#23: Anatomy of a Lesson

It’s summertime, and the living is… well, easier than last year, at least.  With the start of a new academic year on the horizon, a mere two months and change away, we decided this is the perfect season for an episode that begins to explore the choreography of moving from learning objectives to lessons to assignments that will resonate with an online audience.  

And since our very own Dan Marcucci consistently garners standing ovations from students for his innovative approach to online course design and delivery, I convinced him to sit for an interview with me about his creative process.  

It’s one thing to encourage faculty to stretch out and take full advantage of the virtual classroom, and another thing entirely to actually waltz on the walls, cha-cha on the ceiling, and boogie in the balcony.  So Dan’s going to help us trip the light fantastic.  In no time at all you’ll be dancing like everyone is watching their smartphone!

But before you buckle up your tap shoes, please take a moment to share your online teaching stories with us. Leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy or by sending an email to wiredivypodcast@gmail.com.

It’s almost art. And when you’ve been teaching long enough, you get a feel for it. I try not to have six heavy reading discussion weeks in a row. There’s a rhythm, it’s kind of a dance where you need to sort of mix up the tempo. #highered #virtualclassroom


KIERAN  00:00

Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…

DAN  00:02

I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy.  We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.

KIERAN  00:10

Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.

DAN  00:21

You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.  

KIERAN  00:32

Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.


KIERAN  00:46

It’s summertime, and the living is… well, easier than last year, at least.  With the start of a new academic year on the horizon, a mere two months and change away, we decided this is the perfect season for an episode that begins to explore the choreography of moving from learning objectives to lessons to assignments that will resonate with an online audience.  

And since our very own Dan Marcucci consistently garners standing ovations from students for his innovative approach to online course design and delivery, I convinced him to sit for an interview with me about his creative process.  

It’s one thing to encourage faculty to stretch out and take full advantage of the virtual classroom, and another thing entirely to actually waltz on the walls, cha-cha on the ceiling, and boogie in the balcony.  So Dan’s going to help us trip the light fantastic.  In no time at all you’ll be dancing like everyone is watching their smartphone!But before you buckle up your tap shoes, please take a moment to share your online teaching stories with us. Leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy or send an email to wiredivypodcast@gmail.com.


KIERAN   01:52

So Dan, since the title of this episode is Anatomy of a Lesson, I thought it would be really helpful for us to actually dissect a lesson and the learning objectives that are associated with that lesson, as a way of illustrating your thought process as you move through those steps, creating something that’s engaging for the students in an online course, especially in an online asynchronous course.

Why don’t you give me one of the learning objectives that you have used in a course that you’ve built out and let’s kind of walk through that. Why don’t we start there?

DAN   02:30

Yeah, that sounds fun. Let’s go ahead and start with the Sustainability Systems course. ‘Cause that’s a core class, and I teach many sections of that a year. 

KIERAN   02:38


DAN   02:38

That would probably be a good one, you know, with the idea that as a core class, the syllabus and the topics, and even the learning objectives, are somewhat generalized because they’ve got a really hit a broad spectrum of students. 

KIERAN   02:52

Right, so maybe we should say something about why it’s such a broad spectrum of students. 

DAN   02:57


KIERAN   02:57  

This is a little unique about our program, in that it’s interdisciplinary.  We accept students from a wide range of undergraduate degrees. Some of them also have graduate degrees by the time they show up in our program. 

DAN   03:09 

Many do.

KIERAN   03:09

And even though we have five required core courses, none of those courses are pre-reqs for anything else. Students can take the core in any order that they choose and that suits their schedule, and my faculty, including you, can’t assume anything about what the student has been exposed to, educationally, when they show up in your class. 

DAN   03:30

That’s absolutely true, yes.  So what I find in a core class like Sustainability Systems is that there’ll be students who are 25 and there’ll be students who are 55. There will be students who are digital natives, and there will be students who have to get their teenagers to help them troubleshoot when they have technical problems. And there’ll be students with one year work experience and there’ll be students with 30 years of work experience. I don’t actually call them students in class so it’s ironic that I am in the podcast because they’re adult learners so I really just referred to them as the teammates, the colleagues, or the learners. 

KIERAN   04:04


DAN   04:04

So there’s really a very broad spectrum of experience, background, professional interests.

