171. Burnout

Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode, Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark joins us to talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

Rebecca  is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty.

Show Notes

  • Project board with three columns: Backlog, Work in progress and done. The Done column is layers of stickynotes and the work in progress only has a few items.
    Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s current project board

Transcript

John: Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode we talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark. She is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Thank you so much for having me… big fan of the show.

John: Happy to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Rebecca, are you drinking tea?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I am. I take teaching and tea very seriously. So I’m drinking PG Tips from England this morning.

John: We have some of that in our office.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: It’s a favorite. [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have some Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: Yum.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: mmm, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: And I’m on I think my last pot of my loose leaf Scottish breakfast tea.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Ooh.

Rebecca: I’ll have to move on to something else.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yum. I’m a big fan of Irish.

Rebecca: The Scottish was a discovery for me during the pandemic, and I’ve been a little obsessed.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: [LAUGHTER] I’ll have to try that

Rebecca: My grandmother’s from Scotland, so maybe it’s that. I don’t know.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, my grandmother’s from England. So I gravitate towards the English breakfast tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on faculty burnout. Perhaps we could begin by describing what burnout looks and feels like.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. So the World Health Organization defined burnout recently as a workplace related syndrome characterized by unrelenting stress that is unmanageable, specifically in the workplace. So that’s the definition that we’re mostly working from right now. And burnout has three characteristics that you can be on the lookout for. First, there’s exhaustion, so that mental, intellectual, emotional, exhaustion, where it’s just difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because everything is so tiring. The second sign is cynicism, or depersonalization. There’s cynicism toward the people that you work with, towards the job that you’re doing. You stop being people really as individuals, and they seem more like kind of an amorphous group. And then the last one is this lack of a sense of meaning or accomplishment. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see the value of the work that you’re doing. We all kind of know what those three things feel like at the end of the semester. But this burnout, as we’re defining it, by the World Health Organization, is a sustained pace of unrelenting stress. And that looks different for everyone. And you can look for common signs like pulling away and isolating from the work context, unexplainable anger, an inability to concentrate or sustain thought to the level that you’re used to, and an inability to write for some folks. And that was one of my problems when I went through burnout. So those can be kind of heartbreaking things and not knowing what’s going on with that. And then if you don’t have a language for burnout, it can often feel like shame, because you can’t emotionally and intellectually do what you’ve always done. And the brain just doesn’t work that well under that kind of stress.

John: And during a pandemic, those things become much more serious. And a lot of it is people are trying to reach the standards they had set for themselves, but aren’t quite able to during the circumstances, and that gets really frustrating. So why do we set such high standards for ourselves and each other at any time, but during a pandemic, in particular?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, it’s endemic to the culture of higher education. The people who are attracted to higher education often come from a kind of a similar personality type, not to say that that’s a total stereotype. But we all have kind of a predilection toward achieving and excellence and knowledge and lifelong learning. And those are wonderful things. But when they get taken to a certain extreme, it becomes really difficult to see past this kind of expectation escalation, every step has to be a little bigger than the last step. And that’s an expectation. It’s not necessarily just something that we put in our own head. So higher education culture really does push that on us in a lot of ways. Burnout, specifically, is really hard in, like I said, the caring work like health care and teaching. And we have to think about: “What are the positive rewards on that?” So sometimes burnout comes from not enough rewards, from not enough positive interactions. And those can be part of the stress, and we have to really think that workplaces cause burnout. The definition and the research that we see says it is very workplace specific. But that doesn’t necessarily mean if you move over to another job, that those kinds of things are going to go away, especially in higher education, because the culture, the expectation escalation, there is kind of an unrelenting pace, and there’s no room to just kind of fit and be content or rest. And one thing I do want to point out too is that burnout itself is not a mental health illness. It’s a syndrome associated with stress. So there’s more that you can do to manage burnout, before it gets bad if you can catch it early enough.

John: For faculty,referring to what you said earlier, one of the symptoms is perhaps dehumanizing your students and, as you said, treating your students as this amorphous blob, rather than as individuals. And I think we often hear some of that in some of our colleagues who’ve reached their limit by the end of the semester, but when that becomes persistent, it becomes I think, a more serious issue.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, that was definitely my problem when I went through my own severe burnout. I was a teacher’s teacher, right? I mean, That was all I wanted to do. My entire tenure case was built on teaching and scholarship of teaching and learning. So when I started to pull away from my students, when I started to feel very negatively about them and their concerns, I was a tenure track faculty member tenured for 12 years plus five years teaching undergraduates with graduate students. So at that point, you’ve kind of seen everything in a way it feels like,so the compassion fatigue starts to set in, because it becomes repetitive for you. It’s the same thing over and over again. And that’s exactly where students should be. Right? That’s their developmental age. Of course, they should be there. The compassion dries up, and the empathy starts to dry up. And that’s a pretty big sign to look for burnout.

Rebecca: How does this impact newer faculty or mid-career faculty differently than faculty that have been around for longer?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: In some ways, I don’t feel like, at this point, there is a big distinction. I think we can all be prone to it. I think we are all prone to it. I think we probably experience in different ways. And by the time I went through my burnout, I was relatively close to going up for full professor and had been successful and was pleased with my career. But it just wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t find joy in it anymore. I started having panic attacks just going to campus. Those are signals to look for. And I think we all go through ebbs and flows. Yes, it was more stressful as a junior faculty member, especially given the expectations of graduate students coming out these days. It’s crazy. And what graduate students need to do and be prepared to get those few rare tenure-track positions is exponentially bigger than what I had to do when I finished my PhD 14 years ago. And especially in the pandemic, those poor junior faculty are thinking about their tenure clock, they’re thinking about the tenure case, they might have caregiving responsibilities at home. When do you have time to write? This kind of unrelenting stress makes it really difficult to focus and difficult to think. And I think a lot of the folks who are being productive now, that’s amazing. It could be a coping mechanism that some of us don’t have or don’t have the luxury of. So I really do feel for junior faculty, especially when all of those things are so uncertain. What’s the clock look like? How do you account for the time and publication and presentations in your clock? And I think burnout can be kind of common right after receiving tenure for folks, because there’s a sudden, “what if” kind of that midlife crisis there too. But it depends on how your workplace is kind of playing out in a lot of ways and that the people that you’re engaging with, the activities that you’re doing, things that you are responsible for, that you feel like you can’t step away from. So I think we can all be prone to burnout at any point, if we’re not at least on the lookout for it.

Rebecca: One of the things that you hinted at and that we’ve talked about on a previous podcast related to the pandemic is some of the particular challenges that affect women or faculty of color or contingent faculty who may have some of those additional caregiving responsibilities or other things that are happening if they’re working from home.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Right. And we know from higher education research that women, faculty of color, and contingent faculty, especially, tend to teach larger numbers of students. So they’re already doing significantly more emotional labor on our campuses than we might know. Because it’s hidden, it’s silent. And these populations are often called to do more significant service, more significant mentoring. So more time means more and more potential for secondary traumas on top of all the quote unquote normal workload, and whatever might be going on for them at home as well. It could be childcare, it could be eldercare, it could be a number of different things that they didn’t expect, or they didn’t have on their plates necessarily during work hours. So it’s going to impact time, it’s going to impact attention, the ability to research and write, and it’s just a heavy emotional load. Faculty, for the most part, are not trained counselors. We don’t have that skill set, necessarily. And we shouldn’t be asked, necessarily, to be counselors. But we need some skills to help our students as we’re all going through this unrelenting trauma right now, it’s impacting all of us. So we have to build up our own mental health and our own resilience to be able to help our students work through what they’re going through. And as a woman faculty member, faculty of color, we work with more students, and we see more students and students may be more comfortable talking to us about the struggles that they’re having. So how do we engage with them and point them to the resources that they need? We can be empathetic, but if you’re not a trained counselor, how do we connect them with the resources that are going to help them? And I think one blessing right now is that student mental health had been an issue that was gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in higher ed, so there are much better systems in place at many institutions for student mental health, as resources are available. So if we know what those are, we can direct our students to them, and we can ask them for help in helping our students. But we can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves. How do we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our students as well, whatever that means for you?

John: What are some strategies that faculty could use to help mitigate burnout, to make it less likely, or at least reduce its impact?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: There’s a lot of things we can think about. And depending on how far down the scale you are in burnout therapy might be the best option. And that’s something to talk to your mental health care provider about. Most institutions have EAPs that might offer you some initial conversations with a mental health professional or a coach. So you could take advantage of that to kind of see where you are. Another point of, I don’t want to say diagnosis, but another point of maybe a way to kind of see where you are on a scale is to check out the Maslach Burnout I Inventory. Christina Maslach. It’s kind of the grande dame of burnout research. And she and her colleagues have one of the most validated scales for burnout right now, and inventories. So if you Google that, there’s a $15 version for educators, and that’ll show you where you are on those three dimensions of burnout, so you have a sense of what the challenges are, so that you can direct your attention to those specifically. When I took it, I was almost off the charts. So I waited way too long, because I didn’t have a language for what was happening to me. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, because it was shameful. I couldn’t think straight anymore. I couldn’t decide what to eat for lunch, I had a panic attack when I got near campus. So if you’re a kind of a hard charging academic, and those things start happening to you, you start questioning “What is going on?” And how do you not display that weakness to other people. So the first thing after therapy, if that’s what you need in diagnosis, is connection. And that’s one of the earliest things that’s going to go, because you do start to isolate yourself. But once I started talking about my burnout, people came out of the woodwork, which is both good, because people are talking about it, and both terrible, because there are so many folks who have told me their stories, and they’re just sad… not just that their mental health, but their physical health has been impacted by burnout. So I think we can do a lot of things. Connection is the first thing and that might be talking to a trusted circle of folks around you that may or may not be in higher education, reaching out to folks in your counseling centers if those are available, reaching out to your centers for teaching and learning and faculty development, they might have coaching opportunities for you or, I know that my institution, we’re talking about how we can develop some programming for our faculty that they can come into and get a conversation and see that they’re not alone, which is a big part of starting recovery, honestly. So some of the things that I do recommend are redefining what your sense of productivity is. We talked a little earlier about that sense of expectation escalation. Once you’ve written a paper in this journal, you need to get into a better journal, you need to get into another better journal, then you need to get a book contract. And once that book is out, everything else needs to be a book with a better publisher. It’s almost never ending. When do we be content? I talked to one faculty member who was at an institution where the administration felt like there weren’t enough women in full professorships. So they wanted to hold events to convince women to go up for full professor. But many of the women at that institution were content where they were, and they had fulfilling careers. They had fulfilling family lives. They were happy at that thought in their career, which is sometimes kind of rare, I think, you know, to feel that kind of contentedness. So why push that just for kind of a sense of it almost feels like kind of a performativity of that. So rethink what productivity means. The uncertainty seems never ending. Now that the vaccines are out, I think maybe we have some hope that there’s an end in sight. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write right now or do your research, especially if you’re doing research with people that you can’t interact with right now, whether that’s colleagues or contributors or a population that you study, right? It’s difficult. So what can you do now? and what is reasonable? And I think there needs to be transparency with administration at this point. They need to be having conversations about what’s reasonable right now, when we’re going through this. Not that this year is a total waste by any stretch. But we need to temper expectations for what productivity means and what we can realistically do right now. Some other options are setting some boundaries for yourself. Self care is a buzzword, we all talk about self care, the need to take care of myself, but we often think of it in a very superficial way: I’m going to get a massage, I’m going to get a pedicure, I’m going to go fishing for the weekend. And those are wonderful things, but they don’t necessarily take care of you in the long run. They don’t necessarily take care of your mental health in the long run. So setting boundaries is one of the key ways that you can take care of yourself. Brene Brown talks a lot about boundary setting and how to hold those boundaries. So that’s a resource to look into. But if we set boundaries for ourselves, we can model that for others, as well, right? We can’t start changing the culture of productivity until we all start thinking about what we’re doing and how we do it. And how we model those things for folks who are upcoming,

Rebecca: Sometimes setting boundaries can be difficult, at least initially. But I’ve discovered, and I think others will discover this too, that if you start small, it becomes a habit, and you can make bigger boundaries. And it really does help to have those boundaries, either in time or expectation boundaries in terms of how fast to respond to students. And once you have the boundaries set and you are okay with them, it’s pretty easy for other people to respect them, but you have to respect them yourself.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely, it’s like sending that time aside in your calendar or really committing to not checking email after 5pm and those kinds of things that we just kind of take for granted.

Rebecca: It’s so hard.

REBECCA P. It really is.

John:…and sharing those with your students can be helpful too, so that they know they should not expect a response at 2am or at 6am. Because otherwise, they might feel neglected if they don’t get an immediate response. But if they know that there are certain times when you will not be responding, they’re much more willing to accept it.

Rebecca: Or even sharing that your response time is at a weird time I respond at 5am. Because I have a small child. And that’s when I can.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, whatever boundary works for you.

John: I do have to say, our administration has been really good about this. Our Provost, at the end of his email, has a message saying he does not expect responses out of work hours or over weekends, I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically, he’s letting us know that we don’t have to respond right away. He’s writing to us when he has a free moment. But he expects us to do it when we have time during our regular work time. The Dean of Arts and Sciences has been wonderful in working with faculty and encouraging them to take breaks to do other things, to get away. And that’s been really helpful for faculty here.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: One thing that I think people can find helpful too, is hobbies. And I think sometimes when we’re kind of in the ruts and the hustle and the bustle, we let those things go by the wayside. But if you have a hobby or a pastime, that is kind of encompassing, and that helps turn your brain around… I ride horses, my husband has motorcycles… so, those are things that you have to focus on, you don’t want to not be mentally present if you’re on a horse, right? [LAUGHTER] …that’s not some place you want to be. So hobbies, whether it’s painting or music or garage science, whatever it is that makes you turn the brain off and think about things in a very different way, can be extremely helpful for your mental health as well.

Rebecca: And fun.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Let yourself have fun.

Rebecca: Imagine that.

REBECCA P.: I’m a terrible horseback rider, I’m never gonna compete. [LAUGHTER] But, it’s fun. So, let yourself have that. When you see competition everywhere. I mean, that’s a feature of higher education as well, because there’s always someone who’s a little bit better than you doing a little bit more than you, that becomes the bar. And going back to that idea of how can we be content where we are. Striving is good lifelong learning is good, but when it becomes this unrelenting pursuit without a purpose behind it, that’s when we need to stop and think because burnout can be close behind that.

John: You’ve also suggested in some of your writing that during a pandemic, we should accept some degree of mediocrity in our work. That we can’t expect to deliver our courses in the same way we’re used to, or necessarily at a very high level of quality. I think that’s a very helpful suggestion.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: John, I get kind of in trouble for using the word mediocrity. But as academics know, our standards are very high, whether that’s in your research or your teaching and service. Really, what I’m arguing is, take a step back, or take two steps back. We are not in a place as a society where we can have really deep thoughts, for many of us. And the more we beat ourselves up for that, the worse it’s going to get. And the worst burnout is going to chase you. In addition to all the trauma that we’re getting from the pandemic, and all the social injustice in the world. Really what I mean is taking a couple steps back, you can still be rigorous, you can still do good courses, your students can still learn in whatever context, if you are flexible in ways that you might not have been before. I think common humanity is really important. We may be seeing the humanity of our students in very different ways. And they’re seeing our humanity in very different ways now, and that’s a good thing. Because they know that we’re not robots, and they’re not alone in the things that they’re feeling and that we’re concerned, we’re struggling, we are experiencing the burnout that they may be experiencing as well. So if we can be human with them, if we can lower some of our standards. And again, that sounds bad, you don’t want to lower your standards, but you can get there in different ways. There might be different ways than high stakes exams, for example, which we know are already very complicated emotionally and intellectually when you’re doing them in a fully remote course, for example. There’s a lot of things there to consider. So how can we help our students learn in ways that are productive, maybe a little bit more fun, but still focus on the learning and the learning objectives, rather than what you have always done in the past. And your students will appreciate that too.

John: And that’s not a bad strategy under any circumstances, but especially during this pandemic. But just as faculty are experiencing burnout, so are many of our students. I know a lot of students sort of faded away. And we heard the story from many of our colleagues this past fall, that students were getting burnt out from all the hours they were spending in Zoom. And what they felt was an increase in the amount of work demanded from them, which may or may not have been the case, but certainly it felt that way to them. What can we do to help our students avoid burnout? You’ve suggested that a little bit by doing some things that are a little more engaging, and perhaps more fun ways than just taking high-stakes exams. Not that there’s much that could be more fun than that. [LAUGHTER] But what can we do to help our students get through this, perhaps, while still meeting those learning objectives?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I think the first thing we can do is listen to them. So I have a lot of colleagues to our maybe weekly doing very short check-ins with their students maybe via Canvas survey or Qualtrics. Just, “How are you doing?” “Where are you in this unit?” “What’s still unclear to you?” …those kinds of things. So they’re checking in on their students’ stresses regularly. And these aren’t long surveys by any stretch. You can do more active learning with your students. I think one of the reasons that students might be feeling like there’s more work is that when we’re switching to more lower-stakes assignments, and more of those, it seems like more work, because you now have 10 homeworks, instead of two giant tests. So it feels like more work. So I think part of it is really looking honestly at what you’re asking your students to do. And is it comparable? …because it should be comparable, or even maybe a little less. But if you have other opportunities for them to engage, whether it’s in the hybrid environment, or in a remote environment, that there are different ways for them to engage the material, to engage with you. And explain why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them. Why is this a great project? Why are you doing these smaller quizzes instead of the big test? And focus on the learning aspects of those not the “I’m not doing big tests, because cheating is rampant…” That’s not going to help anyone. [LAUGHTER] So I’m doing this because it’ll help you learn over time, and it’ll help me see how you’re doing and check in with you, and we’re all going to get to where we were going, we’re just going to get there maybe differently than we would if we were all face to face all the time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I started noticing or that students were disclosing to me is that having more asynchronous opportunities was feeling like more work because they weren’t used to having to manage their time. So, although maybe the same amount of time was being spent on task, it wasn’t being curated in the same way, they might come into the classroom and do some active learning during class time. And maybe we were expecting them to do something similar outside of class on their own, but now that just felt like crazy big ask.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: And when you move big class discussions to a discussion board, suddenly they have to write things instead of have a conversation. So that does feel like more work. And in some ways it is, especially when it’s asynchronous, because then it’s over time, you have to keep going back to this discussion, rather than having it in class for an hour. So I think we just have to think about some of the realities associated with this. And I think we have to be listening to the folks who are experts in online education. It’s a different medium, there’s a lot of different pedagogical challenges and opportunities. But that’s another faculty stressor right now is many of us are completely pushing and flipping and hybridizing in ways that we never expected to be doing. So it’s another case of common humanity, right? So you can tell your students that this is unusual for you, you’re learning along with them in that sense. So that feedback from them is really helpful to make sure that they’re learning the way you want them to be learning and working toward the course objectives. But still in a fair and consistent way with the learning objectives.

Rebecca: Noticing behind you that you’re practicing what you preach with a backlog and works in progress and done….it looks like an agile project board. [LAUGHTER]

REBECCA P.: It is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how some of the strategies in Agile Faculty might help in addressing burnout?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I think when you distill Agile Faculty and process down to its core, it’s about prioritizing and breaking things down into small chunks of work. I mean, that’s at the basic. You can layer the other things on top of it and the processes and the meetings. But I think visualizing the work, breaking down the work into small doable chunks, the example that I like to use as if you write literature review on your to do list, it’s gonna stay there for a month. And it’s gonna haunt you. Because there are a million little things you need to do to write a lit review. But if you break those down, and you visualize them, like the board behind me (and I can send everybody an image of that for the show notes, if that’s helpful), when you break them down and you see them, it doesn’t feel like you need eight hours of totally open time to do this thing. This thing might take an hour, this thing might take a half an hour, and it builds up over time, and you can see that. And seeing that visual progress is a wonderful psychological boost, especially if you use a physical board. I would love to do a study about what psychologically happens to people when they move sticky notes on a board. My students regularly cheer when they move something into the done column. They feel that success. So breaking things down as small as you can, realistically, of course, and then prioritizing what you can do now, and then just working consistently on small chunks when you have time.

John: And you also mentioned that there are a number of apps available for those people who are working on activities and groups. Could you share some of the apps that people might use for collaborative work online during this time?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I mean, you always have Google Suites… that’s helpful. Trello is a board software that I know people use, that you can set up lanes and things like you can on a board, if you need to do that digitally. Padlet might be another thing that you might be able to use. I love Mentimeter, so I’m trying to think if there’s a connection to Mentimeter, but I’m not sure that there is. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that there is.

John: Jamboard, maybe?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, probably. Anything that kind of looks like a digital whiteboard, and those kinds of things,where you can put squares or sticky notes and things like that you can use. I’m a big proponent of a physical board, but that’s completely unrealistic right now. So something like Trello doesn’t have a huge learning curve. Padlet does not have a huge learning curve. So those are software’s that are available free that students can use, and that you can use with your research teams. And the nice thing about the boards as well when they’re digital, especially for student teams, for research teams, too, is that when you, as a faculty member, have access to those, you can keep track about what students are accomplishing, and not in a surveillance way but in a learning way. Okay, they seem stuck here. This thing hasn’t moved for a while. So I’m gonna have a conversation with this group. Or, most of the group seems stuck in this particular piece of the assignment, so let’s have a conversation about that. So it opens up opportunities for just-in-time learning as well, when you can physically see their progress.

Rebecca: I’ve used Trello with students and they had no problem catching on to how to use it, you can also make templates to get them started, so if they’ve never done any project management like that before, you can get them going pretty easily, which can be really helpful too. And they really appreciated learning how to manage their time. And this is a way to manage their time, just like faculty sometimes need to learn how to manage their time.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I frequently talk to faculty who, it kind of occurs to them, when they attend one of my workshops that they just assume that their students knew how to collaborate. They teach students how to write a lab report, they teach students how to give a good speech, those kinds of things. We don’t teach them necessarily how to manage their time or to collaborate successfully, and even just spending a little time on that could pay huge learning dividends for the students. So we need to think about some of the things that we take for granted.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to address that we haven’t addressed yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I think I would like to just remind people that we need to normalize burnout through having the conversations about it, that this is not something that shameful, especially now we’re all struggling. And it’s not even creeping up on us anymore. It’s there, and it’s present. And it’s something that you can recognize, it is something that you can deal with the signs of. And across that spectrum, there’s a variety of ways to do that, but I think we need to normalize the conversation, but we need to change the culture that makes it normal. This is a cultural issue. Workplaces lead to burnout. Yes, as members of that culture, we perpetuate it, but it’s not going to change unless we really start arguing against it…modeling different things for junior faculty, for our graduate students, for our undergraduate students, and make those changes that live up to the values of lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge in ways that don’t become so competition based and kind of so capitalistic that we don’t lose track of the real reason and the purpose that we’re there.

Rebecca: Yeah, this is so important, and I think right now, during the pandemic, people are a little more willing to start to shift the culture. And so, although we don’t want to always say that there’s a silver lining with a pandemic, it’s one of those places where it’s a strategic time to start making change.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?” But that sounds very, very, very perpetuating of such a culture, it could be fun. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I’m looking forward to a quiet Christmas with my husband and Zooming with my family as much as possible.over the break, I will be working on the burnout book, and I’m starting my own podcast. So, I’m playing with that, which is a lot of fun. So that’s what I’ll be doing, hopefully reading some books and trying to set boundaries for when I do work and when I let myself relax.

John: Could you ell us a little bit about this podcast?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I’m calling it The Agile Academic, it’s a podcast for women in higher education, and it’s going to be an interview show. I’m gonna launch it in January. And really, it’s just an excuse for me to talk to really cool women in higher education and around the higher education space. I think, again, one of the silver linings that we hate to call silver linings, is I feel like I have reached out to talk to more people than I ever would have without this, to have conversations with people I admire that I follow on Twitter that I would love to just have a conversation with. I was enjoying not so much that I said, “Why don’t we record these and let other people kind of peek into these conversations?” So the first season will be out in mid-January, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: Have you set up a site yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, for right now, if you just send them to RebeccaPopeRuark.com, that’ll get them to the main site. And then there’s a tab right now that says “Listen to Me”, which is kind of selected stuff. And I’ll put the podcasts on there, too.

Rebecca: I look forward to listening to that.

John: I am too. And we started the podcast, mostly to do some professional development. But one of the things I think I’ve enjoyed the most. And I think Rebecca has too, is the ability to do exactly that, to talk to some of the people we admire the most and who are doing some really interesting work that we’d like to learn more about.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I wanted to do one for a long time. But I realized very quickly that I don’t like talking to myself, you know? [LAUGHTER] And if you’re gonna write a script, I’m a writer. So by the time I have a script, that’s like six blog posts, so, why should I record it? Yeah. So I’m excited with the interviews and talking to some great ladies.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some really good advice. I hope the conversation about burnout really does open up and that more people have the conversation, see it as normal, and that we start to really shift that culture.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to your new book. And I think we both really appreciated your past work. Rebecca has actually used some of this in her classes.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, great, great. I hope it works well for you.

Rebecca: Definitely.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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170. Preparing for Spring 2021

The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili joins us to explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.  Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, we explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili. Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Welcome, Carmen.

Carmen: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Carmen: Green tea.

Rebecca: Yum, I have Red Sun tea.

John: And I have Egyptian Licorice, an herbal tea today, because I’ve already had five or six cups of black tea, and I’d like to be able to get some sleep tonight. This was a gift actually. And it has a mix of licorice, cinnamon, orange peel, and a bunch of other things in it.

Rebecca: That’s a new one for you, John

John: It is. It even has black pepper and cloves.

Rebecca: It’s a debut tea, first time on this podcast.

John: It’s tasty. Actually. I think I’ve had it one time before.

Carmen: It sounds delicious.

John: It’s a Yogi tea. It was given to me by our former graduate student.

Rebecca: Oh, I know the one.

Carmen: That particular flavor sounds like it would be good with a little hot toddy whiskey in it as well.

John: It probably would. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Now you’re talking… now you’re talking 2020. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we’re recording this near the end of 2020. It’ll be released in early 2021.

Rebecca: That year will come. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss how faculty should prepare for the uncertainties associated with another semester of teaching during the pandemic. As we all know, the workload is insane, and just not manageable or sustainable. Faculty were able to spend some time in the summer learning new tools and techniques, but that level of preparation and acting in crisis mode just can’t continue. So what can faculty do to start restoring some energy this spring.

Carmen: So I’ve been talking to a lot of faculty across the nation, and all of them are saying we are exhausted. So I think this is a common theme. And the thing I have been saying to everyone is make sure that you rest over break. So whenever this podcast is released, if you’re still on break, please give yourself some time to rest. And please plan on regular rest throughout the next semester, because we are all exhausted. And I was listening to another podcast about the American culture and how we have this culture where we reward people for working longer hours and working over the holidays, and how that’s just ridiculous. We are just way too focused on work sometimes. And in this podcast, they said that the way to get Americans to take a break is to tell them that they’re more productive if they do so. So I’m here to tell you, if you take a break, you will be more productive, and it will get done… and the research backs that. So that’s my number one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John, did you hear that? [LAUGHTER] John, if you take a break, you’re more productive.

John: I’ve heard rumors to that effect, and someday I hope to actually try that. [LAUGHTER] It has been a really challenging fall for everyone. And one of the things that made it much worse, and is likely to occur again in the spring, is that many colleges eliminated any breaks during the semester to keep students on campus so they wouldn’t spread the virus back and forth between their homes and their college communities. So planning in time for those breaks, I think, is going to be really important.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be as little as… like my break I take every day as I walk my dog. It’s 15, 20 minutes, but I do it when I’m feeling very overwhelmed. And then when I get back, I have a clear head and I can go. so it doesn’t have to be like an extended vacation because we’re not going anywhere these days anyway, right? But just giving yourself some time where you’re able to just breathe and not think about all of these overwhelming things, I think is really, really important.

Rebecca: I went back to reading some fiction, which I have not done in like nine months. And it was really restorative. I read one book and I was like, “I feel human again.” I was doing that while I was grading. And that really, really helped. It also put me in a much better mood when I was looking at that student work.

Carmen: Which your students thank you for. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure they are. Yeah.[LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah, ”restorative” is a great word, we need to remember that. I also think it’s a really good time to reflect. We went from the emergency teaching. And then we had the summer boot camps. I think it’s hilarious that a lot of people called them boot camps because that’s what they were: “Hurry up and figure out how to learn how to teach online.” And then we had fall and it was “Boom, boom, boom.” But now we know a lot of things. So from that we know what works, what doesn’t work. And so to stop and reflect before we go into the spring semester: What went well? What was frustrating? What feedback did you get from students? Reflect is a central part of our ACUE courses as we ask all faculty, when they try new things in the classroom, it’s really, really essential that you stop and reflect upon them and then make some better decisions from what you’re going to do next from your reflection.

John: We now have a second set of faculty who are just ending the second ACUE course, and one of the things we’ve appreciated at the teaching center is that we’ve given workshops on many things that are discussed in the ACUE course for many years and some people would attend those workshops year after year after year, because each time they intended to try it. The nice thing about ACUE, and also, to a large extent, one, I hate to say nice thing, about this whole pandemic is people were forced to try things that they had considered many times before, but never quite got around to because it’s always easy just to fall into patterns of doing the same thing. With the ACUE program, faculty have to implement things and then reflect on them. And once they get past that barrier of trying something the first time, it becomes so much easier to do it in the future. So we really appreciate that aspect of the ACUE program.

Carmen: Exactly. Me too. We know that that’s what research shows works. But if you’re not in ACUE you can do this as well. And again, you’ll be more productive, you’ll feel more confident in what you’re trying to implement, if you just take that moment to reflect upon how things have been going up until this point.

