Survival Mode


Hey there. Remember me? I’m that crazy biology professor that used to blog on this site. I just survived the semester from H-E-double hockey sticks. Survived is a good word for it. I can’t say that I was the most inspired educator this Spring. Creativity and ingenuity kindof went out the classroom window. Instead, I relied heavily on old standbys and previous semesters’ work.

Let me give you some context. I was teaching two courses this semester. One that I have taught every semester since I began teaching, and a brand new prep (the subject of my last blog post in January). Teaching the new course was akin to being thrown into the deep end of a pool without floaties having just a rudimentary ability to swim. The person who taught the course before me didn’t give me much to build off of. She didn’t use a textbook and had not established a lab curriculum that I could easily follow. Basically, I had to start from scratch. This alone is intimidating, but I was up for the challenge.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s add in the weather. We live in Georgia. You may remember the the great Atlanta snowpocalypse of 2014. Fortunately, we live far enough from the city that we didn’t suffer through the horrible traffic; however, we had no less than four “snow” days at the beginning of the semester, two of which were days that we were scheduled for labs, which are hard to make up. I found myself making adjustments to the syllabus on the fly.

On top of all of it, I was incredibly sick for the first half of the semester. There was the stomach flu, an awful head cold, a sinus infection, the stomach flu again, pinkeye, a crazy rash all over my body, and oh did I mention that I’m pregnant with baby #3? Morning sickness is enough to suck any sort of motivation from your soul, but add all the illness on top of it and I was a bit of a zombie in the classroom. I found myself just praying that I could get through the semester without doing irreparable damage. Blogging just didn’t happen.

The one thing that I can be thankful for is that my microbiology course is so well organized at this point that I could let it mostly drive itself. I had all of the lectures already recorded and posted on YouTube. The lab curriculum was well established. I could copy homework assignments from the previous semester and I simply followed the schedule that I had been working to perfect the last several years. Am I completely satisfied with the way it turned out? Nope. There are lots of little changes that I want to make here and there, but this was not the semester to do it.

Now that it is all over I am taking some time to reflect and reevaluate. Summer is great for that. I’m also planning for the future. The next six months or so promise to be interesting. Coming soon, I will be teaching microbiology again during a short, 4-week summer term. Right now I am trying to figure out how to fit 16 weeks of material into that small space. This Fall will be another unique situation. Baby #3 is due at the beginning of September, which means I will be taking most of the semester off. I will be leaving my courses in the hands of one of the best micro instructors in our department, but the logistics of course sharing should be interesting at best.

All of that was to get you up to speed on what’s been going on with me and to explain my absence. I’m hoping that I can return to blogging with renewed enthusiasm now that I have a little bit of breathing room. Well, at least until September, but I’m trying not to think about that right now.

Posts From InspiredToEducate.NET

How to Avoid The Technology Trap


Technology is supposed to make out lives easier right? In many ways it has, but we must remember that technology is only a tool and it can be used for good or for bad. You can probably think of several ways, right off the top of your head, that technology has improved your life. Smart phones help us to be more organized. Facebook connects us with long lost friends. Online banking makes balancing a checkbook easy. But there are also ways that technology has negatively impacted our lives as well.

The first thing I think of is automated phone systems. Hours of my life have been lost in the virtual mazes of the customer service systems of my banks and insurance companies. Another example is what I like to call the “GPS effect”. This is when people rely so heavily on their technology that their forget how to think for themselves. I once gave a family member simple directions to the store near our house (less than 2 miles- two right turns and then you’re there). Instead of following my directions he got into the car and put the name of the store into his GPS. Unfortunately, it did not direct him to the correct store and we got a call an hour later saying he was completely lost. SMH. Finally, technology can make us feel connected virtually, without truly connecting with anyone. We can exist in a virtual world without experiencing the amazing things going on in front of our eyes. As a parent I must be particularly conscious of my tendency to plug in when I’m around my kids. They are only young once and I need to unplug my eyes from my phone and plug in my heart to my kids.