KIERAN   04:10


DAN   04:10

There’s a pretty interdisciplinary approach to the way we look at natural resources and sustainability in our online program. Because of that my philosophy is to try to approach the students very much as individuals. While I can’t individualize the syllabus for each of them, I can build options within the syllabus. I can build discretion. I can build agency for the team members in the syllabus that they can then choose topics that are going to help to advance their personal goals and their own profession.

KIERAN   04:43

You set the learning objectives but you give them choice in how they meet the earning objective.

DAN   04:47

Yes. Sustainability Systems… the organizing idea is this idea of systems. And we use Donella Meadows, um, seminal work on systems thinking as our primer, basically. I mean, literally, because that’s the name of her book as A Primer on Systems Thinking

So the idea is how are these different elements? How are these different attributes of our, our world linked together to either make the place sustainable or make the place not sustainable. And by place in this course, I’m referring to the biosphere. So, you know, we’re talking about very big broad topics. 

And the 14 lessons that are in the course are on very broad areas. So we’re not drilling down and becoming an expert in soil science. We can’t possibly have one lesson on soil science and I acknowledge right in the lesson there are lots of people out there who get PhDs in this field. You’re going to know at the end of this lesson, why soil science is important. And in my personal opinion, why it should have been a sustainable development goal by the United Nations, but we’re not going to go on that. 

KIERAN   05:53

And why you should never, ever, ever call it dirt. That was drilled into me when I took soil science class.

DAN   06:00

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So in that, in that spirit, I’ll give you a little pull down menu of different topics that we could potentially talk about.  

KIERAN   06:10


DAN   06:10  

In this course, in the food unit, we actually focus on chickpeas, so we could talk about chickpeas. Global land use is something fun to talk about and we have some fun activities there. You don’t have to pick one, but you have to pick one we’re going to start with.

KIERAN   06:23


DAN   06:23 

Ummm, nuclear energy is quite an interesting topic that covers a lot of issues within energy. The aluminum paradox is fun. That really is about material flows across the globe. Water is always good because water really shows up in every course. When we look at sustainable supply chains people don’t really understand the impact of clothing. So we really look at the impacts of a shirt… what are the system maps for that? 

So pick a topic, I’ll tell you a little bit more about any of them. 

KIERAN   06:50  

Well, I’m, I’m intrigued by the aluminum paradox. What’s paradoxical about aluminum?

DAN   06:55

So this is a fun one, because what I really want to look at is Earth resources, natural resources as they are, you know, classically defined. And aluminum, certainly you would think is a very important one.  We’d literally dig it out of the dirt. 

KIERAN   07:08

Dirt? You dig it out of the dirt!  What did we just say?

DAN   07:11

It’s not the soil, we dig it way down where it’s dirt, you know? [laughing]

KIERAN   07:15  

[laughing] No… dirt is something you sweep up off the floor. 

DAN   07:20 

We dig it from tropical soils. Oh my gosh. Can’t even slide one in sideways with this audience here.

KIERAN   07:26  

Mmm-mmm, mmm-mmm.

DAN   07:28

So it is paradoxical because as important a metal as it is, it was really discovered as a refined metal less than 200 years ago. So it’s very new to our economy. It’s very new to the industrial world. The other interesting thing about it is that there is no biological use for aluminum. It’s not used in any organisms that we know of as an essential metal. So, um, although it’s very prevalent, the most common metal that there is in the surface of the Earth, in the crust of the Earth, it’s not one that really is, has been accessible throughout history. So there’s a funny thing there. 

KIERAN   08:04  

Hmmm. Yeah.

DAN   08:05 

More importantly, it’s an enormously recyclable material. It takes a lot of energy to create it, but once it’s created it’s very recyclable. 

You know, what I try to do is I pick these case studies, and these case study topics that are going to highlight elements of this question of linking sustainable systems across the globe. And, and some topics, I will look at a much broader issue, but like, for example, the list I just gave you, those were all much more specific. Not land use so much. Land use was, was a more general topic, but, you know, looking at a, t-shirt looking at chickpeas, looking at aluminum, looking at nuclear energy,

KIERAN   08:41

Something really tangible to tie to the theory.

DAN   08:44

Tangible. Focused. Right. So that’s my way of trying to put some boundaries on the system, which Donella Meadows would say is very important. You’ve got to define what your boundaries are and then own them, basically. 