John: And if things worked, keep doing them. If things didn’t work, either revise it or,perhaps, stop.

Carmen: Exactly. That’s the other thing that we offer, as a best practice is the stop-start-continue survey in the middle of your course. What would you like me to stop doing, continue doing, start doing to make this course better. And I think that, when students say stop, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop, it means that maybe you can give them an explanation about why it’s important. But there might be some things that you do need to stop doing and reconsider. And the students could have some great input into that as well and help you.

John: I know, in one of my classes, I had some similar type surveys, and one of the things students kept asking was to stop using all these graphs, which is just something I couldn’t do. So I had to, though, help motivate it and explain why it’s really essential if they’re going to understand this and be able to apply these concepts that they understand the relationships that are captured in the graphs. I didn’t entirely convince all of them because that advice kept coming up from a couple students all through the term. But it is important to let students know you’re not doing this just to torture them, that it is an essential component of the learning objectives for the course.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be very motivating, too, when they receive that explanation. And then they say, “Oh, okay, now I understand why I do this.” And maybe then they’ll be more likely to do it.

Rebecca: I think one thing that was nested in what you were talking about, in terms of reflection, based on some of your work that I’ve read, is that it’s not just about what’s good for students and student learning, but also what’s good for the instructor too, and being able to maintain the ability of getting feedback back in time, and all of those sorts of organizational things that might need to occur as well.

Carmen: Exactly. So that’s really important that one, we take it easy on ourselves. And I think we’ve kind of figured out that from emergency to establishing online learning to now that we’re not going to be able to use all the bells and whistles that are in our LMS, we’re not going to be able to do all of these high tech things. And other things I’ve been hearing from faculty is, guess what? Just because your students might be younger, that doesn’t mean that they’re tech savvy either. So let’s take it easy on ourselves and on our students and keep things simple. Evaluate what needs to be known in your course, rather than what’s nice to know. So there might be a lot of things you did in your classroom environment that you’re not able to do as much online, maybe it’s fewer readings, maybe it’s shorter lectures. But that’s okay, make sure that you’re looking at what your learning outcomes are… getting those across first. And then if you can add some fun things in: readings, podcasts, whatever, or bells and whistles, you can do that later. You don’t have to try and do everything perfectly right now.

John: One of the things that’s come across in lots of surveys of students is a feeling that they’re being asked to do a lot more work. Some of it may be the trauma that they’re dealing with that just makes the burden seem more, but some of it is that faculty in face-to-face classes would often ask students to do the reading and then assume they actually had. But as they’ve moved to either synchronous or asynchronous online, they put in more measures to assess students learning, which is actually forcing students to do reading that they might not always have done before. But that issue of increasing workload is something that I think has been a challenge for students and students routinely report that that’s a bit of a barrier. And there might be some issues there in terms of the cognitive load w e’re demanding of students in our classes, when we’re actually requiring them to do all the things in the past we had just kind of hoped or assumed that they were doing.

Carmen: I’m so glad you brought that up. Because I think about this all the time, especially now. It was about 15 years ago, I was part of a faculty program that was one of the first to go online at that institution. And we didn’t need to go online. it was this “We’re going to try going online.” And our immediate gut reaction was “It’s not the same as classroom, so we have to make sure that we justify the online environment. And we threw all of this work at our students, thinking that it was making up for the fact that we weren’t with them face to face. And I’ll never forget one of my students actually called me and asked me to go out for coffee with her. And she sat me down and she said, “You have got to stop.” She said, “We are all overwhelmed. Some of us are in tears. This program is overwhelming us.” And it really made us stop and have a meeting and think about, “Okay, what’s really important and what are we doing, and how are we trying to overcompensate.” And that student is now my boss. So, she was very wise to stop me, and she’s fantastic as a leader, but I was so grateful to her for stopping me and asking me to talk to the program group.

John: That’s another reason why it’s important to get that feedback, we can find out that sort of reaction because students might not always invite you out for coffee, especially during COVID.

Carmen: No, especially not now. [LAUGHTER] We don’t get to see them. But yes, we have to figure out what is working for them, what is not, and be flexible. I’m really excited about the fact that the silver lining in this whole situation is that we’re giving greater attention to our students than we ever have before. We’re forced to interact with them in a different way. And I think we are getting a lot of realizations about what’s going on in their home life, what other responsibilities they have, what their technology situation is… that maybe when we saw them every day, it was a lot easier to have more small-talk conversations, and now, when we actually get together, the things get a little bit more meaningful in our discussions. And we’re able to assess and guide them through how to learn online, where when we’re in the face-to-face classroom, we just have this assumption that this is the way we do things. So we’re all in this together. And I think it’s really important to also communicate with our students what our situations are, they appreciate that. In the ACUE course… again, sorry, this is my world… I get it all the time from faculty, they say, “I don’t feel comfortable telling my students that I don’t know this, or I’m not sure about that. Or that I’m taking a course to help me become a better teacher, I want them to think I already know what I’m doing.” But when they do, when they say I’m taking a course to help me to help you, their student evaluations go sky high, I hear it again and again and again. The students really appreciate that. And what you’re doing for them is you’re modeling this lifelong learning. If you think about it, right now, we’re teaching students who two or three or four years from now, the world’s already changed really quickly this year, and they might be in a world that we don’t even know what the jobs will be like, what new careers will be available. So we have to teach them this lifelong learning process, and how to switch and be flexible. And if we can model that for them, we’re setting them up for life.

Rebecca: When you were talking about their home lives and getting a little window into that, one of the things that students talk to me about is that, at home, their parents are treating their school lives differently than they would when they’re at school. So, as an academic, in a non-academic family, people think I don’t do anything during winter and summer breaks, that I’m just on vacation. Not true, right? But I think the same thing is happening to our students when they’re at home trying to learn and it’s something that people might not realize is happening to our students.

Carmen: I’ve had that same conversation with my family, they say ”Well, you’re not teaching right now. So what are you doing?” Well, all of the work comes before I actually am teaching, and after. Same with students, if you’re not actually physically in a classroom, there’s all of the work that still needs to be done. So I recommend for everyone to try and make sure you communicate with family, but also schedule a time on your calendar where you say, “I’m shutting the door,” or “this is my space right now,” like, before this podcast, I just told everybody to get off the internet and please leave me alone for an hour. We’re all living together in these smaller spaces, and nobody’s going anywhere, so we really need to communicate. And that could be especially difficult for first-generation students whose parents did not have the same college experience… really communicating to them why this is important, and what will come of the time that you give me now.

Rebecca: even coaching our students a little bit on some of the things that they might want to have conversations with their families about could be really helpful in developing a more supportive environment if they’re learning from home.

Carmen: Yes, that’s a great suggestion. And I think I heard, maybe it was on one of your podcasts, somebody saying that even creating assignments that involve asking the family questions, or something that’s going on that’s relevant to life right now, could also be helpful for students and families to understand

John: In an article you had in OpenStax, one of the things you mentioned was the issue of faculty trying to use every possible tool and overloading students. But you mentioned another type of problem, and this is something that is common when many people first start moving online, is they try to replicate what they were doing in a face-to-face class in an online class. They’ll spend a lot of time in really long, tedious, boring lectures and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone talk on Zoom for an hour to an hour and a half. How can we help convince faculty that perhaps they do need to try some alternative approaches other than taking the ACUE course because we can’t get everybody into it?

Carmen: I liked that you brought this up because I will never forget. I even looked up this podcast… you can tell I listen to podcasts a lot. But NPR did a podcast in 2011, where there was a whole series of professors, physics professors, business professors, statistics professors saying, “We have to stop this large-lecture format, because you might be the most charismatic, wonderful lecture in the world, but unless students get a pause to think about what you’re talking about, maybe take some notes, talk to a friend next to them, or do something with that information, they might have really enjoyed your lecture, but they’re not going to retain as much of it as you would like.” And this particular person on the podcast said that at MIT, students were having competitions to see how many lectures they could miss and still find the information that they needed online… which is terrible, right? Like, this is not what we want. But students are smart, and they know that they can find the shortcuts, and then they’re losing a lot from you, the expert. So yes, we need to really think about what information we’re giving them, what amount of time we’re spending. So, for example, we can still do our lecture, but let’s chunk it into 10-minute periods, maybe stop and give them something that they should take notes on or reflect upon. Whether you’re synchronous or asynchronous, you could have them right in the chat room, the forum, or in a Zoom Breakout Room, discuss what they have just learned. There are many, many ways that we can give the information to students in bite-sized chunks. I’ve also seen research that says that our current generation of students are less likely to read emails, because they’re too long. Now this is crazy, because to me, emails aren’t very long unless you write a really, really long one. But really, the research shows that there are accustomed to sound bites and tweets. And so while we might want to train them to be able to sustain longer periods of reading than a tweet, we definitely need to take into account that that’s how we’re going to be able to communicate best with them is maybe give them something shorter to then engage into something deeper. So, we need to remember that. And I’m sorry, I think I’m even guilty of that. I think we’re so accustomed to the quick click on this, click on that, short read here, short headline there,that I don’t know how many people these days sit down and read a newspaper anymore. I think it’s all on our phones now.

John: It’s been a long time since I’ve physically held a newspaper in my hand, probably 15 years now. So it’s been a while. But even moving from tweets to Instagram to TikTok we see a similar reduction in the amount of time required to communicate and take in information.

Carmen: And can we train our students to do this? Yes, absolutely. But we just have to be aware that this is the reality of the situation. I even read something that the movies that we watch… they make me dizzy sometimes… but they’re made for the younger generation whose brains are already being formed differently. And they see a lot more in those rapid sequences than I can, just because I’m older than they are.

John: Actually movies provide sort of a counter argument to this shorter attention span, because students are perfectly willing to spend an hour and a half or two hours watching a movie and absorbing every second of it, because it’s created to be engaging. And if we could do some of that same type of thing in the classroom to create that same sort of engagement, not by lecturing at them, perhaps, but by getting them more involved with the narrative or with the story of what you’re trying to convey to them. And I should note, that’s one of the themes in Jim Lang’s book Distracted.

Carmen: That’s my book club book. Yes, I can’t wait to read it.

John: In fact, we’re going to be doing a book club reading group on our campus together with SUNY Plattsburgh this coming spring. So we’re looking forward to working with a group of faculty going through that.

Rebecca: One of the other things I wanted to circle back to that you mentioned too, Carmen, was these pauses to do the quizzing and whatever. It’s interesting that I cut back a little bit of the smaller assignments in my class as I was trying to reduce some workload and thinking about what’s necessary and what’s not, and you know what? My students asked for more of them.

Carmen: And why is that?

Rebecca: They wanted more because they wanted to be held accountable for the content in the videos or readings and stuff, and by having little practice assignments and things. I still had some of those, but they just wanted more, because they were helpful. So we sometimes think about workload and trying to balance what’s important or not. And asking the students can be really helpful because they asked, “Hey, can we have more of those little exercises?” I’ve even had them ask for like a quiz. It’s bizarre. You don’t think of students as asking for these kinds of things. But when they have a taste of a little bit of it, and they see that it helps them succeed, they want more.

Carmen: I think that that’s true on a lot of things. One story I like to share with my students. And this is a good place for faculty to start when they’re thinking about how to minimize the workload. Start with the learning outcomes. And if you’re super clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do when they leave your course, that will help. But the way I often start my class is I put the outcomes up or pass them out or put them up on the screen and say “Let’s look at these together, and I’d like to know what you think they mean.” And before they even see what the assignments are, “And how do you think you’re going to be able to show me that you’ve accomplished these learning outcomes?” And they often come up with much more challenging assignments than I would have ever assigned them and creative ways of doing these things. But I’m often astounded. I said, “Really, you want to do that much work?” [LAUGHTER] Because they often come up with things that are more challenging. We would think that they would try and find the easy way out. But no, they want to find what’s going to work. So yeah, they often rise above our expectations. I think.

Rebecca: Maybe it helps that a lot of my little exercises or challenges are like games, but still its a practice opportunity, and that’s really what they were looking for… something that was low-stakes practice, a little competitive, so they could have some fun and learn the material.

Carmen: Exactly. And speaking of fun, I think the thing that we’re all missing terribly right now is the social aspect of school, even just the little looks that you get in the classroom or chatting after you’re trying to go back to your class. And so I also think that we need to maybe incorporate more social opportunities around the learning. And one thing that I like to do in my class is assign buddies, or have people sign up for one or two people that they agree to meet with, and I leave it completely up to them how they want to meet. If they would rather just do a phone call, that’s great. A phone call. I mean, we don’t do that anymore. We text all the time, but we want them to connect, so please phone call, FaceTime, Zoom, whatever. If you’re in school, if you need to meet six feet apart (of course), just have a conversation about the topic. And it doesn’t all have to be on the computer screen, I think it’s really important that we give them those opportunities.

John: And the devices that you have in your pocket can be used apparently to make outgoing phone calls. They’re not just for the spam calls coming in. {LAUGHTER] My mother reminds me of that, because she’s the one who I’m most likely to talk to on the phone these days, because it’s so rare that we actually make phone calls. But that sense of personal connection, it can be useful.

Carmen: And you can hold them accountable by asking one person in the group to summarize what they talked about in the forum, and that way, not everybody has to post every week in the forum. So there can be ways that you can do both things. Also, I did some research, my dissertation was actually about the different ways of engaging socially in the classroom in an online environment. And I found that when you are doing problem solving, creating something, or processing, that speaking to another person is the most valuable thing you can do. When you are doing an activity that you’re trying to understand some content or reflect upon some content, writing is the most appropriate way to address that. So when you’re planning your spring course, you should think about: “Am I asking them to really do some problem solving and big picture thinking?” Maybe this is the assignment where I asked them to buddy up. And also give them timelines. I was laughing with somebody just this morning about this, where they said, “Oh, I always plan this big assignment at the end, and they always do it the night before. And they’re asking for extensions. And I never thought that maybe I should give them: ‘You should have X done by this time, you should talk to your group at this time, and so on and so forth.” Everybody assumes that students know how to go to school. But really, I know you did a podcast about time management. Faculty who are at the highest level do not know how to time manage. So why do we expect our students to do this? We need to help them along, especially now where we’re in our house all day long.

John: You mentioned assigning people to teams or as buddies, and I thought it was worth talking about that. Because one thing that some faculty will do is just let people self-form groups. But there is some advantage, I think, to you doing the assignment. Could you talk a little bit about why it’s helpful to have the instructor create the buddy pairs or the groups?
.,

Carmen: Well, the most obvious reason, I think, is that if students don’t already know each other, it might just be a very awkward feeling situation to just start calling up somebody and talking to someone you don’t know. Another tip that is in our course that I learned this year from an instructor demonstrating it, is she uses her introduction forum to see when people make introductions, who are the people that are replying the most? Who are the people that are really just replying once? So in a normal classroom, it would be like who are the talkative ones and who are the quieter one. And then she forms those groups so that all of the talkative people aren’t in the same group. She balances it. So that’s another thing that you can do to make sure that you are assigning groups that are appropriate. The other way you could do it is maybe by topic. So you could have them tell you which topic or what their skills are. For example, if it’s a group project, if somebody says, “I’m really good at graphic design” or something like that, you can make sure one of those is in each group. So there’s many ways that you can do it, where you’re teaching students beyond “this is a person I like” but really how to work. All of us, when we get real jobs, we have to learn how to work with all sorts of people.

John: When I’m teaching an econometrics class, which is an applied statistics course, one of the things I do in creating groups is I ask students to list how many prior math and statistics courses they have, and just sort it so that there’s an even mix of the people with the most experience across all the groups. Because when students are allowed to self-form the groups, there are some students who may not know anyone and they would feel left out. And then there’s the students who know each other, and they may tend to socialize a little bit more in the group. And when the group is formed for a specific purpose, and they know it’s for that purpose, they’re more likely to focus on that, rather than they see it as being just a chance to chat with their friends.

Carmen: Exactly. And that brought to mind too, timezone needs to be taken into account. Because if everyone went home to work online from home, there might be different timezone issues that you need to take into account when assigning groups.

John: And going a little bit further, people have different schedules. There are some people who are early risers who really like to do all their classwork in the morning, especially if they have childcare responsibilities, or other home responsibilities. So somehow getting information on who would prefer to work early morning, who would prefer to work in the late afternoon or early evening, and who would rather work in the middle of the night or late at night. And that’s another useful criteria to either let students self select to some extent, or for you to use as a criteria in matching.

Carmen: Exactly. Jobs, children, pets, everything… we have to take into account. Communication is the bottom line, I think, in giving them that opportunity to collaborate.

Rebecca: Students often complain about group work initially. But what I’ve discovered, and it was even more true this semester with students being online, is that they really appreciated that little learning community… that they worked on a project together, they socialized, they got to know each other really well, and really indicated that that was one of their favorite parts of the class, which is funny, because it’s usually the thing, they grumble about the most at the beginning,

John: I had the same experience. This is the first time when I’ve had group work in a class without a single complaint. And in fact, when I asked students to rate what things they found most useful, nearly all of them said they really appreciated the chance to interact with other students in the class, because that’s something they’ve been really missing during the pandemic.

Carmen: It’s funny that you say that because much like everything else we’re talking about, same is true for the faculty who are in our course. The faculty say “I don’t have time to do these synchronous discussions.” And so we make them optional. And then at the end of class survey, they all say “We wish we had more opportunities to get together synchronously and talk to each other.” It’s true for faculty as well.

Rebecca: One of the things that you brought up earlier was talking on the phone, which led me to think a lot about my own needs to be off screen a bit more. And students have also said we are Zoomed and screened out. And of course, I teach web design. So like a lot of it’s already on the screen without having Zoom and stuff there too, it’s a lot of time on the screen. So I built in some assignments this semester that intentionally got people off screen, like listening to podcasts and things like that. Do you have any advice for how to balance screen time for faculty and for students moving into the spring,

Carmen: I love that idea of giving other options that are not on the screen. But I also think that we read a lot on the screen as well even if we’re not on a video. And what I often use is text-to-talk software. So if I have papers to read, articles to read, anything digital, a website, I can click on my browser on a space called add to Capti Voice. Capti Voice is, the one I use, but there are many options. And it will take anything that I need to read on the screen and put it into voice. And so I listen to things when I’m folding laundry, walking the dog. I might stop and take notes if I need to about how to respond when I get back to my computer. But it gives me a nice break from the computer, I often recommend it to students as well. And when we’re not in a pandemic, I used to use it all the time for my commute. So I could listen to things while I was driving. And then when I got to class, I was ready to go. So that’s one thing I recommend. You can do this with YouTube, too. You can play a YouTube on your phone and just stick your headphones in and listen to it instead of watching it, if it’s that kind of a YouTube. So a TED talk, that kind of thing. So yes, giving those options, letting students know about the text-to-talk options, and using them yourself can really rest your eyes from the screen.

REBECCA. One assignment that I give that’s been really popular in my web design class is learning the assistive technology on your device. So students have learned how to increase the font size or use speech-to-text and text-to-speech or discovering that you can use the Acrobat Reader app and it will read to you or use iBooks or whatever it is, depending on your device. And I’ve checked in with them at the end of the semester. And they’ll say, “Yeah, I found that one thing and I’m still using it.”

Carmen: Exactly. And then there’s also… these are some little cheats that I do. Like if I know for example, I was in a book club and I hadn’t read up to the point where I needed to. I listened to a podcast that was an interview with the author instead. And I was ready to at least be able to contribute to the discussion after listening to that. So yeah, assistive technology can do things for all of us. And just also our local library. Big surprise. You can download audiobooks that way. And you could commit time to listening to them every day. And another thing I wanted to share was that I noticed that personally, I read very quickly. So when I’m forced to listen to a document, instead of reading it, I get every single word. And there’s no way of going through that without listening to all the words. So sometimes I get actually more out of it. Another thing, Mike Wesch, who’s frequently featured the ACUE webinars, he told me that he’s something like a platinum member on Kindle, because he listens to books while he walks and runs everywhere, and he does it at double or triple speed sometimes. So you can also get more

Rebecca: That sounds like John. [LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah?

John: I probably have lost some of those advantages of listening to every word because for so many podcasts, the hosts speak very, very slowly. And there’s so many podcasts, I want to listen to, that I first ramped it up to one and a half times, and then double time, I don’t have an app that will let me play it at triple speed. But double speed is my standard listening mode.

Rebecca: My brain can’t handle that.

Carmen: Mine either. But whatever works. and it also depends. If this is something that you need to do a close read on, of course, this technique’s not going to work for you. But if it’s something that you just need to know, I used to do it when I was a grad student, I had a commute to school, and I would have the gist, I would be ready for discussion just by listening to what I needed to listen to. And then I would get a lot more out of the conversation when I was in class.

John: And it’s a way of making us more efficient in our use of time, to free up more time for other things.

Carmen: Exactly. Or you can fold your laundry while you’re listening and then you’re killing two birds with one stone.[LAUGHTER]

John: This year, many people are teaching in an environment that they’re not used to, in which some of the students are in person and some of the students are remote. Do you have any suggestions on how faculty can handle classes effectively when some students are present in the classroom, while others are attending remotely?

Carmen: I did a research that I’ve been dying to get out into the world. I wrote this up many years ago. And it was a book chapter and one of those great big anthologies that I don’t think a lot of people are going to go pick up at the library. But I think it’s really, really relevant right now. And so I put a post on my LinkedIn page about it. And it’s about the hybrid classroom. So when I was a grad student, and I was commuting to school, it was a three-hour commute. So it was a big deal. And there was one time where there was a snowstorm. And I just did not make it to my class. And the professor suggested that… at the time, Skype was big. Now Zoom is the big thing… that I Skype into class, and I had my colleague, Linda Skidmore Coggins, who helped me write this book chapter, she was my Skype buddy, or you could have a Zoom, buddy. So there was a person that was face to face in the classroom whileI was attending class from afar. And I know a lot of professors are trying to figure out how, if you have students that are meeting Mondays and Wednesdays and then Tuesdays and Thursdays, or if there’s some people that simply can’t be in the classroom with others because of health issues, how to manage all of this. And what I would like to say is, I don’t think that the professor should have to manage it, I think you can assign somebody in the class that’s in charge of their buddy. They make sure that they are receiving whatever you’re looking at that the professor is showing you: the PowerPoint, the documents. If you’re doing group work, they used to carry my little head to the group and I would be on the screen, but I could see everyone in the group and talk to them from afar. And I really felt like I was part of the class. And if the professor was putting something up on the big screen, my colleague would turn her computer so I was also facing the screen. If it was my turn to present something they put me up on the screen. And we found that it really worked so well that the Professor, Dr. Larry Mikulecky, at IU (a little shout out there). He said “You should write this down. This has been a really, really interesting experience. And I think it’s relevant right now, when we’re trying to figure out how can I hold my students accountable, who are not in the room with me, and also manage all of the screens and all of the information while you hold your student accountable for that. The conversations get richer, there’s a social aspect, which is motivating and my colleague said that she would listen more carefully to what was going on in the classroom because she knew she had to tell me what was going on. So there were all these benefits that we found from having this buddy in the classroom. And sometimes I would have different buddies, but I used to do it when I was doing presentations that somebody couldn’t attend, I would say, “Hey, do you know anybody here that could Zoom you in?” And we would do it that way. So I just wanted to bring that up, because I think it’s very, very effective. And I think it takes the onus off the professor for trying to be in charge of everyone who’s not in the room with them.

Rebecca: It would be really important for times where a student may need to be in quarantine or something and just having that set up from the start, like these are buddies, preferably people who don’t generally hang out because otherwise they’re all going to be in quarantine together, {LAUGHTER] preemptively planned for that, and then they have a backup plan. So if they aren’t able to come to class, but they’re in a face-to-face class, they have some sort of backup plan in place from the very beginning.

John: I was teaching in Duke in the summer of 2009 during the swine flu epidemic, and it was in a program where a quarter of the kids ended up getting infected at one point or another, so there was a different group there every time and back then, it was before Zoom, because it was 2009, I was using Skype, but I had some extra computers with me. And so when a student was out, I’d assign someone in the group to work with the computer, they did a lot of group work, and that person would just be right there. And I tapped them into a mixer into the sound system in the class during other parts of the class. And every now and then you’d just hear the voice booming in through this loudspeaker in the class, just as is happening now. And ever since then, I’ve been using it whenever someone was out sick if they had a presentation, or some group work that they couldn’t really get out of. And students would often say, “Well, I can’t be there.” I said, “Well, yeah, you can. You have a phone, right? Or you have a laptop? You can be there, you can share your screen, you can do your presentation from where you are, people can ask you questions, you can respond. So this is something that has benefits far beyond just the current pandemic.

Carmen: Exactly. I hope we can put in the show notes. I’ve typed up the how-to directions on how to do this, just to make it as easy as possible.

John: We’ll definitely include that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Easy is what we all want.

Carmen: …what we all need.

Rebecca: You’ve had a lot of really rich tips and tricks. Do you have any other advice you want to make sure the faculty have?

Carmen: One of the things I wrote in my OpenStax article that I think is really important is: “Be kind.” Just be kind to yourself and others, especially to yourself, and give yourself a break. We’re not going to replicate what it was.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Carmen: I’m excited about what’s next. Because we’re never going to go back to exactly the way it was. So there are all these new things that we’ve been learning and doing. And this practice of being kind to ourselves, narrowing down what we’re presenting, giving flexibility, checking in with students to see what their personal situations are, I think those things are going to carry on into the future. But we need to make sure that we’re just very intentional, that we’re practicing them now. And that they become part of our daily life.

Rebecca: We all need a little bit more kindness in our world That’s for sure.

Carmen: I just think it’s so important. For the past twenty years, we’ve been researching online education and back when I started this work, we were trying to convince people that it was something that was viable and that was effective and here we are all in this situation. So, we’ve speeded up what a lot of higher ed experts have been asking for for many years, like please use your LMS, please use the online option, please minimize 90-minute lectures or 60-minute lectures and use more active learning. And so I think that it’s very exciting that we have this opportunity to try these things. We’re forced to try these things. It’s accelerated the change that a lot of hiring experts have been calling for.

John: That’s a nice positive note, I think, to end on. Thank you. This was fascinating, and it’s going to be very helpful to a lot of people.

Carmen: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: I appreciate the very actionable and easy things to implement. None of these are hard. You just need to commit to them.

Carmen: There’s enough that’s hard right now. We need to make things easy.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

Carmen: It’s such an honor to meet you both because your podcasts have helped me a lot. So, thank you.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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169. Statistical Simulations

Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, Matt Anderson joins us to discuss how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU.

Show Notes

Additional simulation resources:

Transcript

John: Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, we look at how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Matt Anderson. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU. Welcome, Matt.

Matt: Thanks very much, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I’m really excited to be talking about the use of simulations in introductory statistics classes.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Matt: Today’s tea is lemon ginger.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Matt: Yeah, that’s a fave.

Rebecca: How ‘bout you, John?

John: I have Christmas tea…

Rebecca: Aha.

John: …with a cinnamon stick.

Rebecca: That’s only because I was drinking it last time.

John: You inspired me to buy some Christmas tea, which I’ve been drinking for the last couple of weeks.

Rebecca: I almost sent you some. And I have a Scottish afternoon tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about how you’ve been using simulations in your courses. But first, could you tell us a little bit about what courses you normally teach?

Matt: Absolutely. My main mission is to teach the labs for the undergraduate statistics courses, the introductory statistics courses that are taught within the Department of Psychological Sciences. And so I teach about six to eight of those a semester. And I think it might be useful to just contextualize the labs. They’re one-credit labs, and they’re embedded in four-credit, introductory statistics classes. And all of our faculty use the same schedule, and we use the same textbook, and so there’s a lot of coherence among the sections that we have. So, the thing I love about the lab the most is that, because I’m getting all the psychological sciences majors, I have a chance to meet almost all of them. And I have a chance to do that early in their academic trajectories. And that provides an opportunity to get things on their radar for those who are going on to graduate education such as the graduate record exam and things like that. We have a little bit of a focus on SPSS in our lab, in addition to the normal course content that we would see aligned with the textbook. In addition to the course faculty teaching the lecture portions, and I’m teaching the labs, we’ve got some wonderful tutors, and those tutors come from our Academic Success Center. And we’ve also got a tutor who’s a second year graduate student in our Master of Arts in Psychological Sciences program who adds a lot to the course delivery. So it’s a really wonderful place for me to be teaching. I feel very well supported, and I love the mission, even though I understand that statistics may be, to be contemporary, not everybody’s cup of tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: So how many students are there in these classes? And what level are they? You mentioned they’re fairly early in their career, are they mostly sophomores?

Matt: Well, it’s a mix. Yeah, I think that the tendency is that we’ve got sophomores and juniors, we do have first-year students, and we also have seniors, but most students are sophomores, or juniors. And in each section, I’ve got maybe 30 students. So you can see when I’m teaching eight of those, that’s a lot of folks. And that’s complicated a little bit by the online delivery that we’re using right now as well. I also teach a thing called an undergraduate teaching apprentice class. And in this very small class, I’ve got students who are interested in learning more about the science of teaching and learning. And we focus on statistics, and they have applied assignments where they might help me with our learning management system. I think I’ve been inspired by all of the great simulations out there, and I’m going to add an assignment related to those as well. And then I also teach a fully online statistics lab for undergraduate students who are transfer students, who might not have had a lab experience when they took their lecture. And so this uses the same materials that we use in the face-to-face labs or the labs that we use for our basic introductory classes.

Rebecca: So, you participated in a redesign of your introductory statistics classes, can you talk a little bit about this redesign, maybe where it started, and now where it’s ended up?

