St. Thomas E-Learning And Research - The Intersection of Technology and Pedagogy
Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

A Taxonomy of Online Discussions

Discussions have always been a vital part of education. When education shifts to online delivery (at least partly), especially during times of necessity like the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, many instructors seek ways to translate the discussion strategies and approaches that have worked well in the traditional, physical classroom environment to the online environment and to take advantage of strategies and approaches unique to it.

In this post, we will help facilitate that by (1) outlining the most common types of discussion found in both online and physical classrooms. We will then (2) describe several ways in which discussions might be structured. Finally, we will (3) present a variety of ways instructors might approach an online discussion that can utilize these structures and fulfill the aims of one or more of the various types.

Many of these strategies have been discussed in more detail in other STELAR Blog posts about writing effective discussion prompts:

See also the guidance and workshop within the CAS Guided Course which provide important general guidelines, strategies, advice. This is especially important for adapting these approaches to your own course in light of its particular aims and objectives. There are also some good examples in the Online Modules Showcase.



Broadly speaking, whether inside of the physical classroom or online, discussions will frequently fall into one or more of the following types:

  1. General reflection
  2. Reading/media/lecture responses
  3. Application
  4. Debate
  5. Collaboration

The type of discussion corresponds closely to its objectives, and that, in turn, relates to the objectives of the course itself. So when we’re planning an online class, especially one that takes its bearings from a traditional physical course with an important discussion component, we want to consider what type(s) of discussion we’re seeking to facilitate in order to fulfill the objectives of the course.

When we discuss various approaches below, we will indicate the type(s) of discussion each approach can facilitate.

Most approaches can be structured in a variety of ways, some of which are more effective than others depending on the course, students, and content, so let’s first consider some of those structures before moving on to the approaches.



By “structures” we are referring to such factors as how the classmates interact with each other, the instructor, the course content, etc.; how the prompt is presented; how the response(s) are presented; and so on.


The standard and most common structure involves the instructor posting a prompt to which each student must respond. Typically students and the instructor will then comment on what other students have said in response to the prompt, and ideally that will instigate further dialogue.

This works quite well for many discussions, but often discussions can benefit from taking a different approach, whether because the different approach can better fulfill the goals of the discussion or just to mix things up a bit and make it more interesting and fresh for the students (and the instructor!). Just as in the traditional physical classroom, a different structure can “spice things up”. Here are a few such alternatives.


Students are divided into active participants and observers. (The name “fishbowl” comes from the physical classroom setting in which the active participants are often in the middle – the “bowl” – while the observers are “outside the bowl”.) By reducing the number of discussion participants, it can encourage more reticent students to participate, provide more impetus for participating students to prepare, keep the discussion focused, and so on.  And those who are in the observer role can process the discussion without the pressure (or in some cases, the opportunity) to contribute, which can also be pedagogically fruitful.


  • Part of the class discusses for 10 minutes while the others observe, then they switch.
  • Part of the class engages in discussion while the other half writes a reflection paper on the discussion.
  • At the beginning of the semester, students sign up for an equal number of sessions as active participants and as observers.
  • Each week includes two discussions, and each student is a participant in one and observer in the other.

Sequential prompts

Begin with simple or specific prompt, give them time to respond, then follow up with another prompt eliciting further complexity, depth, critical analysis, etc. For instance, instead of posting the entirety of a 2-part or 3-part at the beginning of the module, the instructor may post Part 1 on Day 1, Part 2 on Day 3, etc. Or post different parts in subsequent weeks. This can help students focus on earlier parts before moving on to the later parts, and it also can be an effective stimulus to critical thinking when the subsequent parts have them expand, reconsider, apply, or defend their response to the earlier parts.


  • Present the first part of a thought experiment and have them respond to some questions. Then, present a “twist” to it that upends assumptions, forces them to confront a possible conflict with their original response, etc.
  • Present a case study sequentially, only revealing a bit at a time. (This can impress upon them the importance of considering all the relevant information before forming judgments.)
  • Present a prompt having them reflect on an important concept before engaging the week’s content. Then follow up with a prompt having them consider the impact the content had on their original reflections.
  • Ask for an example pertinent to the week’s topic, then in a follow up have them turn back to something earlier in the course and consider how that example relates.

Student creates question

Designate a student or group to provide the prompt for the rest of the class. This can work especially well with approaches 1-3 below.

1 comment 1 question

Students are required to make 1 comment and raise 1 question in response to a prompt, another student’s post, etc.

Often providing a simple structure such as this can help focus student responses in a way that encourages them to engage multiple modes of thinking (it may be more difficult for a student to think of a question than to think of a comment, for instance). This approach can also rein in on some students’ tendency to be too verbose and/or unfocused and require them to sort through their ideas in order to select which one to post. Finally, when used as a requirement for responding to peers, it can facilitate interesting dialogue as the original poster has a multifarious response to consider.