So that’s the setup for building out a lesson like this, and that’s explained in the overview of the lesson, and there will be a set of objectives that I’ve identified. So for this lesson, the specific objectives for the lesson and they, the, they tie into broader core goals of the sustainable systems that I alluded to earlier:  

  • model the life cycle of aluminum in the human economy;
  • analyze the environment impacts of aluminum production and use;
  • identify global trends and locations of all phases of the aluminum life cycle;
  • explain the environmental impacts of aluminum;
  • reflect on prospects for aluminum in a sustainable biosphere; and then 
  • recognizing system traps. 

And that’s going to tie into the, the primer that I mentioned that we cover over the first six weeks of the class. 

KIERAN   09:46

Okay. So let’s take one of those and walk me through your thinking as you then start to imagine what kinds of assignments you might tie to that learning objective.

DAN   09:59

Sure. Let’s just take the first one, modeling the life cycle of aluminum in the human economy. It’s quite interesting how ubiquitous of a material this is in our modern society. Most people, even these learners who are studying about sustainability, sustainable businesses, sustainable natural resources, haven’t really thought much about aluminum and how it fits in there. Just, they kind of take it for granted.  It’s there, it’s in their, you know, cans; it’s in their airplanes; and if they’re lucky enough it’s in their cars. And they don’t really think about it. So once they look at the life cycle of aluminum and actually learn where it comes from, then they really begin to get a more nuanced appreciation for the, both the role and the importance of aluminum.

Okay. So in order to do that there will be a series of resources that I’ll introduce to them. The first one is, as I mentioned, that there’s, there’s a systems book that, that we’re using, and they’ll read a chapter in that. They’re very, very short chapters. 

But for the life cycle in particular, I’ll have a series of videos.  I’d like to try to mix up the types of resources, people, approach learning with different modalities. And I find it very useful and possible in an online asynchronous format for me to be able to build out a lesson that can rely on, not just classical peer reviewed journals, but rather can look at the academic literature, but can also look at videos. So the most lessons there’s going to be some form of video learning and video component. Very good, you know, it puts a different voice to it. It lets you actually see different points of view because sometimes the videos are created with a point of view. 

KIERAN   11:38

So these are not videos you create.  These are videos that you are curating, that are in existence and freely available on the Internet.

DAN   11:45

Excellent point. I do not myself create any videos in this class for the purpose of, um, presenting resources, in the, in the lesson. All of my information that I’m going to create, which is pretty synthetic as far as pulling it all together, I write it out so it’s available there in typed form. And it’s not, it’s not terribly long, it’s not 20 pages or anything. It’s maybe a couple of pages. 

KIERAN   12:07


DAN   12:07

Um, so I’m not giving a lecture because I can rely on other videos from other sources that are expert in aluminum

KIERAN   12:15  

Quick technical question about using existing videos and other external resources… Given that we have students based in various countries around the globe, and not all countries provide unfettered access to the Internet, or have robust networks, how do you make sure all of your students can use these resources… or do you test that before adding them to your syllabus?  

What happens in your class if a student tells you they can’t watch the video you assigned or look at a specific site you reference? I’m raising this issue mostly to get it on our listeners’ radar, not because there’s one definitive answer…

DAN   12:51

Yeah, that’s a great question. It isn’t a pernicious problem because most of the resources that I’m using are accessible.  It certainly does happen though, there’s no question. I’ve certainly worked with, you know, expatriates who are overseas. We get a fair number of students in our program who are stationed in Korea, who are stationed in Japan, who are stationed in Peru.  I mean, wherever they might be. 

KIERAN   13:13

And, I mean, and it’s not just digital resources. I, at one point, had a student who was American student, but, and he was living in Peru, and for whatever reason the U.S. would not allow the textbook that we were using for that class to be shipped to Peru.

DAN   13:27

Okay. Exactly. So I haven’t had that problem, simply because I haven’t used a textbook, but I have had similar, similar situations where there might be access problems. There are things you do to anticipate it ahead of time, just the whole accessibility question. And it’s not even just whether they can access because of where they are, but it’s very important to make sure that they can access it as far as their physical access. Is it properly captioned? Are we really meeting ADA requirements? We try to do that.

And a lot of times what I’ll do is I’ll ask somebody in who’s experiencing a problem, I’ll say, well, look around and see what else you can access from where you are that is going to fully fulfill the spirit of what we’re trying to do. So, as long as the goals start broad, then you can choose to be flexible at any point down the line. 

