Comment on Thompson Video: Human Touch

I viewed the John Thompson webinar recording last night and really enjoyed it. Brent, Greg, and Rachael are masters at creating an environment that’s more like friends sitting around a table chatting over coffee, and Thompson has an easygoing style that’s more conversational than lecture. Lori, a participant, asked some great questions. The following are points that rang true for me. The graphics are from the talk.


Teaching online literally means communicating with students 24/7. Obviously not every minute of every day but logging on to review and respond in email, discussion forums, course sites, etc. throughout the day, everyday. Thompson apparently gives his cellphone number to students, but this is a practice that I wouldn’t adopt for myself.

When he sent an eblast to the class, a student responded, assuming that it was a private message to him alone. This happens often, even when the “to” line suggests otherwise. A purely online phenomenon. LOL!


Depth of comments varies, and Thompson found that, in grad courses, student responses were longer and more thoughtful than in undergrad courses. I also find variations in type of course and student class levels and age in a given cohort.

In response to a question about peer-to-peer learning, he said that in one of his classes, students said they learned just as much from peers as from the teacher. In my mind, this is one of the most important goals of online learning.


Re collaborative group work, he said that 90-95% of his students don’t want it. I’ve found exactly the same.

This quote is perhaps the most important in his presentation: “Anytime you go away from that 24/7 flexibility, you’re at odds with what the students really like to do.” I refer to this as the anytime-anywhere advantage of online learning. For him, this means that, for online courses, set office hours and F2F optional sessions don’t work. He had zero drop-ins with the former and only 25-50% participation with the latter.

Furthermore, his experience with hybrid (aka blended) teaching didn’t work out. He and his students decided that they “would never do that again.” The fact that it was an intense summer course might have been a critical factor. However, this was my experience, too, with full semester hybrid courses. Part way through, we decided to move all meetings online. I kept the F2F sessions going for drop-ins, but few if any showed up, and none hung around for the entire session. I never did hybrids after that.


Some students never read emails. I now use Twitter to signal important email, both eblasts and private mail. For example, “John, check your UH email for an urgent message from me.”

Thompson’s comments on “trickery” hit home. He inserted an offer of bonus points in some of his email and discussion posts for a rough gauge on whether his messages were getting through. All they had to do was email him back within a certain period of time. He says that he’s always surprised at how low the returns are. He mentions 50% as a general figure.

I, too, have been embedding “tests” in some of the readings, announcements, and guidelines, and the 50% result is generally true. Within the text, I embed a brief statement asking students to email me, within a specified period of time, a keyword in the subject header and leave the content blank. I record an “X” for each response. The number of Xs for a student is a pretty good indicator of how well s/he will do in an assignment and in the course. I also use these reading test scores to determine my response in student drafts and email requests for help. I know when to say “carefully review the guidelines” and when to provide additional explanations.

Thompson didn’t spend much time talking about course design as an indirect measure of human touch. For example, he said that when it comes to explanations, more is better than less. I disagree. All too often, more simply expands confusion, and even more will expand confusion exponentially. The key is simplicity and clarity, and posting key information in only one location and linking to it as often as necessary from varied pages, sites, and media. Students shouldn’t see variations of the same info in different places. This forces them to review it multiple times to discern the differences and leaves them confused about which is the most complete or up-to-date. A well-designed course (including writing style features such as voice) also communicates the human touch of caring.

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5 Responses to Comment on Thompson Video: Human Touch

  1. Rachael says:

    Great recap, Jim! I definitely agree with peer-to-peer learning. I always tell my students that they will learn just as much from me (or more) from each other. I’m only one person after all.

    Regarding collaborative work, I’m only assuming and speaking from my own experiences, that students don’t like it because of issues that go along with it – scheduling, getting along with others, compromising, producing something together, etc. It may be a “pain” for students (and maybe some unnecessary “drama”) but it doesn’t mean it isn’t good for learning. We face these challenges everyday in the “real-world” and by having students do collaborative work and work in teams they are getting good practice. I think it’s just stressful because their grade depends on their work and team work could compromise that for them.

    That’s an interesting “test” you do with your students which gives you a better idea about them. I like that!