As a teacher I can see many ways in which technology can improve my classroom, but as in everyday life there are pitfalls that we must avoid. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are mistakes we can make as teachers and some ways that I think we can avoid them.

1) Disconnecting from assessment. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately. There are lots of tools that we can use to make grading and assessment easier. Some are old and some are new. Scantrons have been around as long as I can remember. When I started teaching I immediately starting using scantron testes because I was overwhelmed by the shear number of exams I had to grade. I just have to feed the tests into the machine and it calculates the grade and the class average and gives me a report on which questions the class struggled with. The problem with this approach is that I don’t see how each student answers the questions. I don’t know if they simply got mixed up between two similar concepts or if they just wildly guessed. I can spend time analyzing each exam, but it is easy to just spit back grades at my students without paying attention to what the grades mean. This can happen with all types of technology- classroom response systems, online homework programs, multiple choice tests, etc. We must be intentional about looking at our student assessment and using it as a guide in the classroom, making adjustments to our classes as necessary, not just as benchmarks as we proceed through the semester.

2) Disconnecting from the students. In this age of email and electronic communication it is easy to walk in to the classroom, lecture and never actually talk to my students. This world is already so impersonal. Let’s not make it worse. Students who feel cared about will be more engaged in the material and more likely to succeed. Learn your students names. I average about 100 students a semester. It takes me most of the term to learn their names, but I know that they appreciate it when I do. Talk to them about things outside the class. Get to class a little early. Spend five minutes talking to students about their other classes, their families, politics, whatever they are interested in that moment. Get to know them a little and let them get to know you. We can use technology to do this as well. Set up discussion boards in Blackboard/WebCT/Desire2Learn etc that allow students to introduce themselves and create a sense of community.

3) Letting technology be a distraction.  I know that I have done this. I’ve been excited to try a new tool, but haven’t completely learned in before introducing it into the classroom. I’ve been known to spend 5 minutes at the front of the room tinkering with the computer. I went to a seminar last week where the presenter said that he has a 90 second rule. If he can’t get technology to work after 90 seconds, he proceeds without it. I think that is a good rule of thumb. I think it is also important for us to learn the best ways to use a particular tool before trying it out. Take the time (I know, who has the time these days) to really train yourself on a new tool. It will pay off. The better prepared you are, the more you will get out of using a particular technology. Again, it’s not what you use, but how you use it.

What are some pitfalls that you see with using technology in the classroom and how do you avoid them?

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Want to build team collaboration, communication, and productivity? Make work visible!

A powerful technique for building team collaboration, communication and productivity is to make the work very visible.    You could create a Google document with a big list of tasks and share it with your team.   Simple list applications are not always designed for team speed.   In the ideal case, I want to be able to glance over a project board and see our progress.    We are naturally visual creatures and can find patterns very quickly with our eyes.    In a world without computers, agile coaches promote the idea of using white boards with post it notes.  (i.e. Kanban boards)   They are simple and effective for radiating project tasks.   The tasks boards can be organized in a manner that’s logical to the team.   I tend to favor simplicity.

Here’s a sample KanBan Board.

Sample Kanban Board

photo credit: talios via photopin cc

While these kinds of boards are popular with software teams, the idea of radiating task items from a board is broadly applicable.    A busy family can organize their major goals for a week on a KanBan board.   Teachers using project based learning can encourage their students to keep their project status visible and encourage students to communicate regularly on progress.   A blogger might use this to track ideas and progress for posts.

In the past week, I came across a delightful tool that I had to share with my readers called LeanKit.   As a promoter of Scrum, I found it very easy to create a board that would work for my team.   The tool has other board configurations for personal productivity, sales, project management, and more.   Check out the video below.

I believe this tool does a great job keeping work items organized while enabling the team to quickly assess status at a glance.    It’s really awesome that you can use this tool for 25 team members for free.

I hope it helps you in leading your project based learning efforts, agile projects, or businesses.