And another, you know, another thing that happens is we’ll have students sometimes who are in west Africa, for example, and their Internet access, isn’t always as dependable or as reliable. I try not to put really data heavy things in there, like full length movies.

KIERAN   14:31

Right. And sometimes you can go with audio. Ihas a lower bandwidth demand and that could be augmented by images that are really necessary to the understanding, like a graph or chart.

DAN   14:45

Excellent point.  So my sort of summary answer to your question is I try to curate resources with diversity that have diversity in them with some level of redundancy, not necessarily within the resource, but being able to adapt to other resources if there is a problem.

KIERAN   15:02

Okay. So you have a learning objective and you’re sort of building the idea of the lesson in your mind. When you start looking for resources, do you have specific formats or types of resources in mind that you think would be really well suited to that particular assignment?  Or do you do a broader search to see what’s available on that topic and choose from that? Where do you start when you’re working this out?

DAN   15:31

So I’m hearing two questions, and one of them is: Do I have an idea of particular resources on the topic that I might want to use? And the other one is: Do I have a preconceived idea about the media that I’m going to want to be using within a particular lesson?

KIERAN   15:47

Well, yeah, and I don’t, I don’t know if I would have framed it as a preconceived idea, but it’s, you might be thinking this assignment is really going to lend itself to discussion, for example, this, this assignment… mmm, so maybe I need to go somewhere different with it in order to get them engaged.

DAN   16:03 

Yes and no [laughing]. So some of it is informed by the topic at hand and some of it is actually, I… it’s not going to be that helpful to our listeners. It’s, it’s almost art. And when you’ve been teaching long enough, you get a feel for it. 

And it has to do with the syllabus of the semester.  I try not to have six heavy reading discussion weeks in a row.  It’s like, I would get burned out. I certainly would expect someone new to the material to get burned out. So there’s a rhythm, it’s kind of a dance where you need to sort of mix up the tempo. 

For example, the week before the aluminum conversation we have a conversation about nuclear energy.  Well, that one leads itself very well to a debate. It’s set up as a pro and a con, so I ask people to put debate points up and pick a side. It’s like, it doesn’t have to be what you actually believe. It has to be what you’re willing to argue. 

The week before that is very much of a, uh, computer tools exercise. So there is a little discussion about the findings, but everyone is doing a project with a piece of software and producing a little mini report off that software. 

And then in week five, when it’s aluminum, because there’s a lot of basic knowledge that they don’t actually have, it does become a good opportunity for two types of activities.  And one of them is a discussion about new information, but even before that we’ll have a library search, a build the library it’s called, or a deep dive. And I’ve given them four or five resources on aluminum to look at, to sort of get them started. They’ll be expected to go do a deeper dive on an area of interest in them, for them, in aluminum. 

KIERAN   17:44

Okay. Again, a chance for them to have agency in their learning.

DAN   17:47 

Exactly.  And then the second part of that is going to be reflection. And that’s really very much a class, whole class discussion. In the reflection section, what they’re doing is they’re reflecting on aluminum as a phenomenon within sustainability. The, the basic charge is, okay, look at all the resources that all four groups have, have put together. You know, you don’t have to contribute to the other three but I want you to read all the information that your colleagues have put together. And this becomes very important because the whole point is to get them to really work with each other and rely on each other as collaborators. 

And then the question is what are the prospects for aluminum in a sustainable biosphere? What is the role for aluminum in the sustainable biosphere? And that’s a very broad open question but it will then tie back into both the lesson objective but then also the course objectives.

KIERAN   18:41  

As I’m understanding this, it’s not that far from the kind of assignment approach that you would see in a typical in-person class. Right? Well, I guess the difference is that in an online asynchronous course, the discussion is unfolding over a longer period of time. But discussion is, is something that should be fairly familiar to most people who are teaching in a face-to-face classroom. And then the report… well, there’s all different kinds of a written paper, right? It can be just a summary, it can be a longer paper, it can be a group assignment. Basically what you’re looking at is something that’s, that should translate pretty easily into an in-person classroom. If you need it to that, wouldn’t be that difficult for this particular. Assignment am I understanding that correctly?

DAN   19:27

Correct. There’s a couple of things that I really tried to leverage that the online asynchronous format enables me to do. 

KIERAN   19:35  

Ok, say more about that.