    I agree with you on keeping things simple. On my course website I have parts of my syllabus including technical how-tos, assignment instructions, etc. on webpages so I always re-link those in my email announcements. The information lives in one place and I just reference/link back to it. It also comes in handy when students ask questions about something; I can easily copy/paste the link or copy/paste the instructions back to them instead of composing a brand new message.

    I have run into problems before when giving too much explanation because it gets too confusing or overwhelming. When it comes to assignments, I want my students to have creativity and choice in how they want to do the assignment instead of directing their learning. But I think it comes with balance because there has to be some guidelines, and of course, an outcome, for assessment purposes. I guess the tricky part is in finding that balance and in facilitating rather than directing their learning.

    • JimS says:

      Hi Rachael. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

      Collaborative group work is one area that I think is critical, but, as you say, there may be issues in formal classroom settings. In grad school, I hated group projects because there were always a few who didn’t do their share and left others feeling bummed.

      But one type of collaboration really worked, and those were the ones that we formed on our own, informally. These were study groups that we formed naturally, out of class, with other students who shared the same enthusiasm and sense of purpose and responsibility. We met in fun and odd places and prepared cheat sheets for one another on required and key optional readings as well as on specific topics that we divvied up.

      By working together, we learned more efficiently and effectively. But the key was always trust and accountability — or the old-fashioned word, “honor.” We trusted one another to do all we could — and then some — to make sure that everyone had the best cheat sheets. In fact, we were teaching one another, serving as teachers sometimes and students at others. The hats were fluid. And we learned so much — not just about the subject matter but about the power of collaboration. It was fun, and we bonded. Even if we don’t see one another for years, the bond will always remain.

      We never for a moment considered this cheating. We realized deep down that this was the way rational people approached steep learning tasks and that this form of informal learning as networking is probably part of our DNA as human beings — or living organisms. At its most demanding and successful, I believe learning is collaborative in just this way.

      On the one hand, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the key ingredient is choice. We work best with people we choose to work with. In a class of 20 or even 50, we may not be able to find the right fits. But in a class of 150,000 — well, probably. But how? What about a class of millions? Again, HOW do we find one another?

      It sounds so chaotic, but I think we do find one another, implying that there’s order in the chaos if only we look hard enough or just trust that it’s there.

      In the internet, the web, there’s a kind of invisible force that allows individuals with like minds to connect, and although they may be isolated in their physical geographical locations, they become collaborators in the virtual world.

      On the other hand, organizations can build for maximum collaboration by selecting members based on certain traits. My guess is that this is how the most successful organizations work, e.g., NASA, athletic teams, ensembles, etc. Still, these “forced” collaborations are probably inferior to those that are self-selected.

      Collaborative learning, when successful, is the most memorable. Working together to accomplish a shared goal — doesn’t get better than that.

      But how do we work this magic into the classroom?

  2. Rachael says:

    Hi Jim, thank you for sharing your thoughts on collaborative learning. I, too, experienced both really great and poor collaborative team work. I generally enjoy working in collaborative teams because of the collective output we produce that is far better than what any one person could’ve thought of or done and I love the energy and the connections made between the members, what we are doing, and in our learning.

    But as you said, the challenge is in how can we get students to work collaboratively… by choice. Students may not have the same learning goals or ambition or maybe even skills/experience to work collaboratively. It’s so varied.

    In this MOOC we are presented with the same situation, but by sharing our thoughts we can find like minds or people we are interested in connecting with, by choice. I can definitely see how having choice dedicates me to being involved and following through because I choose to do so.

    I would love to know how we can get students to “choose” to work collaboratively (despite any challenges). The only thing I have been able to do is have some warm-up learning activities to “set the stage” about team work, discuss their experiences, get their buy-in, and then facilitate the process ensuring them along the way that it’s not all going to be perfect but that good or bad, we learn from the experiences that make us even better than we started out to be. While some may appreciate the team work, I know there are students who are just doing what they need to to get the grade.

    I’ve never tried letting students choose who they wanted to team with probably because my teams get formed in the beginning of the semester so students don’t really know each other besides what they read on the introduction forum. Perhaps I should find a way to allow them to at least choose who they want to work with. I could see though, how the ambitious students may gravitate together leaving the not-so-motivated together. Is that setting them up to fail?? Maybe they need that as a learning experience?

