How to Get to the Deep End – Engaging Activities

Instructional Design

I remember when Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows came out in June. My blogroll teemed with posts from those in higher ed debating the book’s premise that the internet is changing the way we think. More specifically, Carr suggests that the internet is compromising our ability to think deeply and focus extensively.

I’ve heard versions of this argument (or warning, as some may interpret it) since grad school, and have experienced first-hand the compulsive Facebooking, headline-skimming, and multi-tasking it portends. Sometimes reading an article leads down a rabbit hole of endless links; other times it takes as long as hitting “Ctrl + T” to forget what to do next.

But I have not lost all hope. There are plenty of activities that I engage in that I can’t be distracted from. I don’t tweet while running; I don’t email while cooking; I don’t text while sharing a meal with friends; I don’t skip around chapters while reading a good book. These activities, meaningful and engaging to me, still encourage presence, focus, and creativity, and I gladly put down my smart phone long enough to participate.

My anec-data (sample size: me) suggests the internet hasn’t changed how we think, but how we think while we do certain tasks. My level of engagement with an activity determines how distractable I am, not my internet-addled brain. If a task is appropriately interesting and challenging, I tend to not check my phone or email or Facebook. But if a task isn’t the right mix of that cocktail, then my mind does indeed wander. Further, I would bet that my mind wanders no more than it did before the prevalence of the internet (otherwise known as my college internship years); my wanderlust simply has an easy outlet now.

I propose that most activities can be mapped on axes of easy to challenging and boring to interesting, and that those in the sweet spot of challenging and interesting are immune to “the shallows.” Here’s how I’d map a few personal tasks on a graph:


  • Easy & Interesting: This quadrant is truly “the shallows” for me. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, but has my attention. In this space, I watch TV while Facebooking while following links until I OD on multitasking.
  • Easy & Boring: The easy and boring quadrant holds many of those tasks that should be easy to complete, but lack of focus makes them time- and energy-consuming. I’m always trying to figure out how to talk on the phone or listen to music while cleaning, so it takes extra long to get it done, but requires minimal thought.
  • Challenging & Boring: The boring but challenging quadrant is where I do a LOT of procrastinating. I will do anything before tackling the tasks in this space. The easy and boring tasks are downright sexy compared to these (yes, cleaning is my favorite procrastinating activity).
  • Challenging & Interesting: The interesting and challenging space is comprised of tasks that require thought, creativity, and offer enough challenge so I don’t look for input elsewhere. I bet Vygotsky would love this zone.

Students in the Shallows?

For those in higher ed who are frustrated with students “in the shallows”, perhaps it’s worth evaluating what you are asking students to do, and if it really is worth their attention away from Facebook. If I were a student today, these common instructional activities would map out like this for me:


  • Discussion forums: Online discussions can be fruitful, but they can also very quickly be reduced to “how many times do I have to post to get credit?” Thought-provoking questions and good facilitation can help, but expect that the forum thread isn’t the only discussion the student will be participating in at one time.
  • Multiple-choice quizzes:  Multiple-choice quizzes rarely do more than serve as a reading check for the instructor, which may have a role in the course. But when you consider how challenging it is to write good, fair quiz questions, and how easy it is for students to hit a radial button, no matter their mastery of the content, you have to consider how much weight quizzes should have in assessing learning.
  • Writing essays. I say this with regret, as a former English teacher – students don’t like writing essays. And many are not good at it, despite years of “practice” with the five-paragraph essay. There’s unquestionably a need to teach and assess student communication skills, but the formal academic essay is only one tool to achieve that end, arguably one that lacks relevance in the real world.
  • Making videos. Video, like the essay, is simply another communication tool, but one that encourages students to communicate more naturally (speaking) and to think creatively. To make a good video, one has to make use of a range of skills (technical, communication, organizational and design skills, to name a few), which creates more opportunity for diverse students to excel.

If we are indeed living in the shallows of information more and more, there are still ways to get to the deep end through meaningful engagement. Educators have the chance (and the  responsibility) to be the safe vessels that carry students into deeper waters, but the old way of doing things is not going to get them there. Perhaps educators, too, need a life vest before jumping off the safe ledge of lectures and exams into the murkier depths of collaborative and project-based learning, but dive we must. Otherwise, this kiddie pool will get overcrowded, and we won’t remember how to swim.


Hacking the Syllabus – Getting to Relevance

Instructional Design
One of my memorable teaching moments occurred in a most unlikely place – at a faculty meeting. With all the angst and frustration that my 23-year-old self could muster, I complained about the challenges of teaching world literature to students who had not studied world history in four years, if they ever had.

“They don’t even know when Christopher Columbus sailed,” I exclaimed.

“Why do they need to?” asked Sister June, the administrative force of the school.

I still don’t have an answer.  I sometimes wrestle with the lingering sense that “educated people” should know certain things. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve not gotten word from St. Vincent Academy in the last eight years that any of those students failed to become employable, contributing adults because they didn’t know about Christopher Columbus. And in an age when anyone can find out about Christopher Columbus from a mobile device, that sort of knowledge isn’t a good barometer of the “educated” anymore.

“Why” is the single most valuable question in teaching and learning because it tests for relevance.

Now in my role as an instructional designer, I get to ask why a lot, albeit without the gravitas that Sister June possesses. But it is nevertheless an important question, an attempt to get subject matter experts to differentiate “why I love this discipline and dedicate my life to its study” from “why does my discipline matters in the world.” I ask why to shift the emphasis from knowing to doing, to distinguish core learning objectives from nice-to-knows, to ensure assessments align with the objectives. I ask why because I want to collaborate on courses that are highly relevant and that develop skills that apply outside of the classroom.

It is in pursuit of relevance that I “hack” the syllabus, in response to Hacking Pedagogy.

How to Hack Your Syllabus 101

Course Description: The course isn’t about the content, it’s about the learning process. Sure, you may be passionate about your content, but just because you love 18th century poetry doesn’t mean that every student that comes through the door is going to. But every student can learn to read a passage more closely, analyze meaning, make connections to historical and cultural contexts, and differentiate and use primary and secondary sources effectively.  So describe your course as an opportunity to nurture the required skills of the discipline, the skills necessary for the 21st century, in order gain some insight into the field and into oneself.

Course Goal: To develop the relevant, applicable skills that your discipline requires through project-based learning.

What do you want students to be able to do after your course? What impact do you want to have on students 5 years down the road? Better yet, what do students come back and tell you they remember 5 years later? This is the potential impact of the course, everything else is superfluous. 

By the end of this hack, you will be inspired to:

  • use great action verbs like collaborate, experiment, assess, create, compose, differentiate, infer, prioritize, critique, judge, decide
  • abolish objectives pertaining to memorization like recall, define, describe, name, paraphrase
  • ask “Why?” If you don’t have a great answer, it’s not an objective.

Required Readings: None.

What?!?! Yes, none. Instead, students will have access to an extensive annotated bibliography of texts, films, websites, and other resources from which they determine what is required reading to meet their project goals. Imagine if students elect to read and research to meet the course objectives instead of being forced to read to pass a multiple choice quiz. How would their engagement with the material be different?

Assessments: Make something BIG! Use project-based and collaborative learning strategies to develop a course project. No, it will not be as easy as a multiple choice test to assess, but there are defined steps to making something BIG. Your assessments will include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Project planning
  • Design and development
  • Project evaluation and peer assessment

Students can be assessed on the following criteria:

  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Creativity and risk-taking
  • Collaboration and communication skills

So the question now is … why not try something different?