DAN   19:36 

One of them is that the members of the discussion really have time to reflect on what the other person has said, the responses are thoughtful, and at the very least they’re editable, so they can go back and correct things or add to things. So there’s a level of intentionality in their responses that becomes very important and I really try to leverage that.

And furthermore, everyone is expected to participate at a, at a significant minimum level. 

KIERAN   20:05

Right. And we’ve talked about that before. In classroom discussion there’s… you can hide behind someone who is very active, whereas online if you don’t weigh in you’re, you, you’re not there. You’re just not there. 

DAN   20:16 

Right. There’s no hiding.

KIERAN   20:17  

And also that there’s more of an, there’s more of an ability to ask people to either identify if what they’re saying is opinion, and you can ask them for a citation, you can ask them to share the reference in a way that you can’t do in a classroom discussion.

DAN   20:30 

Yes. Exactly. Very good point. 

KIERAN   20:31  

Based on what you’ve just said, you’ve made adjustments to take advantage of what you can do online. You’ve been thoughtful about what this type of lesson and the learning objectives that are associated with it need from the standpoint of what can be an appropriate assignment for this and what the format of that can be. 

I’m interested in hearing about a lesson that might seem a little less familiar to somebody who has been teaching in person for their entire career.  Based on things that I hear from students, and probably a little bit from you, too, I’m thinking that the, the food lesson that you referenced and the clothing lesson that you’ve referenced might be examples of innovative thinking about what constitutes an assignment, what somebody can do in an online platform that might be surprising to somebody who has never operated in that sphere.

DAN 21:17

Yes. I think those are, are both good examples. I should say that in lessons — this is true with all of the courses that I develop and lead — there’s usually an element at the beginning of the lesson which is purely for fun. A lot of times it’s it’s it almost seems whimsical. Just a fun little thing at the beginning to get us talking about… quite frankly, to, to challenge them, to sort of try to see the world differently. We work in a field which is directly applicable to people’s lives. So, it’s like, you know, look around.

KIERAN   21:57  

What I’m hearing is that you add a low-stakes activity that expands students’ perception of what the topic entails while at the same time fostering the learning community.

DAN   22:08 

Mmm-hmm. This is a way for us to get to know each other. So there’ll be something, like, fun, but on top of that, a lot of times there’ll be kind of a warm up activity that, um, they actually were expected to do.  The warmup activities are really a way for them to get into the subject matter, but then also for them to interact with their peers in a fairly low level, low vulnerability kind of situation.

Food happens to be Lesson #1, because if you knew me, you would know food would always be number 1… and you do know me.

KIERAN  22:39

Let’s see… does it have something to do with the last name Marcucci? [laughing]

DAN   22:42

It could be. Yeah, it could be [laughing]. So the food is the first lesson and the warm-up activity in that lesson, for example, is to actually cook a meal.  And it’s like, yes, it’s true. You really went to graduate school to cook a meal and post it.

There’s very specific reasons I asked them to do that, and one of them is loosen things up a little bit. But, and another, and for them to actually… the chickpeas is the case study for the unit. Many of them are vegan and have been eating chickpeas every day for the last 20 years, and a lot of people have said, “I didn’t know what aisle to look in the grocery store for chickpeas.” I mean, really the gamut. But it’s kind of a leveling the playing field as we have to always do when we have a diverse group of, of learners. 

And it also gives them tangible experience with the subject.  I mean, we’re talking about chickpeas in particular as a case study. So it’s like eat the darn things and see what they’re like. If you’re not familiar with them.

KIERAN   23:37

Well, it’s a pretty good choice, too. Right? Because it’s unlikely that anybody on your roster is going to say, “Actually I don’t eat so this is not relevant to me.”

DAN   23:44

Everybody eats.  I have had some with severe chickpea allergies. It’s rare. I’ve had one or two that said, oh, I can’t eat them. I said, that’s fine. You can do fava beans. I have no problem with that. 

KIERAN   23:55

The learning objective is not about sticking… how do I want to say this? The learning objective is not about obedience to a set of instructions. Right. Correct. So, yeah, so it’s yeah. So in that case, and for choosing chickpeas, but they’re not the only ingredient that could have been chosen for this. And so you, you already know that going in, that you might have the ability to make that flexible.

DAN   24:15

The learning objective that’s going into this is for them to think about the food they’re eating and how it connects to Earth systems. How it connects to the environment, how the supply chain gets to them to think about nutrition, to think about alternative food, because for many people chickpea and an alternative food.