Related blog posts




Reducing stress by keeping commitments and ideas organized in MindMeister


I am a big fan of keeping my commitments and “todo” ideas out of my head.   By placing these ideas in an organized system, I feel less stress.   At home and work, I organize my commitments and ideas using a tool called MindMeister, a web based mind mapping tool.    I love this tool since it helps me creatively brain storm, but I can keep my thinking organized.    If I need to improve the organization of my ideas, it’s very simple to move those ideas around.

Benefits of MindMeister:

  • The tool can be used for creative brain storming, project tracking, prioritizing features of products, and outlining papers.
  • Since the tool is web based, I can use it from Linux, Mac, and PC.
  • The tool can import ideas from FreeMind, another open source MindMapping tool.
  • MindMaps can be shared.   Suppose you have three of your friends looking at a MindMeister mindmap for planning a party.  As you add ideas to the mindmap, all of your friends see your changes instantly. (This is a fun feature!)
  • Idea nodes in the MindMap can be decorated with notes, icons, files, etc.
  • You can enjoy this product for free if you limit yourself to three MindMaps.
  • The tool is available through Google Docs as well.

Check out

Click the icon below to get your FREE MindMeister account.

Mind Maps



13 ideas for planning your online collaboration tools

Online teaching software

Take a moment to review Courosa’s setup for a grad school class.


As a professor teaching an online or blended class, one has many tools at your disposal to enable your students to collaborate online. Ultimately, one may consider encouraging collaboration in an online class to engage students through project based learning or to encourage a community of study.

As mentioned in our previous blog post, my wife and I are researching strategies for planning her biology and microbiology classes to move to an online format. We continued our study of materials from the University Of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. In the white paper entitled TEACHING IN THE CLOUD: LEVERAGING ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOLS TO ENHANCE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT ,  Chad Hershock and Mika LaVaque-Manty share lessons learned from the use of online collaboration tools used by University of Michigan. They provide the following motivations for introducing collaboration into the classroom:

• “…students demonstrated significantly greater learning gains, in terms of recall of basic knowledge and critical thinking, when collaborating than when working independently.”
• “Students also reported greater motivation and persistence regarding problem-solving tasks when working collaboratively.”

If you are also planning on teaching online or in a blended course, I would encourage you to review their report. The authors provide case studies from various types of professors. We have provided a check list of planning items mentioned in the report. We hope you find this summary helpful.

Design your online collaboration tools with a purpose
1.  Why will your students want to use the online collaboration tool? Is it easy to use? Have you designed incentive(s) for the students to collaborate? Do they earn points on their class grade for their participation?

2.  Consider encouraging your students to publish their writing and work online. In many cases, public publication of school work on a blog helps the students feel their assignment has meaning. Hopefully, they invest more effort into the quality of their content since the work will be seen by their peers and anyone on the Internet.

Ideas to make things easy for you and your students
3.  Consider time intensive start-up costs: how long will it take to load student accounts or profiles into your online collaboration tools?

4.  Does your school provide technical support for your online collaboration tool?

5.  If your school does not provide technical support for a tool, are you comfortable with supporting your students?

6.  As a school, consider establishing common online collaboration tools to help reduce the number of applications the students need to learn.

7. As a school, consider establishing tools so students have a “single sign-on.” Students get frustrated remembering many passwords.

8. Are your online tools usable and accessible to all students? (plan for students with disabilities)

9. Not all students are technology savvy. Plan tool orientation sessions as required. (pre-recorded or otherwise)

10. Test-drive online collaborative tools from the student perspective.

Details to provide clarity for rules of collaboration
11.  As the students collaborate, encourage your students to agree to a code of conduct. You might consider designing the code of conduct together with your students in the first week of class.

12.  Do the students have a clear understanding of “done” for online collaboration assignments?

13.  Protect the privacy of your student. Design assignments so that students can publish their work under an alias if requested.