Matt: The redesign that I was involved with had to do with the lab portion of the class. And it started around 2013, when I was hired to teach the labs for these courses, and also for our research methods in psychology classes. And up to that time, the labs were taught quite capably by graduate students, but there was variability in content and delivery and things like that. And so it was in the interest of the department to consolidate those into a single uniform experience. And that’s what I had the pleasure of putting together. And so what I started doing was building these what I called lab modules, and they would be used in each of the classes. And when I first started doing those, the version I used on Thursday was much different than the version I used on Tuesday. And there’s a lot of evolution that took place. And teaching eight of these labs a week, it was nice to have some development take place that was meaningful over the course of a single semester. And right now that lab manual is still being used. It’s fortunately not something I have to stand at the copier and print, but it comes in a bound book through our NAU bookstore. And it’s got modules that are aligned with each of the chapters in the textbook that we use, as well as very specific freestanding modules related to things like SPSS assignments and power analysis, and a little bit of Excel that’s built in there as well. And the fun thing about putting this thing together, I just loved the creative process. And I benefited enormously from the input from instructional designers at NAU. We’ve got some just phenomenal folks there who had some really important insights to provide that we put into the lab manual. So, it’s got QR codes, for example, in it. And so if a person gets to a particular part in an SPSS assignment and can’t remember how to do this, they can just use the QR code to see a very short little tutorial on how to do that. And I think being able to build those kinds of resources in something like this, make it interactive, I think is useful for the students and for me. It’s a really fun part of the creative process.

John: When you started working with constructing these labs, did you start using simulations right away? Or was that something you’ve gradually been adding since then?

Matt: Well, I started adding them soon after I started building them. But it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I started embedding simulations in as assignments. I was one of those students who really struggled, I probably shouldn’t say this out loud. My first stats class, it was very abstract. It was early in the morning, which complicated things for me. But, what I found was that I really benefited from seeing things to help marry these abstract concepts to real data. And about the time that I started teaching, there was a series of videos that were put out one was called “The dance of the P values.” It was by Dr. Geoff Cumming and it had a beautiful simulation attached to it. And so I was just starting to learn R at the time. And so I started seeing if I could replicate his findings using R and was able to, and that gave me a little bit of encouragement about building them. And at the same time, in 2014, our mathematics and statistics department helped host a International Conference on the Teaching of Statistics here in Flagstaff. It’s a huge international event. And it brought people together who were just marvelous at explaining and had these beautiful simulations. And they also talked about how to teach courses using R. And I just found that whole thing inspirational, in addition to having the pleasure of meeting some of my colleagues in the math department that I might not have met otherwise. And so that opened a whole new window into what simulations are out there, created by these really incredibly bright and capable and devoted teachers to the introduction of statistics and psychology,

John: I have to ask, what does “The Dancing P values” do as a simulation?

Matt: Well, they don’t actually dance. They do move. This is very similar to the way that I dance I suppose. But what it shows was that with small sample sizes, the P values just really were not consistent. And that was a message that was really central to what he was trying to put across. And the way that it was articulated and illustrated, I thought, was really compelling.

Rebecca: And who can argue with that title. That’s the hook. You have a good stimulation with a good hook, you got your attention.

Matt: It is a hook, right? Yeah, even if you didn’t have an interest in statistics, there might be dancing involved. Yeah.

John: And p-values is a concept that students often have trouble with. So, having that practical application, I would think would be helpful.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar. Can you describe what R is?

Matt: Yes, R is a statistical software package that was built from the ground up to do stats and represents statistical graphics. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s free. And it’s also open source in the respect that people build these things called packages for them, which extend their capabilities quite a bit. And so if you can think of almost any esoteric statistical procedure that you would like to implement in your own lab, for example, there’s probably a package out there to do that. And the thing that I liked about it was that it was able to be paired with a thing called Rstudio, which I thought was a nice integrated development environment, which has some additions that allows you to take some of the things that you do on your local machine and put them on the web. So it was really a nice match between what I wanted to do in the lab and what I wanted to put out on the web for people to be able to see.

John: How do your simulations use R.

Matt: That’s a great question. They basically are simulations that I’ve built in R in this add on called Shiny. And so the students don’t see any R code at all. That said, in the labs themselves, I do think it’s useful for them to be able to interpret statistical output from different software packages. So I do give them some R output and ask them to make meaning out of it. But I don’t ask them to do any coding at all.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the difference in students experiencing simulations versus different kinds of exercises you might have had them complete prior to introducing the simulations into your course.

Matt: Maybe right now, I should just define what I think a simulation is. And so this is a very wide net. And I think it’s basically any visualization that allows you to “What if?” questions, to explore and demonstrate connections between abstract concepts and real data. Some of the simulations that I’ll talk about allow you to do statistical inferences as well… so, incredibly powerful. So I think these simulations and the use of the simulations exist across a continuum. I think there are some environments, such as the one in which I am operating, where we use simulations to try to reinforce critical points. So, Central Limit Theorem comes to mind. But there are also some courses where they build the entire semester around the use of simulations, they start them very, very early in the course, leveraging people’s natural inquisitiveness and their desire to see patterns and use that over the course of the semester to develop this deep understanding, not only of the details regarding statistics, but the big picture, how these things are all wired together.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question, how have students responded to the use of the simulations compared to what you’ve done earlier in some of these lab assignments.

Matt: One of the simulations is one that’s done by the Rice virtual statistics lab. And it’s one that has to do with sampling distributions, which for me, when I was learning it and teaching it and for students still, a difficult concept. Imagine, if you will, just this normal population at the top of your screen, and then three boxes below, and the box immediate below, you have the mean of a sample that’s drawn. And then below that, it gets pushed into what emerges as a sampling distribution based on that sample size. And then the fourth box, the one at the bottom, would allow you to do a different sampling distribution. So you can do two at once, if you will. But this is visually really appealing, because it allows you to see the random sample being taken and where that winds up being put and how those samples aggregate to develop the sampling distribution. So that’s one that I built an entire assignment around, because you can predict some of the values of the sample distributions based on the math. And so it was nice to be able to put all those things together, I think, and the added beauty of this is that you can take that normal parent population, and you can make it one that’s non-normal. And you’ll see when you rerun the sampling distribution that you wind up with, in most cases, a very normal looking sampling distribution that allows you to run those inferential statistics. So it helps connect some of the dots that might not be connected otherwise. And so, while I don’t have any p-values myself to evidence how successful this has been, I have heard a lot of “a-has” when I’m talking to students about this, which to me is the Holy Grail. And they seem to get it with these simulations. As I researched simulations in preparation for this particular conversation, that was something that was echoed in all of the presentations was just the students really getting it and being able to leverage previous knowledge and being able to put all these things together so they can anticipate what happens in the future, when they do other simulations.

Rebecca: There’s something really powerful about being able to observe something and make that rule for yourself rather than just being told the rule that you have to follow. Otherwise, it seems really arbitrary.

Matt: Rebecca, that’s absolutely true. And it’s kind of fun to see these things played out with real world data that is much more compelling to students.

John: Inferential learning about inferential statistics.

Matt: [LAUGHTER] Absolutely, yeah.

John: But those are things, again, that students do have trouble with. They have trouble understanding that the estimators themselves have distributions. And this should make it a whole lot easier for them to see it. I’m getting a lot of ideas here, because I’m teaching an econometrics class this spring, and many of the things you’ve mentioned are things that my students have trouble with.

Rebecca: As someone who just learned some statistics this January, I’m thinking this could have been really helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, and so when I look at what I’m doing, I’m really happy to be using simulations. But as I look at the universe of simulations that are out there, I can see that there’s more that I can do, and that I’m really motivated to do after seeing some of these wonderful things. I shouldn’t get too far without talking about some of the wonderful things that are being done on a grand scale with simulations in introductory statistics courses. There are actually textbooks out there, which are built around these. And what they’ll do is they’ll start off early in a semester using simulations, and without giving names to things like sampling distributions and confidence intervals and P values. But they’ll take some real world data. And then they’ll say, what’s the model that you would use to best describe these data and then run some randomization samples to collect data. And then ask, “How likely is it that the original data were from that distribution?” And so that’s a powerful thing because a person doesn’t need to know any statistics coming into that class and being able to make meaning out of a lot of those things. There are multiple textbooks that use this simulation-based inference testing process to great effect and in the links that are going to be associated with this podcast, you’ll be able to go and find those, and just see the rich resources that they have supporting those texts, which actually can be used independently as well for reinforcing specific points that a person might have about their own statistics class or econometrics class. Another thing that I think is useful to point out is the fact that there’s a document that helps guide all of this. And the American Statistical Association has got the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education. This is called the GAISE guidelines. And they were revised in 2016. And they provide some very implementable recommendations for improving introductory statistics classes. And some of them are very consistent with what we’re talking about today, increasing the use of technology and the use of simulations, and decreasing that distance between abstract concepts and these students’ real worlds.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how to get started in implementing these sorts of things into your classes? So if you’ve never used simulations before, how do you start?

Matt: Well, I think, for me, the best thing to do would be to reach out to colleagues who might be doing that. So, for example, here at NAU, colleagues in the mathematics and statistics department are using these. So I would go to them. And I would say, “What have you found most useful, and how might I implement that in the class, given the context I have?” But, you can also do some wonderful internet searches. And I think I’ve curated a few really good starting places for you, in the resources attached to this podcast, I would recommend, for example, just seeing what’s out there by looking at these lists of applets that exists to teach this and to teach this and to teach this. And if you are thinking about something that’s on a grander scale, listen to the video by Nathan Tintall and Beth Chance, about how they implement this simulation-based inference testing in their classes and the rewards they have from doing that. I think getting a real broad sense of what’s available early can be really helpful in figuring out how you might want to do this. But I think that the nice thing is that you don’t have to do it on a grand scale, to start. You can use a single applet to reinforce a point that you might find your students struggling with. There are some other resources. There are journals on teaching statistics that are very, very useful. And I think this cross-pollenization between mathematics and the psych stats classes, is really useful. So I think it’s helpful to get this strong situational awareness of what others are doing to help inform how you might do what you’re doing better.

Rebecca: I think this idea of “one small step” is always a great approach to trying something new, and it seems very manageable. So I can try one simulation and see how it goes, and then feel confident to implement more and more. But that kind of iterative approach seems really helpful. Of course, not everyone has eight sections that they can iterate through all at once. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, even if you’re doing it once. I mean, think about the environment that you have. You’re explaining these findings that are very visual in nature, and how all these things are wired together. And I think one of the most important things the faculty contribute to students’ education is not just the facts, but how these things are all linked, and being able to hear from a seasoned faculty member can help develop student’s ability to think these things through in a more expert way, rather than just memorizing simple facts. So I think that not only do we get some sense of accomplishment in putting those things out there for students to use, but the students do as well, because they want to get this too, and they’re much more enthusiastic about content when they think they’re really getting it, or they know they’re really getting it.

John: I think anyone who has been teaching for any length of time knows where some of the pinch points are, the things that students always have trouble grasping. And those would be a good place to start, not just in statistics, but more broadly, in any discipline, where there’s some concepts that students don’t always make the connection between theory and practice or practical application. So those would be the places I would think where people should get started… thinking back on where students are having trouble making connections, because it’s generally the same areas year after year after year. And that information could be used to help us improve our instruction by using tools that make it easier for students to see those connections.

Matt: Those are all good points. And you know, one of the things that was evident when I was looking into this more deeply was the frequency of which these simulations are being used in AP statistics and earlier. And so it’s much more likely now that we’re gonna see students coming into our classes who are somewhat familiar with this way of presenting information. And so they’re going to get it pretty quickly. And so a nice way to make them feel more at home might be to put these things in and, again, to leverage their learning, give them this feeling of self efficacy, that’s going to be really helpful to them as they get into more difficult concepts.

Rebecca: How have you adapted your instructional approach during COVID-19 and teaching remotely?

Matt: That is a great question. And one of the things that helped was that this online stats lab that we’ve put together over the years really made it so that these labs were kind of ready to go. So, in that respect, the materials had been developed as had many that people had put together at the end of the spring 2020 semester. Those were just in the bank and ready to be used in the fall and are even stronger now. There are lots of models being used throughout the country, for dealing with COVID-19 and instruction. So maybe I’ll just drag the one that we’re using so that listeners can get a better sense of how it all fits together. We’re using a modification of the HyFlex system, which is called NAUFlex. And we started using that really in the fall of 2020. As is the case, I think, for many, after spring break of 2020, people went into mostly completely online mode. And so the NAUFlex system starts off with teaching being done completely online. And that allows students to get on campus and be tested and all of the things that build that strong safe infrastructure. And then somewhat later, students are able to opt in if they choose to participate in in-person classes. Now, the online classes that are held are synchronous, so there’s an expectation that students will be there for those. And then we also have COVID adjusted room capacities. And so what that means for some classes, is that they have two groups or three groups of students who can come in, so that we can maintain that distancing. My experience has been that most students have opted to stay online, which means that they show up for the lectures or the labs in either Zoom, or what I use is BB Collaborate, which is built into our learning management system BB Learn. And so that’s how it works for us. And kind of the unsung heroes in this whole evolution have been the instructional designers who helped make this work, and also the folks from Information Technology Services who found hardware that works, that allows us to both interact with our students in the classroom and push it out there to students who may be in places that have varying degrees of connectivity. What I’ve done to modify my instruction, somewhat based on feedback I’ve gotten from students from the spring and fall semesters: what they liked, what they didn’t, how it worked for them, and try to really bring to the lab, this sense of organization and consistency and safety. One of the things, as educators, we’re used to doing is walking into a classroom and being able to gauge energy levels and look around the room and be able to tell who’s got that faraway look, and maybe we need to go back and regroup and cover some material. And some of those cues aren’t there anymore. And so what I’ve found is that I’m much more elaborate in my explanations so that I don’t leave anybody behind. And I tried to foster an environment which makes everybody feel comfortable asking questions when they want. And it’s very rewarding for me when they do. And I know that, in a class of 30, if a student asks a question, there are several others who probably have the same one. So the other thing that I think, and I know that this is something shared by your listeners too, is just that the notion of teaching with compassion, these students are really out of their academic element, if you will, of the in-person classes and going from one place to another. That sequencing is no longer there. And so it’s a much different world in which they need to learn. And some of them learn very well in an online environment and some don’t, but they’re forced into that anyway. And so I tried to have lots of compassion for what the students are going through and try to extend that in my syllabi for late assignments and things like that. And I think I’m a little more careful with humor, because I don’t know the backgrounds of all the students. I have not had that experience with them in the classroom. And so I’m really careful about how I express things so that everybody can get it, and it’ll be something that everybody can accept and understand. The nice thing about the labs is that we have all of these resources that we can use. And so it’s designed to be delivered in an online environment completely. And so students have interactive tutorials they can go to that help them master the content, complete the assignments. As an aside, one of the things that I found helpful in this communication, is that I wear a clear face mask when I’m teaching. Part of it is because I appreciate that myself. I’ve got some hearing loss. And so I’m a little bit reliant on reading lips. And in the classroom, students need cues that “this is important,” or “I’m trying to be funny here.” And I think that it helps the students understand the content and my commitment to their success when they can see my face better. That’s a little thing, but I thought I’d put it out there. I’ve gotten feedback from students that they found that helpful. And the other thing is that having taught this lab so many times, you mentioned pinch points before, I’ve got an idea of where those are going to occur. And so when we’re coming up on one of those, I can be more explanatory, give them a much better foundation for getting past those. So those are the things that I’ve changed.

John: One nice thing that may come out of this whole difficult teaching experience this past fall, is that I think all faculty have learned to be much more inclusive in their teaching approaches for all the reasons that you mentioned. And I’m hoping that that’s something that will continue as we move past the pandemic.

Matt: I agree with that completely. I think that there are really important initiatives to promote that in every classroom. But I do think that the situation which we find ourselves in now does encourage us or motivate us to do a better job with that. And so that’s one of the things that I would throw out as well is this whole idea of universal design for learning, something that I think is really important, and simulations play into that nicely, don’t they? …in that they provide this other way of representing information, content that students can get, particularly those that the students can work on themselves time after time after time until they feel like they really get it. And so I think that this universal design for learning thing is something that we should probably keep in the forefront as well. And some systems really do a nice job with making that easy for us. So for example, there’s an add on to BB learn that takes PDF files, for example, and creates those in alternative formats.

John: Ally.

Matt: And so you’re familiar with that. And for some students, it’s the only way to get that content. For others, it’s a convenient way to listen to content while they might be on the bus or in the car. And so I just think with these simulations, it just feeds nicely into what I think is a mandate to try to make things available in as many ways as possible, so they can really resonate with students.

Rebecca: Do you have any other tips related to simulations that you want to share with folks who might be teaching similar kinds of courses?

Matt: Well, that’s a great question. And while I’ve talked about simulations, one of the things that might be on the border of that, but I think is very useful for incorporating into classes, are some games. And in the face-to-face labs, I used to really enjoy doing like Stats Jeopardy and things like that. It’s a little bit more difficult to do in an online environment. But one of the things that I’ve done in the correlation module is to use a system put together by John Marden. He’s a Professor Emeritus at the Department of Statistics at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. And he’s got this nice little system where he provides students with panels: four scatter plots and four correlation coefficients, and they need to match those. And so what I’ve done in previous semesters, and look forward to doing again, is having a competition across all the sections to see who has the longest sequence of correct panels, the winner of that gets a copy of a book by Tyler Vigan called Spurious Correlations, which if you haven’t seen it, his definitely worth a look. And there’s a website online as well, which is kind of fun. And one of the things that I’ve noticed with this particular gamified module is that students really work hard to get it. And at the end, they do, there are heroic efforts to win that book. And at the end, they really do know how to look at a scatterplot and get an idea of what the correlation coefficient might be.

John: For people who might want to go a little beyond using simulations in class, do you have any suggestions on where they might go to learn how to use, say, Shiny in R in order to create their own simulations? Is there a good reference out there?

Matt: I think there are some good references out there. They’re not, I think, specific to building simulations for teaching psychology. Although I have to say that one of the links that I’ll provide following the podcast will take you to an array of Shiny apps that were built specifically for teaching introductory statistics. And here’s the thing, they were built by undergraduate and graduate students for that express purpose. So this is a beautiful selection that were student built. But I think people who start working in R will look at some of the blogs that are out there and start being able to put these together themselves. But again, I think with all of these things, it would be starting off simple and going from there. Some of the ones that you’ll see out there are incredibly elaborate, and I know that they’re not in my skill set to build at the moment. So I would start with simple and go from there. But in the meantime, take a look at some of the other ones that are out there either to implement directly or try to emulate.

John: We always end by asking what’s next?

Matt: Well, for me, what’s next is a nice organized, gradual wind down of 2020. I think all of us are looking forward to 2021. I mentioned how grateful I am to have the opportunity to talk with you today. In preparation for this, I did lots of looking at things that are out there and I’m just really re-inspired to find simulations to put into my lab wherever I can. And also, as I’ve mentioned, planning on maybe building some assignments into my undergraduate teaching apprentice class about how they can use this. But I think I’m missing the contact with students in the online environment and in the lab, and I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom and using some of these things. But, I think, immediately what’s next, maybe another cup of lemon ginger tea.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good way to spend an afternoon.

John: This has been fascinating, and I’m looking forward to doing more of this during the spring myself. Thank you.

Matt: You’re very welcome. Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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168. Synchronous Online Learning

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we approach the end of a really challenging year, we’d like to thank all of our guests who provided so much help and support to us and all of our listeners, and we’d like to thank you, our listeners, for hanging in there with us. We’ve all learned a lot in 2020 and we’re looking forward to a chance to apply what we’ve learned in circumstances in which there are fewer external threats.

…and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Over the past few months, we’ve talked a lot about the pandemic and ways to adjust our teaching. And we’ve talked a lot about online learning, but we haven’t really focused on synchronous learning. John and I both taught synchronously this semester. So we decided that in this episode, we would focus a little bit more on synchronous learning and what we’ve learned about it in our own experiments in our classes.

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast once again.

John: …and I have a blend of spearmint and peppermint tea.

Rebecca: That sounds much healthier than my choice.

John: It’s not my first tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is not mine, either.

John: This is my first herbal tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is my second pot of the day. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, Rebecca, what classes were you teaching this fall?

Rebecca: I was teaching two design classes that are smaller. So I had one web design course that was stacked. So, it had beginning, intermediate and advanced students in it, 25 students, and we met synchronously, but also had asynchronous classes, it’s considered a studio course. So for a three credit course, we have six hours of class time, and three hours of outside work, which is a different balance than maybe other folks. And then the other class I was teaching was a special topics design course, which was smaller, it was about 10 students. And that class was also synchronous, but it was a project-based class, and we worked on two community design projects: one for a project called Vote Oswego, which was a get-out-the-vote initiative on campus, and the second is a project called “Recollection,” which is a storytelling project with adult care facilities.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast on an earlier iteration of Vote Oswego. So we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: So John, what kind of classes are you teaching? We obviously don’t teach the same thing.

John: I was teaching two classes this fall. One was a large synchronous session with 288 students. And the other was a fully asynchronous section with 60 students this semester,

Rebecca: At what level were the students in both of your classes?

John: These were both introductory economics classes. So most students in the class were freshmen, and it was their first economics course.

Rebecca: So, your classes are much larger than mine, you’re teaching much more younger students or newer students, and my classes are smaller, project-based, and usually junior or senior students.

John: Yes. And there’s certainly some differences in the disciplines as well.

Rebecca: No, that they’re the same. [LAUGHTER]

John: Why did you choose a synchronous mode of delivery rather than an asynchronous mode, or a face-to-face option this fall?

Rebecca: So I chose not to do face-to-face delivery for my own health reasons, I chose to not be on campus for my own safety, because I have a chronic illness. So I chose specifically to have strong synchronous components, because a lot of our students are used to working in a studio together and having a community around each other and kind of feed off of each other’s work and work collaboratively. And I wanted, because of the classes I was teaching, to continue to have collaboration as a key part of my class. And I was really concerned that if I didn’t have a strong synchronous component, my students wouldn’t be able to effectively collaborate with each other, because there would be too much scheduling issues and what have you. So it’s a little bit of a carryover from the way that I would run my classes in person in that I give a lot of class time to project-based learning and team-based work and do a lot of lectures and things like that asynchronously in like a flipped classroom style. How about you, John?

John: Basically, I tried to preserve something as close as possible to what was originally scheduled or what was originally planned. And my large class is typically about 400 to 420 students, and I just couldn’t imagine taking that class and doing it in a completely asynchronous manner, because when I teach a class asynchronously, I give students lots of individual feedback, and it would be really challenging providing individual feedback to several hundred students. I just didn’t really have the time to do it in that sort of mode. So I thought it was better to work in a mode where I could give students feedback in a group setting using some interactive tools, where they’re all getting feedback at once. It was the only way I could see handling a group that large. If I was trying to do it as an online class, it would be effectively more in the form of a MOOC with very little interaction, either among the students or between me and the students.

Rebecca: One of the things that we both talked about before we started recording was how we both used a flipped classroom model to help with our synchronous session. So can you talk a little bit about how you did that and what students were doing outside of class.

John: This is actually, in many ways, similar to what I had done in a face-to-face class. Before each class, students would have some readings to work through. And I use the Lumen Learning Waymaker package, which is basically taking materials from a textbook, combining it with interactive multimedia, where they got to shift demand and supply curves and other curves around and see how they responded when they change parameters. And they read a bit in that online text and then they would work through some problems on it where they were allowed multiple attempts at those problems. I also created some videos with embedded questions that were at a somewhat higher level than the textbook readings, which was a little bit more challenging. And they were given unlimited attempts to work through those videos with the questions. And they also, outside of class, participated in discussion boards, where I asked them to relate what they were learning to things in the world around them, in their own lives and their own experiences.

Rebecca: …nice little inclusive teaching practice right there, right? …connecting students with their experience and making it relevant to them.

John: Right, because we know that students learn things most effectively when it has some salience, when they see the relevance to their life.

Rebecca: And the waymaker package, if I remember correctly, had some quizzing and stuff associated with that, and unlimited attempts, a version of retrieval practice there.

John: It’s a mix of things with unlimited attempts and limited attempts. So, the microeconomics Waymaker package is designed, and all of their Waymaker packages, for that matter, are designed, is that they start with a list of broad learning objectives. And they break it down at each module level to sub objectives. And they break those down into sub modules. So, in what would have been the equivalent of a chapter of a textbook, there’s usually two to four sub modules on particular aspects of that. And students work through that. And embedded in it, they have some review questions, some practice questions. And those they can take an unlimited number of times at any point in the course. Once they complete the module, they have a module quiz where they are limited to only two attempts at it. But they’re getting feedback on what they did well. And what they didn’t do well. It’s automatically color coded to indicate whether they mastered the material in one of the blocks of content in there. And then, if they take the module quiz, it will give them feedback on what areas they did well, and what areas they need to work at more. And they’re being directed back to the areas that they need to review. And there, they do have unlimited practice opportunities. And the other thing I did is I created my own videos that focused primarily on the topics that students generally find the most challenging. And in economics, that’s generally with either applications involving math or involving graphs. It was one module a week, and I would take the topics that I know, from past experience, they were likely to have the most problems with, I’d create my own videos with that. And I was using PlayPosit, which allows you to embed questions in there. Most of those videos I created were between five and 12 minutes in length. They would watch the videos and answer questions as they were going. And if they got one of the questions wrong, they could go back and replay that portion of the video and then try it again. And they were given unlimited opportunities for that.

Rebecca: I think you mentioned students really loved those opportunities.

John: At the end of the class, I gave them a Jamboard, which I know is something you’ve used more regularly, asking them what worked well. And there was very much universal agreement on the PlayPosit, as well as on the Waymaker aspects of the course. They really liked the fact that there were practice activities embedded right in their textbook, and that they could go back and try things over and over again until they mastered it. And it was giving them feedback on whether they had, in fact, attained mastery at every step. And it was a nice visual indication of what they’ve learned and what they still needed to work on more.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: What did you do in your asynchronous components of your class?

Rebecca: Well, the balance of my classes, as I mentioned before, is a little wonky in that we’re supposed to spend more time in class and less time out. So asynchronously, I did a lot of independent stuff that students were not necessarily doing collaboratively. So this is where I had lecture videos that are recorded that were about the topics that they were going to be working on or introduce the component of the project that they were going to be doing. And then they also were completing things like LinkedIn Learning tutorials. And we also have access to D-Q University, which is a set of tutorials for accessibility, and teaches accessibility. So I took advantage of that package as well. And largely they were completing those kinds of tutorials, both of those have exercise files and that kind of thing that they can follow along with. They get little certificates. When they’re done completing there’s little quiz questions and stuff. So they were doing a lot of that kind of work asynchronously. They were also using Slack to communicate with their teams for independent things that they were working on that they needed to communicate out to teams when they were working on projects together. And I also use Slack as a place to have discussion. So like you, I had discussion questions that tried to make what we were talking about relevant. We were exploring design, specifically like web design and how they interacted as a consumer versus how they would interact as a maker and did a lot of observational studies. We also did some discussion boards that were really about design activities and things that got students off the computer. So they were just documenting what they did off-screen, offline. So things like listening to a podcast so that they didn’t have to be staring at a screen and what their takeaways were. They attended virtual conferences, which I guess was still on-screen, and did some sketching, like paper prototyping and some other methods that we like to encourage our students to do, just to kind of help balance the screen time a little bit for students. So that’s largely what they were doing asynchronously.

John: Were you having them submit some copies of that work in some way, or were they just reflecting on the work that they had done?

Rebecca: The little non screen activities were documented in a discussion, essentially, that we were holding on Slack, and then tutorials and things, they were just submitting their completed certificates. And so I broke down those LinkedIn Learning courses and things over multiple weeks. So they didn’t really submit those certificates until they were completed. But they were doing a little bit by little bit, but if they didn’t do the tutorials, they wouldn’t be able to do the projects or the actual work that we were doing of the class. So it was pretty important that they were doing those components outside of class.

John: Once your students were in class, what did you have them do in a typical class session?

Rebecca: The two classes I was teaching I handled a bit differently because of just the sheer volume of students in the bigger class, which was 25 students that were working on projects. They were working on collaborative projects, in teams of three, for the most part. And so what we would often do is show-and-tell’s or critiques in small groups. So let’s say there was two or three teams together that we would do a little critique with in a breakout room, while other teams were meeting and collaborating. We would also do things like come together to answer questions about things that they were working on, troubleshoot or whatever, and then go work on projects in breakouts for a bit. And then we’ll come back at a scheduled time. I also did one-on-one meetings with students during class time. So I’d set up things like a quiet work breakout room or the chatty breakout room. And students would pick the place that they wanted to go while they were working on projects. And then I would meet with them individually for critique, and often a lot of code troubleshooting is a lot of what I spend synchronous time doing. And students sometimes met with my TA to do the same thing, and with our small groups. I also did a lot of design challenges. And students really liked those and would like to do more to hold them accountable for the kind of material that they were learning outside of class or being introduced to outside of class in a low-stakes environment to test it out with some peers and troubleshoot. So I would pose a little design problem. And then they’d work in a small group to work on that problem in a very tight amount of time. They might spend 30 minutes… my classes are three hours long… or an hour, and then we’d come back and show them off or talk about different things. And I tried to make those design challenges fun and entertaining. So one of the first things we did, which worked really well to start gelling their teams that they were with the whole semester was designing an emoji for Slack that they used for their team. And they loved that assignment. It was partly about working at a small size, and so it was tied to some of the curriculum that we were doing, but it was fun. So they did that in a small team and then had to implement it. Later on in the semester, we did things like a 404 error page for their projects, which were just kind of entertaining. We tried to make them amusing, so that if you landed on a page, it was a good user experience. So things that maybe wouldn’t typically work on in one of my classes that were a little bit more fun, but really were emphasizing the technical and conceptual things that we were working on. The other thing that we use synchronous time for is I took advantage of our virtual platform, and I brought in alumni multiple times, and local designers multiple times and did little Q and A’s with them. Not every week, but every few weeks, or every couple weeks, I would bring in a designer for a 30-minute session. They’d introduce their work. And then students did a Q&A with them, which students really loved. And it broke up our time a bit and really gave them something special that maybe we didn’t always do in a face-to-face class that made the synchronous environment kind of special.