Students are presented with a problem or claim or some other stimulus and debate about the best interpretation, response, answer, etc. This could be done in a “fishbowl” style with individuals or small groups debating while the others observe, or it could be done in larger groups.


  • Formal written debate: students/groups could be asked to provide, e.g., an “opening statement” on Day 2, a “response” to the other’s opening statement in Day 4, and a final “reply” on Day 6.
  • Informal debate (such as those one may find on social media platforms):  increase discussion requirements such as how frequently they are required to post, how many separate days, how many replies to peers, etc., while providing a similar overall word count requirement to other discussions.
    • Generally, the best informal debates will involve frequent back-and-forth and will avoid excessively long and detailed posts, so having a high number of posts/days/replies could be advisable.
  • Use this as a way to break up a Zoom class. Spend 20 minutes in a “Formal” debate between two individuals/groups, and the next 20 minutes opening it up to the rest of the class, followed by 20 minutes of instructor commentary.
  • Collaborate on a VoiceThread involving Side A’s opening remarks on a slide, Side B’s opening remarks on the next slide, etc., and the rest of the class can comment on each part.
  • Combine with the “Roleplaying” by assigning students a side to defend rather than allowing them to choose their own.



In this section we describe several different approaches instructors may take to the discussion, each of which could utilize any of the structures described above. For each approach, we have indicated which of the four discussion types the approach is particularly well-suited for, though there is no reason, of course, why they could not be adapted to other types. And we have included a list of variations, to which countless more could be added (and we heartily welcome any additions you might contribute).

A few things to bear in mind as you’re considering these:

  • Discussions may contain several parts (or be parts of a sequence), each of which incorporates a different approach (e.g., Part 1 is a Comparison, Part 2 is a Case Study exploring the practical implications of the differences; or Part 1 asks for examples, and Part 2 is a Proposal/Plan).
  • If you are teaching a course that includes asynchronous and synchronous components (e.g., students participate in an asynchronous, written discussion board before meeting together synchronously in a physical classroom and/or on Zoom), you could use one approach for the asynchronous part and another approach for the synchronous part.

Reflection Question

Basic Approach:

Possibly the most common type of discussion, this approach asks students to share their thoughts and reflections on a topic.

Discussion Types:

Naturally this is the paradigm of a Type 1 discussion, but it is also a frequent way to approach a Type 2, 3, or 4 discussion.


  • Should…?
  • What is your reaction to…?
  • What are your thoughts on…?
  • How should…?
  • Is X too…?
  • What does X mean…?
  • What are the 3 most important…?
  • What is the best way to…?
  • How is X understood by…?
  • Could you…?
  • How much do you know about…?
  • Have you ever…?


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to provide an analysis, interpretation, reaction, or some other response to the content. The quality of the discussion often depends partly on how well-crafted the prompt is. Vague or highly open-ended prompts may elicit good discussions, but just as often they may elicit long, rambling responses from some, vague and vacuous responses from others, and a lack of cohesion or focus overall. On the other hand, prompts that are too narrow or which have right/wrong answers may fail to generate depth, meaningful dialogue, or critical reflection.

On the other hand, instructors may intentionally craft a prompt that has these “problems” as part of a sequence or when intending to be heavily involved in facilitating the discussion.

Discussion Types:

This is primarily a Type 2 sort of discussion, but it could also be the stimulus for or a preliminary to Types 1, 3, and 4.


  • Many of the approaches described below could be considered variations of the basic analysis/interpretation approach.

Quote / Passage / Concept

Basic Approach:

The discussion or discussion threads center around a particular passage, quote, or concept encountered in the course material. It may ask for an interpretation, explanation, analysis, reaction, etc.

Discussion Types:

This is primarily a Type 2 sort of discussion.


  • “Explain to a child”: Provide the passage (e.g., a complex or challenging one), students are asked to summarize and explain it in terms that are simpler and clearer. Other students provide feedback. A downside is that students might rely too much on how their peers have responded. Here are some ways around that:
    • Set up the discussion so that students must first post before they can see what other students have posted.
    • Provide a series of quotes, students choose them on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Each student identifies a quote/passage and explains why it stood out, etc.
  • Save the last word“: Designated student(s) identify a quote and post it as the discussion prompt (or the start of a thread within the discussion) without comment. Other students comment for a few days, not knowing why the student chose that quote. After a period of time, the original student responds. See Karin Brown’s post for more details.

Question / Confusion / Muddiest Point

Basic Approach:

Have students identify something in the course content (readings, lectures, etc.) they are having particular trouble with.