At University of Michigan, the teaching staff has used products from Google, Box, and Piazza. Make sure to review their summary chart detailing tools implemented and their teaching purpose.

Google, Box, Piazza at UofM


Related blog posts:

Resistance is Futile.

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The internet and technology are here to stay. I firmly believe that as teachers we must choose to embrace them or we will be left out in the cold. The landscape of education is constantly changing. We are called to be agile and adaptable. Still, I continue to encounter faculty members that refuse to adopt new technologies and teaching methods in the classroom. I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you why I can sometimes be resistant.

1)      Time. It takes time to learn something new and to build new curriculum. For example, right now I am trying to find time to learn how to use Camtasia. We downloaded it over a week ago and I still haven’t found the time to sit down and play with it. I have every intention of implementing video podcast lectures next semester, but I have to make time in between advising students, grading papers, and writing exams. I would venture to say that time is my primary barrier to adopting new technologies.

2)      Lack of inertia. Sometimes as educators we like to coast along. We put a lot of time and energy into developing lectures and classroom activities. Once we find an approach that works well we have the tendency to relax a little as we get settled into a routine. In can be very hard to find the motivation to push outside of that comfort zone.  I have spent many long hours building my course curriculum. My first semester teaching was incredibly stressful and I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. Now that I have taught the same two courses for a couple of semesters, I finally feel like I am finding my stride. Each time I try something new, it disrupts my rhythm and introduces new stresses. Personally, I find a certain amount of change necessary to prevent boredom, but I can see how attractive it can be to just teach the same course every term without changing. It can be easy to just coast along.

3)      Fear of failure. Trying something new is exciting but it is also a little nerve racking, no matter the context. You never know if something new is going to work fantastically or fall completely flat. You can run the risk of preventing learning rather promoting it. I don’t want technology to be a distraction. As an undergraduate student, I had a biochemistry instructor that was big into student directed and project based learning. She was very eager to try out new teaching methods. Unfortunately, I don’t think I learned much about biochemistry that semester. I did, however, learn how to code in HTML. This experience is always in the back of my mind as I consider using a new approach in my classes. I want to be sure that I am not making the same mistakes. Sometimes I think this limits my openness to new ideas.

The traditional lecture format has worked for centuries, why change?  Because our students have changed. The world has changed. We must change too. We must overcome our own doubts and shortcomings to best serve our students.

Related posts:

  1. 7 Strategies For Planning Your Online Course
  2. 7 ideas for creating a student centered learning environment by Paul Andersen
  3. 5 ways to get more results in your teaching environment.
  4. How can YouTube support great teachers? Can we flip education?
  5. Organization Before Innovation

7 Strategies For Planning Your Online Course

Online teaching software

Take a moment to review Courosa’s setup for a grad school class.

For many institutions of higher education, online degrees provide a means of increasing access to education, reaching out to “non-traditional” learners who often work, and provide a platform for innovations in teaching. Whether you teach face-to-face or online, the mission is still the same. Educators want to engage their students, teach them to be lifelong learners and communicate with clarity. How do you do this without increasing your work load by two or three times?

My wife and I started this blog to give ourselves a forum to study how we can combine our passions for technology and education. My wife, a professor of Biology, has a professional goal teaching her classes online. She, however, has four main concerns for teaching online:

  • What is the time commitment for teaching an online class?
  • What software should I start to learn to teach online?
  • How do I assess performance in an online class?
  • How do I communicate complex ideas and topics online effectively?

We decided to research strategies and encountered a paper entitled “Introduction to teaching online” by Erping Zhu, Patricia Payette, and Deborah DeZure.   This work published by the “Center for Research on Learning and Teaching” at University of Michigan provides a brief introduction to some of the complexities of teaching online.
For simplicity, we will provide a summary of the major tips from the paper:

1. Start with your goals: During your class design, document your course goals and outcomes. Based on your goals, design your class strategies and use of technology.