But the other, the other point of this is, as the first activity doing outside of the introductions, I asked them to video it, if at all possible, and most, almost everyone can. I ask them to video it and post it. That was really a response to feedback that I got from earlier people in this course, um, who said that they really liked the idea of. Or appreciate the opportunity to hear and see both me, but as well as their, their colleagues in the class.

KIERAN   24:59

We’ve heard that from some of the alumni that we have interviewed in the panels at the end of Season One and Season Two, There’s just something about being able to hear a person’s voice, to hear the excitement or the humor in somebody’s voice that makes them feel like they’re more part of a human group.

DAN   25:18

Yes, exactly.

KIERAN   25:19  

It makes these people real to them.

DAN   25:21

And that type of feedback is exactly why it’s like, okay. I want to build in very early an activity which will enable that for people. But again, low threat, low vulnerability, where it’s like, you’re not graded on how good your dish is. You’re just… it’s kind of a participation grade. You have to do it.  You know, there are reasons some people cannot cook and it’s like, go out to a restaurant and order food and show me, show the class, rather, the meal that they had at a middle Eastern restaurant or a south Asian restaurant. And that’s fantastic. 

KIERAN   25:54

So this is a warmup. What is it a warm-up for?

DAN   25:57

So it’s a warm-up for a broader investigation of chickpeas, which they know almost nothing about. I, of course, have already given them videos and there’s some really fun videos out there on chickpeas, so that’s easy. 

There’s something called the chickpea innovation lab so I point them to some of these groups that are really doing research on chickpeas. And then we’d go back, because this is about the systems book, we looked at the first chapter in the systems book, which is a very, very broad, high-level discussion of global connections and global systems. And then I asked them, well, what is a system in this case? You know, if we think about chickpeas as a system, use words and describe what you think the system for chickpeas as a food source would be. 

So it’s conceptual. So the whole point of this is to really get them to dig into — no pun intended — dig into these concepts. Very interactive. There’s 20 people in this group. If there’s a thread going that you want to run with on the future of chickpeas, jump into that thread already. You don’t have to be, you don’t have to start a new thread. Part of the social goal of an early lesson like this is to get them to begin to collaborate and interact with each other. That’s a goal for every lesson, but I’m really trying to set a tone early on. 

So I’ll have these things where they see each other, where the prompts in the discussions are geared for them to talk directly to each other on. They also have to write up a quick summary of the article, not the abstract, but an actual summary of the article around our themes. So it’s a variety of activities that really lend themselves to them trying to interact with each other. 

KIERAN   27:40

Okay. You designed this for an online asynchronous course, but there’s no reason why somebody who’s teaching in-person couldn’t make this part of the course that they’re teaching.

If you were teaching this in person, you could still have the students cook with chickpeas and share the video or photos or whatever of what they’re doing on the LMS, right?  Which I’m guessing is where you have them share. 

DAN   28:02 

Right. But to your point, yes. I think I could, um, certainly accomplish these lesson objective in an in-person setting.  You know, it would be some version of flipped because it would have to have cooked their chickpeas earlier. 

But, you know, the point that you bring up, it’s interesting to me because when I was working on developing this course, I wasn’t taking a course that I had done previously and then just figuring out, well, how am I going to adapt this to an online format?  But, rather, I had a course and a set of objectives for the course and a topic for the course. And then I was able to curate the specific topics within the course, and I was able to design it knowing I was going to be doing this online,  knowing I had all of the sort of richness of activity that we can do with distributed online learning.

KIERAN   28:53

Right. Let’s touch on another one of your lessons… what was the one about the landscape or land use?  Yeah, let’s, let’s, let’s unpack that one a little bit.

DAN   29:01

Sure. So land use in the third lesson in this particular course in the lessons are sequenced kind of as a way of, they don’t build on each other as, as much as they point to each other.  Chickpeas points to soil and soil points to land use, and land use points to energy and you know, like that.

So there is definitely a, a overall strategy for the course, but in the land use lesson, which is the third one, we really are interested in the idea of global land use. So this one, unlike the others, which have a very narrow case study, this one is wide open. People go all over the globe.

It’s also a little bit more hands-on, they’ve done quite a bit of reading and they’ve done quite a bit of typing in the first couple of weeks, and I want to break up the rhythm a little bit. They’re getting a chance to play with some software that’s going to help them think about land use, and think about land spatially. This one is particularly easy for me because land and landscape studies is my expertise.