John: Excellent. That is a nice opportunity provided by Zoom that actually could work in the classroom too. But I think many of us just hadn’t really considered it so much. It doesn’t really matter where you are when you’re teaching in this sort of synchronous environment. So it’s very easy to bring in guest speakers and it’s something we’ve probably should have been doing more of in the past, but I think many of us will be doing more in the future.

Rebecca: So John, how did you use your synchronous time?

John: I had told students before each class session, what specific topics we’d be working on. And then most of the class time was spent asking him a series of problems of progressively higher levels of challenge. I basically adopted Eric Mazur’s clicker strategy of trying to find challenging questions where roughly half the class will get it wrong the first time and then letting them meet (in this case, I had the meet in breakout rooms), discussing it and coming back and voting again on it. And generally, you’d see a fairly significant increase in the performance after they’ve had that chance to engage in peer discussion. And that’s where a lot of the learning seems to happen when clickers are being used. I used iClicker. The only difference is students could not use a physical radio frequency clicker because they have a range of a couple 100 meters and students were spread out all over the world, I had one student in Egypt, I had students in South America and students spread throughout the country this time. So they needed to use either their laptop or a mobile device in order to do that. We discussed it as a whole class after they come back from the breakout rooms. And then I’d asked them to explain their choices. I generally have them use chat, and then I’d go through and correct any misperceptions they’d have. And I try to guide them to the correct answer by asking them questions, and letting them see for themselves why some of the answers were right, and some of them were wrong. And generally, that’s how we spent many of our classes. Initially, I was also using Kahoot! from time to time. They enjoyed Kahoot!, but I noticed a bit of a drop off when we were doing the Kahoot! sessions, because those were not graded. And with the clicker questions, they were being graded, and that tended to receive a somewhat higher level of interest. It was very low stakes, they got a certain number of points for an incorrect answer on either attempt, and they got a bit more points when they answered the question correctly. And initially, I was giving him three points for an incorrect answer, and five for a correct one. And they asked it perhaps that could be bumped up, because some of the questions were so challenging. And I did raise it. So they ended up getting four points for any answer, and five points for a correct answer. So it is extremely low stakes. So I tried to do a lot of retrieval practice in the class, where it started from essentially no stakes with the embedded questions in the reading, then it ramped up to in class applications of this, where they still get 80%, even if they got it wrong, but they had another chance to get it correct. And then they took that module quiz, and even there, they had two attempts at it. So if they made mistakes, they had lots of resources they could go back to and work on it. So I tried to set it up and provide them with many pathways to attain mastery of the content, and to encourage a growth mindset and to encourage them to recognize that people make mistakes when they’re learning and that there’s a lot of benefit from having those mistakes as part of your learning process. There’s a lot of research that shows that we learn things much more deepl if we get them wrong, when we first try it, we’re much more likely to remember it later on, then if we happen to get it correct, initially. In that case, we’re much more likely to forget it a bit later. And that was a bit of a challenge for students. But I think they eventually appreciated the fact that everything was fairly low stakes.

Rebecca: I think I’m seeing some themes in the things that, although we’re teaching very different classes in very different contexts, there’s some real big themes about how we’re using our synchronous time, and even how we’re using our asynchronous time. And so there’s an emphasis on peer interaction and establishing those peer networks, really enforcing or reinforcing things and dealing with muddy points. And then also just providing the encouragement and support like that low-stakes environment or trying to foster a growth mindset. So in my classes, I did the same thing. I was doing peer group work and trying to really get them to collaborate and troubleshoot together and they love that that… that was really valuable. I spent time doing live demos and troubleshooting, when there was a really troublesome technical component or something that they were trying to do that a lot of them were having trouble with, that they could ask me live questions. So that same muddy point kind of thing that you were getting to in what you were discussing. And then, finally, the growth mindset that you started bringing up, I’d also tried to do and, although I didn’t have a lot of low-stakes testing, or something like that, I set my projects up so they were done in sprints. So a long full-semester project was broken into multiple two-week sprints, where they would work on something, get feedback, and then could revisit whatever they did, and then add a new component to it. And so I did that throughout the whole semester. So there was a bit of retrieval practice, a bit of spaced practice in there, and certainly some fostering a growth mindset and the idea that you make mistakes and that’s how you learn. And I spent a lot of time… I don’t know if you experienced this too, John… but I experienced a lot of time in synchronous and saying like, “You can do this. It’ll be okay. And this is how the learning experience works.”

John: And I did have to do a lot of that, especially in the first few weeks of the semester, because they were not used to a flipped class environment. And they were not used to this notion of making mistakes and learning from mistakes as part of your learning process. Because most of them have come up through their elementary and secondary school system thinking that they need to memorize some things and reproduce it on exams. And they do well if they get high scores, and they don’t make mistakes. And that’s just not how we learn in general. And it was important, I think, to help remind them of that. Another aspect of the flipped class environment that we’re both using is that we let students learn some of the basic skills, the easy things that they can learn pretty easily on their own, from other resources. And we’re trying to focus our class time using essentially a just-in-time teaching approach where you focus on the things that students always have trouble. In a traditional classroom environment, what normally happens is students will learn the easy stuff in class where faculty will lecture them on basic definitions and basic concepts. And then it all makes a lot of sense until students try to apply it. And they try to apply it typically in assignments outside of class, or in high-stakes exams. And it’s much more productive if the students use the time outside of class to master those basic concepts. And then we hold them accountable for having done that somehow in class. And then we give them assistance on the things that they find challenging when they need it. Not after they’ve had that experience of a more high-stakes assessment in some way.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think what I found or that students really shared with me that was something that they really appreciated was that there was a lot of structured time to work on those difficult problems in class. This is true of my face-to-face classes too, but even maybe more so in this online environment where students were having a really hard time managing their time. I would allow time to work on a project during class… it was scheduled, but then there was a check in point later on in the day. You wouldn’t want to spend three hours staring at a screen on Zoom, like this makes no sense. So I certainly did not do that. And I don’t want anyone to think that I did that. But, I would do things like “Okay, we’re going to check in at 9:30. And then we’re going to do a little activity together. And then you’re going to have some work time to work on X. And then we’re going to come back at 11. And you’re going to show me what you did. And then we’re going to have a little discussion or do another little activity, and then we’re gonna come back again at 12.” And we would have a schedule where there was time to kind of come back. What I found is, over time, students often wouldn’t actually get off of Zoom. They would just turn their cameras off and their microphones off. And I would do the same if it was like a work time. And then when we all came back on, a lot of students would turn the media back on. That said, I, of course did not require that depending on where students were, I certainly had students that were in environments where they couldn’t turn their cameras on, or had really poor internet connections, we adjusted as necessary there, and we had a way to communicate in a much more low-tech fashion using Slack during class time. So if something happened with someone’s internet connection, or whatever, they could still stay connected with us and what we’re doing.

John: How did you assess student learning in your class?

Rebecca: My classes are all project based. So the majority of grades are built on projects, not entirely, we had discussion boards, and I had some collaboration things that they were doing, and they were evaluated on those things as well. But projects were the significant piece of the puzzle. And the way that I graded them was really just providing feedback about the kinds of things I was going to ultimately grade very regularly throughout the semester. So every couple of weeks, they were getting feedback on their code for my web class, for example, feedback on their design, feedback on their writing, not a specific grade, necessarily, but feedback on all of those elements that were going to go into the final project. And then the ability to revise all of those again and again and again and continue to get feedback on those.

John: Did you have your students engaged in any reflective tasks?

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a really great question, John. I had reflection built in two ways. So at the end of each sprint, or kind of module in my class, they were working on two projects at the same time throughout the semester, so they’d work kind of two weeks on one project, two weeks on the next project and cycle back… that was so that I had time to give them feedback regularly. So that was part of my structure. But at the end of one of those modules, I had a reflection activity that I implemented using a Google form. So a few different prompts to think about what they got out of that sprint, goals for their next sprint, that kind of thing. And then I also had some big group reflections at different moments during the semester, I had one at the beginning, and a couple in the middle and one at the end. And I use Jamboard for that, which is a Google suite tool that has sticky notes, and is the same kind of way that you might brainstorm. So I use it as a way to collect reflections in sticky note form, essentially, virtually. And I would have a reflection question for folks to respond to or a couple of different boards with different kinds of questions. In the beginning, we did something called “hopes and fears,” which is something I’ve talked about before… setting up the class like, what are they hopeful that they’re going to get out of a collaborative project? What are they scared about? We find out that like, all the teams have the same hopes and fears. During the middle of the semester, what are some of the big takeaways that you’ve had? What are some things that you want to work on? What are some things that you’d like to see changed about the class and various themes bubble up on that. And then at the end of the semester, I asked questions like, “What was your biggest takeaway? What was the thing you were surprised that you learned? What is one recommendation of something you would change in this semester?” and “What is something that you want to continue learning?” and I got really useful feedback on what to change about the class but also, some really great themes bubbled up across the class, which really results in like kind of three or four things for each of those questions, which was a nice way to wrap up the end of the class and summarize for students after they completed that task. And one thing that I like about the Jamboard is that it actually ends up being anonymous. You can see people while they’re working on it, but it doesn’t keep a name with a sticky, ultimately.

John: So you can see who’s active in the board, but you don’t see who is writing which note.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. So that worked really well for me. How about you, John, were you able to build in reflection? I know you have such a big class. So it can be tricky.

John: I wasn’t able to do as much of that with my large section. But I did have them do that, to some extent in their discussions. For one discussion forum in both classes, I had them use a tool called Packback, which uses artificial intelligence to give students some feedback as they’re writing their prompts. And each week, students had to post a question related to that week’s material and they had to respond to at least a couple other people. But one of the nice things about Packback is it will check the cognitive level of the posts, it will give them some feedback in terms of grammar, it will also do a little bit of checking to see if the material has previously been posted. And it gives students some feedback, encouraging them to say more than “I agree.” And it also encourages them to document sources and to provide resources or references for the arguments they provide. And they get a score on that. So it takes a lot of the evaluation of that away. And so I monitored all of that. But it was something that seemed to function pretty well, just by the interaction between the users and that system. I haven’t really mentioned much about what I did in my online class. My online class uses many of the tools, but obviously, I couldn’t do synchronous, because that class is fully asynchronous. I couldn’t do the same type of instruction. But I had students do two other things in that class that provided opportunities for reflection, one of which was I had them work in a metacognitive cafe, low-stakes discussion forum, where they reflected on what they were learning and the learning process. And that gave them another way of making connections to their learning and reflecting on how well they were learning materials and what barriers they were facing, and also sharing effective learning strategies with each other. They were given some readings each week, generally on research-based learning practices as a primer for many of those discussions… others, they were just reflecting on what they’ve learned and how it might be useful in their life to tie it back to themselves. But the other thing I had students do is work on two podcast projects in that class. And in those they were taking what they were learning and making reflections about how that connected to the world around them. Many of them ended up being related to COVID and pandemics, but they were making some really good connections, and they were getting a chance to see how the material they were learning had some relevance in their own lives. And a lot of that came out in some of the things they were discussing in their podcasts. And they also did use Jamboard once at the very end of the term. But I also use Google forms a few times to have them reflect on the process of what was working, what wasn’t working in the class and what was working and what was not working in their own learning processes and what I can do and what they could do to help them learn more effectively.

Rebecca: I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised at how well synchronous learning actually went for me. I had some technical difficulties early on with my internet connection. It took me a while, but I got around to fixing that problem by hardwiring my internet and resolving some of those things. But I felt just as connected to my students as I would normally. I had a lot of interactions. And in some ways, I was able to facilitate those interactions a little more equitably online, because it wasn’t just the person who came to nudge me and stand in line and be the next person. Instead, I could really coordinate using waiting rooms and breakout rooms and really give everybody a chance to have one-on-one interactions with me, which I really appreciated. And I really did get to know all of my students quite well, which I was a little bit surprised about. And then, in an area where it’s really technicalaAnd we’re doing a lot of coding and things on screen, being able to share screens and take control of another person’s computer to fix things or show them how to do something was incredibly valuable. We use some of those kinds of tools in person. But it actually was, I think, in some cases more effective using this particular tool. So I was kind of surprised at how well some things worked. And I think that even when things go back to face to face, there’s definitely some components here that I would keep.

John: I’d agree. And I think students were amazed at how well some of those tools work. When in breakout rooms, they would be using the whiteboard features, they would be sharing screens, they’d be making the case, they’d be drawing on the screens, and that was something that would be much harder to do in a face-to-face environment. Initially, at the beginning of the class, I had some issues with chat being kind of flooded with irrelevant material, and I had to clamp down on that a little bit. But within a couple of weeks, they started actually using it very productively, and it provided a voice for all students, even those quiet students who would have otherwise sat in the back of this large lecture hall. They were able to type something in chat, after thinking about what they wanted to say before doing it, without being concerned about interrupting the discussion that was going on. And I think that was really helpful. And when I taught large classes with three to 400 students, there’s almost always 3 to 10 Students who have trouble not having side conversations when there’s other activities going on. And that mute option is kind of a nice feature and the ability to set their microphones so they’re all muted unless they choose to unmute… to have the default being muted until people click the unmute option… made it really easy. And I was amazed at how quickly they adjusted to muting and unmuting. By the end of the term there was maybe only once or twice a class where a family member or someone else would walk into the room and start talking. And then they’d remember, they had to mute their mics, and it was very rare. In a class that large, I was impressed by it… and working with students one on one, during office hours, it was so much easier to have students just share the screen and show you exactly what their problems were then to correspond with them with email, or even have them boot up their computer or you try to find what they were talking about when they came to your office. It was just much more efficient.

Rebecca: Yeah, I could actually see it. You can Zoom in, you can see what they’re talking about. I also found, and I was really floored, in this last week of classes, students were doing their final presentations,at how well they did develop facility with these tools. They’ve developed a lot of fluency in the kinds of tools that are actually very relevant to my particular discipline. It’s relevant to many disciplines. But designers use these tools all the time when they’re working with clients. And so it was amazing to me that we got through 15 presentations so efficiently. We didn’t wait for anybody to share their screen. They just knew what they needed to prepare, had it ready, they started developing slide decks really effectively, and could just do the things that they needed to do really efficiently. One of the last things I said to my class was like “I’m so proud of you just being able to do that. We didn’t have to wait for anybody today. That was amazing.” And so maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise, you hate saying like, “Oh, the plague is such a great thing.” But they really did develop some useful skills and tools and they became more effective communicators. That was something that a lot of students reflected on and things that they didn’t expect to learn is how much better they became collaborators and just communicators generally… not just in person, like through Zoom or in text… like through chat in Slack.

John: Video conferencing is likely to be a part of their lives in the foreseeable future, especially now that everyone has adapted tp this mode, it’s very useful for them to learn how to use that efficiently. The one thing I do miss though, is seeing their faces in person and recognizing them. One concern that I have is, I’m hoping to be back on campus in the fall, there may be students that I work with who interact with me regularly, whose voice I would recognize or whose name I would recognize on the screen, but whose face I just wouldn’t recognize because a very large proportion of students just didn’t feel comfortable having their cameras on regularly, and I understand that. We’ve got a lot of students living in crowded living quarters or working with very poor network connections. But I do miss actually physically seeing them. And I had my last class session earlier today. And I encouraged them to stop by in the fall and just say hello.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I agree that the physicality is certainly something that’s missing. But it was amazing to me how connected I still felt to all of the students at the end of the semester. And I think that they felt connected to each other too and they verbalized that, and also wrote that in their Jamboard reflection. So although there’s much to be improved, given this was the first time out and an experiment in many ways. I’m really thankful that I read Flower Darby’s book about Small Teaching Online because that actually informed a lot of my practices, even though it was synchronous, and a lot of her material was about asynchronous learning. It really did help me remind myself of things that I already knew that I needed to do, but to kind of make a checklist of things that I definitely needed to do as I was rethinking my classes for the fall. So thanks for chatting with me, John.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Rebecca: I am sitting down to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, to try to troubleshoot some things for the spring. And I’m teaching a class that’s brand new to our curriculum for the first time in the spring. And so we’re developing it for online synchronous, although ultimately, it’ll probably be a face-to-face class. We’ve had to re-conceptualize some of the things that we were going to do because of the technology limitations that students may have. If they’re online, we’re expecting that we might have a lot of students who are relying on their phones versus software and having access to high-end software packages or computers that can run them. So we’ve had to rethink things. But I’m pretty excited about being able to experiment with my students with all kinds of technology in the spring, but it’s definitely a puzzle that I’m currently starting to work on. How about you, John?

John: Well, I still have a lot of grading to do. But once that is done, one of the things I’m going to be doing is converting a textbook I had written in econometrics to a Pressbooks site, which will be a lot of conversion because it’s originally in LaTex, a typesetting language used for mathematical typing and I’m planning to create a lot of videos, I’m hoping to get many of them done over the break so that I’m not spending 15 or 20 hours a week creating videos as I was all fall. And I’m hoping to get a little bit further ahead of the semester this time, so I’m not doing as much preparation at the last moment. And we’re both going to be working on putting together a series of workshops in January for our faculty to help people prepare for whatever comes at them this spring

Rebecca: We’re just going to be really busy.[LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve never spent as many hours working on my classes as I have this semester.

Rebecca: I agree. There was a lot of startup costs converting to this modality, but I’m hoping a lot of that stuff I’ll be able to keep and reuse moving forward. Thanks, John. Always nice talking to you, John. We chat all the time. But it’s nice to sometimes hear about some of the thought process and things behind some of the decisions that you’ve made in your classes. So it was really nice to actually hear about how you did some of that stuff this semester. So thanks.

John: And I also appreciate hearing more about what you’ve been doing in your classes. We spend most of our time on podcasts talking to our guests and only mentioning little snippets of what we’ve been doing ourselves.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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167. Supporting Persistence

Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, Dr. Becky Cottrell joins us discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also discuss strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Show Notes

  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599–623.

Transcript

John: Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, we discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also examine strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Becky Cottrell. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Welcome, Becky.

Becky: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Becky: I’m drinking water today.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I’ve gotten seasonal with my Christmas tea today.

John: I’ve got to bring that back. I’ve got a lot of it up in the office, along with some cinnamon sticks.

Rebecca: I beat you, John, I beat you this time. [LAUGHTER]

John: I saw your presentation at the OLC Accelerate conference, where you were talking about the research you’ve done on student outcomes in online and face-to-face classes at an Hispanic serving institution. Could you give us an overview of what prompted your interest in the topic, first?

Becky: Absolutely. I have been teaching online for more than six years. And I started working with a number of colleagues who really didn’t think that you could teach Spanish online. And I took that as a challenge and really wanted to teach a really great online Spanish class. And from there, it got me wondering who is taking online classes? I noticed a really big difference between my face-to-face students and my online students. And I wanted to know more about who they were and how they were doing in those classes. And combining that with the fact that we have seen an increase in student enrollments in online classes at our institution and around the country over the last many years, even before COVID, it really seemed important to me to know how students are doing in their online classes and what their grades are and what their outcomes were.

John: And that research becomes even more important when we put it in the context of COVID with the rapid shift online. Many people who were avoiding online instruction like the plague, have suddenly been forced to change their teaching modality.

Rebecca: …due to the plague. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we can no longer say “avoiding it like the plague” anymore.

Becky: And students are complaining now and you hear students who don’t want to pay Harvard tuition rates for a substandard educational experience in an online class. But, are those experiences really substandard? I really want to know that.

Rebecca: That’s definitely a great question and a really relevant one right now.

John: So, this was your dissertation research?

Becky: It was. So, I just finished my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. So I did a lot of research about what are student outcomes and what do they look like with different types of curriculum?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about where your study was done?

Becky: Absolutely. So we use a pseudonym for the site. So, Russell University. It’s an urban university in the Mountain West and a very non-traditional population. So, lots of older students, lots of first generation students, veterans, working students, more students who are married… helping raise families. So, not your typical just-out-of-high-school students. It’s an Hispanic serving institution, and has been for the last few years.

John: How large was the sample that you worked with?

Becky: I started looking at every class that had online and face-to-face enrollments over two academic years, and at a large institution that ended up with 156,000 total course enrollments. But the statistical method that I was using doesn’t let one student be in the treatment group and the control group. So we had to aggregate students. And so I aggregated them down. There ended up being 28,000 students in the study. And from there, I just wanted to look at the ones who were taking mostly online classes, or mostly face-to-face classes. So those who were in that top 25% or bottom 25%, in terms of online enrollment, ended up being 7765 students over the course of two years.

John: That’s a nice sized sample. In many institutions, you have some students who are only online students, some students are only face-to-face. It sounds like there was a bit of a continuum there.

Becky: Certainly there were some who were all online or all face-to-face. It wasn’t something that I specifically looked at in my study, so I can’t pull out specific numbers of that. But yes, we definitely had students in the study who were entirely online and entirely face-to-face.

John: In terms of the online classes, were they developed with the assistance of instructional designers?

Becky: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer basically, is I have no idea. It wasn’t one of the things that I looked at in the study, I was looking more at student characteristics than course characteristics. That said, Russell University has a really robust online offering. Over the last 20 years, they have increased their online course offerings a great deal, and particularly in the last five years have really ramped up their efforts to develop courses and have really excellent quality matters certified courses at the university. That doesn’t mean that all of our courses meet that standard. But it has been an institutional goal and one of the things that they’ve worked on. but I was just looking at student demographics when I was looking at the study. Partly that’s hard because we have students who are taking maybe 20 different classes, and so they could have had one or two that were developed through an instructional designer, but the others may not have been. So, no real way of knowing.

John: The outcome you were looking at specifically was student success in the course?

Becky: Yes, so I measured student success in two different ways. The first way was looking at student grades, which we measured by course GPAs that was aggregated based on their course enrollments. And the other one was withdrawal rate. So, what was their percentage of withdrawals during the courses that they were taking during the two-year sample?

John: One of the things I found really interesting about your study is that you use a methodology that took into account sample selection in a way that so many education studies don’t. And you suggested the reason for that, I think, when you said that your online students were quite a bit different than your face-to-face students. Could we talk a little bit about that issue of sample selection in studies of this nature?

Becky: Absolutely. This is a really common problem in educational research, that you have something called selection bias. And I think that those of us who teach are aware that our students who enroll in 8 am classes are really different than the students who enroll in 2 pm classes. And we see some of those similar things with online classes versus face-to-face classes. It’s just a really different group and personality of those students. And what happens is students get to sign up for their own classes. There’s nobody randomly controlling them into different classes. They pick the ones that they want with the teachers that they want at the times that they want and in the course modality that they want. And we don’t know why. So that’s part of what I wanted to look at in this research is: what students are enrolling in online classes and what students are enrolling in face-to-face and why? Is there a balance between the groups? Are they really similar? Or are they really different? And so what I found was that there are different students who are enrolling in online classes versus face-to-face classes, which is not unexpected. As an example here, we found that students who are working full time were more likely to take online classes, which makes sense, they need to take the online classes because it fits better with their schedule and has greater flexibility to match their work schedule. But at the same time, what impact does that have on course outcomes? Does it mean that they are really motivated because they have a full-time job, so they’re going to get better course grades? Or does it mean that they are working full time and they’re managing a family and if something comes up, they’re going to put their schoolwork to the side because other things are more important. So selection bias, and the way that students self selected to classes, really changes how they might perform in those classes. Which brings us to that question of are those student course outcomes based on the online course modality? Or are they based on the characteristics that made students choose the online course modality?

John: When you didn’t control for student characteristics, what did you find in terms of comparing the outcomes in online classes with face-to-face classes?

Becky: One of the things that was really interesting here is that those students who were taking 75%, or more online classes actually had significantly better grades in their online classes than they did in face-to-face classes. So the online course GPA for those students taking 75% or more online classes was 2.55. And for those taking face-to-face classes was only 2.34. So definitely a significant difference and higher grades in online classes, which is not what I was expecting. Then, with regard to withdrawal rates, we had totally different results, which is that there was no significant difference in withdrawal rates among the two groups before balancing for those 15 different student characteristics.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what those 15 characteristics were and how you chose those?

Becky: Absolutely. I used Tinto’s student integration model to look at what characteristics he felt contributed to student success and persistence in the institution. So, I ended up with 15, different personal characteristics related to students. So, a lot of demographic characteristics: age, race, gender, those sorts of issues. We tried to get academic performance through GPA, transfer status, transfer GPA, ACT scores, SAT scores, those sorts of things. We also tried to determine institutional commitment through if they had a declared major. And the one area that we would have liked to have more, but wasn’t available in an institutional data set, was something related to like computer literacy and other skills that were related to performance in an online class, but it just wasn’t something that was available. So 15 different characteristics, including those demographics, academics, and just connection to the institution.

John: So you were using a nearest neighbor matching with, I believe, a two-to-one ratio?

Becky: Yeah.

John: Could you describe that, perhaps, for our listeners?

Becky: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …for people like me that have no idea what that even means? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: So the methodology that I used was kind of an interesting statistical method called the propensity score analysis. And basically what a propensity score analysis does is matches people who are in the treatment group with people who are in the control group. So it creates kind of an artificial match to say this is now one person and what would have happened if they’d been in treatment or if they’d been in control. So it takes all of those characteristics and assigns them a score, and from there can divvy them up and say they are likely to be in treatment or control and it recreates those groups. And that matching allows them to determine the probability of them being in treatment or control groups, which essentially controls for the characteristics that you’ve loaded into the model.

John: To simplify it a bit, you’re comparing people who are similar in characteristics and examining the outcomes when adjusting for those characteristics.?

Becky: That is a great explanation… very concise. And the idea of the nearest neighbor two-to-one matching is basically that for each person who’s in the online class, we found two matching people in the control group. So we tried to keep as many students as possible in the final outcome.

John: And there have been at least some studies that are found one-to-one or two-to-one gives you the best estimates with the least amount of bias from that procedure..

Becky: Absolutely, yes. When there’s a one-to-one match, you get a lot better balance, because you can obviously find a matching student in the online or the face-to-face class that is the best fit. But when you start matching more students, it’s not quite as good of a fit, so you don’t deal with balance quite as well. And speaking of balance, I’m going to jump in and tell you about this right now, just because I think that’s interesting, and one of the great parts about propensity scores is this idea that the first thing that a propensity score model does is say, “Are these groups the same? Are your online groups the same as the face-to-face group?” And what we found out is that they aren’t. And I thought this was a really interesting piece of my research. So they were totally different, different enrollment patterns. and there were about eight characteristics that were significantly different. And this is where I think it’s so fascinating. So we had more part-time students in the online classes… not surprising… but they had higher ACT scores, more transfer students, more credits taken, they were more experienced students, they had higher GPAs, they were more likely to have a declared major and they were all older. So the better students were taking online classes, which is so fascinating to me, and explains ultimately, why we had higher course grades in our baseline data. Students who are better students were taking online classes, where those beginning students who were younger, who had less experience, were taking the face-to-face classes. So I just thought that was fascinating, that it was imbalanced. But it really gave a good picture as to why we were getting the outcomes we were at the institution.

Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to have some follow up studies related to COVID-19 around those ideas, because just anecdotally, students who are newer to being online, or just newer college students, have struggled quite a bit with online learning or complained about it, or just don’t know how to manage their time and those kinds of things. And it seems related to the kinds of findings that you’ve had.

Becky: Absolutely. And I think across the country, we’re seeing that those upperclassmen stay enrolled and are succeeding through these COVID transition. But it’s the underclassmen who are taking a gap year or who are failing out of classes. So I think that these results speak to that, that those students maybe aren’t prepared for an online class,

John: What happened to your results in terms of student success, when you corrected for the sample selection?

Becky: This is so fascinating. After controlling for that balance, we had originally had, in our baseline data, better scores, better course grades in online classes, and after controlling for those characteristics, there was no significant difference in course grades between online and face-to-face courses, which is awesome, it’s really exciting to know that maybe we’re doing something right. And so that was really exciting. But, at the same time, our baseline data had said that there was a non-significant difference in withdrawal rates. But after controlling, we found that there was a significant increase in withdrawal rates, and online classes had higher withdrawal rates, by about 2%, than face-to-face classes.

John: I think that’s a fairly common result, that online students often have much higher withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes.

Becky: Right. The grades are really promising. And I’m glad to know that those course outcomes are doing well. But when we start looking at withdrawal rates, it brings up some really interesting questions about how are we engaging students and why do we have bigger withdrawal rates in those online classes.

Rebecca: I was just going to ask if your research led you to believe anything about those results? If it was this particular characteristic or a teaching method? Or are those just new questions that we need to continue asking? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: I think they are mostly new questions that we need to continue asking. But there are some implications in the literature that I think lead us to some possibilities here. One of the big ones is that sense of community and connection in online classes, students really want to feel that, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to drop out from those classes. And so it’s definitely a consideration as we’re looking at more online classes is how are we building community? And how are we engaging with our students in that online space to make sure that they’re able to connect with their instructor and connect with other students in the class? I think that another factor that we see is who are taking these online classes: so students who are more engaged with families, they’re older, they’re working full time, therefore taking fewer classes. I think that those factors can contribute to their persistence or not in these online spaces. So, definitely some of those issues are there and we know what some of those reasons are. And I would love to do some future follow up research on what really is happening at this particular institution.

Rebecca: I know you had also mentioned high-impact practices and trying to incorporate more of those, like inviting students to do research and things. I’m wondering if we have any data on how prevalent that might actually be in online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How often are those opportunities actually there?