Discussion Types:

This type of discussion is a response to course content, so is particularly well-suited to discussion Type 2.


  • Each student raises a question or confusion and responds to ones that classmates have raised.  Students should be prompted to explain the question or confusion.  May add a “first come, first served” element so students are encouraged to get into the discussion early.
  • Divide up the class into small groups (e.g., 5 students), have 1 present question, the others respond. Can lead to interesting nuances, reveal disagreements and deeper confusions, etc.


Basic Approach:

Students review the course content under discussion and raise a possible objection to some part of it. Alternatively, the instructor provides a specific argument, claim, position, etc.

Discussion Types:

Primarily either Type 1 or Type 2, it can be a good way to facilitate reflection, understanding, and critical thinking by being able to formulate an objection to an argument or analysis (especially when one agrees with it). It can also be a form of Type 3, especially since many objections will emerge as an argument or concept is applied to new cases.  It could additionally be the basis of a debate (Type 4).


  • Have each student raise a possible objection and respond to that objection from the point of view of the argument, then assess the strength of the response.
  • Divide the class into “Pro/Con”. Have half the class (individually or as groups) raise an objection and the other half respond.
    • This can be a good prelude to a synchronous discussion (physical or online) in which the class assesses the debate.


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to compare/contrast/relate different things. These could be readings, media, images, concepts, arguments, events, outcomes, plans, etc.

Discussion Types:

This could be used in any type of discussion.


  • Students identify 3 points made by author A that author B would contend with.
  • Relate a piece of fiction with a non-fiction piece.
  • Pair this with a “Roleplaying” or “Ask for Examples” discussion.
  • Analyze the strengths/weaknesses of rival methodologies in terms their applications.
  • Compare points of view within a text.
  • Compare the approach to an issue or problem of one discipline with that of another.
  • Students work on some project independent and compare their results as a form of collaboration.


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to assume a certain role and respond to the prompt from that perspective.

Discussion Types:

This works especially well as a Type 2 (Application) discussion when the role in question is that of someone having to perform a certain task.  It can also be a Type 1 discussion if adopting the role in question requires a grasp of the relevant concepts, facts, history, and so on. And it can be an excellent way to approach a debate (Type 4). As Karin Brown states, “this method works well if you want students to discuss a thorny issue that has many different viewpoints and stakeholders.”


  • Students are given the role of a professional (manager, caregiver, scientist, engineer, programmer, etc.), given a certain problem or case, and prompted to respond to it.
  • Students are given a text (or other source) with characters (real or fictional) and they have to adopt the perspective of one of the characters in response to a prompt (such as a scenario, a conceptual dispute, another text, etc.).
  • Can be used in conjunction with a debate-style discussion by having students take on the role of opposing sides in a debate.
  • To facilitate understanding, broad-mindedness, empathy, critical reflection, and other such virtues it could be instructive to have students adopt a role quite different from their own.

Case studies

Basic Approach:

Students are presented with a particular situation or problem and they must discuss how to respond to it.

Discussion Types:

This is a paradigmatic Type 3 (Application) discussion. However, these are often used dialectically in conjunction with a reading or lecture as a way to deepen an analysis, assess understanding, and so on. It can also serve as the catalyst for a debate by having students defend rival interpretations or responses, as well as a stimulus for general reflection.


  • Students are divided into groups and given different cases to analyze, then present a summary to the rest of the class.
  • Have students briefly explain and then apply a methodology to the case.
  • If there are alternative or rival methodologies and approaches, divide the class into groups, each of which takes a different one in response to the same case. This can be the foundation for a later synchronous discussion or a later part of a “sequential prompts” structure.
  • Have students analyze the conceptual issues questions that a particular case elicits without expecting them to resolve it. This can be part of a “sequential prompts” structure if they are later asked to discuss possible resolutions.

Thought Experiment

Basic Approach:

Students are presented with a scenario, but unlike a straightforward case study, the scenarios in thought experiments are deliberately designed to focus attention on some particular concept or problem.

Discussion Types:

Given that thought experiments are generally more artificial and contrived than a case study, they will often be more of a Type 1 or Type 2 discussion than Type 3 .  But like Case Studies, they can be the catalyst for a debate as well.


  • Present multiple versions of a thought experiment with slight but significant variations.
    • Have different groups analyze each one and discuss the similarities and differences that emerge.
    • Use the “sequential prompts” approach (above) to introduce the variations.

Ask for examples

Basic Approach:

Students are given a concept, problem, idea, theory, or other stimulus and asked to provide their own example of that.