There’s a warm up activity on this one and I have them, um, pull up a game that’s available free online called Geoguessr. And it’s really couched in the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? sort of spirit.  the way that the Geoguessr is is that it plops you down somewhere in the world and you get five guesses per game.

KIERAN   30:17

You, you login and then it randomly assigns you…

DAN   30:20 

It randomizes, right, it’s like, here’s your first place. You literally then have to try to read the landscape and use cues from the landscape and clues of things that you can find that tell you where you are. 

The point of the whole exercise is, again, it’s ungraded, so it’s kind of a low vulnerability thing. We’re having fun. We’re sharing our scores, we’re sharing our maps of, you know, what we did, we’re talking about it.  It’s kind of a way of taking a randomized virtual field trip. But really it’s a chance for them to begin to put their mind in the space of a, what am I looking at? I’m seeing these images, and the objective is to be able to explore land use in detail from far away global settings. That’s an actual lesson objective I just read. 

Most of the time they’re actually on a Google street view database so they can go up and down the roads, these country roads, or these city roads, and they can figure out, you know, what side of the road people are driving. They can see that it’s a tropical forest, or they might be able to identify a sign or a language.

It’s a chance for them to look at land in a much more detailed way than they have, and it’s also a chance for them to sort of tap into their own existing knowledge of what land is. And a lot of them think “I’m horrible with geography. I don’t, I don’t really have that knowledge.” And it’s like, well, maybe you should get some of that knowledge now that you’re in graduate school.

KIERAN   31:37  

A lot of times our perception of geography is like, can you name all the countries in on the African continent? Or can you tell me where this country is? And that’s such a superficial aspect of geography, right? That’s not the point of this. The point is to say what are the features? 

DAN   31:55

Rice paddy, elephant, volcanic mountain — where could that combination be happening?

KIERAN   32:00

Mmm hmm.  So they, they enter in their guess, and it grades them, and then they get some kind of a score that they can share with their fellow learners in your course.

DAN   32:08

Correct.  And I do it too. I do it every year, every semester.  It’s kind of a warm up activity, but it’s not trivial. 

KIERAN   32:15

Right. It’s fun but it’s not silly.

DAN   32:17

Exactly, it’s fun, they chat with each other, they have a good laugh, but it very much ties into what the objectives of the land, the global land use lesson are. 

KIERAN   32:27  

Well, I think this is brilliant because you’ve introduced a gamification of learning component but you didn’t have to build out any of the software yourself, you didn’t have to curate photos of different locations. How did you find that? Because this seems to me an example of a resource that you wouldn’t know to go looking for online.  You weren’t thinking, “What would be really cool is if someone, somewhere had already created software that allows my students to do virtual asynchronous field trips?” 

DAN   32:57

And this is exactly the game I need and then… yeah. Not in this case. So sometimes I do go looking for particular tools or, or software or, uh, resources out there. So I will do that. I think I’m, you know, I’ve been in the, I’ve been in the business for awhile. You’re exactly right, this was an intentional gamification of this particular lesson.  

I think in this case, someone sent it to me. I thought, “Oh, I can use this.” You know, 

KIERAN   33:22  


DAN   33:22 

It’s, the same thing happens when I read the newspaper every morning. It’s like, oh, here’s a perfect article. I can use this in this course for this lesson as a resource. In the case of a software tool, it’s even a little bit more, more powerful. 

So I think in this case it came to me, but there will be others that I will specifically think, you know, I need video resources. I used to have something that was called, uh, Movie Night. It was actually called Movie Fortnight because they had two weeks to watch the movie. So it was Movie Fortnight and then people thought I was talking about the video fortnight.

KIERAN   33:55  


DAN   33:55

So I was like, “No, no. I don’t know about that!  I had to research documentaries to, to curate for that.

KIERAN   34:00  


DAN   34:00 

But yeah, there is a lot of software out there. There are a lot of games out there that can be educational for your learning activities.  

So, let me also add to the idea of the gamification that then that’s the, that was the warm-up, and then there’s a big activity where they’re looking at satellite imagery and really doing some analysis on land use. But I find it’s so much more fun for them to be able to visit a place first. And it might not be the same place. But to have the idea that wait a second, I can use Google street view in a lot of places, or I can use other Internet resources and see what a landscape looks like because you know, very few of our learners have really worked with satellite imagery before.