Becky: I totally agree. It would be so interesting to look at what are those impacts? And what is the prevalence of those high-impact practices? I think there’s a lot of research about what we can do to do better. And I think that even from this research that for my dissertation was almost obsolete by the time I defended my dissertation, because COVID happened, but one of the things that we can be doing better, and I think we have started is providing greater access to student services in those online spaces that students maybe before didn’t have access to advising, registration… they didn’t have a good way to connect with people who are on campus. And I think so many of our institutions have had to move towards a much better practice with that. When we went online for months, they had to figure out how to do that. And I think that we’ll keep that around and providing better services to students. And that will definitely help keep them enrolled in classes and keep them from stopping out and persisting at the institution.

Rebecca: Nothing like a pandemic to really force some innovation, right? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: It’s true, but it’s been so much fun. I love seeing that innovation and how we’re benefiting our students. I also love seeing a little more attention towards online teaching, We were the ugly stepchild before and now everyone is excited to learn about this new thing and how they can do it better.

John: It’s gone from being an ugly stepchild to a savior in some way.

Becky: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the last pandemic with the Spanish flu. What happened to their education at that point? We didn’t have online learning. Did they have distance education? What even happened with that?

John: If this has happened 20 years ago, it would have been a completely different experience with a lot of colleges just completely shutting down or moving to some type of correspondence class instruction.

Rebecca: Which I don’t think would have gone well. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which would not have gone very well.

Becky: No, definitely 20 years ago, I think that right now we can say we have similar course outcomes in online and face-to-face classes. But 20 years ago, I would have been one of those students who was protesting at Harvard about paying tuition for a substandard educational experience, [LAUGHTER]

John: What are some of the things that you would recommend doing to help build class community?

Becky: I’m so glad that you asked about this, because this is one of the other personal interests that I have. I’ve been working with a faculty learning community for the last two and a half years around developing instructor presence in an online class. And so I love talking about this, I think that there are a lot of ways that we can really develop connections among instructors and students, and also among students. So one of the best practices that I’ve seen is making sure that teachers have an opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students, whether that’s sending out an email a time or two during the semester, or requiring students to meet with them, at the beginning of the semester or at midterms, throughout the semester, to be able to develop that one-on-one Zoom connection to just be able to have a little bit of face time with students. But I think that works really well. So making sure that there is an opportunity to connect on a human level. When we teach online, we tend to be really text heavy and dry. And taking that human element that we love in a face-to-face class and pulling it out in an online space is so valuable for students, and really helps them to connect with each other and with their instructor. It’s one of those inclusive teaching practices that we do really well face-to-face, but is a little bit harder to do online, and if we’re intentional about it, it can happen. In terms of developing community among students, I think that as much as there’s resistance towards group work, I think that you can intentionally use it to develop community in your classes. And this isn’t just a “Hey, you should write a paper together and divide up the work,” it’s intentionally using that as a community building opportunity. And letting students know that that’s your intention is you want that to be community building. So one of the things I’ve always done in my Spanish classes is have students meet in small conversation groups once a week to have conversation practice with each other. And there’s always a little bit of resistance, and students aren’t so sure that they want to do it. But I have them fill out a survey to let me know what time they’re available. And it’s just a group of three students. They meet every week, and they have a great time talking with each other and get that oral communication practice they need. It also ends up being one of their favorite parts of the class. They develop connections with other students. And I hear all the time about students who actually meet in person and go out for coffee. I had one student who was taking a class from Florida and another student who was in Denver, and the Denver student had to go to Florida for something and stopped and went to go visit the Florida student in person, they went and hung out together. So I think there are just really interesting human personal connections that can be made. And leaving space for that to happen is so important. I think we get too focused on academics and lose those moments at the beginning or the end of a class where we spend a few minutes talking about nothing or the weather or the football game last weekend. And leaving that space in an online class and making sure that you have some space for that, really helps to develop those connections.

Rebecca: I definitely have experienced that this semester with my students who have had persistent groups all semester. They have said multiple times how helpful that has been for them, and they just did a reflection activity and almost every single student said “Oh, being in those groups was the best part…” which we never hear about group work, right? [LAUGHTER]. But they got to know each other and they had support through the class and used that as a way to help each other out with the course material.

Becky: Absolutely. I love that. It’s so amazing when students can get that connection and really work together.

John: I had a similar experience in my online class where I had students work on podcasts. And the first time they met, generally, is when they met in small groups to have these conversations and recorded them using Zoom. And they were supposed to be 5- to 10-minute podcasts, but many of them ended up being dramatically longer because, essentially, they were getting to know each other. It was kind of nice to see that sort of engagement and that interaction where they were getting to form this community. It would have been nice if they had recorded just a shorter segment of it. But I did get to listen in on some of those initial meetings. And it was an interesting experience.

Becky: And I agree, I signed my students to only speak for 30 minutes, and they only had to record 15 minutes of that. But the timer would tell me how long they’d been in and many of them would be in there for 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes an hour and a half… that they would just spend that time together, practicing and talking. And it was great. It was just fun to see that connection, that they went above and beyond what we’d asked them to do.

Rebecca: So drop out rates for something that you mentioned that your research pointed to this was one of the biggest issues that we needed to be thinking about in terms of online education. So in addition to instructor presence and helping students formulate community, do you have any other recommendations for faculty or instructors to help mitigate that or get students to stay? …to retain students?

Becky: Absolutely. So we’ve talked about access to student support services, building a community, some of those high-impact practices that we don’t always think about in online spaces is making sure that students have the ability to collaborate with faculty, like on a research project, especially at a Hispanic serving institution. It’s a culture where those connections are really important. And making sure to provide those to students so that there’s an opportunity to connect with faculty on working on something meaningful is really important. So as faculty, we can make sure that we’re selecting students, when we’re thinking about TAs, research assistants, make sure that we’re thinking about some of our online students as well and see if that might be a good fit for them. And one of the things that I also think about in terms of improving retention is this connection and relationship between the faculty and the student is so important. But in order to do that, we know our faculty are overworked and underpaid, and to make sure that there’s institutional support for faculty, is really important. And so making sure that there’s access to instructional design and pedagogical training through some of the resources available at the institution is a big deal, making sure that there is a collaborative opportunity for faculty to work together and share best practices and generally just supporting faculty. As we hold on to faculty, it gives them more bandwidth to hold on to their students. So institutional support is a really big deal to benefit our students as well.

Rebecca: And one that we can’t underscore enough when faculty are feeling really strained. [LAUGHTER]

Becky: No, absolutely not, not in 2020. And here we are. I don’t know about other institutions, but we’re being furloughed. And so we’re asked to do more and have fewer resources.

John: …while being at further risk in terms of employment risk, as well as all the health risks out there.

Becky: Oh, there’s so much going on.

John: You mentioned forming connections between faculty and students, and one way of certainly selecting students to be TAs, and so forth. But, what are some of the things instructors can do in their courses to help form those connections within online classes,

Becky: One of the things that we’ve really found that is helpful is moving away from a really static discussion board. We see a lot of classes where instructors say, ‘Tell me three things that you learned from this reading,” or “What are three of the five methods that are used to do whatever it is”. And those are really boring discussion boards and do not foster community, but asking questions that really encourage students to engage in a debate, in a conversation, and teaching them how to engage with each other appropriately and respectfully in an online space is really important. So asking them to solve problems together, asking them to work together, not shying away from difficult conversations. This election year has had a lot of challenges, and engaging with those in a student class in a way that allows them to bring in their own unique perspectives helps them to connect. Some of that might be through a discussion board. Some of it might be through a tool like Flipgrid that allows you to have students have a video discussion where they get to record a short video and then reply to each other. That really fosters that sense of connection and community in an online space. So allowing for that to happen is really important. We can move away from a boring discussion board to either a better discussion board or some of these other tools that foster community.

John: Flipgrid or VoiceThread or other similar tools offer a lot more possibilities for connection and hearing each other’s voices and hearing their instructor’s voice I think should help to create that sense of community more so than just reading text on a screen.

Becky: …and videos also. That, if we are recording videos, we can see the instructor, we can see the other students… having a face to put to a name. And having just a little bit of personal information… knowing that I smile and laugh, and I am an engaging person, I think, helps to connect with the course.

John: Humanizing the instructor is a phrase that’s often used, letting them hear you, hear your voice and your sense of humor, letting people know you as a person rather than just as the author of these words that show up on the screen all over the place is helpful.

Rebecca: …and humanizing the other students in the class. If it’s just a name, it’s really easy to not really think of that name as a person, the more you see and hear, not only as an instructor, but also fellow students, I think, can be really beneficial. So I think that students eat up the media when it’s available to them.

Becky: Absolutely.

John: And helping them make connections to their own life in their discussion. If they’re going to have discussion boards, one way of doing it effectively might be to have them make connections, where they draw on what they’re learning and make connections from their own life and experiences and share them, which also is a nice way of forming that sense of human presence in the classroom.

Becky: Absolutely. With a PhD in curriculum, I feel like I hold in my two hands two different things. So on the one hand, I have the curriculum and the course objectives and the aligned assessments and all of those things, and I think they’re so important. In my other hand, I’m holding on to the importance of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and that reminder that we need to be transgressing some of these lines of our existing education and decolonizing our educational experience and humanizing it to make sure that we’re making real personal connections with the content, with the instructor. And so those are the two things that I carry with me as I’m working in my own classes in this and I’m helping faculty develop their courses is, “How do you balance those two things?” That is so hard, and I think in online classes, we do really well with the alignment and the course objectives and the assessments. And sometimes that humanizing part feels like it falls by the wayside.

John: But they’re not necessarily substitutes, they could be complementary. If you design assignments well, where they’re engaging in these authentic interactions, while achieving the learning objectives, it’s more work trying to design that, but there are some things you can do that can work fairly well.

Becky: I think there are wonderful faculty out there who are doing really great things, those are just the two things I try to always carry with me to make sure that I don’t leave one of them behind.

Rebecca: I think it’s really important to think about those two. So, it’s a nice reminder. And I think actually a nice way to wrap up the conversation, because it’s the two things to keep in mind as you move forward. Having those little takeaways at the end is always helpful. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Becky: For me, I am really excited to dig into some of this qualitative side of things that we’ve talked about today. As I said, I love that hard quantitative research, but I’m also really interested in the humanizing element of it and that instructor presence. So I’ve been working with this faculty learning community for the last two and a half years, and we have developed an online instructor presence self-evaluation tool that we are presenting at OLC in the spring. So we’re really excited to be able to share that with some other people about how you connect with people and how we engage in our classes. So we’re excited to move forward with some of that. And just see what is happening with COVID? How has that changed things? And how might we rethink how we’re teaching online?

John: It’s just something that people would be using on a longitudinal basis to track how their classes evolved? Or is it just used in general as an instrument to share with faculty?

Becky: What we’ve intended it as is a way for people to self assess. So we didn’t want it to be a rubric. We don’t want it to be point based. We wanted it to be conversational, and a way to go in and reflect on your own teaching and consider ways that you could improve. And so absolutely, the way that we’ve designed the tool is it has a “What are my strengths? and ”What could be improved?” area on each of it. And so it would be really interesting to come back and say, you know, I did this last semester, what does that look like this semester? What am I changing? How am I improving? S o I think it absolutely could be used longitudinally.

Rebecca: That tool that you’re talking about sounds really great. So I hope we can have you back so we can talk about that in the future.

Becky: I would love to… only if I can invite a part of our faculty learning community

Rebecca: Of course.

Becky: It was a group effort. It’s one of those things that we couldn’t have done it without each other. We’ve just been in each other’s support system. And when we first found out that our institution was going online, we had a meeting scheduled for that Friday, and we talked about canceling and everyone’s like, “No, these are the people that I need.” And so we all met that Friday that we were moving online, and we haven’t seen each other since in person, but we were just that group. We’re like, “No, I need my support group.” So, I would come back and talk about it, but only if I can bring my FLC with me.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] It sounds important to do so. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and we look forward to hearing more research from you, Becky.

Becky: Well, awesome. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure to visit with both of you.

John: Thanks for joining us. We’re looking forward to talking to you again.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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166. Course Villain

A number of online services exist that facilitate academic dishonesty. In this episode, Zachary Dixon and Kelly George join us to discuss Course Villain, a platform they created to detect crowd-sources plagiarism. Zachary is an Assistant Professor of English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College, and Kelly is an Associate Professor of Economics, also at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A number of online services exist that facilitate academic dishonesty. In this episode, we discuss one institution’s project designed to automate the detection of academic integrity violations.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Zachary Dixon and Kelly George. Zack is an Assistant Professor of English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College. And Kelly is an Associate Professor of Economics, also at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College. They are co-creators of the Course Villain tool, which is designed to track crowd-sourced plagiarism. Welcome.

Zachary: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Zachary: Sparkling water for me.

Kelly:I have hot lemon water for me.

John: Oh, that’s close.

Rebecca: That’s close enough to tea. I have Scottish breakfast.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea. We’ve invited you here to talk about Course Villain. I saw your presentation on this at the OLC Accelerate conference recently, and we invited you here so you can share that with our listeners. Could you give us a brief overview of how this program came about?

Zachary: Sure. Actually, we were at a college faculty meeting for all of the College of Arts and Sciences and plagiarism was kind of up for discussion a little bit. And I’m on the younger side of the faculty, or I was at the time, at least, and Kelly has children of her own to keep her more in touch, I guess, with the digital scene. And so Kelly and I were like, “Well, does anybody else know what’s happening on this place called CourseHero. And so many of our other fellow faculty did not know they’re kind of like, “No, what’s that?” …and we pulled it up on a screen on a laptop and really started to blow some minds. And so Kelly and I started talking about that and just got to the idea that, you know, this doesn’t seem like it has to be an impossible problem. This is more an interesting problem. Let’s see if we can game this a little bit. And we started coming up with some strategies and ideas on how to track this kind of behavior and see if we could use old Google Alerts, it was our first kind of ambitious attempt. We tried to manipulate Google Alerts into telling us when things happened on Course Hero , and it was a terrible failure. It didn’t really show us anything at all. And so that kind of prompted us like,”Wow, we need to do better.” And so we started calling the computer science department and trying to find some researchers, and it kind of just took off from there. We saw this one little issue and we thought maybe we could game it and play around with it, and it’s developed into something fun from that.

John: Could you tell us a little more about how the program you developed functions? What does it do?

Kelly: The program itself is a software function that it’s been built in a number of iterations with computer engineering students, and they use a web crawler and a web scraper. So you would put in your query. John, being an econ major, you would say, “Well, I wonder how much of econ 101 John Kane is on CourseHero.” And so you would put in the query the search features. And then what this program does is it goes into CourseHero, and it then generates hits, which are artifacts. And depending on the time that we have it running, it will generate a report to us, the user, of the 20 most recently uploaded artifacts that meet your query, so you can determine for your class what’s going on. So before it, old school, if you were a faculty member, you’d create a syllabus, and then you want to see what’s out there in the world that would make your course compromised. And at one point in time, we had it scanning once every 24 hours. You can set the duration, we can change it to 12 hours to 24 hours. The report comes back to us, and then we can look at the artifacts. Sometimes it’s a very top level screening by the instructor. We can say, “Yeah, that’s the final exam that shouldn’t be uploaded,” We had an option in the second part of the program is it auto generates that takedown feature that is so difficult to overcome with CourseHero. If you did it manually, if you have 40,000 documents, I think someone at our conference said last year, they generated something to the tune of like 60 or 70,000 takedown requests for CourseHero. And if you’re doing that by hand, that’s more than just one person doing that takedown request because of their requirements. So that was the bigger challenge, I think, in this program was to generate the takedown request. So what we envisioned was this program just kind of constantly working. So it’s constantly scraping and generating reports, and we were generating takedown requests. And Zack was the one who said it’s kind of the old Disney YouTube dynamic and phenomenon. Way back early in YouTube, back in the early 2000s, you can find every Disney movie across YouTube. And then basically Disney’s teams of lawyers and copyright content owners got involved. And they made it so difficult that now YouTube, they have algorithms and they have firewalls where you can’t upload Snow White on YouTube. And so that was kind of like in our perfect world, Where would you want to get to be where CourseHero says “Ah, that’s from Embry-Riddle. We don’t want it. It’s too difficult.”

Zachary: In terms of the functionality of the program, it’s deceptively simple, where really we just kind of built a very carefully tuned search engine, just like Yahoo or Google, where we’re essentially just leveraging the API metadata, that application program interface that the big dogs use. We kind of just built our own smaller version that does what we needed to, and that’s about it.

John: Have you tried using this with anything other than CourseHero, for some of the other sites out there for Chegg and and all the many sites that have been appearing in the last few years?

Kelly: No, not yet.

Zachary: No, we haven’t.

Kelly: It’s on that map of what you want to do. It’s all resources. You’ve got to get students to maintain the program and keep working it and to alter it a little bit. That would be the ultimate goal, to put them on the other big crowdsourced study aid platforms.

Zachary: And following up, it connects back to that leveraging that API metadata and that interface does restrict our ability to move between platforms, because we would have to re-tailor it, so to speak, kind of recut and sew it. And one of the challenges over the lifetime of the project now for coming up on three years has been exactly that, maintaining that interface. CourseHero is also always updating and revising it, trying to get better profiles on the search engines and maybe assumably trying to keep people like us out. So the maintenance keeps this one step working, and then that’s also kind of deterred us from trying other platforms.

John: So you’re searching primarily on the instructor’s name and the course? Is that the criteria?

Zachary: Well, you can define any criteria in Course Villain right now. The only kind of hard tuning we have is that we have manipulated Course Villain to only search for Embry-Riddle content right now. So we’ve restricted the search engine’s functions by our university, and that has allowed us to have better accuracy in our reporting, because before we are getting anything with English 123 would pop up and really cloud the results, so we had to kind of throttle back the scope.

John: One thing I’ve noticed recently with CourseHero in particular, is that my material now is showing up with me at nearby institutions. So students may have tuned into this because I have Eco 101 materials and Eco 350 materials at Cornell, at Syracuse University, and a few other places now, including, I think, one in North Carolina, which is my content that I created, and it has my name there, but students are getting a little bit… not terribly…but a little bit more savvy on trying to avoid detection by instructors. So, that may be something you want to look at.

Kelly: But, I think also one of the explanations for that is, not only our students getting savvy, Lord knows, they can re-engineer anything fairly quickly, instead of just doing the work. But if your material is being recycled, so primary, it’s yours at your institution, and then someone who’s just looking to do a paper or to do something is just plunking around out in the web and steal some of your things and brings it in and then when they recycle your material and upload it, because CourseHero has got that pay for play, you got to upload something. So, I can just upload this material, and then you move into the second and third generation of your material.

John: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that possibility. Because this was material from last year, some of it was exams from last year. And I just assumed it was my own students who posted it somewhere else to share it with other students, letting them know where to look so that they could evade detection. But the possibility of it being recycled is certainly a real one.

Zachary: Seeing your own work not labeled appropriately. I also saw the same thing. I think there’s also like a level of student error involved where students will like create department names and college names that don’t exist at the university, and maybe they just don’t know. Something else, and Kelly observed this really well in our data analysis, was the issue of student agency is really hot here. And it’s probably like, three steps ahead of where we’re thinking, because students are gaming us, they’re gaming the university, and they’re gaming CourseHero too. They will not just post reasonable material. It could be John Kane’s exam, and it’s just like two lines of nothing text. CourseHero doesn’t appear to have a lot of oversight over their own collection and so the students are really steering the ship in a crazy way.

Kelly: The one thing that made me look at that was when we were doing an analysis on one of the first reports and these four documents for like a physics course kept popping up. And they were like almost management case studies or something like… notes on Boeing or something… they kept popping up. And then I drilled down and what I realized was one student must have been doing the pay for play and the student just took six or seven documents that were readily available, not necessarily their documents, like their paper, where someone could actually go in and if you didn’t remove your name or anything like that you can see. My students examples are always Joe Bagadonuts. So, you know, it’s Joe Bagadonuts’ English paper or economics paper. So this individual was just uploading these PDFs, and these documents, just to get their ticker up so that they can download documents to compromise.

Rebecca: Do students know about Course Villain at your institution?

Kelly: They do now. [LAUGHTER] Marketing finally got ahold of us. We’ve had a little bit of localized publication. And then actually, from that, a fellow colleague of mine, who didn’t know we were working on this, came back and said, “Here’s an idea,” he actually appealed to his students, and said why you wouldn’t want your work up on CourseHero. And through that, in his small class, he was actually pretty successful in getting them to take down the work. And because I asked him, I was like, “How did you do that?” And he said his line was “Well, I asked them politely,” but then he gave an explanation of how he appealed to students. And it got me thinking that, in our next iteration, instead of just trying to prevent or catch the plagiarism after the fact, that that would be a good preemptive strike, to create some type of a PR campaign with our students in our university to say “Here, you can help us out here. This is why you don’t want your material up on CourseHero.” So if we came at the problem from both ends, it just hadn’t slipped our mind. That was eventually our end goal. My end goal was always that as a university, our honor code system would expand so much that our students had so much pride in the honor code system, that they would work to elevate that. And that would be one idea of how to start out that prong of the research.

Zachary: One interesting student dynamic has been our student researchers, our programmers. So we’re pretty proud of the fact that we have funded all of Course Villains so far with internal grants through the university, and we’ve only employed student programmers to do the work. Neither Kelly nor myself are capable programmers. I can maybe throw together some HTML if I tried, but we really have been leaning heavy on our student programmers. And they’ve had a really positive response to this experience. They’re aware of CourseHero when they come into this and the kind of that ilk, and I think they appreciate the hacker mentality that we kind of foster. We kind of have a cool proverbial David and Goliath situation here, this kind of huge onslaught of material and this kind of corporate juggernauts. And compared to just a couple faculty members and a small budget, it does create a cool atmosphere. And I will say, with no judgment on anyone using or not using CourseHero, though, when we do get our student programmers involved and we kind of sit down and talk about it, I definitely get the sense that diligent students appreciate this work in that it is combating something that they understand undermines the quality of their education experience.

JOHNr: How have your colleagues responded to the reports you’ve generated on the frequency of materials from their courses appearing on CourseHero?

Kelly: Shocked. It would shock any instructor. Disheartened, and then engaged. They want to use our software right away. And, because not only do they want to pre-empt, they want to get their own material taken down. They want to catch the students that are flagrantly violating academic integrity, and they want to use it. So, they’ve sprinted way, way ahead of us. So, the motivation is there. I think it’s a matter of trying to figure out where in the grand piece of the puzzle of our institution that this product can work.

Rebecca: How many takedown notices has Course Villain created or generated?

Kelly: I was not prepared for that question.

Rebecca: Oh. We can cut it out.

John: I hadn’t thought of it either., but it’s a good question.

Rebecca: But I am curious. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: No, I wouldn’t take it out. I just think, wow… That’s a good question. Actually. We were too busy the last two years. The first year we did was “Could we create this mousetrap?” The second year was dedicated to “How well does this mousetrap work?” And then this next year, this year that we’re in, was really a question of “How can we incorporate the use of this? How effective is it? And how do we incorporate it into our instructional design process and get it into our workflow to where it helps us rather than becomes just an obstacle you had to come around?” So we don’t have the data on the takedown requests. I’m gonna get it though. [LAUGHTER]

Zachary: The early experiments that I can definitely recall and speak to on the takedown requests have been pretty largely unsuccessful insofar as CourseHero is looking for specific amounts and specific kinds of verbiage in that takedown request. And since we’ve been more focused on, like Kelly said, program development and stabilisation, we haven’t been able to focus in on “What is that verbiage that we can achieve from a programmatic perspective? Like, “Can I make Course Villain say the right thing that will work every time?” or do I really have to work with an instructor level basis, like “You’re gonna have to supply this part of it,” because we can auto populate the whole form and send it on. But, so far, the couple dozen I’ve tried (focused on trying to make the thing work) have all gotten bounced back to me, you know, “More information is needed.” Essentially, you need a better argument. And the next step is largely experimental. Like, what is that? And it’s a lot to do with institutional workflow, really clarifying, like, whose intellectual property is what and why? What are we able to defend and argue? Some of these are questions for the development team, for Kelly and I, some of these questions for administration at our university, to help us chisel out here, to have that ability to kind of go back to CourseHero. You get to that legal end of things and things get weird, I think.

Kelly: Within our college, I just taught a master’s level class and now all the major assignments that are submitted in this research levels class does have the copyright at the bottom. Remember, Zack, about a year ago, we were talking about that? Well, if all Embry-Riddle submitted assignments had this statement at the bottom, like in the footer of the assignment, then it would be protected. That was one of the ways to combat the changing language and requirements of CourseHero. So if you can say “No, this is copyrighted, I’m a representative of Embry-Riddle. So, you do have to take this information down.” But I did notice that, in the last class that I taught, the research methods, that that was a fundamental change.

Zachary: There is also a pretty murky or wicked issue in terms of disciplinarity. And what exactly students are posting in there. And so there is kind of a level of judgment that has to be made where, “is this appropriate to be taken down? Is this truly our/my/the university’s intellectual property or just does that belong to the student?” And as I study academic integrity, and plagiarism, in particular, that line is really down to communities of practice, professional organizations, disciplines, courses, and instructors themselves. So that line has to be teased out too. That’s kind of worth mentioning.

Rebecca: So in addition to tools like this, what are some other strategies you’ve seen faculty in your department or at your college start implementing to help reduce the use of sites like this? You mentioned one faculty of doing an intervention. [LAUGHTER] Have you heard of other things that faculty are doing perhaps as a result of you’ve been hearing about Course Villain, and CourseHero?

Zachary: Well, I know one large-scale institutional change is we’ve actually revised the Student Code of Conduct to include these kinds of sites and the behavior of sharing work. It is defined as plagiarism, as a violation of academic integrity, to even be involved. Still, that kind of leads to weird and murkyish paths, where “Can we track down someone based on a name on a document and an avatar on an open site?” I don’t know. That kind of these legal things that go beyond my simple English professor life and knowledge. But changing the Student Code of Conduct was a big one. And I think in STEM fields, physics, math, I know we talk a lot with a faculty about micro changes to assignments, where you don’t have to do a lot to revise a mathematics or a physics equation-based assignment: change decimals, change units, change little things here and there that can really fundamentally alter the structure of an assignment. And that makes it more resilient in terms of how it’s shared and used. And from an English Composition perspective, my best work against plagiarism has always been to encourage students to follow their own passions and ideas, to write about what they want to, to let students guide topics and selections as much as they can. And then to complement that with long-term scaffolding where you’re gonna pick something and we’re gonna work on that something all term. And so if you’re committed to plagiarizing in that context, then that’s a whole lot of dedication I’m not prepared to counter at the moment, but otherwise, it’s like, “Well, if I get to choose my adventure here, maybe I don’t have to go steal it.”

Kelly: Yeah, I was gonna piggyback off of Zack with “It’s the authentic assignments.” Having taught this last half year to a year I’ve been teaching a lot of the upper-level research methods class, where these are the students they’re rolling into their thesis, we call them capstones. So they start with the problem statement. Each problem statement is unique. Getting the data… the data has got to be the most recent. I did have one student that I think he must have had some material. And about halfway through the class, he realized that the authenticness was going to be removed fairly quickly, and he was going to be found out, because he changed pretty quick about halfway through the semester he said, “You know, I’ve got a better idea” and did all that. So it’s just building a better learning experience for the student. Unfortunately, it’s a better learning experience for the student that’s born out of this malicious behavio.r

Zachary: And otherwise, at Embry-Riddle, we also do operate with TurnItin software, there are investments being made in lockdown browsers, and two or more factor identification to try and get at some of the more complicated forms of contract cheating that are… I don’t think they’re pervasive… but they are very hard to deal with.

John: Have you requested any funding from your university in developing this package?

Kelly: Early on with the university, we filled out our university intellectual property, and you meet with the intellectual property office. And the whole idea is: “Is there some technology that you can eventually move into some type of a commercial project out of the academic world into the commercial world?” And I think maybe we weren’t just expressing ourselves. I almost feel like it was Shark Tank. We had this idea, but it wasn’t a business yet. It was a great idea. We had some kind of functionality, but it wasn’t a business yet. It just wasn’t developed enough yet for them to be able to take it out and market it around. Because now there is a team in our IT department {we’re on the committee) where they put out a request for proposal. And it was for software that helps combat plagiarism and things of this nature. So we haven’t seen the proposals that have come back in. But it seemed to us this was a tool that you would think that one of these educational learning management systems would be interested in taking and incorporating into… we all use Canvas… if that was integrated into Canvas, where not only just a turnitin report came up, CourseHero or one of these other crowdsourced platforms would come up as well. So the request for proposal’s out, we haven’t seen anything in there. But it would be interesting if we could re-engage the Intellectual Property Office at our university to see if there’s really, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “Is this something?”

John: Along those lines, I know Lumen Learning, who produced the Waymaker personalized learning platform, have put together an API that automatically checks the web for postings of their questions and content. And they do use a lot of algorithmic questions so that each student gets a different version of the question. And I believe some publishers have started to do this. I haven’t checked that myself. But it would be nice if the arms race could escalate a little bit more on the side of deterring academic integrity violations. One of the things that’s happened, though, on the other side is many departments had picked up departmental subscriptions to places like CourseHero, because one thing that many of us are troubled by, myself included, is having to pay $15 or $16 a month for a subscription to a service primarily engaged in facilitating cheating. And many departments have created departmental accounts. And Chegg, for example, now, is only allowing you to use a given account on specific computers. So, you’re limited to the number of computers that you can connect to. I had my own account for this for a while now, because I teach a lot of classes where these things come up. But, I know some departments had created departmental accounts where many people were using the same account, cheating a little bit on the instructor side, to try to shut some of this down at a lower cost and without subsidizing them quite as actively. But more and more places are starting to move their stuff behind a paywall, which may make it a little bit harder to detect some of these violations.