Discussion Types:

Asking for examples is a very common and effective way of engaging students in general reflection (Type 1). The challenge of thinking up an example that represents a particular idea is a powerful way to gain or assess understanding of that idea and as part of the process of critical analysis, fitting with Type 2 . It is likewise a form of application given its practical, concrete character, serving as a Type 3  application discussion.
Moreover, it involves a significant amount of creative and original thinking that could lend itself to a Type 5  Collaboration-style discussion as a stage toward the completion of a project or assignment.


  • Examples from personal life
  • Examples from popular culture (literature, film, TV, etc.)
  • Examples from history, current events, etc.
  • Examples from professional experience
  • Examples students imagine or create


Basic Approach:

Students are given a scenario, case, problem, set of parameters or conditions, etc., and asked to draw up a plan or proposal for addressing it, or present an abstract, outline, bibliography, or something similar that will be the basis for an essay.

Discussion Types:

This is best as a Type 3 and/or Type 5 discussion. Working individually or in groups, students can apply the concepts and procedures they have learned in direct, concrete way. When the proposal or plan serves as a starting point for a project or assignment, students can use the discussion boards collaboratively to provide feedback on each other’s work.


  • Research proposal
  • Business model
  • Treatment plan
  • Essay abstract/outline/bibliography
  • Presentation outline
  • The Charrette protocol

This is a work in progress that benefits from contributions from others. Please feel free to share comments and suggestions.

This post was written by Brad Thames, Instructional Designer with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Text-Expansion Software

Want to cut down on repetitive tasks while teaching online? Need a way to organize and retrieve bits of text?  Try text-expansion software!

What is Text-Expansion Software?

Text-expansion software (also sometimes called a “typing accelerator”) allows you to create a “snippet”, which can be anything from a single word or symbol to whole passages of text along with an associated abbreviation that, when typed, gets replaced by the text.  As I explain more below, if you find yourself typing things out on a regular basis, text-expansion software can greatly cut down on the time it takes to do so.

In addition, it can also be used as a helpful way to store and organize text, such as quotations and passages you want to save, posts or messages that you’ve written and want to reuse, bibliographical citations, etc.; and it can serve as an “autocorrect” feature of the sort you may be used to in programs like Microsoft Word.

In this post, I will explain how features like this have made text-expansion software one the most indispensable tools in my daily life and work, especially teaching online.

The software I use, and which I will showcase in this post, is called aText.  It’s been available for Mac users for years, and as of this 2020 it’s now available for Windows as well.  The Mac version costs only $4.99. The Windows version is $5/year for a subscription or $25 lifetime.

Another alternative for both Mac and PC is TextExpander.  It’s a bit pricier – $3.33-$4.16 per month, depending on the billing plan – but it is a bit more robust and works on more devices (such as phones and tablets).

There are some other programs, but I can’t speak to any of their features or quality.

How It Works

The primary function of the software is text expansion, but I also find it quite useful for organization as well. I will briefly explain how each of these works before saying more about how I implement these functions when teaching.

Text Expansion

“Text expansion” involves typing a string of characters (a shortcut, or what aText calls the “Abbreviation”), and the program replaces that with other text (called the “Content”).

Screenshot of a Snippet


Expansion with Trigger Character

In most cases you would begin the shortcut with a “trigger” character, which in my case is an apostrophe (‘).  For instance, if I want to quickly insert my email signature, I can type ‘sig, and the program will replace that with my full signature. (Using just sig as the shortcut for the full signature would mean that every time I typed sig it would replace it with my email signature, which would make typing a word like “signature” impossible – once I type the first three letters, the whole signature would appear before I can type the rest of the word; that’s why I use the ‘ as the first character of the shortcut.) But the trigger character can be anything you want. The key is to cut down on typing; I find the apostrophe the most accessible trigger, but others may prefer a different one.

Expansion Without Trigger Character

In other cases it may not be necessary to use the trigger, such as when you want the program to always change a certain string of characters.  For instance, I have things set up so that b/c automatically changes to because, w/ to with, lmk to let me know, thru to through, and so on.

In this short video, I write an email letting my students know about upcoming office hours (an email I might frequently send and thus have a shortcut assigned to it), and demonstrate the use of text expansion with and without a trigger character.


The program also provides a handy way to organize blocks of text that you may want to be able to find and retrieve. As we will see below, this is quite useful when it comes to organizing discussion posts, assignment comments, emails, and other ways of engaging with students. You may also, for instance, find yourself writing similar emails on multiple occasions, but not so much that you create a shortcut for it.

In such cases you can use the shortcut or “Abbreviation” space to instead write a tag that allows you to quickly locate the text you want, which you can then copy and paste. I use capital letters for that tag since I will probably never write those words in caps otherwise. Or, you may precede the tag with a character like !.

In this screenshot, you can see that some emails have a tag, because I write them more frequently, while others don’t either because I don’t write them as frequently or because I may have multiple versions stored in the Content window.

