how to engage it effectively with students. Gale Young and Elizabeth Davis-Russell (2014) explicitly address the latter by offering a model for dealing with difficult classroom dialogue in any discipline or teaching context. Importantly, their model is not restricted to dialogues about diversity or social justice and can thus be useful to any instructor who uses discussion activities in their teaching or faces challenges when trying to include diverse student voices in a discussion.

If you are interested in reading this volume or specific chapters mentioned above, you can access an electronic version through SLU’s library by clicking here [LINK]. If you want to discuss diversity, social justice, or inclusive excellence in the context of your teaching, you can request a confidential consultation with someone in the Reinert Center by clicking here [LINK]. Please also share your thoughts on this topic with others in the comments section below.



Asumah, S. N. & Nagel, M. (2014). Diversity, social justice, and inclusive excellence: Transdisiplinary and global perspectives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Duncan, J. M. (2014). Understanding disability rights in a global context. In S. N. Asumah & M. Nagel (Eds.), Diversity, social justice, and inclusive excellence: Transdisciplinary and global perspectives (pp. 363-377). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Latimer, C. P. (2014). Framing the same-sex marriage issue as equity. In S. N. Asumah & M. Nagel (Eds.), Diversity, social justice, and inclusive excellence (pp. 155-183). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Strategic Initiative Goals (2018, August 6). Retrieved from https://www.slu.edu/strategic-plan/initiative-goals.php

Young, G., & Davis-Russell, E. (2014). The vicissitudes of cultural competence: Dealing with difficult classroom dialogue. In S. N. Asumah & M. Nagel (Eds.), Diversity, social justice, and inclusive excellence (pp. 33-51). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

New Year’s Resolutions

by Stephen Belt, Assistant Professor, Aviation Science

It is August and all things are possible for the coming academic year. This year, I will be more energetic, have better and more interactive classroom activities. This year, I will improve my exams. I’ll provide more feedback. I’ll get assignments back more quickly. I’ll do more research, write more grants, and publish more papers. It is so tempting at the beginning of a year to make such a list of resolutions—a list that, like other New Year’s resolutions, often result in an incremental (or catastrophic) return to the status quo. Heck, what little time there is to spare will undoubtedly be consumed in a million small and not-so-small ways. Yet, we aim high and strive to espouse the vision of excellence we promote.

As I contemplate the coming year, I can hear so many mentors offering sage advice: don’t let the good become the enemy of the perfect, pick one or two things to improve, add or change. I breathe and slow it down just a bit. I become a little less intensely focused on the details and find space to recall what it is that brought me here in the first place. It is a privilege and a joy to walk into the classroom and share with our students this journey of discovery and development. To be sure, teaching is some combination of art and science, a combination we all strive to balance. And it can be a chore. But it is also about passion: a desire to share what we know, what we are learning, what we love with our students.

Thus, our teaching can be a clear example of the Ignatian tradition of finding God in all things. Still, this is perhaps a most ephemeral attribute, one that easily fades into the daily grind and ever-expanding demands on time and attention. It is a focus on being that is all too easily blurred by the drive of doing. As I conclude my contemplation, I resolve to return here more often- to take time to simply breathe. To be more present and mindful. To see and share the joy. To remember that this journey is born of passion.

Reinert Center Welcomes New Graduate Assistants

The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning enthusiastically announces the newest members of our staff.

Graduate Assistants: Konnor Brennan and Kristin Broussard

Konnor is a graduate student in the Biology Department at Saint Louis University. Konnor earned his MS in Biology from Central Michigan University in 2017 where his research focused on classroom design and active learning techniques. Konnor now works in Dr. Elena Bray-Speth’s lab performing research on students’ use of conceptual models and evaluating the effectiveness of learning assistants. Konnor has experience teaching introductory biology labs for both majors and non-majors as well as teaching high school biology.

Kristin is a graduate student in SLU’s Experimental Psychology Doctoral Program (social concentration). Kristin’s experiences have included both research and teaching. She earned her MA in Social Psychology from the University of Northern Iowa in 2015 where she studied the effects of individual difference variables on prejudice and discrimination. Kristin joined SLU in 2015 and currently studies stereotyping and prejudice, with a special focus on attitudes toward transgender individuals. Kristin has a strong background in research on pedagogical practices and learning from her Bachelor’s program in Human Development. In addition to her research experiences, Kristin has taught sections of Foundations of Research Methods and Statistics and Social Psychology at SLU.