Zachary: Well, John, I’ll follow that up. Actually, the College of Arts and Sciences here at Embry-Riddle Worldwide, we’ve also purchased a kind of college subscription for the same access. And Course Villain isn’t exempt from that kind of dependence either, because one of the really annoying issues we stumbled into early, was CourseHero’s own document preview limits, where you could only view 10 documents… their cover page, so to speak… before they would ice you out and give you kind of a grade. This is only for your eyes only kind of situation. And if you don’t have that paid access… that limit. So paying for it does kind of peel back that one layer and at least give us the option to view the artifacts and help correlate them. But that’s tough. But I also want to come back to the kind of arms race idea. If I had just my closing stump speech for Course Villain, it’s that it doesn’t have to be a very difficult arms race. It can be kind of an arms walk, where I’m really excited and pleased with our development of Course Villain and we’ve accomplished that with about $8,000 of internal funding. $8,000, two faculty members, and we’ve hired two research assistants… two student programmers… over the course of these couple years. And we’ve developed what we have. And I think our model is replicable. If we’re not going to create a product that the university wants to sell to other people. I really encourage other universities, other faculty, other interested researchers to start coming up with your own low-cost mousetraps, because that’s all it takes is kind of just chipping away at it, and before you know it, we will find that corner, that inroad, that kind of loophole that allows us to make really good work. It’s not out there. We don’t have to wait for publishers and juggernauts to do it. We can handle this. I really am confident in that.

Kelly: And we actually had this conversation after the last conference, should we have one more conversation with our university with the Intellectual Property Office of our university? Or do we just turn around and say, here’s the open source, go forth and provide it to other universities, and do our own crowdsource of how to combat it and see where it can go from that?

John: That could be an interesting project where other institutions may contribute work on other platforms, where people could get a menu where they could choose what to look for, and perhaps some people could specialize on generating those takedown requests. So that it wouldn’t require the work of just a few people there, it could be distributed more widely. That would be an interesting possibility.

Kelly: I bet there’s a grant in there somewhere, Zach.

Zachary: I hope so. [LAUGHTER]

John: Are there any other things you’d like to share with our listeners?

Zachary: If there’s one thing I would add that I don’t think I got a chance to really frame in the strongest sense that I wanted to at the conference, is the idea that what’s also at stake in this kind of scary moment, as we talked earlier about how people are finding themselves forced into this digital environment. And it’s easy to have your breath taken away at the scope and scale of this problem of people sharing coursework in kind of an illicit fashion. The other opportunity there is that we’re suddenly getting more data than we’d ever dreamed of. For my research from looking back at the histories of plagiarism of academic integrity violations. When you try and find the hard numbers of frequency or prevalence of this behavior, it doesn’t look like the Internet has really changed the nature of academic dishonesty, it just brought it into a new venue. And that makes it look scary, because now it’s like, “Oh, it’s happening fast and on really big scales.” But this kind of fundamental issue appears to remain largely the same. But what’s changed is our ability to understand and track that problem, because now it’s not between hands, under desks, or in dorm rooms or in the hallways where it could never, or very rarely, be tracked down. I think of like the kind of investigatory efforts invested in like the Naval Academy plagiarism scandals, where you have to track down students and interrogate them, and like bring them against charges, to get them to rat each other out, and then you expose this network of plagiarism when it was really just some people sharing something in a problematic way. But now that’s rendered in this digital space, and that’s a really cool opportunity to re approach a lot of our old ideas about how, why, these things happen, and put us in touch with a really cool new data set about this behavior that I think can help us understand how and why people commit academic dishonesty.

Kelly: I do know of one graduating student that I’ve advised along the way, and he’s going into the cyber security world. So here’s a huge world. He’s going through lie detector tests and background checks and things like that. And one of the things that he thought of was, they ask like, “Have you cheated in your coursework?” And he had to think, “Okay, with CourseHeroe, is that considered cheating?” It’s certainly unethical. Well, I guess that’s a whole ‘nother podcast in of itself. But we think it’s unethical, it’d be interesting to get someone on the other side, arguing that it wouldn’t be. I don’t know, if I was going for any kind of security clearance or anything like that, I don’t want to be defending that choice to the investigator that I may or may not work for at some point in time.

John: I think one takeaway, though, from your discussion is that we can design our courses in such a way so that it’s not so easy just to copy and paste solutions into questions. And we can come up with better ways of assessing learning, which many people have been working online have been doing for many years now. But with the sudden transition of so many faculty online, who are trying to, as in the early days of online instruction, replicate what they were doing in the classroom in an online environment, it just doesn’t work in the same way. And we need to work with things that work better in this medium.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: This has been a really interesting conversation, really providing some new perspectives on things that I think will help faculty think through these things a little bit more. We usually wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Zachary: I think what’s next from a research perspective is Kelly and I are on track to track brand new course material from its online birth, so to speak, and to track it long term, kind of one course or one assignment. What does that course look like? What is its kind of online life look like… almost like tracking a single butterfly, like a monarch, as it goes from point A to point B. I’d like to use Course Villain to track one really specific thing and try and flesh out that narrative. So, just like I mentioned earlier, to get at that “What’s happening here beyond the obvious?” And I think that’s a cool way this tool facilitates that.

Kelly: I would like to also go into strengthening the student portion of this, try and to get them engaged and come at it from that point. I’d like to do some work in there and thinking about working with my colleagues. Then also I’ll work with the workflow. How can we put it in our workflow? We’re are all trying to be so efficient, so you can’t come up with a unique thing every time a course is run. So I’d like to see where in the workflow that will go, and get more students involved. There’s one group of students that we really gave free rein to, because we weren’t paying them and it was during COVID. Also, we just said, “Here’s some source code, here’s the problem, what would you do with it?” …and we kind of threw it at them. And they went on to “Oh, we’re going to have it learn and go…” And one student was really big into AI, so he was going to work with them. And so that was kind of fun. I’d like to reengage them and see what they would do with it. They’re the students. They’re the ones with the better ideas.

Zachary: And I’ll throw a shout out there to Embry-Riddle Prescott campus… that’s their cybersecurity club. We basically gave them a clone of the tool and we’re like, “Hey, play with it. See what you can develop.” They’ve been really hip on the idea of machine learning. And how can we get Course Villain to figure out its own prerogatives and do its own tracking work without so much supervision?

Kelly: They each had, like a specialized talent. And one, I really think it would work more efficiently if we hosted it using this language instead of that language. And I said, “Sure, go ahead”. He was a little taken aback like “You’re not bought into that.” And I was like, “No, you guys are the creators. Go for it.

Rebecca: So, it’s pretty exciting to see how it might have a life of its own.

Kelly: Yeah.

John: Especially if it becomes an AI bot, somehow. [LAUGHTER]

Zachary: Yeah, absolutely.

Zachary: I love your idea, John, of a Linux model. I’d like to see some version of this program or some version of a program like this. Getting back to that kind of David and Goliath narrative, if we can all chip in some small piece to a project like this, we could develop something that’s really cool, that I think could give these kind of sites and their prerogative a kind of a tough run for their money.

John: You could always create a GitHub site or a SourceForge site, and then people could work on it from there.

Zachary: That’s a good idea. Thank you.

Kelly: A GoFundMe page. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: You might get a lot of takers on that.

Zachary: I just hope we don’t find the code itself on CourseHero. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yes.

Zachary: That would be very disheartening.

Kelly: Imagine that takedown request.

Zachary: That’s right.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating, and I think this is an area that many people are concerned about, and this was very informative. Thank you.

Kelly: Oh, thank you.

Zachary: Rebecca, John, thank you so much.

Rebecca: Thank you. I hope it sparked a lot of ideas.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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165. Educational Pipeline

A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many  students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, Jill Lansing joins us to discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students. Jill is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, she had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education.

Transcript

John: A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, we discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Lansing. She is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, Jill had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Thanks so much for having me today. It’s really truly an honor and a privilege to be here. And

John: Today’s teas are:

Jill: I’m drinking iced tea because of the podcast, and some water.

Rebecca: It’s a little cold outside for me to have iced tea today, but I have Big Red Sun again. And as you can see, I am drinking my way through one whole canister of the same tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking Tea Forte’s Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: So Jill, we’ve invited you here today to talk a little bit about your work on educational pathways. Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

Jill: About 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago now, I started at the State University of New York in this role to really try to help to strengthen the alignment between K through 12 education and higher education and adult education, also encouraging adults to return to college. And it has been such an amazing opportunity, I have to say. It’s amazing, It’s been 10 years already, 11 years to think about this pathway. But, I think the idea was, many of the faculty that are listening today have been doing it forever. So they know what works and what doesn’t work. What we did when we started this work about 10 years ago was to really try to create more opportunities to bring resources to the table for faculty at our colleges. So the idea was really, and I’ve been lucky in this regard, was really to figure out what grant opportunities we could apply for, what pathways were available that we could actually say: “This works. This doesn’t” …to try to avoid places where people have had difficulties in the past. So, I spend a lot of my time actually learning from the faculty at SUNY about what does work, and then also try to bring resources to those things that are successful. Before my role at SUNY, I was working as the coordinator of P-16 strategic planning for the State Education Department. And I worked in many different capacities there, one of the places that I worked, that I loved the most, was working in the Office of the Professions and Higher Education. And in the professions, I was so new, I was a graduate student when I started and I got the opportunity to be in the role of the public management internship program at the time, which was to really try to create opportunities for new people to have the opportunity to learn about the government and learn about public administration. And so the idea was to create a public information campaign around career opportunities in the professions like architecture, dentistry, engineering, nursing. And so I was able to learn about so many opportunities there, there are nearly 45 licensed professionals in New York State, all opportunities for students to have career opportunities in. And also from there, I was able to work in the Office of Higher Education, and also the Office of at the time, it was Elementary, Secondary and Continuing Education. And so I really did get to see all of the amazing work that goes on in the State Education Department to support students, and also the pathways that are available for student success. So it really gave me an idea of what we could do at SUNY to really support students beginning at the very early age of pre-kindergarten all the way through elementary school, secondary school, and then into college. So lots of good experience that led to, hopefully, better outcomes for students,

John: What are some of the barriers or the challenges that students face as they move along their educational pathways in the state.

Jill: So I always like to start with opportunities. [LAUGHTER] But I think that barriers are real. In fact, they very much are real. So last year, I had the great opportunity to work with the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Data Institute team to kind of look at the data and to find out some of those barriers. So, we did some regression analyses, and one of the things that we knew were true, but it really became evident in the numbers, is that economics and race matter. My dissertation was around college choice. And it’s amazing to me that, when the odds are stacked against you when you’re looking for college, that puts you in an unbelievable place where you’re really trying to figure out how to go about college choice, how to go about succeeding in college. So we really do try to look at that in the beginning. But barriers are, you know, your a risk for college. The Education Trust has been an enormous resource for us. They were looking at things like student suspensions in high school. It’s a demoralizer, it also really places students behind where they could be if they didn’t have to experience those kinds of challenges in their high school. So, I would say that the barriers are real, and we’re trying, through our programming, to really address those barriers. I also think another barrier is, and I know a lot of our faculty are interested in this, it has to do with the growth mindset and to what extent is students believe they have the ability to succeed and I think that pervades all economic lines and it’s really an important thing to keep in mind because, as faculty are thinking about how do we work with new students, and they’ve given me so much advice, as we look for money and programming, how do you really try to build a student up and help to empower them as they try to be successful in college? So, I think the barriers are real. And we really need to think about that. And it’s good to have this opportunity to talk about what we can do to really make a difference.

John: What does the data suggest is effective in helping students overcome some of these challenges?

Jill: That’s a great question. And there are so many data points that help to think about what the challenges are, and how to create change around the barriers. So one of the things we’ve been working on right now in collaboration with the Community College Resource Consortium, and also Jobs for the Future is the idea of Guided Pathways. For a long time, students would come into college, particularly in community colleges, and take courses that they were interested in, but didn’t necessarily count toward their major. So, they would take some courses, they weren’t sure what major they were interested in studying, and then they would take some courses, and then they may or may not add up to the total number of credits they need to graduate. So, we’ve been trying to really focus in on college completion and graduation. And that consortium has led us to become part of something called Strong Start to Finish, which is a national initiative to try to get students to complete gateway courses in their first year of college. So, really try to focus in on what matters, also try to avoid remediation through co-requisite coursework, and also opportunities where students don’t have to kind of get behind in their classes and can really kind of get up to speed on what they need to complete their gateway courses. So, that’s been very helpful. And also the Guided Pathways Initiative. If you talk to college presidents across the state, they are head over heels about Guided Pathways. So students enroll in college, they enroll in a meta major, instead of necessarily a particular major, and really try to take the courses in the very beginning of their curriculum that would lead to success in the health sciences professions, Hospitality and Culinary Institute, business professions. So, it’s not we’re asking high school students to make a decision right away about their major, but kind of “tell us what you’re interested in, and then we can connect you with the courses that would actually add up to success.” Because, I think, where the Community College Research Consortium has found many students fall away from college is when it’s not adding up to their degree program or to their area of interest. So, that’s been very powerful. Another area is our P-Tech and Smart Scholars programs that have been guided by faculty, and I’ll say the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, in the very beginning of any early High School initiatives, put in place standards for what quality looks like. And one of the things I was going to talk about later, but I’ll say it now, because it’s so critical, is that rigor matters. So, when faculty put rigorous standards in place, it inspires students to succeed. And I think that they feel a different benchmark about where they’re supposed to be in their collegiate life. So I think rigor matters, and I applaud all those faculty who do this day in and day out, because it’s hard. It is hard in times of COVID-19, it’s hard every day, but just to keep the rigorous standards in place, and then support students on that pathway really matters. So, those are some opportunities, many more. We were able to, a couple of years ago, win a grant from the National Science Foundation, and also from Battelle Institute to help our graduate students work with middle school students to be, in their words, deputized as scientists beginning fourth, fifth and sixth grade in high need school districts. And having the connection between the graduate students and the middle school students was powerful, and all this was under the direction of faculty in our colleges. So, we had our scientists, across SUNY, overseeing this effort. And their ability to really create opportunities for these middle school students, who otherwise would never have had the chance to become scientists in laboratories at our SUNY Colleges, was huge. So I think that there are so many examples that I could share with you, but the ones where I think faculty, graduate students, aspiring faculty, put their passion and their heart into it, as well as their intellect and rigor, those are the ones that really matter for our students.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up on the picking a major piece a little bit, because I think that is a real struggle for students when they head into colleges with an expectation of like, “Well, what are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to study?” And the names of majors are so abstract to students, and there’s many careers that students have no idea even exist, and if you’re already in academia, you might have a clearer vision of what those things can lead to, but our students just don’t, and there’s no reason for them to know that

Jill: Exactly. When I was an undergraduate student, physical therapy and occupational therapy were big majors in my school and I didn’t know what they were at all. So the idea of helping students to come into a major in health sciences really will allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them. Another resource I should talk about is a resource called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And in my career, one of the things that I’ve learned is that often when grants are distributed to an organization, the project period ends when the grant period ends. And one of the lucky things that I’ve been a part of, thanks to the regional leadership across the state, is something called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And the idea for the STEM Learning Network was to bring together educators and business leaders in regions across the state to really focus on the educational pathway that leads to jobs in healthcare, in manufacturing, in Information Sciences, and architecture, and so many other fields. And I will say that one of the things that made the Empire State STEM Learning Network successful was the commitment regionally to develop partnerships to help lead students into careers. Because, you’re right, students don’t really know what they want, necessarily, in the very beginning of their life. But once they have the experience to be exposed to these opportunities, then all of a sudden, that could open the door for them and really spark an interest in them that we hadn’t thought about before. And even if they don’t go into architecture, maybe they would be interested in something related in engineering, or in teaching architecture. So I think the spark matters. And you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, it’s a really good question, because how would you know what the opportunities are for you? But really trying to create a level of interest with the students and also a level of “I can do it, this is real for me,” that really does matter. And I think our faculty, I mean, I’m talking to our faculty, and I’m so honored, because our faculty are often the drivers of everything that we do, and you know what drives students, what motivates them, and how to really think about what their needs are. And I think young high school students, I am always amazed at what they can do when they see exemplars of success, and also when they understand rigor. But also, I would say, in the way of how to be successful, I think we need to meet students where they are. One of the things that we learned from our colleagues at the Community College Research Consortium was that remediation can be very detrimental to students… the word remediation, the idea behind “I need to still catch up.” But, instead, trying to help to develop the skills that the student is interested in. So astrophysics is a big dream. But really, if you start, piece by piece, level by level, it can be a possibility, or another career option in that same field or discipline could also be possible for students. So really trying to motivate the students to success, I would say, but you’re right, students figure out what they want right off the bat when they’re coming to college is really a challenge.

John: What types of approaches have been effective in overcoming gaps in prior education? Because one of the main issues is that there’s quite a bit of disparity in the amount of training that students receive in their high schools, and that’s tied to a whole host of issues related to funding and housing segregation and other issues. While remedial work can be discouraging, or just even the term “remediation” is discouraging, what strategies have you seen that have been effective in helping students bridge any gaps in their background, to help them get to speed more quickly without being faced with a whole sequence of courses needed to enter, say, the STEM fields?

Jill: Precisely. So, good question. I would say to look at the following programs for good benchmarks and good outcomes data, Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the EOC, the Liberty Partnerships Program, also very powerful. STEP and CSTEP have been incredible about meeting students where they are and getting the students where they need to be P-Tech has been amazing. And I think the best P-Tech programs and the best early college programs, the best programs that we have across the board, are those that are led by faculty who are determined to help students succeed. For example, in our community colleges, which are open access, and many students come to as the first opportunity they have to enroll in higher education, where there are collaborative opportunities for the students to participate in STEM research opportunities, that is so powerful, it almost closes the gap in the way of letting students have the opportunity to become scientists. I was talking earlier about programs where we worked in our middle schools to help our graduate students come to the middle school students and talk about “Here are opportunities for you to become a deputized scientist.” So, then when that student actually comes to community college, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m gonna research climate change with my faculty member,” or whatever the research opportunity may be, it becomes a way for the student to see themselves in that career. And then they understand the pathway to the career. So I can’t say enough about the hard work of faculty in this effort, because (and this is my own experience as well), is that faculty in my life have taught me how to think. And I often tell students in high school that college is a place where they can learn to think. And they think that they’re behind the eight ball in some ways, and that they feel like they have to tell the professor about how much they know. And, instead, if you listen to faculty, and I’ve worked with both of you, and you’ve been teaching me about, like, how to think about this, how to think about talking to people, how to think about getting a message out, and I think often new college students feel that they have to prove themselves versus they can learn something, and you’re actually willing to help them. [LAUGHTER] So, I wanted to share an example. A couple years ago, I was interested in the process of statistical process controls as a way of thinking about, “Well, if we are trying to achieve student success at scale, how can we look at numbers and data to help us do that?” So, I was thinking that statistical process control could be helpful in higher education, about seeing trends over time, seeing when there are differences, and why there are differences. Maybe, perhaps, that the spring semester wasn’t working out for students because of X, Y and Z. And the faculty, again, provide such leadership, maybe we could learn from one another. So anyway, I went to this course on statistical process control that was offered by SUNY Polytechnic Institute. And there with me, were three Community College faculty. And they were interested in statistical process control, because they wanted to be able to integrate that curriculum into their coursework. They said, “So many students are coming to us, and they’re interested in manufacturing and machining. And they keep talking about statistical process control.” So they were seeing how can we integrate those into our work, so that the learning opportunities are more aligned with their goals, professionally and personally. And so I thought it was really amazing that these faculties sought out these professional development opportunities to really try to make learning matter for the students and make it something that they were interested in that they could actually apply to their jobs. And I think we talk a lot about workforce, we also are talking about educating a citizenry, and especially with the political climate change, I think we really have an opportunity. We’ve learned a lot in 2020, about COVID-19, about our responsibilities to citizens in this country, African-American citizens in particular. We focus a lot about Black Lives Matter. And after the passing of George Floyd and so many other unfortunate events this year, we’ve learned a lot about why we really have to be focused in on those liberal arts opportunities, and also about governance, and religion. And we need to have active citizens in this country. And I think that is equally important. Often, we talk a lot about STEM and job opportunities, but we have to think about the big picture. And I think that our faculty are leaders in that work. And so, to the extent that we can learn from them, and, again, create opportunities that help to advance our agenda. is really powerful.

John: A couple of times you mentioned P-Tech, for those listeners who may not be familiar with that, could you describe that program and how it works.

Jill: So the P-Tech program has been a program that is being led by IBM, and they’ve been really a front runner in this work. And they’ve put a lot of thought into how to connect high school faculty, high school programs with our colleges, and then also with workforce opportunities in high need fields. And I think that it’s been an awesome opportunity for our students. They are able to enroll in the P-Tech program as high school students, free of charge to students and their families. And I would also add, at this point too, that one of the big assets of SUNY is affordability. And so there are often times where students can actually earn SUNY degrees free of charge. And that is really incredible to graduate debt free. That also reduces a lot of the burdens that we talked about in the very beginning, around economic burdens, challenges around race, all of these opportunities are now readily available to students. So that’s been very powerful through the P-Tech program. And I think the P-Tech program is something that we can model across the board. And we have tried to do that in collaboration with regional BOCES, regional K-12 leaders, to actually develop a scope and sequence of courses beginning in grade 12, that continues on to higher education and then into the workforce. So, what happens is K-12 leaders, community college faculty (also many of our technical colleges also have P-Tech programs), and our business leaders come around the table together. And they think about what would a student need in order to be successful in life and in business in the long term. And I think what it develops is a real true camaraderie that allows successful programming development to happen. What is fortunate about the P-Tech is that it is enabled by grants from the State Education Department. So it does provide opportunities for faculty at K-12, faculty at higher education, business leaders to come together. But that seems to be very powerful when college faculty can also work with K-12 faculty to find out what the needs are, where the gaps are, and how they can work together to try to mitigate those gaps. So, often what I heard when I interview faculty in our community colleges in our technical colleges is that often they are unaware of some of the challenges that K-12 faculty face and then K-12 faculty are so eager to learn more about all of the expertise that community college and our technical colleges and also even graduate programs have to offer. So, when they have the opportunity to speak to one another, then all of a sudden, they’re all on board on changing curriculum and helping students to succeed. So I think the magic in the P-Tech is about this collaborative experience. I often find that regional collaborations are really also very powerful in that our faculty in our regions know what kind of high school students are coming from. And then when they talk to faculty and they can identify, you know, maybe the student didn’t have a fourth year math course in high school, or maybe there are some skills that for some reason the student wasn’t able to develop, and especially this important in COVID-19, because we’re hearing students that are struggling. So I think the connection between high school and college and then regional workforce leaders are very important. And we talk a lot, too, in our work, about regional economic development, and helping to really strengthen New York as a whole through our regional workforce capital. So we’re looking at that. And again, I would say, to create and develop good citizens of the state and of the nation, I think it’s very important. So, I feel like the opportunity for faculty at the K-12 level to connect with our faculty at SUNY, and then also with our workforce and industry leaders (many of whom are SUNY alumni), is a very powerful connection.

John: What are some examples of good collaborations between colleges and P-12 programs? What has worked in terms of helping to bridge the gap in terms of creating an environment of good communication? You mentioned P-tech. Are there any other models that have worked well?

Jill: I can name so many examples of what has been successful. I’m thinking about also the gaps between community colleges and our baccalaureate degree granting programs and our graduate programs. I was thinking offhand about Binghamton University and its collaboration with Broome Community College, really trying to help students who perhaps in the beginning didn’t meet the admission requirements for Binghamton, but had a lot of promise and a lot of opportunity for skill development in STEM. And so they entered into a collaboration with SUNY Broome to help those students to develop the skills at SUNY Broome that would make them eligible for upper-level credits at Binghamton University. So there’s so many examples like that. Our early college high school programs, in addition to our P-Techs are also powerful for making the connection between high school and college. We’ve also done a lot of work with our teacher education programs. We’re really very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the deans of all of our SUNY teacher education programs, to help them to develop more practical experiences for their teachers to work with the students and try to bridge the gap between high school and college. And I think that that has been so successful, our teacher education programs. And the faculty there have really led the way in terms of helping us to better understand K-12 experiences and create clinical opportunities for prospective teachers. So that has been huge because educator preparation is so essential to really helping to bridge the gap between K-12 and college and they’ve come back to us with so many ideas and opportunities, things that we’ve been able to win grants for and bring resources into the classroom about. So I’ve mentioned the Empire State STEM network before and they have just been amazing. So our colleges will frequently partner with our K-12 leaders to do things like in Buffalo, there’s something called the hands-in-hand program where the students were able to use 3D printing to develop hands for other students internationally, who actually need hands or limbs for some reason in their life. And they’ve been able to actually generate that through 3D printing. The other thing is computer science, cyber security. Our students right now in the P-Tech program are working with SUNY-Orange to develop skills in cybersecurity. So P-Tech is one example. But there are so many, and again, the graduate students that are working across the state with our K-12 students in STEM is also pretty awesome.

Rebecca: The ingredients of successful programs seem to include some collaboration between faculty at different levels to develop curriculum and mentorship, with either faculty at the college level with students, or college students with high school students. Are there other ingredients that we should focus on or highlight as being important to the success of these kinds of programs?

Jill: I think you said it so well, that it’s mostly customized opportunities for students and the places where we find success. And I was just reading the Journal of Higher Education this month, and it was talking about STEM student success and STEM student success at the community college level. And it was really focused around this idea of faculty in the very first year creating an experience for students that gets them engaged in their learning experience across the curriculum… and I think that idea of faculty engagement at the very beginning of learning experiences that are aligned to the student’s personal and professional goals. And again, it comes back to rigor. The students are so inspired by rigor, the students are so inspired by the benchmark is high, and these are the things that I can learn to be successful and to be like faculty. And so I just think faculty role modeling, faculty advising, academic success is so important. We also have the great benefit of SUNY of so many amazing student affairs professionals who also provide coaching and leadership and just a really well rounded approach to student development. Like I’ve mentioned before, the EOP programs are so successful because of this. So I think you’re right, Rebecca, the magic ingredient is collaboration. It’s also about rigor. It’s also about looking at the research and data and talking about what programs can actually generate data to improve success. I also think I’ve learned a lot from faculty about the idea of sort of an interdisciplinary approach to learning I often find that for me in education, if I go and look at that economics literature or the anthropology literature, or the political science literature, I can also learn a lot about how to help to bring these other resources to the table to really think about what success looks like. I recently had the opportunity to work with some medical professionals around the development of guidelines and the rigor to which they looked at guidelines and looked at evidence in the field to make judgments about what they should do, and the way of supporting medical advancements was so powerful that I thought we need to benchmark this in education. So I think looking at what the data tells us, and we’ve had our colleagues, like I mentioned before, at the Community College Research Consortium, at Jobs for the Future, at Achieving the Dream, and so many more places looked at the data for us. But I think that we need to be focused on the long term. And we need to think about what is the data telling us and how that can continue to improve our practice. And then I often think about the importance of qualitative data, what the faculty are telling us in the different disciplines. So that’s why it’s such a great opportunity in this position, because I’m working with faculty, often from economics, from English literature, from science, from political science, from public administration, so many different perspectives. But they all really come to bear when we talk about student success. So that’s been really tremendous for us here at SUNY,

John: Many of the programs you talked about have been at the community college level. And these don’t seem to be quite as common yet at comprehensive institutions. What can traditional liberal arts colleges do to reach out in the ways that community college have been doing for decades? What else should four-year colleges do to emulate the success that many community colleges have had in bridging some of these gaps?

Jill: I really think that you do it well. And I think this is where the SUNY advantage comes in. Because the quality and the dedication of faculty at the four-year colleges and the comprehensive colleges and the University Centers are amazing.

John: What can faculty at four year institutions or University Centers do to reach out to students in high schools to help them see the potential that’s available to them.

Jill: When they have an opportunity to listen to podcasts from faculty or actually engage in their research, it becomes really powerful to these students. And I think part of the challenge with faculty is really in finding a way to kind of create an inroad with these students. And so that’s why I was talking earlier about research opportunities, or really introducing students. I think you also have to help the students learn more about your expertise and try to again meet them where they are, trying to contextualize learning so that the expertise that you have at the comprehensive level and the university center level really can be matched to something that they might see an interest in long term. I’ve worked with an organization called the Army Education Opportunity Program. And this was through an opportunity that we had with Battelle. And the army is trying to recruit the future researchers, scientists, engineers. And what they encourage students to do was to work in groups with a faculty member and a science mentor to address challenges in their own local community. So, what kind of STEM challenges would they need to accomplish in their community? So, they look at things like recycling or safety and parks or child safety. But when the student can see how your expertise at the faculty level applies to their lives, then they are so engaged and faculty will tell me that they’re often outperforming them… that we have students in Long Island, for example, that are applying for patents on downloading data from their computer to a flash drive in instantaneous time, because they actually were listening to a faculty saying, “Ah, this takes so long to download that I actually need some help with this.” So they figured out the magnetic structure behind the thumb drive, and they actually created something that would help them to expedite the time in which they could download data. It was a big win-win, because the faculty was overjoyed. And also the student was able to learn the fundamentals from the faculty member to actually create innovation and to create change. So I think you have it, I was going to talk a little bit about the college choice process, which is so interesting to me, because students in high school have so many options, so many choices, there are 270 plus colleges and universities in New York State alone. And so when you think about the whole universe, and how students go about selecting a place where they can see their baccalaureate success dreams come true or their associate dreams come true. And think about graduate studies, what are they looking for? And based on the literature, after they go through the first predisposition phase, and then the search phase, they actually always talk about student culture in terms of why they make a decision about one college over another. And I also have seen literature that suggests that retention rates are impacted by the choice process around how much the student believes that they fit in. And so it’s hard for faculty at that point to connect with students. But I think that, to the extent that they could appreciate students’ development process and understand that their professional and personal goals and really try to connect them with their own research interests or their own academic interest, I think that can be very powerful in and of itself to really connect the student with the college culture, and with the rigor and academic excellence expectations that faculty have. I think it’s powerful. The other thing I think, is that Chancellor Malatras has been very committed to faculty diversity, because I also really believe that students need to see themselves in their faculty and see themselves in their mentoring experiences. So faculty diversity is also very critical. Our graduate students have been helpful with that as well, to try to make the connection between the faculty ranks and also with our colleges. The Education Trust has some amazing data around faculty diversity at the college level and also at the K-12 level. Because I really do think we need to do more in both arenas to really achieve change for our students, because our students are changing. And the other thing that drives success, and the main thing that drives success is student voices, because we have to hear from our students. And the more that I work with students and work within the framework of student success, I keep going back to the literature to find out what it is that motivates students of various backgrounds, how to really hear their voices, and how to integrate their voices into our activities to really strengthen the outcomes of students in our colleges. So student voices are fundamental to this work.