Screenshot of Abbreviations

Use in Grading

One frequent use is in written assignment grading for online classes or any class in which papers are graded with a computer rather than by hand.

Let’s begin by noting a potential advantage that computer-based grading can have over hand-grading: instructors can provide comments that (a) don’t fill up the page with ink and (b) are reusable, and so don’t require rewriting the same or similar comments over and over.  This is especially handy when it comes to making more detailed and substantive comments, and so computer-based grading offers the opportunity to greatly expand and enhance the feedback we provide to students while cutting down on time.

Text expansion software brings out this potential wonderfully.

I have a large database of generic writing comments that I use frequently, regardless of the course or assignment, and that can be triggered with a few keystrokes.  In the following examples, the shortcut – what I actually type – is the string of characters before the –>, and it gets automatically replaced with the text after the –>:


  • ‘inc –> This is an incomplete sentence.
  • ‘removeap –> Remove the apostrophe. This is a plural noun, not a possessive one.
  • ‘reword –> Can you reword this sentence to enhance its clarity and ensure that it’s grammatically correct?
  • ‘informal –> This language is a bit too informal or conversational in style. Academic writing is structured and formal. What may seem appropriate in everyday conversation is not necessarily appropriate for an academic essay.
  • ‘citepage –> You need to be sure to include the page, paragraph, or section number when quoting a text – something that allows the reader to identify as closely as possible where in the text the quote comes from.
  • ‘quoteexplain –> While it is good practice to support your arguments with relevant quotations, it is important to explain what you take the author to mean and how it relates to what you are saying in the paragraph, i.e., whether it provides a challenge or support for your own argument, and how it does so.  I should never be left wondering why you included a quote, or what role the quotation plays in the context of your own discussion.
  • ‘informal –> This language is a bit too informal or conversational in style. Academic writing is structured and formal. What may seem appropriate in everyday conversation is not necessarily appropriate for an academic essay.
  • ‘whom –> This should be “whom”. Remember to use “who” when referring to the subject of a clause, and “whom” when referring to the object of a clause.  For example, “this is the person who came to my house yesterday” vs. “this is the person to whom I gave the key to my house yesterday.”  In the first sentence, “who” refers to the person that did the action (the subject); in the second sentence, “whom” refers to the person that the action was done to (the object).
    Or: “who married Bill last year?” vs. “whom did Bill marry last year?”
    An easy way to remember this is to think about when you would use “he/she” vs. “her/him”.  “Who” is used in the same way that “he/she” is used, and “whom” is used in the same way that “her/him” is used.  For example, would you say “who wrote the letter?” or “whom wrote the letter?”  If you substituted “he/she” and “her/him”, you would find that “he/she wrote the letter” is correct, therefore “who wrote the letter?” is also correct.
    Or would you say “who did he write the letter to?” or “whom did he write the letter to?”  Substituting the other words, we have either “he wrote the letter to she” vs. “he wrote the letter to her.”  The second is correct, and so “whom did he write the letter to?” is also correct.
  • ‘notscholarly –> You need to be referring primarily to scholarly sources in your assignments.  Scholarly sources are ones in which the published material has been peer-reviewed by other experts in the field to make sure that the content is reliable and worthy of publication, and contains references and a bibliography to support the author’s claims.  If you need assistance understanding whether a source is scholarly or not, go to the St. Thomas Library website, click on “Research and Course Guides”, and “General Research Tutorial” on the right side under “How to do Research”. Then, hover over the “Selecting Your Sources” tab and click “Finding Articles”, which gives you detailed information and examples of scholarly and non-scholarly sources.


You can see how using text-expansion software provides that extra clarity and instruction to one’s comments that can substantially enhance the students’ learning but which would be quite burdensome if the instructor had to write it out each time, particularly when it comes to the much longer comments like the last few; instead, the instructor merely has to type in a few keystrokes.

See this in action here:


I also keep a large database of substantive comments on more particular topics; in fact, it’s generally the case that when I spend time writing out something substantive, I save it in my snippets. Since I don’t use these as often, I don’t assign a shortcut. Instead, I give it a label in all caps that helps me quickly identify it in the list of snippets, and I can then copy and paste it (or one of multiple variations I might have stored) into the comments.

Screenshot of Text Organization

Use in Discussion

As before, let’s first briefly acknowledge that online discussions provide unique opportunities, such as involving more students in discussions and encouraging contributions that feature greater depth and care.  Of course, there are many drawbacks, some of which are directly related to those advantages – composing discussion responses can take significantly more time than making oral comments within a face-to-face discussion, and when you often have to address many students rather than addressing the whole class at once, that compounds the time burden on instructors.