2. Experiment in your face-to-face classes first: If you are interested in learning to teach online, start to experiment with technology and collaboration tools in your current face-to-face classes.  What technology will be user friendly to your students?   What technology fits your personality?

3. Design your assessment strategy: Design how you want to assess your students online. For example, a student can easily cheat on a multiple choice test. The authors recommend teachers assigning projects that force students to
document answers supported by reasoning. In other words, students should be encouraged to provide answers and document why their answer is correct.

4. Request training from your school: In your school, consult your leadership regarding opportunities to take formal classes on teaching online. Teaching online requires a change in technology usage and engagement strategies. All schools launching online classes should support their faculty with training materials.

5. All students are not technology savvy: In your course design, connect students with orientation materials, technology support contact information, and tutorials. In the ideal case, teachers should not be left to support all course “help desk” questions. Students, without a doubt, will have challenges with the technology tools of your course. Connect your students with your school’s official technology support help desk to help reduce your email load.

6. Know your options for teaching with the cloud:  You may also be interested in reviewing a more recent paper(2011) from Univ. of Michigan entitled “TEACHING IN THE CLOUD: LEVERAGING ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOLS TO ENHANCE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT.”   It provides more detailed comments on modern cloud services that teachers can use.

7. Teach well:  The authors challenge teachers to re-think the design of their courses when you teach online.   It’s ok to re-invent yourself.   It’s pretty easy to take existing face-to-face material and simply do the same thing using online mediums.   They, however, argue that this strategy is less successful in most cases.


I really appreciated the authors contrasting three approaches for teaching an online course

Teacher-centered(limited interaction)

  • This approach can reach a large number of students. This approach does not encourage collaboration or interaction.
  • Assignments focus on individual student efforts through reading, papers, etc.
  • E-mail level: ~20 email questions per week

Student-centered(high interaction)

  • This approach favors smaller class sizes and students who are highly motivated.
  • Class break down Idea: 40% discussion, 20% report, 40% final paper
  • Teacher starts class by recommending readings. For the first few weeks of class, the teacher leads discussion of readings. In the later seasons of the class, students are encouraged to facilitate class seminar sessions.

Mixed approach of teacher-centered and student-centered

  • The student/teacher e-mail complexity will be higher for this case.
  • The authors describe details regarding how student-centered and teacher-centered approaches can be mixed. Please see the paper for details.



What other tips could you share with the community regarding teaching an online or blended course?






Our Top 14 Blog Posts on Teaching, Productivity, and Leadership

Country road
Top 14 blog posts on teaching, productivity, and leadership since 6/30/2012
  1. 5 ways to get more results in your teaching environment.
  2. Why is perspective critical to leading and teaching?
  3. Michael’s Free Book Index
  4. How to reduce stress by keeping work organized using EverNote
  5. 5 fun learning experiences with Legos
  6. Jennifer Pahika challenges us to “code a better government”
  7. Simon Sinek: How great leaders and teachers inspire action?
  8. How do you do more with less?
  9. Redefining Success
  10. Reduce your stress level with keeping a plan of awesome
  11. 5 reasons to love Khan academy for computer science
  12. Feedback is the breakfast of champions
  13. 5 inspirational educators discovered through #EdCampAtl conference
  14. Boldly going where no one has gone before:



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Why is perspective critical to leading and teaching?

Sun glasses

In our quest to create positive change in the world, I have been inspired to reflect upon the idea that people see the world in different ways. We all wear metaphorical “sun glasses.” These glasses color the way we see and act in the world. The book “Seven habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey argues that our “sun glasses” are colored by experience and nature. In a teaching or leadership situation, I would encourage us to consider trying to look at the world through the “sun glasses” of our students or team members.

Teachers and leaders need to pay attention to perspective

Sarah and I are big Dave Ramsey fans. We were first introduced to Dave’s organization through “Financial Peace University.”   As my professional life in software development has turned toward leadership, Sarah bought me the book “Entreleadership.”   In this course, Dave Ramsey reveals how he and his team lead and inspire their company. This book and related social media content have been life changing. Even though it’s a book targeted at business, I feel all professional educators, non-profit leaders, and influencers should consider reading this very practical book.   I also recommend that you check out their podcast.   The information will change you.