Rebecca: I think you’ve given a good view of how much has already been done, but also how much there is still to do. So. we usually wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jill: So, so much exciting things are next, I think. In our office, we have an opportunity that was made available to us through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation around trying to strengthen communications, advocacy and success tools for students. So the idea would be: how do we really make students understand the value added of SUNY, the value added of the work that we’re doing to try to improve college completion rates, and student success Initiatives. So I would welcome faculty feedback on this. As I said before, faculty have always driven the work that we’ve been leading in our office. And so ideas around how we can better communicate these opportunities that are available to our students and to our parents, also to our guidance counselors, and then policymakers and government leaders about what is the SUNY advantage and about how they can have a part in this, I will say that if you look at SUNY, affordability matters, affordability is huge. The student debt crisis is alarming. And that’s where SUNY has the value and the added advantage. Also, the graduation rates of SUNY often surpass the national average, and are very amazing in terms of what the experience is that post grad and into careers that we’ve been able to achieve for students. And the alumni networks are so strong. And so someone asked me the other day that the SUNY Community College Trustees have been very powerful, great advocates, and they asked, “Can you provide an example of what it looks like to be student of Guided Pathways? So, what is the outcome? And how is it different than it was before? So I guess if faculty could share with us their ideas on first of all, how to continue to improve outcomes around student success, and also how to improve communications, because often faculty are doing this in our classrooms, but they’re saying how do we get the word out that this is so good, that we’re really making a difference, like this student came to us not knowing all the opportunities, and now is head of the class or now is really making huge changes in their field? What are those things that we can highlight, also transfer opportunities, students that might come to community college and then go to our baccalaureate degree institution, or I’m always interested in those that go on to graduate studies, our business and industry partners have been trying to create programs that meet students at the high school or community college level, and then drive them all the way to be our future engineers and scientists and researchers and physicians and faculty and all of the great career opportunities are available students. So what are those pathways look like from your perspective? And I think with this funding, and with this opportunity to really try to communicate these outcomes, we could really have some power that would drive us into the future. So I appreciate the question. And we certainly welcome your input and opportunities.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Jill, for sharing your experiences with us.

Jill: Well, thank you for the opportunity. And I would just say again, our faculty at SUNY are top notch, number one, and really have driven student success as we’ve started this work where we really put an anchor into the ground to try to help to strengthen the alignment between K-12, higher education and workforce, and citizenry. And I would just keep encouraging your great ideas, and we hope to continue to work with you into the future. So thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. And it’s really an open door. So please keep your ideas coming.

John: Thank you. And we will share your contact information if anyone has any ideas that they’d like to sharee. Thank you very much.

Jill: Thank you so much.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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164. New Faculty in a Pandemic

Being a new faculty member at a new institution can be challenging in normal times, but also has additional hurdles during COVID-19. Most institutions begin the academic year by providing orientation activities to help new faculty learn about the institution and to meet and network with their new colleagues.  In this episode, Emily Estrada and Martin Coen join us to to compare their experiences as new faculty during a pandemic with their earlier experiences at prior institutions. Emily is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Martin is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego.

Transcript

Rebecca: Being a new faculty member at a new institution can be challenging in normal times, but also has additional hurdles during COVID-19. Most institutions begin the academic year by providing orientation activities to help new faculty learn about the institution and to meet and network with their new colleagues. In this episode, we examine how the shift to an online orientation altered the experiences for new faculty members.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Emily Estrada and Martin Coen. Emily is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Martin is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego. Emily and Martin both joined the Oswego faculty this fall. Welcome, Emily and Martin.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

Emily: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Martin: I’m drinking coffee.

Emily: Ooohhhh, it’s late in the day….no judgment, sorry…. [LAUGHTER] I guess that is a lot of judgment. Whoo.

Martin: I’m also drinking sparkling water, so I’ll switch between the two… and regular water, yeah.

Emily: I’m just straight up tap water.

Rebecca: I have Big Red Sun again.

John: And I have Earl Grey today.

Martin: Oh, nice. Like a good Earl Grey.

Rebecca: I’m noticing you’ve been drinking black tea later in the day these days.

John: That’s because I’ve been getting so much less sleep since March.

Rebecca: Well, you haven’t upgraded to Martin’s coffee in the late afternoon, so, I guess that’s a good sign. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: It’s a very dark roast, so there’s not a lot of caffeine in it.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the experience of joining a department during the pandemic. You’ve each worked at other institutions before. So, can you talk a little bit about how joining Oswego during a pandemic is different than your experiences of joining previous faculty have been.

Emily: I think there’s some of the more obvious ways that it’s been different for me this go round. It’s challenging not having those face-to-face interactions with my new colleagues, with my new administration, and with the students, most certainly. Even though I think that SUNY Oswego has done a pretty good job helping me feel integrated and connected to at least the university and my department, the students, I feel like, I still am experiencing a pretty significant amount of disconnect. I think one of the biggest things that’s been different for me and my previous institution, because when you first start, there’s so much excitement, and there’s so much kind of fanfare surrounding that transition into the new institution, you start to feel kind of bonded to the university itself. You start to feel kind of loyal to the university brand and to the image, and you start to feel pride for being a part of this new institution. And I think that that’s been different this time for me, because there is so much disconnect and campus really is so quiet. Even though I’m working from campus a lot, it’s just not the same type of allegiance, I guess, has not been the same for me this go round.

Martin: It’s interesting, because I would say the same thing in terms of the allegiance thing. I felt the same way when I started before and now I’m feeling the same way as you here. I would say, overall, coming to SUNY Oswego was easier than my first transition, predominantly because I had learned a lot of things the first time around. First time around, I learned, you got to hound people to get things, right? So, the first time around, I was told your email address will be given to you on this day, your office will be given to this and this and this. And then when I reached out to people there to find out just various information, people would not respond to me until their contract started. That was not the case here at SUNY Oswego. I had the phone number of my department chair immediately after I had signed my contract, and essentially the person who would become my faculty mentor, I had their phone number. And so a lot of things were sorted out quite quickly. I had some difficulty with paperwork here at SUNY Oswego, getting all that sorted… people losing things, people putting in wrong information and sending my first paycheck to my address in Indiana, stuff like that. But, other than that, from like a social perspective, I’d say that things were a lot smoother. But, I think a lot of it also had to do with the fact that I’ve learned previously that you got to just hound people to get information. And so I felt very prepared. I hardly stressed me out transitioning.

Emily: Yeah. And I will say that had I been starting in this position straight out of my Ph.D. program, I think it would be a lot more challenging because, like Martin just said, and he and I have talked about this previously, it is nice, having that previous experience of starting a tenure-track position at a university in normal times, so to speak, because we kind of know what’s going to happen when we get back to that normalcy. And so, if we’re feeling less of an allegiance… and that may not be the right word, but if we’re feeling less…

John: connected?

Emily: …connected, yeah, but more in like a school spirit type sense. If we’re not necessarily feeling that school spirit right now, I know that it will come. I know it’s going to happen and that may not be the case for people who are coming straight out of their PhD programs who don’t know that that will happen.

Martin: When I started at my previous institution, I was hit with: “you need to publish, and you need to prep, like four courses.” And one of the courses was statistics, which I had never taught in my life. So, I knew, when I came to SUNY Oswego, that I needed to have all my ducks in a row, publication wise. And so over the summer, I put in a lot of work working on publications, so that in case things hit me really hard from a teaching standpoint, at SUNY Oswego, that I would be able to take that hit. And luckily, to my surprise, transitioning over because of my experience, prepping, knowing where to go for information, what strategies to follow, prepping some new courses just weren’t as challenging as I experienced it four years ago.

John: What are some of the types of things that you had to ask for that were not automatically given to you that a new faculty, perhaps, might not know to ask about?

Emily: Well, I think things related to technology, like the headset that I’m wearing right now, I didn’t want to buy it myself. I know that funds are always pretty tight in a state school system and especially given the situation that we’re in right now. And so I reached out to CTS on campus, and they were able to provide me with a headset and a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse. Also things related to different programs that I need in order to do my research.

Martin: I would agree with you though, Emily, one of the things that I really wanted to make sure I have was my email address, so that I could sign up for instructor resources at the various textbook publishers, and then also getting my hands on desk and review copies of books so that I don’t have to go and blow $300 on Amazon, just to prep my classes. When I moved to my previous institution, they didn’t give me my email address until day one. And so I had one week to prep three classes, because I had one double class and I had to find textbooks and stuff. So all this stuff I bought on Amazon Prime so that I could have it. So, in this case, I started going after: “What’s my email address? Can you hook me up with my Oswego and Blackboard?” And so I was making sure, technology wise, I had all that. And then also regarding my campus computer, I just badgered people until I got what I needed. But, I will say a lot of things came automatically a lot of things came from my department chair, Roger Guy. He would text me and say, “Hey, did you ask for this? Did you ask for that? Hey, make sure to look at this opportunity. By the way, we have these funds in our department, you should try to ask for this from this person.” So, I got a lot of help from my department chair, which is something that I did not get where I previously went straight out of grad school.

Rebecca: It’s really interesting hearing both of you talk about the transition here during a pandemic, because it wasn’t that long ago that I transitioned here, and from a different institution, and I had a very similar experience. I had to badger. But I knew to ask for certain things that I didn’t know to ask for the first time around. I knew how the system worked. So I knew who to ask for certain kinds of things. So, I had all the good technology and everything I needed up front, too. But that’s because we knew who to ask. And so it’s interesting that that really hasn’t changed. That’s just experience speaking. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Yeah.

John: And I am still badgering people, and I’ve been here [LAUGHTER] for decades. That doesn’t always end. But, that’s really good advice for people starting to make sure that they do ask for the things that they’re going to need to be successful.

Martin: Yeah, I read this book over the summer. And essentially, one of the points that you learn from it is that don’t be embarrassed to ask questions and get the things that you feel you need to succeed. And sometimes I think people feel, especially when you’re brand new at an institution, you don’t want to be sort of a hassle or an annoyance. You don’t want to come off that way. And so I feel like some people are hesitant and just go out and ask for something. And that was one thing I learned to overcome, coming to SUNY Oswego.

Emily: I think that’s absolutely right, that it’s important to be proactive as a new faculty member. And that’s probably the case whether or not you’re starting in this insane environment or in more normal times. I also feel, though, that it’s important to recognize how problematic that can be, especially for members of certain social groups. So academia, in general, is elitist, and it is very white. And so certain people, people who may identify with those groups or with that identity, they’re going to be more comfortable with being proactive and getting their own and hounding the people and going and going until they get what they need. And I think that that is more challenging for people who are members of groups who have been historically underrepresented in the academy and so while, yes on one hand and because this is a podcast, I should make it clear, I identify as a white person and probably more importantly, I am identified by others as a white person. And so, I think in some ways, it’s easier for me as somebody who possesses that cultural capital, white cultural capital and white privilege to, feel comfortable hounding people, whereas people from other underrepresented groups along a variety of dimensions may find that more challenging.

Martin: I would agree 100% with you, I think even the fact that I’m a man, you come off more as a go getter when you’re a man badgering people about things, and it might not be the same for people of other groups.

Emily: I’m snapping, [LAUGHTER] ‘cause I really like that point. Good reflection, the’re.

Martin: Good.

John: For things where it’s not clear if you’re asking for something that it’s not clear that is generally provided, might it make sense, perhaps, to start within your department to talk to some of your colleagues that you feel comfortable with just to ask whether this is something that’s normally done? Because people are concerned about pushing for things that could cause them to be perceived as being a problem in some sense. Might that be a useful starting point before you start pursuing something too aggressively? If it’s something that’s not going to happen, might it make sense to get a feel for that before you start the badgering process?

Rebecca: I like that it’s a badgering process. [LAUGHTER]

Emily: It’s work.

Martin: Yeah, that’s how it goes. So I emailed Roger, and I was like, “Hey, I’m gonna ask you these millions of questions. Do you know who I need to go after?” And sometimes he directed me to the person who became my faculty mentor, Maggie, and other times, he directed me to Michelle, our administrative person in our department. And then otherwise, he’d be like “Reach out to this person in this department.” And so I preface it with, “Hey, I want to succeed when I get here. These are some questions I have.” And I think any relatively rational department chair wouldn’t have a problem with helping you out there if you say, “Hey, I want to succeed. And this will help me succeed…” and you just have to be honest about it, in my opinion.

Emily: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that mentorship within the department is really important. I also think that mentorship outside the department can also be really helpful. Because sometimes there are a lot of dynamics within departments. I feel very comfortable with my department, we’re smaller, and I feel comfortable voicing any concerns that I may have or asking advice. But at the same time, I think it’s important to be able to go to people that aren’t so close to home, so to speak, so that if there are awkward, uncomfortable questions, you can go to them without as much riding on it, if that makes sense.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good point, making connections to other departments early or people just across campus, whether or not they’re in an academic department or not. That’s really important. And you can bounce things off of other folks and find out if that’s how other departments do things. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, but I would imagine that’s a little more challenging under these circumstances. Because typically, at the start of the semester, when there’s all those bonding experiences, when there’s the big dinners welcoming new faculty, the lunches, when the presidents and the provosts and the deans welcome everyone and create this nice positive welcoming environment. There’s also lots of informal gatherings and receptions where new faculty get to meet other new faculty in person as well as people from other departments who might share some similar interest. Has there been very many opportunities to form those wider networks beyond your departments this year.

Martin: For me, there has been, and again, this has been the consequence of me going after certain opportunities. So, at the beginning when I started, I told Roger that I needed service. And I understood that there’s a pandemic going and that getting service would be difficult. And to some extent, I feel like, given that I was new, he wanted to shield me a little bit from it, which is pretty typical of department chairs for the first semester. But I went out of my way to tell them, “Look, this is technically my fifth year in academia. So, I want to try my best to keep that going.” And so at that point, he was like, “Okay, well, this committee needs someone, this committee…, aAnd in the end, I joined about three university-wide committees. And so that’s allowed me to interact with people completely outside, even of my college. And so that’s really allowed me to expose myself to other people, hear different viewpoints, understand certain organizational frames. So again, it was because I badgered Roger about service work.

Emily: And we have had monthly new faculty networking Zoom chats that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t know what typically happens at SUNY Oswego in normal times, but like you were saying, John, at the beginning of the semester, there is all this kind of flurry of activity and dinners and lunches. And I think that that’s all great and part of me really does miss having missed that. But I think what’s been really great about the new faculty networking Zoom things that we do is that they’ve happened across the semester. That’s not how it was at my previous institution, there was a lot of stuff happening at the beginning of this semester, like, “let’s get all excited, newbies,” but then it kind of fizzled off as the semester went on. And I think that having the Zoom meetings every month, has helped keep that connection going. And there are breakout sessions and so you get to know people a little bit more personally. So, I think that that’s been good.

Martin: I would agree with Emily on that one. Those have been very helpful sessions, it’s been also good to see where I fall in terms of how prepared I feel compared to other faculty. And one thing that stands out is the fact that I have this experience, it makes it seem like I’m a little more confident in what to do and how to handle different things, just because of that experience. So, that’s been great. But yes, learning from other new faculty and also people outside of my immediate social circle. However, I will also point out the importance of having a faculty mentor who is not in your department. When I was at my previous institution, I had someone in the communications department, his name is Wes, and I could confide everything in him. When I was on the job market. I had several offers. And he was one of the ones who told me to take this one when I was mulling it over with him. And so the thing that was really nice was I could go to him and say, “Hey, I don’t understand why my department’s doing this. Do you know why they would be doing that?” or “I don’t like this.” I still text him, I still talk to him about stuff. So, that’s something I think that where there’s an opportunity at SUNY Oswego is to connect new faculty with people outside of their department as well.

John: That was something actually that was put together this year for the first time. And it was the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Kristin Croyle, who, to a large extent, organized that. We’ve been working with her to help coordinate it, but she put the whole program together. And I’ve been really pleased with how it’s been working.

Martin: Yes.

John: And I think we may continue this beyond the pandemic, because it does seem to provide that ongoing sort of connection. Because, as you said, Emily, typically there’s this big flurry for three or four weeks at the beginning of the semester with various receptions at different levels, and then there’s nothing until the very end of the semester, where there’s a short flurry, and then again, another short flurry at the beginning of the spring semester, and then it pretty much disappears until you come back with new faculty in future years to the same events.

Emily: Yeah, and we have the Slack that we’ve been using… the new faculty… and I think that Slack has been really effective as well. And there was someone in our cohort who posted a message that was like this open call of “Hey, is anybody else on campus? Do you want to go for a walk?” …and she and I went back and forth a little bit. And a few weeks ago, we went on a walk around campus, and it was really great getting to know her. I am a transplant to the area, I have spent all of my life in the south. And so she is from New York State. And she’s been really helpful and kind of helping me think about the weather and what to expect. And I actually met up with her earlier today. She had a bag full of clothes for my daughter that her sister picked up from a friend to give to me, [LAUGHTER] which was just so kind and generous. And really kind of the vibe that I’ve gotten from New York State since moving here in July. But it’s happening, it’s just kind of on a smaller scale and a little bit more low key than it was at my previous institution, which makes me really excited for what’s to come whenever we’re normal, right? It’s just going to blow up. It’s going to be all the more better than it is right now.

Martin: You know, one thing that just sort of occurred to me, I wonder to what extent the fact that with this whole pandemic, right, we’ve been telling each other to be patient with each other, to show grace. And I wonder to what extent the fact that maybe other people in our organizational environments doing that, is being beneficial to our success here. I wonder how much that plays a role outside of just our own attempts to connect with people.

Emily: Yeah.

Martin: I don’t know.

Emily: I will say I’ve had several conversations with people in our cohort, people who have come straight from PhD programs, and some of them have communicated how they feel like starting in the pandemic has kind of decreased the pressure they would otherwise feel, that it’s giving them a little bit of an opportunity to kind of ease in to this new position and the new institution in ways that probably wouldn’t have happened had we not had the pandemic. Of course, the pandemic is awful, [LAUGHTER] like, I feel compelled to like give that… like, of course, I think everybody… they would welcome the pressure. Like, I’m not trying to suggest anything otherwise, but it’s more about like silver linings…

Martin: Yes.

Emily: Like, the patience and the grace… [LAUGHTER] …everybody is doing the best they can right now.

Rebecca: I found that it’s really great that senior faculty are really busy with other things because they’re not volunteering everybody to do everything else. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having said that, if you’d like to make some more connections across campus, we do have a teaching center advisory board, if either of you would like to join. We won’t pressure you for that now, but if at some point you would like to, just let us know, and we’ll add you to the list.

Rebecca: That’s actually the first committee I joined when I was a faculty member transferring from a different institution to connect with other folks. That was the way I did it. And look at me now. [LAUGHTER] You know, we’ve talked a lot about the differences and really seeing yourself having that experience coming in and how that’s benefited. If we were to give like a top five things for new faculty to think about asking for, or to get help on when they start at a new institution when they’ve not had experienced before, what are those things?

Martin: I would reach out to other people teaching in the department, ask them to share syllabi with you, because one thing I wanted to do is I want to make sure that when I come and I teach, that my classes aren’t completely different from what the students are used to. And to some extent, I experienced that. One of my classes, I made it way too hard for them. And that was a class again, that was completely my own doing. It was a special topics elective. But the other classes, I was able to reach out to some of the faculty and they were kind enough to share some of their materials with me. So, I was able to see, okay, this is what standard looks like. Now I can prep my own course in that way. And so that is definitely, I would reach out to other people in your department, have constant communication with your chair (I’d say that’s definitely a good thing), and get your technology sorted out way before.

Emily: Yeah, I think the technology thing is really big. I would also say to be proactive in asking for help in terms of how to navigate the various portals that we have to access. Like they’re all new to us, especially things that are a little bit more complicated like Degree Works. I know in my department, I’m expected to do advising, I think that’s a common expectation among faculty on campus. And so you’re not being a pain to ask for help. And if you don’t understand, you have to ask and ask and ask again until it makes sense. And I think that when you come into a new place, you may feel like you’re being a pain, right? Or that you’re being a nuisance, or that you’re encroaching on somebody else’s precious time. And maybe you are being all of those things. But, it’s kind of the expectation of a new faculty member, like you’re supposed to be those things, you’re supposed to ask those things, because otherwise, you’re never going to learn. And in a few years, you will be the person who a new faculty member is asking questions to. And so, yeah, that’s what I would say.

John: And we should probably note that Degree Works is software designed to help students transition their way to a degree, it lists all of the requirements, which courses satisfy them, and so forth. And it can be a little challenging when you’re seeing it for the first time and just learning about the gen ed requirements.

John: But not all departments have first-year faculty doing advisement. That’s probably more of an exception, I think. I’m not positive on that. I know we don’t assign in my department, new faculty for advisees until at least their second year, just to give them time to adjust to the institution and the requirements, and so forth.

Emily: I think some of that could be because I am coming in with prior years of service.

Martin: Same here.

Emily: And I just have two advisees. And so it’s not like I have 20. It’s almost like my training wheels, I feel like… my advising training wheels. I mentioned Degree Works, but really, it is about figuring out the gen ed curriculum, all of the requirements for graduation. Like, they’re significantly different than my previous institution. And so, asking those questions, because I feel like advising in particular, like, I take it really seriously, I know that students are ultimately responsible for their progress and for keeping an eye on their progress to degree and all of that, but I feel like they’re in my hands to a certain extent. And so I want to know the ins and outs, and I want to be a very like hands on advisor. And so that’s really what I was talking about, like figuring out how to advise effectively.

Martin: Regarding the advisees, I have like 20 advisees this semester. And luckily at my previous institution, we were dealing with Degree Works. So all that I needed to figure out was sort of what were some of the parameters regarding sequence and prereqs and stuff. So I was able to deal with that pretty well. But it is difficult. I feel like some students are less independent than others. And they demand more attention and when I’m reaching that season where it’s conference season, even though they’re virtual, and you prepare for that and I have an R&R and all these other things and then students ask questions that they can pretty much look up themselves and they want a Zoom meeting for it and you can’t just say no, and so that’s been frustrating. And luckily from Degree Works, I’d actually say the version of Degree Works that we’re using as SUNY Oswego is better than the version we were using where I previously worked. And so it’s been a lot more streamlined, a lot faster, you don’t have to, like manually search students’ names, they’re in a drop-down menu, which makes it so much easier. So, in that regard, I’m okay with it. But, yeah, advising in November is never great.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you guys are highlighting without directly saying is that one of the things that a new faculty member has to do that isn’t totally obvious, but it takes a long time to actually figure out how the courses you’re teaching map to the curriculum within your department and how that curriculum in the department maps to the entire campus and how the gen ed fits in. And just really getting a good mental model of how the institution works as a whole for students, especially because different institutions are so different from one another, and how that is put together that I think we underestimate, often, how long it actually takes to learn how that works, and what that looks like, both for our students, we underestimate how long it takes them to learn it, and also how long it takes us to learn it. I’ve been here for eight years, I would ask questions about our degree to my department chair, I was like, “You know what, I’ve actually been confused about this, I don’t know, for eight years. [LAUGHTER] And I would really like an answer about x.”

Martin: Again, the nice thing that I have, at least with Roger, is that I will just, in the middle of a Zoom meeting, if I don’t have the answer to a question, I’ll pick up my cell phone, and I’ll give him a ring. And he gladly answers the phone and answers the question. So again, having that support makes life a lot easier.

John: maybe we could talk a little bit about your adjustment to pandemic teaching. In the spring, I think you had some experience with a rapid transition. Over the summer, you had some chance to prepare for the fall, and again, a somewhat unusual teaching environment. Could you tell us a little bit about the ways in which you’re teaching and how that’s been going.

Emily: So I am teaching exclusively online this semester, asynchronous courses, I decided to do asynchronous this fall, because in the spring, when we did have that rapid transition, it seemed like a lot of the stuff I was seeing kind of emphasized making things as simple and as straightforward as possible for students and for instructors. And based on what I was reading that meant doing asynchronous. And so that’s what I did in the spring when we transitioned at my previous institution. And that’s what I decided to do this semester as well. I think it’s working well for the most part. I will say, what I’ve come to realize at the tail end of the semester now, I feel like it’s working for the students. I did an informal mid-semester survey, and students responded, they had some constructive criticism, some constructive feedback, which I welcomed and was glad to be able to address in the semester going forward. But there was also some really positive things that I would expect to have received in a regular face-to-face semester. And so I feel like I’m at the point where I have this realization that it’s working for the students, for the most part, even though I know they’re overwhelmed and stressed, and bless their hearts, and all that stuff. It’s working for them. I feel like it’s working less for me. I didn’t realize until I haven’t been in the classroom for months and months now, I didn’t realize how much that face-to-face interaction sustained me as a teacher, I never realized that the energy that I have was so dependent on the energy students were giving me… which is really not that great of me as a sociologist, I should have had this kind of awareness all along, but I didn’t. And now that I don’t have them, now that I don’t have that face to face, as the semester’s gone on, I feel like my energy and my motivation has kind of waned, even if the students still feel really into the class and into my video lectures and all of that.

Martin: Yeah, I would agree with you on that. I’m starting to notice it now too. And I feel like, oftentimes, my own success in the classroom has depended on being able to get a sense of what the student culture is by interacting with them, understanding the body language, I like to shoot the breeze with students, I like to show up 10 minutes before class, and then usually have those three or four super devoted students that are already sitting there. And I like to shoot the breeze with them, because you get to figure out what TV shows they’re watching, what music they’re listening to, and that allows you an opportunity to investigate those things and find ways to connect what you’re teaching to that… especially with my students, they all watch all kinds of crime shows and stuff, so when I’m teaching criminal justice, it’s very easy to do that. So that had always been one of the pillars of my success. And so going completely online, it’s been more difficult and so, similar to Emily, I’ve been relying on Blackboard surveys and when you deal with that feedback, when it’s anonymous, it can be harsh, and those people who are willing to face it, to confront it, and accept it, are the people who succeed afterwards. But then there’s one student on a Blackboard survey this semester when I ask them what’s your least favorite thing about the class? They said, “Martin.” [LAUGHTER]

Emily: But that’s not very constructive.

Martin: It’s not constructive.

Rebecca: No.

Emily: …and they’re wrong. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHTER] And in my response to the class, I usually will send anonymous results in a PDF file in the email. Well, usually in class, when I do those surveys, I’ll deal with it on the board. But I sent it and I said, “I’d like for all the students to like me, but I implore them the next time they take the survey, they should name specific things they don’t like about me, because then I can do something about it, maybe.” [LAUGHTER] But the thing is, you have to have a thick skin with this stuff, and if you can handle that, then you’ll succeed. But I will say, when I taught at my previous institution, I was ready for the coronavirus. I’m a very anxious person to begin with. And so when things were happening in Europe, and in China, I was already freaking out. And so I started adopting the HyFlex model in January. And so when everything hit the fan, it was really not a big deal for me. It was more just me supporting the students, making sure they’re okay, they’re feeling okay, they can handle everything. And I backed off a little bit, I allowed them all to adjust. But for me, that was okay. And next semester, even though I’m teaching synchronous via Zoom, or whatever, I’m still going to offer the HyFlex model informally by offering asynchronous content that’s consistent with what we’re learning in class, because I feel like that is going to be to some people, unfortunately, to me, fortunately, the future of teaching,

Emily: To just say one thing about what you were saying just now, Martin, I think that in terms of not being in the classroom, face to face, missing those more informal interactions have been really hard. I think a big part of my success in teaching in a face-to-face environment has to do with… I purposely am very authentic in the classroom. And so I show students my personality, and that works for me, I know that it doesn’t work for everyone, and I think that that’s fine. But, it works for me, that they get to know who I am as a person, they still have to respect my authority and my knowledge, but at the same time, being a little bit more informal with them is very effective for me. And I don’t have that opportunity as much teaching online. So, what I have found going back to your question, John, of how I’ve adapted, I have found that I’ve become a little bit more informal in my written communication with students. So whereas before, when I’m face to face, I can be informal. And so when I’m sending them an email, I can be very formal and professorial and all of that, but now they don’t get any of that informality. And so I’m using emojis…

Martin: …the same.

Emily: …and putting the gifs in my email. There’s a really great Snoop Dogg TikTok about reading the syllabus that’s gone out to all of my classes several times.

Martin: Nice.

Emily: …and so, I don’t know, I’ll be interested to see what the evals say about that… if they say anything at all, and the people who are evaluating my courses, their feedback on those things, but I think that that’s one strategy I found of introducing that informality in an online setting.

Rebecca: I had a couple of students indicate how much they really like emojis and things. My TA had done something that I thought was really stellar, and I sent her a metal

Martin: Nice.