One way to cut down on that burden for instructors who teach similar courses over time is to be able to save and reuse discussion posts. Text-expansion software provides a helpful way to store such comments and quickly retrieve them when the occasion arises.

Screenshot of Stored Text


Many people are familiar with the autocorrect feature from using programs like Microsoft Word that automatically changes commonly misspelled or miscapitalized words as you type (like teh to the or i to I). Many people also know that you can customize that feature, such as by adding to the list of autocorrects.  Text expansion software allows you to do that same thing on any computer program, not just Microsoft Office products, most notably when typing in a web browser.

This is useful not just for correcting mistakes.  I frequently add words and phrases that are a bit of an annoyance to continually type out, either because of their length or their complexity.

I noted a few above, like changing b/c to because, lmk to let me know, and things like that. Over the years as I have written and taught philosophy, I have had to continually write out terms like “being-in-the-world“, “phenomenological” or “Categorical Imperative“, which I triggered with the shortcuts ‘bitw, ‘phenll, and ‘ci.  I’ve also used it to trigger Greek text by typing the English transliteration, such as triggering ευδαιμονία from ‘eudaimonia.

Every discipline similarly has technical or cumbersome words or symbols, or ones that require hunting, pecking, inserting, etc. These programs can save time and help you stay focused on what you’re writing rather than the task of typing, and they will work the same in any program you may be using.

Potential Problems

One possible drawback to the use of this software, especially in teaching, is that it may seem to encourage a form of engagement that is more mechanical and perfunctory, presenting only the façade of the kind of direct, personalized engagement they deserve. This is a legitimate concern, but not a necessary one.

Pre-written comments can – and usually should – be read through, adapted and customized to the particular context before being posted.  This makes their use not dissimilar to the way one might have a more-or-less memorized response to a common question asked in a face-to-face environment, but still express it in a way that is personalized to the particular situation.

We should remember that while the online environment provides great opportunities to engage with students in uniquely fruitful ways in comparison to traditional, face-to-face environments, such as by allowing our responses to students be more thought out, carefully expressed, and substantive, this comes at the cost of adding substantially to the amount of time the instructor puts into this engagement.  Text-expansion software helps to cut down on those costs while still allowing for the advantages to shine through.

As a final note, every time I used the term “text-expansion software” while writing this post, I was typing the abbreviation ‘te contained in a “Temp” folder within aText.  Another example of how widely useful a program like this can be!

Student Systems of Support

Teaching an Online Course this Summer? Help Your Students Find Tommie Tech!

As faculty are preparing to teach summer online courses, our academic technology team wants to remind you of a resource that you can point students to even before students start your class. If you like to send your summer students communication before class starts, consider reminding them about the Tommie Tech technology orientation site. (This April 29 article has additional details.)

All St. Thomas students are enrolled in either the undergraduate or graduate student version of the Tommie Tech technology orientation. This student resource includes an introduction to St. Thomas technology that includes content and activities that will assist students in taking an online class. Tommie Tech guides students to:

  • find technology help available to St. Thomas students
  • set up your own device(s) such as testing your browser
  • use Canvas basic features
  • locate St. Thomas apps and digital tools
  • be aware of online etiquette, and
  • learn about digital security practices

There is also an option to earn a Tommie Tech Certificate.

Faculty, to examine Tommie Tech, please enroll in the faculty version by selecting the respective link:

Review the site to become familiar with what the students learn. We also welcome your suggestions on further improvements!

Security note: All course URLs are password protected and only accessible to St. Thomas personnel using their username and password.

If you are teaching this summer, consider these suggestions:

  • Mention the Tommie Tech Undergraduate or Tommie Tech Graduate site in an early announcement or letter before class starts, and/or further call this out in your Get Started/Module 0 in your Canvas course. If you are using the Summer 2020 Course Template from STELAR (upload from the Canvas Commons), that course template includes a Module 0, mentions Tommie Tech,  and also a sample Student Prep for Remote Learning module. Tommie Tech complements and reinforces what you put into your summer courses, and is there for students even before you open up your summer course to them.
  • Include the student Tommie Tech course link in your summer course to make it easy for students to access Tommie Tech. Select the correct link here:
  • Ask students to explore the orientation content before their summer class starts or by the end of the first week of class and spend time on what is unfamiliar. There are Tommie Tech Site Facilitators available in the discussion spaces.
  • If you decide to act students to complete the orientation and earn a Tommie Tech Certificate of Completion, some instructors then create an assignment in their Canvas site that allows students to upload the certificate. Also, some instructors create a pre-week 1 or week 1 activity inviting student reflections on what they will do to be a successful online learner (drawing upon their review of the Tommie Tech site and other resources).
  • If a student completed the Orientation to Online Learning Certificate during 2018 or 2019, that could be considered an equivalency to the Tommie Tech Certificate. You may still want to encourage students to use Tommie Tech to check their browser and internet speed, and point out other activities in Tommie Tech that you’d like them to review.