Graduate Assistants in the Center assist in the administration of the Certificate in University Teaching Skills (CUTS) program, conduct research on teaching and learning topics, consult with graduate students about teaching, conduct teaching observations, and assist Center staff with the implementation and assessment of programs.

We look forward to the contributions that Kristin and Konnor bring to all those the Reinert Center serves.

Themed Teaching: A Creative Strategy for Course Redesign

blessingby Elizabeth A. Gockel-Blessing, Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs, Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Health Sciences

Do you ever get tired of teaching your courses the same way year after year?  If so, join the club.  I am writing this post to share one example of how I redesigned what I consider to be my “flagship” (pun-intended) course, Medical Parasitology.

Circa 1998- I had been teaching this course for seven years.  The thought of teaching Medical Parasitology in a traditional way another time was just plain “yuk!” The time was right for a course redesign using out-of-the-box thinking.  All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head until I came upon this one: ‘What if I tied the content concepts to one idea (theme)? The course would then be taught interweaving this theme throughout.’  Hmmm, I thought, I might be on to something.

I wondered if this innovative approach has a name/definition.  I was pleased to learn that indeed it does.  Also known as themed teaching,

“thematic learning (often synonymous with thematic instruction) is an instructional method of teaching in which emphasis is given on choosing a specific theme for teaching one or many concepts.”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thematic_learning, Accessed 07/16/18).

So fittingly the next question to ponder was “what theme would work well with the course content?” During the “incubation phase” of my creative process, it occurred to me that since parasites are often contracted during worldwide travel, perhaps travel could be the theme.  The more I “incubated” (that is, thought) about it, the more ideas around the travel theme came to mind.  I settled on a personal favorite travel means- a cruise.   I started out small, incorporating just a few travel-themed components the first year.  Each year that followed, with the help of the students as noted below, I added new and adjusted existing ones.  Examples of some of the successful components incorporated into the course are as follows:

  • I inserted this phrase on the title page of the course syllabus as a teaser:

Royal Tapeworm Cruises “Voyage to the Intestines and Beyond!” 

  • Each cruiser (a.k.a., student) received a specially designed boarding pass to gain access into the course on the first day.
  • The ports of call corresponded to key areas in the world where the category of parasites being covered are known to exist.
  • Each cruiser selected the name of a parasite via lottery draw.  The cruiser then assumed the role of the selected parasite to complete select course assignments (see menus and captain’s cocktail party entries).
  • Daily menus were created that correspond to the ports of call and category of parasites being covered each day.  The menus were designed to provide cruisers with an opportunity to learn and review corresponding terminology.
  • The cruisers were responsible for creating a voyage newsletter written from the perspective of the parasites selected via lottery draw.  This activity was designed to serve as a review of parasite life cycles.
  • “At-sea” days were built into the schedule as days when cruisers learn about parasite specimen types, collection, processing, and examination.  Cruisers spent most of this time in the student laboratory.
  • Towards the end of the voyage, cruisers attended the Captain’s Parasite Cocktail Party dressed as the parasite they lottery drew (this activity served as review of morphologic structures and functions required for parasite identification).
  • Along the way cruisers created and participated in a plethora of parasite-designated category and course review games (Protozoa Twister, Ameba Jenga, and Parasite Pictionary, just to name few) and a plethora of other memory tools.  Each cohort of cruisers not only played already established games and memory tools designed by former cruisers, but also created new ones for themselves and future cruisers.

In all the years I theme-taught this course, no two years were the same. I found that by taking a themed-learning approach and building it over time, the redesigning of the course was not overwhelming but rather a great opportunity to redesign the course making “baby-step” adjustments.  My goal was to empower the cruisers to contribute to the evolving course.

Feedback from past cruisers has been very positive.  They loved the variety of activities and how they all connected to travel. By design, I did not put every activity in the course schedule.  This turned out to be a great, successful strategy. Numerous students over the years specifically commented that they were eager to attend each course session to see what “was next”.   By design, they never really knew the details of each activity. These cruisers liked the element of “surprise.”

Numerous remarks have been made about how cruisers were able to use memory tools learned via the theme-taught course to correctly answer quiz and exam questions and to adequately perform parasite testing in the clinical laboratory.

While I no longer teach this course, I have been able to channel the creativity used to create the parasitology themed-based learning environment into the design of other assigned courses with notable success.  It is a fresh and fun approach that can be tailored to course content, teaching style, and your comfort level. So, the next time you feel like your course is stagnant and wish to explore creative course redesign options, get creative and consider themed teaching. Bon voyage!