  3. JimS says:

    Hi, Rachael. This is a tough one. How to teach all students to value collaboration?

    I spent my first six years in education teaching English at a tough public high school in Leeward Oahu. It was the kind of school where all hell broke loose every once in a while and the entire campus erupted in fistfights, resulting in dozens of squad cars with sirens wailing converging on campus. It usually took hours to quiet things down, and often a few students were seriously injured, requiring ambulances. Interestingly, these were never reported in the media.

    I had just completed a BA in English and an EdM in secondary ed and chose this campus because the English department was inaugurating a new quarterly elective system for students in grades 10-12. It would be an opportunity for me to test the theory that choice mattered.

    To make a long story short, one of the courses I created was called Sports Reading, and my goal was to turn primarily boys into better readers. The course filled, and I taught two sections. I decided to throw out conventional approaches to reading and created a gaming atmosphere.

    I asked the students to select, via secret ballots, four students to serve as leaders. Interestingly, their choices weren’t always what I expected. In retrospect, I realized that they chose not necessarily the strongest or smartest but the fairest and most compassionate. (Not bad qualities for selecting teachers, too.) Next, I met with the leaders and asked them to draft players from the class. They jankenpoed to decide order, and the rule was that all students would have to be on a team. Their first task, as a team, was to come up with a team name.

    I then printed and handed out Sports Dollars to each team, and most decided to give each a fair share. The understanding was that each student’s final grade would be determined by the amount of dollars he had at the end of the quarter. (I say “he” because all the students were male — that first quarter.)

    Every class session comprised a set of games, and each game resulted in an exchange of sports dollars between individuals and teams. The games pitted individuals against individuals or entire team against entire team. I paid out prize dollars, and the teams were also required to put up certain amounts for betting.

    They competed in vocabulary and facts from the different types of readings. At higher levels and for higher stakes, they competed in ideas and interpretations, analysis and implications. In some cases, reading was timed so that speed became a factor. The rule was that every member had to play. Thus, teams had to decide on different roles for different people, based on strengths and weaknesses. Each player’s performance impacted the entire team: win, and the team wins; lose, and the team loses. In some games, the opposing team could pick on players from other teams for one-on-one challenges. Thus, everyone had to be as proficient as possible in all the different games. My role was primarily referee and judge.

    Also, if team members were absent or late, the team would be assessed so many penalty dollars.

    The outcome surprised me. The teams bonded and worked collaboratively. Each member was valued and contributed to the team effort. Attendance was nearly perfect! (A miracle by itself!) The difference was that they were doing it for one another, for their team, not for me. The rules for grades were right up front — in the dollars they earned and not hidden away in the teacher’s head. Excellence in performance was immediately rewarded with high-fives from peers — not by the teacher in his secret gradebook.

    At the end of the quarter, in every team, what I saw astounded me. Members decided to share what they had so that everyone emerged with the same grade. This meant that those with dollars enough for A’s settled for B’s to help teammates who would have otherwise earned C’s or D’s. It seemed the grade was secondary to the friendships they formed.

    In time, the district office decided to replace our quarterly elective system with a programed learning approach purchased from a for-profit — to ensure a standard approach in the entire district. I decided to leave and return to grad school to eventually teach at the college level.

    Did the students improve their reading? I didn’t use a standardized reading pre- and post-test, but I had a far better measure right in front of me, day in and day out: The class and I could see how well everyone could perform on reading tasks when their learning meant something. That “something” was peer approval. And I can honestly say that everyone got better as the quarter progressed — motivated by teammates’ esteem and not the teacher’s.

    How does this answer your question? I’m not sure, but I think the lesson here is that collaboration requires “real” consequences and “real” responsibility and power to determine how a team will function and how its success will be measured. Every member has to feel not only accepted but “liked” by his teammates, and not just for his personality but for his ability to contribute, too.

    The next quarter, a few girls signed up for the class, but guys were usually the majority.

  4. Wow, what a story!! I love your creative (authentic) gaming approach to improve reading and the results that came out of it. It really shows the power in collaboration. When done right, it sets optimum conditions for learning and we learn and perform naturally, not in a contrived test-driven way. Sad to hear it got replaced!

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