If you expect students to complete the orientation and show evidence of completion:

  • Sample Message: Please locate the Tommie Tech Orientation site on your Canvas dashboard or use this shortcut link: <Faculty insert either the Undergraduate Student Tommie Tech  or the Graduate Student Tommie Tech link into your student communication.> Please explore the content in the Tommie Tech by the end of your first week of class. If this is your first online class at St Thomas, please complete the orientation and at the end of the site request the Certificate of Completion. If you completed an orientation to online learning during the past 2 years, please still click through the pages in Tommie Tech to see any unfamiliar or updated content.

If you want students to know about the Tommie Tech resource (but not necessarily required):

  • Sample Message: If you are new to online learning at St. Thomas, please explore the Tommie Tech site and suggested activities. <Faculty, insert in either the Undergraduate Student Tommie Tech or the Graduate Student Tommie Tech link into your communication>. New St. Thomas students may find it helpful to complete the entire site; if you have been at St. Thomas for awhile you may simply want to skim the resource. There is also an option to request a Certificate of Completion. 

Where did Tommie Tech come from?

The current Tommie Tech sites combine ideas from both the Orientation to Online Learning site (in operation since Summer 2018) and the fall 2019 Tommie Tech sites. The earlier versions of both sites had a lot of student, faculty, and staff input that guided us on what to include in this current site. We will continue to learn from students (and you!) in this new version of the site.

This April 29 article includes further information on Leveraging Tommie Tech for Student Success.

Looking ahead!

As we look ahead, we wanted to cut down on confusion, and not have so many different technology orientation sites for students to pick right now. Having just one technology orientation site at the undergraduate level and one site at the graduate level (instead of both a Tommie Tech and also Orientation to Online) was one of the ways we are trying to simplify during this complex time. We all think having this base technology resource for all students provides more equitable access to technology supports for all students.

In the future, we can scaffold onto this base Tommie Tech site with additional levels of online learning supports for students who may want additional challenges and opportunities with technology. Badging and additional learning opportunities around the bend. But right now we are reeling things back in a bit to ensure that all students feel safe and connected to one another and to relevant learning, and are supported to leverage technology to support these people and learning connections!

One St. Thomas, nobody left behind.  

If there are additional resources or activities you would like to see for your online learners this summer, please reach out to Jo Montie to explore some ways to creatively work together on this!

This post was written by Jo Montie, Online Learning Student Success Facilitator ( with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Student Systems of Support, Technology Tools

Tommie Tech and Online Learning for Students: Also a Resource for Faculty and Staff!

This article describes the Tommie Tech and Online (Remote) Learning Canvas resource for students, and how faculty and staff can use this resource to support student success.  

What is Tommie Tech?                                                                                         

All current St. Thomas students have access to a Canvas site called Tommie Tech, an orientation to St. Thomas technologies and online learning resources. There is both an undergraduate and a graduate student version. Now more than ever, students need equitable digital access to resources to enhance participation in virtual spaces. 

Tommie Tech invites students to:

  • learn about key tech systems such as Canvas, Zoom, Murphy, Office 365, and OneStThomas;
  • set up their devices including free apps to download;
  • practice with technology tools; and
  • locate additional resources while learning online.

Tommie Tech includes videos, tutorials, and optional activities so that students start their classes knowing how to upload assignments, set their notifications, find 24/7 help, and more. Tommie Tech Site Facilitators are available (daily) to participate in discussion and respond to questions.

This resource complements (yet does not replace) the more specific college/department level orientation provided to students, and also complement the course-specific student prep module that instructors may include in their courses.

How do students access Tommie Tech?

Initially, all students are automatically enrolled in Tommie Tech to ensure equitable access. All current and upcoming students have been in the site since March 28; starting May 4 there will be a daily enrollment feed into the graduate and undergraduate student sites to ensure that students are not missed. After students are given access to the site, if they do not want to be in the site, they can request being removed at any point (see the home page for unenroll option).

Tommie Tech is especially pertinent for newer students, students who have had less access to or comfort with technology or academics, and/or students unfamiliar with St. Thomas technologies. However, students get to decide if the site is helpful for them.

Students find Tommie Tech on their St. Thomas Canvas dashboard. If they have trouble finding this site, please contact the

How can faculty and staff access Tommie Tech?

St. Thomas instructors and staff are invited to self-enroll into the Tommie Tech Sample Sites:

Try out the activities and share your feedback on ways to further improve the resource.

How might instructors, advisors, and program leaders use Tommie Tech with students?