I had the great pleasure to attend a one day conference on Entreleadership yesterday. ( see Twitter activity)  Chris LoCurto, a VP with Dave’s company,  shared that a basic understanding of personality styles can help us communicate better with our team.  The team can be a group of students, a team of engineers, or people who might purchase a product from us.   From a student perspective, teacher’s seek to sell their students the product called the “love of life-long learning.”

 How do I learn about the world view of others?

Chris LoCurto reviewed the “DISC Assessment” tool used at Dave Ramsey’s organization.   I think it’s really cool that all team members at Dave’s company have their personality style posted publically.   This helps the organization communicate more effectively since information creators become aware of the world view of their target audience.

I would encourage you to visit the following resources to learn more:

Details on DISC Assessment Dimensions

  • 40% of us are Steady(S)
  • 25% of us are Compliant(C)
  • 25% of us are Influencing(I)
  • 10% of us are Dominant(D)

DISC assessment

Summary of personality dimensions from

  • Drive (D): People who score high in the intensity of the “D” styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low “D” scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High “D” people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.
  • Influence (I): People with high “I” scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with low “I” scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.
  • Steadiness(S): People with high “S” styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. High “S” individuals are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. Low “S” intensity scores are those who like change and variety. People with low “S” scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.
  • Compliance(C): People with high “C” styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High “C” people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, and tactful. Those with low “C” scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and unconcerned with details. How can this information help in your family relationships?  How can this information help you in a teaching context?

If you knew the “sun glasses” that existed in your family, workplace or class room, how would you use this information?   How can our students and team members use this information?


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Feedback is the breakfast of champions

Feedback is the breakfast of champions

I am constantly working to improve my course design and my teaching methods. I do my best to keep up with the current trends in education and I hold myself to high standards. I work hard to provide the best learning experience that I can. Given that I am early in my teaching career, I know there is a lot of room for improvement. My classroom experience to this point is limited and I rely heavily on feedback from others. This feedback takes many forms.
Classroom visits. Every semester my supervisor visits my classroom. Unlike some people, I look forward to these evaluations. I truly value the opinion of someone with MUCH more experience than me.

Show me yours, I’ll show you mine. I also seek out feedback from my peers by comparing notes with other professors that teach the same courses that I do. This is particularly useful when trying to work out the logistics of a new technique or lesson plan. It also allows me to get an accurate assessment of the rigor of my courses.

Student outcomes.  My primary goal is to guide each of my students to an acceptible level of mastery of the subject matter. I can use my exam grades, homework assignments, etc to assess how well my students understand the material. In an ideal world all of them would receive A’s because I’m just that good of a teacher. It doesn’t quite work out
that way. I truly want my students to learn. I’ve come to accept that not all of them have that same goal. I’ve stopped getting upset and emotional when the class doesn’t perform where I want them to.

Student evaluations. Every semester my students fill out the standardized course evaluations provided by the college. I don’t receive the results until well into the next semester. For the most part, these have been overwhelmingly positive and there is very little constructive feedback. In an attempt to gather more useful input in a
more timely fashion I put together my own anonomous online surveys with two simple questions:

“What are three things that you like about the class?”

“What aspects of the class would you like to see improved? (2 or 3 things)”


I use GoogleDrive to put together the surveys, I email a link to all of my students and the results are collected in a spreadsheet. Although not all of my students participate, the responses I do receive are incredibly useful. The criticism is more constructive and thorough than what I receive on the end of semester evaluations. This form of immediate, midstream feedback allows me to make minor adjustments in my courses that make a big difference in terms of student satisfaction. I think my students appreciate that I make an effort to listen to their needs.

What other forms of feedback do you rely on?





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