It’s a dance. Like, okay, let’s start with something fun and loose, get your wiggles out, and then, you know, let’s really do the serious calisthenics kind of thing. Maybe the, the best analogy is a fourth grade gym class, for all I know.  But there’s a rhythm that kind of goes into it.

KIERAN   34:57  

I love that dance and rhythm analogy. We have to adjust our steps to the changing tempo!

Ok, you’ve described three lessons. In the first example your students do some research, there’s discussion, there’s a report of some kind… definitely designed for an online course but the general format would be familiar to almost anyone in higher ed, faculty and students alike, and the activities are directly tied to the learning objective for the aluminum paradox lesson.  

Next, you talked about having students do a kind of warm-up exercise, completely offline and asynchronous, in which they engage directly with the case study subject — chickpeas. They have to find a recipe, figure out where to find and purchase chickpeas, cook said chickpeas or at least eat some at a restaurant, and then share the experience with their colleagues in the class. They’re transitioning from the LMS to the real world and then back to the LMS, and the experience informs the next assignment in that lesson.

And then your third example is using pre-existing software, openly available on the Internet, to help students learn how to look at landscapes and satellite images using a gamification approach.

DAN   36:02 


KIERAN   36:02  

All great examples.  Let me ask you this… I know your current courses are not online versions of classes you’ve ever taught in-person but there is some overlap in subject matter.  I’m curious if there’s anything you used to do in the physical classroom that you wanted to port over to an online format but struggled to pull it off?

DAN   36:20 

I wouldn’t use the word struggle, I would use the word innovate. There were things in an in-person educational setting that I wanted to make sure I had, that I got the same value and outcomes. 

Really the one is field trips. We, for example, had Jim Egenrieder, our colleague, on an episode earlier.  He’s expert at getting people out in the field and his, his own evolution and development in that…

KIERAN   36:46

From feeling like he had to take them personally to letting them, basically, take him and the rest of the class along with them, and all of the places that they went.

DAN   36:55

Exactly. Exactly. His evolution and thinking is really exemplary. I have had to innovate how I approach the learning objectives that were around my field trips in the past.

KIERAN   37:05

Ok, now let me come at this from the opposite direction… are there activities you’re doing online that you tried to accomplish in-person but for logistics reasons or whatever, you just couldn’t stick the landing?

DAN   37:19

No. Because, you know, you don’t ask somebody who lives in three dimensions what they would really like to do if they lived in four dimensions. They’ve never, they can’t even conceive of it. You know, they don’t know what the possibilities are.

In hindsight, I have a much bigger toolbox. The time constraints for in-person synchronous class are very limiting… for field trips, for exchange of information, for discussion, for all sorts of things. 

KIERAN   37:47

And, sadly, there are time constraints for podcasts, too [laughing].

We’ve come to the end of this episode but not the end of this conversation. Dan, you’ve shared some great insights on how to think creatively about assignments that will serve our learning objectives, and now we would love it if other online educators would share their secrets and hacks, too.  Wired Ivy listeners, have you developed an assignment that you’re especially proud of, or one that has been a consistent hit with your students?


KIERAN   38:14

Let’s learn from each other! You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org. You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org. And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.

DAN   38:25

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content. Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.

KIERAN   38:40

Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

DAN   38:47

Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci…

KIERAN   38:49

And I’m Kieran Lindsey. 

KIERAN and DAN   38:51

Let’s stay connected!

I ask them to do warm-up assignments to loosen things up a little bit. It’s low threat, low vulnerability. It’s a fun way to get to know each other. But it also gives them tangible experience with the subject. #highered #virtualclassroom


Daniel J. Marcucci advocates for sustaining a livable, rich biosphere—because the alternative is scary. He teaches Sustainability Systems, Coastal and Marine Systems, and Urban Water Systems courses and leads Global Study trips. Dr. Marcucci has two decades’ experience in higher education as an environmental educator, the last several years focusing on creating supportive asynchronous online learning communities. He has published in numerous environmental planning journals. He also has extensive experience as a regional and environmental planner. His current research explores individual landscapes and landscape as an integrative and holistic concept. Dan is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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In hindsight, I have a much bigger toolbox now that I’m teaching online asynchronous. The time constraints for in-person synchronous class are very limiting… for field trips, for exchange of information, for discussion, for all sorts of things. #highered #onlineteaching

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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