Professors, advisors, program leaders, student service team members hold a special role to help students to find and use this resource. A few ideas to consider:

  • Instructors could point out this resource to students on your course site home page or in announcements. Prior to a new semester or course start, include a message in your pre-class or week 1 note such as “All students are enrolled in a Canvas site called Tommie Tech and Online Learning. Please explore the resources in this site and try the suggested activities by or before the first week of class.”
  • You are welcome to include the student course URL in your current course or student communications.
    • The links only work for students already enrolled in the course (from May 4, 2020, on, that should include any student); students must use their St. Thomas username and password to log in.
    • The undergraduate student course link is
    • The graduate student course link is
  • There is an option in both sites for students to receive a St. Thomas Tommie Tech certificate if you would like students to document a certain level of engagement with the content. Work with Tommie Tech Facilitator Jo Montie to further connect your program with Tommie Tech.
  • Advisors, Counselors, or Disability Services team members – If you see a student having technology challenges or needs, ask them if they know about the Tommie Tech site. If not, help them find this course on their Canvas dashboard.
  • In your advising notes, say “For additional technology support, explore the Tommie Tech Canvas site-there for you, 24/7. If new to St. Thomas, we suggest completing practice activities in the site too.”
  • If a student has unresolved tech needs, point them to the for one-on-one support. Also, if you would like a student to have personalized attention in Tommie Tech, connect that student to one of the Tommie Tech Site Facilitators.

Where did Tommie Tech and Online Learning come from?

These sites combine ideas from both the Orientation to Online Learning site (in operation since Summer 2018) and the fall 2019 Tommie Tech sites. The earlier versions of both sites had a lot of student, faculty, and staff input that guided us on what to include in this current site. We will continue to learn from students (and you!) in this new version of the site.

Who are the Tommie Tech Site Facilitators?

Facilitators in the Undergraduate Tommie Tech Site include ITS (Tech) Team members Mark Weinlaeder, Anna Ewart, Katie Nelson, Sarah Larson, and Jo Montie; Jesse Langer (Student Life/Student Affairs); Amy Kadrmas (DFC); Brian Matthews (Academic Advising); Erica Thompson (Residence Life), Ann Zawistoski (Library), and students Lauren Infante (Center for Well Being and Student Government), Maggie Martin (ITS/media) and Sophia G. Becker (ITS/media).

Facilitators in the Graduate Tommie Tech Site include ITS Tech team members Anna Ewart, Andrew Sosinski, Mark Weinlaeder,  Jo Montie; Rayni Shin (Data Science grad student and ITS student employee) and John Heintz (Library Services).

Additional Site Facilitators are welcome!

In Summary

We are grateful for your teamwork to keep these resources relevant! For feedback or questions about Tommie Tech Online/Remote Learning site, please contact any of these Site Facilitators or Jo Montie at

This post was written by Jo Montie, Online Learning Systems Facilitator with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Canvas: Did you know...?, Technology Tools

New Rich Content Editor in Canvas

You might not know what it’s called, but you have used the Rich Content Editor multiple times. It’s the ribbon of tools at the top of the frame when you edit pages, discussions, assignments, etc. in Canvas.

St. Thomas is enabling the new Rich Content Editor on August 21, 2020. However, faculty can switch over to the new editor at any point. Keep in mind that when you switch to the new editor, all users in that class (including students) will be switched over, too. Read more below to learn about the new features and how to try it out.

Original Rich Content Editor


The new Rich Content Editor is much more compact (only one row of tools) and eliminates the right side-bar menu:

New Rich Content Editor

Advantages of the New Rich Content Editor:

  • one hour of auto save (no more losing your work when your browser crashes or you accidentally click Cancel instead of Save)
  • more space on the screen for your work
  • less scrolling when you build things like quizzes and syllabi

Where did Everything Go?

All the items currently in the menus at the right side of your screen have been split into different icons in the new Rich Content Editor:

  • Course Links (A)
  • Course Images (B)
  • Course Media (C)

All external tools (including Panopto, YouTube, and library materials) are now in the “plug” icon at the right. (D)

The Accessibility Checker (E) and HTML/Text Editor toggle (F) is in the bottom right.

New Tool Positions

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Canvas has updated tutorials for faculty and students. Plus, Canvas Support is available 24/7 to help you.

How to Get the New Rich Content Editor

The new Rich Content Editor is available now, but it’s optional. The New Rich Content Editor will be enabled for all users on August 21, 2020.

Want a sneak peek or to take advantage of the auto-save feature? Enable the New Rich Content Editor in your course(s) by Going into Settings > Feature Options and turning on RCE Enhancements.

This post was written by Nancy McGinley Myers, Instructional Designer with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about what STELAR can do for you, please visit STELAR’s website or email us at