Emily: Oh, that’s funny.

Rebecca: …like and emoji metal. She’s like, “I really like it when you do stuff like that.” [LAUGHTER[

Emily: Do more of that please.

Martin: Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, so I was like, “Oh, okay. I thought people would think I was really dorky.” So I just started doing it more…

Emily: Yeah.

Rebecca: …for the other students too. And it seems uplifting.

Emily: Well, and it’s like their language, right?

Martin: Yeah.

John: Yeah, and it’s authentic dorkiness, which I think is the key.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Emily: And that’s exactly what I thought when you said that Rebecca, like, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty sure my students think I’m like a dork sending out this Snoop Dogg, whatever. [LAUGHTER] And I am, there’s no getting around that, but it’s endearing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a part of my charm.

Rebecca: Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was gonna be charming or not. That was the key. Like, is this gonna be a turn off? Or is it gonna be something good? [LAUGHTER]

Emily: Yeah, it can go one of two ways. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ll include a link to the Snoop Dogg video in the show notes.

Emily: Ok.

John: I already have it because I’ve sent it out to my students as well.

Emily: There you go. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Cool.

John: Are there any things that you’ve tried this semester that you hadn’t done in the past that you’re going to continue even in a post-pandemic world, in terms of your teaching,

Emily: I am really excited about Flipgrid forums. It’s like a discussion board, except that students record a video of themselves responding to the prompt and then I require that students reply to each other with a video message. And, it’s not without its issues. I recognize what those are. And at the same time, I feel like it’s been really great for me to get to know my students more personally than I would typically would and kind of a more standard discussion board format. And I think that students are getting to know one another better as well, because I see, when I grade them from week to week, I see that the same people are responding to each other or they’re saying like, “Oh, you talked about this a few weeks ago,” and I never really have seen that in a traditional forum. There’s something about the video that works really well. I only do it for the smaller class that I’m teaching. I couldn’t do it for a 100 person intro class, I don’t think, but it’s proving effective for my upper-division course, I don’t know if I will continue it moving forward, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

John: I’ve used VoiceThread, which is very similar. One advantage of Flipgrid is that, now that Microsoft owns Flipgrid, it’s a free service provided to educators. But one of the things I did is I allowed students to either use just voice or video, and they almost exclusively used just a voice. So they weren’t very comfortable sharing videos. But even when they were just sharing voice, it was in an asynchronous online class, one of the things that really struck me and many of the students commented on this in some of the other discussion forums is whenever they read something in the course from that person, they’d hear it in the voice of the student, because they’ve learned the voices of students and it created a little more sense of community or connection to the other students that was generally not there when they were text only discussion forums.

Martin: Yeah, I agree. I’ve never used Flipgrid. But I do think that I’ll explore that a little bit. But I will continue to use the blackboard discussion forums, or at least some form of online discussion. Also, I’m going to use Zoom for office hours and meetings with students. I find Zoom to be so great for advising and any sort of meeting with a student like, especially when it comes to… I had a student the other day needing me to find something about an assignment. So I was able to just share my screen, show them in the syllabus what I meant by whatever. I was able to show them how to make use of Google Scholar and how you can leverage that when you’re looking things up in the library website. And with that being said too, incorporating HyFlex, in pretty much everything I do. I was talking to Roger yesterday, and some students, even though their seniors and juniors are still having difficulty finding peer-reviewed articles. And so I told him, you know, what, I’m just going to go ahead and make a video that shows you how to use Google Scholar, how to use the library database, how to get what you need, and then I have that video, and I can just copy and paste it on subsequent Blackboard forums. But I also think that the asynchronous content that I’ve created over the last two years, especially a lot of that’s been created this semester, I’m going to continue to share it in subsequent classes and upkeep it. I think as we start to cater to newer students, people coming from non traditional backgrounds, having the asynchronous option in any classes, I think, would help break down barriers and help students succeed. And so that’s something I feel like this HyFlex approach to pretty much all teaching… at least, it’s easier in criminal justice. It’s not that easy in other courses. But for me, that’s something I’m going to apply to my classes until someone tells me I can’t.

John: And I think a lot of people this summer have created new videos and other explanatory materials that can work in any modality. And that’s something we strongly encouraged faculty to do in the workshops that we did last spring and over the summer as well. And it’s nice to see that. Students generally react really positively to having those video resources.

Martin: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

John: Typically, new faculty orientation consists of this series of meetings where there’s a tremendous amount of information thrown at you all at once. This time, all those presentations were converted into videos that people could access at their own time and pace. How did that work? And or what could institutions do to make the transition easier? Because the type of transition you experienced is also the type of transition situation that many adjuncts will experience who are not physically located in the communities where they’re teaching. So even when the pandemic ends, I think there may be some lessons learned from this new faculty orientation that can continue beyond. What worked well from the orientation and what could we have done better to reach out to people who were not physically present.

Martin: So, one thing that I think worked really well is that, again, there were recorded videos that we could access, I think we didn’t necessarily need two days of sort of where you were on Zoom, I don’t think we necessarily needed that. I think one day would have been good. And then you should have been left with the videos like this asynchronous content. I think that helped me a lot, when I needed to look at how to do something, I was able to just quickly go on that Blackboard page and find the resources I needed. And if I couldn’t find it, I’ll just email my chair, and it would be fixed. So I think that was very good. I would much rather do what I did here, then go and sit with people in a building and do all that, like I get the social aspect of that. And that can be arranged, but what I’m going to orientation, I want to learn what I need to do to succeed in my job, because that’s how I work. So I like the fact that I was able to just sit there and focus on the content that was most necessary for me at that time, because there was a lot of stuff that I already knew, because I’ve already learned it at my previous institution that wasn’t necessarily pertinent to me. And so by allowing that asynchronous content to stay up for so long, I think that helped me succeed a lot. Do we need two days? No. One thing that I also think is very important is for departments on the department level to form a committee and create onboarding packets. That’s something I’ve pushed for really hard where I used to work and then it just kept on getting pushed away and away and away. But what people within the department think is important, that your department chair can just email you right when your contracts been signed and accepted, and then you know, oh, reach out to this person, if you need your email, reach out here, this is where you’ll get this. This is what you need. Reach out to this person for X, Y, and Z. I think those things, if you focus on working on them right now, and it’s just a document you can update over time, especially here at SUNY Oswego, where we use Google Drive for everything. It’s so easy just to invite someone to the document. So, I think a lot of pre-emptive stuff can be done. But, I will say I very much enjoy not having to go to campus and sit through orientations that I didn’t think was necessary to me, because it’s not my first rodeo.

Emily: I really like that idea, Martin, of having onboarding packets at the departmental level. I think that would alleviate some of the emphasis on faculty being proactive in getting what they need… that we were talking about before, especially considering how problematic that is for a variety of reasons. I think the orientation, I agree, I liked the videos, found them very informational. I like the breakout session that we have had, I think it was actually on the second day where we got to pick which group we wanted to go ask more questions to. I think more of that could have been beneficial, because we only had an opportunity to really speak with one group around campus. I wish that as part of the orientation, there would have been information on shared governance, the structure of shared governance in the SUNY system and on SUNY Oswego because it is a multi-level system bureaucracy, and it’s still not clear to me exactly what that order of things looks like, Who’s in charge of what. To some, like really clear mapping of the shared governance hierarchy. And just some really basic flowcharts on processes would have also been really, really helpful for me during orientation. Stepping aside from orientation, specifically, and thinking more about transitioning your life from one place to another. I think SUNY Oswego did a pretty good job helping us transition into the university system itself. But I really could have used some assistance with housing, some more formal assistance. And I did reach out, I think my acting chair is phenomenal. She put me in contact with people who put me in contact with people who put me in contact with people, I was talking to all these people, some of which I still have yet to see face to face. And that was all great. And I have a place to live here. But it was just a lot of work. on my end, trying to put that together. And the place that we’re in right now is not the best. It’s probably one of the biggest stressors in my life right now. And so had there been some more institutional support.. Like, I don’t know what that would look like. I think that that would have been really, really helpful. And I think that that’s probably the case, whenever somebody is transitioning into this position in general, but especially in the pandemic, when I couldn’t travel easily to the area and take a look at things for myself.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a problem for sure. Housing here has been an issue for a very long time.

Martin: Yeah, we had the same issue. Luckily, through Maggie, she connected me with the right person. And then bam, I found a place to stay. And then the person didn’t like that we had a dog. And so I offered him an extra hundred dollars a month so we could just keep the dog in there. And luckily, he went for it. And so now we have a place. But, yeah, it was a major stressor. And when you have to live in the Syracuse area, the cost of living is different there than in Oswego. And so it almost makes your salary less when you’re living outside of the area. So. when you’re an assistant professor making an assistant professor salary, you want to maximize that, and so by living in Oswego is much better. And so, yeah, I totally agree with you Emily, that’s one of the major issues.

Emily: To your point, Martin, it may be easier to find an adequate place to live in the Syracuse area, but I have never in my life experienced a housing market like the one that I tried to get into here in Oswego. I mean, it was just bizarre. And so it just does seem to be much more informal than in most places that I’ve ever lived. And that was a struggle, not being from this area. It really was the strength of weak ties for me is what made it so that my family and I could have a roof over our head when we moved here in July.

Martin: And I will say that living in Oswego is awesome.

Emily: Yeah, I like that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Martin: I really like living here.

Emily: Yeah, I find it quite charming…

Martin: Yeah.

Emily: …and weird in a really great way. But I’m also holding my breath for that winter. {LAUGHTER] ‘Cause, again, I was born and raised in Texas, North Carolina for 12 years, we shall see.

John: We should note, just for people, not from Oswego. that Oswego is a city which saw a very big peak in population by the mid 1800s with the canal system, and since then the population has gradually declined with the loss of the industry. So housing prices are relatively low in the region. And there’s a lot of houses that are very old, with varying quality, some of which is very low quality and some of which is very high. But it’s difficult to find good housing. And it’s a bit of a search. It’s a challenge, especially when you’re trying to make those arrangements from another part of the country.

Rebecca: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Martin: I’m going to make sure I get tenure. That’s what’s next. I’m going to keep on crushing it and get tenure. [LAUGHTER]

Emily: What’s next for me, I will say regroup, recharge and reboot. And that was not a prepared line… [LAUGHTER] …noted for the record. That’s just all spontaneous. I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of sense. But yeah, just getting by, just taking the winter break that is around the corner, taking that time to breathe a little bit and to make some adjustments and then getting through the spring semester, and then getting back to some type of normalcy. I have to believe that’s on the horizon. So yeah.

Martin: Yeah, fingers crossed.

John: I think we’re all hoping for that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed. Indeed. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been really helpful and I hope it’ll help multiple institutions really think through just transitions for faculty in general.

Martin: Thank you.

Emily: Thank you for having me.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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163. Student Voices

As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland join us to discuss the importance of listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.

Transcript

John: As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, we talk with a student about listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher. Welcome, Theresa, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

Theresa: Thank you for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Jessamyn, are you drinking tea?

Jessamyn: I am. And it’s Prickly Pear Cactus, which is a good tea for an introvert. Like, don’t touch me, stay away. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s perfect.

Jessamyn: It’s perfect.

Rebecca: Theresa?

Theresa: Mine is a Chinese style gunpowder green…

Rebecca: Nice.

Theresa: that’s very good.

John: And I’m drinking a pure ginger tea today.

Rebecca: And I have Golden Monkey. I feel like I needed to treat myself today. [LAUGHTER]

John: As we’re recording this, we’re waiting for election results from the national election. So. some of us haven’t been getting a lot of sleep because we’re checking all the counts regularly.

Rebecca: So, the golden monkey is totally self indulgent.

Jessamyn: Very necessary. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the student experience during a pandemic, and about ways in which we could productively incorporate student voices into professional development activities, and we’re practicing that right now. [LAUGHTER] So, let’s talk a little bit about the impact of the transition to remote instruction last March. What was that like from a student perspective?

Theresa: Oh, yeah, that was intense. [LAUGHTER] It was really the most disorganized and disorienting sort of thing, which I thought was completely understandable, on the one hand, because every single person involved, the students and the professors, were being asked to do something they had never signed up to do. The professor’s teaching our in-person classes had never signed up to be online professors; the students taking the in-person classes were obviously taking in-person classes for a reason, none of us really wanted to go online. Everybody had a different way of doing things when we got online. Sometimes, I had people who were trying a couple of different things because they weren’t sure what was actually going to work. And of course, we had tech issues, and just all kinds of things. So, it was pretty confusing and a little bit messy, and it made things a lot more difficult than they had to be, I think, but it was also the only reasonable solution. Because what else could we have done? …just closed everything and gone: “Oh, well, we’ll just try it again in the next spring.” [LAUGHTER] …like no, that’s not going to work. [LAUGHTER] In my case, too, it was particularly difficult because my father died in February, like three weeks before we went on break. And so going online removed my main source of outside support, which was going to classes because it forced me to get up and leave the house every day, and it put me around people in very controlled environments, and it had been helping a lot and then all of a sudden, that got taken away. So, for me, it was also a depressing experience, because now I had to deal with all of this stuff by myself… completely by myself.

Rebecca: I think that’s an experience that more people experience than we ever really acknowledge… the death of a family member or just any other kind of extra stress on top of the moving online that was happening. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that students and faculty were experiencing these things, which just added to the complexity of the situation, the stress of the situation for everybody involved.

Theresa: It’s like I’ve been saying, that 2020 is the worst year of my life, even leaving COVID out of it, because other things have happened too that I’m not going to get into, but it’s been the worst year of my life, even without COVID,and now we’ve got a pandemic on top of it that’s not making anything better or easier to deal with… at all.

John: But at least we don’t have any social strife [LAUGHTER] or any other types of stresses in society this year.

Jessamyn: No other major global crises happening.

Theresa: Things are so peaceful [LAUGHTER] and I’m completely expecting a peaceful transition of power to happen any minute now.

John: Are things better this fall in terms of the adjustment to a still unusual environment for teaching?

Theresa: Yeah, it’s not an easy answer. I would say yes and no. The yes comes from the classes I’ve had that have moved online, either kind of officially they moved online recently when we started having COVID cases at Plattsburgh or they moved online for me unofficially when I asked for it, which in and of itself was a long and complicated and messy process. In that case, I think the people who are offering online options were much better prepared and knew what they were doing. So, there isn’t that feeling of disorganization and confusion with the online classes. Because by this time, the people offering them have figured out how they like to do it, have figured out the best way that works for them and their students. And so that is very nice and organized. Unfortunately, for the in-person option, I would have to say… not so much. Because we wound up with some really weird situations with in-person learning. At the beginning of the term, I had five classes, only one of which was in a classroom that was ever meant to be a classroom. And that classroom can usually hold about 40 students plus the professor. But right now, because of COVID, they have it at half capacity. So I had a class of 40 people, but only 20 of us could be in the room at a time. So that professor had to do some kind of strange things like divide us in half, and half of us came on Monday and half of us came on Wednesday, and we all met by Zoom on Friday. And then my other classes were in rooms that were never meant to be classrooms. Three of my classes were in a converted ballroom, and they took this ballroom and divided it in half with one of those dividing walls that doesn’t really do anything except give you a visual separation. So, if something was going on in one classroom that was loud, you could hear it in the other one. If someone was trying to use the microphone, and they didn’t quite get the tech right, all of a sudden their lecture was going into the other room too. The lighting was horrible. The acoustics were awful. There were cases where I had professors who didn’t really want to use the microphone, and I couldn’t hear them. And I had cases I couldn’t hear my classmates at all. So, of course, there was no socializing at the beginning of class. And we were all sitting six feet apart and wearing our masks, we can’t hear each other, and we’re not socializing. And it kind of got to the point for me, where I actually felt like I was almost being punished. And I know that’s not the case, I know that nobody was punishing anybody. But that’s kind of how it felt. I felt like I was walking into something in the Hunger Games or something. [LAUGHTER] When I walked into these classrooms, it was just such a stressful experience, and isolating. I was in a room with 40 other people, and I’ve never felt so isolated. I lived in Japan, in situations where I was like the only non-Japanese person for miles around for months on end, and I felt less isolated than I felt in this classroom. And I’ve been reflecting lately… one of the things that makes me non traditional is I already have two master’s degrees, one of which is in teaching English to speakers of other languages. And one of the things that got really hammered in that course that I did was making a classroom environment pleasant to facilitate learning. There’s nothing pleasant about being in a poorly lit, bad acoustics, socially distant Hunger Games classroom. There just isn’t. And, so I dropped one of the classes. I moved online for other ones as much as I’ve been able to. And so it’s better now, but only because I forced it to be. And I got help from most of my professors to make it be that way.

John: Gamification can be a useful learning strategy in terms of motivation, but perhaps not to the Hunger Games extreme. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not to the Hunger Games extent.

Theresa: No. I mean, [LAUGHTER] I know some people will be super motivated by that, but maybe for like two class sessions, not forever, and not in the punishment aspect of it, but in the actual games aspects of it. I’m not that kind of nerd. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I had one student describe it, too, as being such a powerful reminder of the terrible pandemic…

Theresa: Yeah.

Jessamyn: … raging around the world… that the experience of sitting in a socially distanced classroom and masks, was not only so different from an ideal learning environment, and expectations about the learning environment, but a very visual, emotional, intellectual reminder that a potentially deadly virus is circulating among us. And that that knowledge, that anxiety, that reminder in the classroom was, of course, a huge obstacle to effective learning.

Theresa: And I think that point, too, about the expectations is really interesting, because, to me, what it kind of feels like whenever people talk to us about “Oh, well, we’re giving you the in-person classes, because that’s what you asked for as students.” We asked for what we knew, before COVID, we didn’t ask for Hunger Games classrooms. [LAUGHTER] And there are a lot of people right now, I think, who prefer being in person so strongly that it doesn’t matter to them, and they would rather be in-person in a Hunger Games classroom then be online in their own living rooms, or whatever. And that’s totally valid. I’m not criticizing them. But, for some of us, that isn’t working at all. And it’s not at all what we were expecting. And in my case, I think I was very optimistic, but also very naive, because I did not expect to be in that kind of situation. I thought, well, maybe we’ll be wearing masks or maybe we’ll be social distancing. Somehow, I didn’t think we’ll be wearing masks and social distancing in rooms that were never meant as classrooms, and it’s going to feel awful.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Teresa’s perspective has really powerfully reminded me of how much of effective teaching and learning is that community piece, that welcoming classroom and that inclusive classroom and how much of that emotional component goes into effective learning, and, especially for brainiacs and geeky academics, we’re so focused on our subject and in content coverage, and we forget just how central the emotional connections, the human connections, and the productive professional relationships in the classroom are.

Theresa: And even just think of it in terms of practicalities, like having a group discussion, which is one of the whole points of being in person to begin with, is that you have that give and take back and forth between the students and the professor and between the students themselves. And if you’re in a classroom where nobody can hear what’s going on, or you’re in a classroom where If more than one person talks, it’s so echoey that nobody can hear or understand, that entire purpose cannot exist.

Rebecca: Yeah, we want to make sure that we’re moving beyond the sage on the stage. And we want to make sure that we’re using active learning in these things and technology can be a really powerful way of doing that…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …in ways that maybe people didn’t realize going into the pandemic and are discovering.

John: Did you have any classes where there were some people face to face and others in Zoom at the same time, because that presented even some additional challenges that many of us warned against, but it was something that many colleges and many faculty tried to do, and I think a lot of people are backing away from that once they realize that it’s difficult to maintain two separate groups in some type of community.

Theresa: I have not had that happen simultaneously, I had one professor who offered the same class, two different sections, one in person and one online. And, in her case, that was actually how I was able to unofficially switch to online before she moved my in-person section online. But, I haven’t had anyone trying to do a simultaneous in-person while doing Zoom situation.

Rebecca: Because it’s not possible to be in two places at the same time… [LAUGHTER] Last I checked the science is not up on that. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah. The only way I can imagine that would work would be if you recorded the in-person class and then posted it on Zoom, which then removes the simultaneous aspect and presents a whole different set of issues.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I would say, here at Plattsburgh, that what was, at least for a while, being called that HyFlex model, has really been utilized very much.

John: We had quite a few people trying it, but I don’t think there’s going to be as many people trying it in the spring.

Rebecca: No, I think people have now officially learned the way they want to teach. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: This was the experiment. [LAUGHTER]

John: It was a massive experiment.

Rebecca: Yeah, an international experiment on higher education. … Glad that we had this opportunity.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Right.

John: As someone finding a career in teaching, what are some of the takeaways from this experience that you’ll bring into your own future teaching.

Theresa: So I spend a lot of time, first of all, in my own head, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I literally am alone in my apartment with my budgies most of the time these days, [LAUGHTER] because of online learning I’ve been thinking a lot about things like: “What does it mean to do various things? Or what do various things mean to begin with”? So, for example, what does it mean to teach and learn? What does it mean to educate? And what does it mean to be educated? Why do we do certain things in the classroom? Why do we require term papers? As opposed either in general, or as opposed to something else? Why do we require students to memorize information before they take a test, instead of allowing open notes, open books, their cheat sheets? Why do we do these things? And what changes can we make to support the fact that this is an extraordinarily stressful time, on all levels? It’s like everything happening at once, for everybody, all the time, in every location. There is no such thing as taking a break anymore, really, there’s no break from some things. So, what can a teacher do to help eliminate or limit a source of stress, because let’s face it, school is a source of stress. Even if you want to be here, even if you love learning, even if you could easily be a student for the rest of your life, it is still a source of stress, because, for most of us, something about our future is riding on this. Something about our future is riding on our success here. And it’s not just “Oh, am I going to have the knowledge I need?” It’s also “Am I going to have the grades that I need to be attractive to employers? Am I going to have the grades that I need to keep my financial aid? If I lose my financial aid, what do I do?” Am I going to be out on the street with my birds, trying to find some basement to live in or something? Like, what’s going to happen?” And these things are all concerns that are floating around in people’s heads to varying degrees and varying levels. So, my question, as a teacher, is “What can I do to lessen that burden?” And I think it can be hard because, especially at the high school level, I think there’s a lot that comes down from above. My impression, anyway, is that there’s a lot that comes down from above that I can’t change. But, what can I do about the things that I can change? If I were teaching at the college level, I would be inclined right now to say things like open notes, open books, or cheat sheets on exams, fewer high-stakes exams, replace them with more low-stakes exams, either no term papers or shorter term papers… replace the term papers with something like reflection essays. So much depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. And I think sometimes, at all levels of education, we do things because that’s how they’ve been done. And especially right now, that’s just not going to work forever. And I think right now, whether we like it or not, we’ve been handed a golden opportunity to try some new things. And to see if these new things work at all, to see if they work better, to see if maybe we think that they don’t work better, but they work better in this situation, so we’ll keep up for now and go back to the old way after. Whatever. But, right now is a time I think that all educators, past, present, and future need to be really thinking about what it means to do those different things, and why certain things are happening in the classroom, and how they can change what’s going on in the classroom, to limit a source of stress that a lot of people just don’t have the energy for anymore.

John: These are all things that most teaching centers have been suggesting to faculty for quite a while. But faculty don’t always listen to that. And one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you about this is that, at your institution, you gave a presentation to faculty about this. And I think that maybe hearing student voices can provide a little more compelling story to faculty than if they just hear it from people who run teaching centers. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

Theresa: Yeah, from my end, it felt really nice. It was like, “Oh, wow, these professors have all shown up.” And it wasn’t just professors, there were some people from the library as well. But like, “Oh, wow, these people have all shown up to listen to what I have to say. And they care about what I have to say.” And I know that there were people who probably watched the recorded session later. So, that was good. But I also know a few things. One, I’m kind of weird, [LAUGHTER] in that…. I’m weird in a lot of ways like, but in all harmless ways, I promise. But, in this case, I’m weird in that I had that opportunity. There are thousands of students here, and I’m the one who got to have that conversation. So, most of us don’t get that chance… at all. And I think, too, a lot of students, especially younger students who are new to college, feel like they’re not going to be listened to. They can say whatever they want to whoever they want and nobody’s gonna listen to them. And why should they speak up, anyway? And I don’t have any power in the classroom, the power is all with the professor. And I don’t have any power at this institution, it’s all with the administration. And that’s assuming that you can even figure out what’s coming from the professor and what’s coming from administration, because most of the time, we students don’t know that. Let’s take attendance policies in example, I don’t know what part of attendance policies are coming from administration and what part is coming from the professors themselves, just as an example. So if I have a problem with an attendance policy, I don’t really know who to talk to, directly. And I don’t know how to address it, maybe, as a student. So, for me, yeah, it felt fantastic to sit there and be able to talk to these people. And they were all great people and very receptive, I thought. But I also know that that’s unusual for a lot of students’ experiences. And I know quite frankly, that had I been 18 and in my first semester as a freshman, I don’t know if I would have been willing to do that…

Jessamyn: Sure.

Theresa: …because I would have been staring down that…

Jessamyn: Yeah.

Theresa: …group of people. Even though they were very nice, kind, friendly people, I still would have been absolutely terrified. So I think that there’s a gap in what students can actually do and what they think they can do. And it’s not necessarily a gap that the students can bridge, or at least it’s not one that they can bridge alone. And that this is a case where professors need to use the power and privilege they have, as professors, to help bridge that gap and prove to us students that if we speak up that you will listen, basically.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think incorporating more student voices into faculty development is an awesome goal. And it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy to do for some of the reasons Theresa mentioned. And it really depends on your student population and your campus culture. Our students at SUNY Plattsburgh are incredibly polite and respectful, and have learned to be passive learners in their high school experience. Not everybody, but that’s the general culture… speaking directly to power with a face… even if it’s on a screen via Zoom…a whole posse of professors would not come easily to most students at any point in their career… maybe when they were seniors… maybe. So, I’ve been looking for ways to get student perspectives into our programming, I used a model created by Jessica Tinklenberg at the Claremont College’s Teaching and Learning Center. She created a model called “What your students want you to know,” a series of discussions where a faculty representative or a staff or mentor figure on campus who worked with certain groups of students, checked in with their students, polled their students, and then reported to the faculty, and we did that this semester. So, like the Coordinator for International Students came and spoke to a group of faculty: “Here’s what your international students want you to know,” the Assistant Athletic Director came and spoke: “Here’s what student athletes want you to know.” So that’s a way to get student voices into the conversation without having that direct, perhaps confrontational, sense. Theresa is a non-traditional student. I’ve worked with her before. We had a class together during that horrible impossible semester. And she’s also my advisee, we share a love of pop culture. So, we got that in common. She came, actually it was during advising and she came to me for advising and got to talking about what her experiences have been like in face-to-face classes. I am teaching this semester, but it’s totally online. So her perspective, combined with I knew her to be confident enough and able to articulate very clearly her experiences and not get weirded out by facing down some professors… and it’s self selecting too. With the faculty development events, people come who want to be there. So, it’s not like a mandatory event: “Now listen to students.” I know the Center for Teaching Excellence did have a Student Advisory Board for a while. It’s been quite a few years since that board was in place. And it’s very difficult to ask students, especially right now, to take on additional labor of any kind, even if it’s just offering a perspective. What I’d like to do is have a selection process to have two student Center for Teaching Excellence fellows next semester, but I’ve run into a major bureaucratic red tape snarl. A shout out to state universities… it’s like a major undertaking to offer a $200 honorarium to a student as part of a student fellowship. So stay tuned… to be continued, I will be trying to wrestle that. Unfortunately, I’m just awful at paperwork. So, we’ll see. But, that’s how Theresa ended up at the round table. And it was the most successful one, I think, of the semester so far of the presentations and discussions. People were very, very interested.

Rebecca: We had a really good experience with students sharing their feedback in our Accessibility Fellows Program, which is a smaller group of faculty with seven faculty at the time. And we worked with our disability services office, essentially, to recruit a few students to come and share some of their experiences and the technology they use with that group. But it was like a very closed situation and it was a small situation and it was not a recorded situation. And I think the students had a good experience based on the responses afterwards. And the faculty all had really great experiences that have impacted all of us in really deep ways by having those structured conversations about something specific. But, I think there’s something about it being kind of a tight knit group, someone they trust is who recruited them to have the conversation. None of their faculty members were there. [LAUGHTER] It was different faculty members. But, it was really powerful. So, I think the more we can find ways to include those voices of students in safe ways, ways that they perceive as being safe, the better.

Jessamyn: Well, especially right now is just so crucial. It’s challenging. We have to figure out ways to do it, though. At Theresa’s roundtable, \my colleague, John Locke, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning, shared that he had really been struggling with some of the decisions he made about his moving online. Did he do the right thing? Was this the best? And hearing Theresa and talking with her, really powerfully confirmed that, yes, he was on the right track. And that kind of feedback, above and beyond what we might be asking from the students as we’re actually teaching them, just can be so incredibly helpful right now. Wow. That’s what we all need. Is this working? Theresa, like you said, we’re trying something new. How will we know without the student perspective?

Rebecca: I’ve been fortunate this semester to also have a TA which I don’t generally have for my classes. That has actually helped a lot, to get that student feedback. I’m getting her feedback on her perceptions of what’s happening and what she thinks might work based on her own experiences as a student in other classes. But also, the student voice is getting filtered to me from her because they feel comfortable talking to her. And so although I don’t generally use a TA in my classes, I found it really important to do it as I was transitioning to teaching online, because I hadn’t taught online before. And it’s been really powerful. She’s helped me think a little bit about what to do next semester, based on what this semester was like. She co-created some of our assignments and activities that we’ve been doing, and it was really important to the design of the experience to have her perspective. And, I think, maybe I didn’t even realize that as much until we were just talking with you right now, Theresa, like how much that actually was really valuable to the students this semester. Because, she’s acted as a sounding board. Even over the summer I ran a few things by her before the semester even started.

Theresa: So, that’s good. Remember too, though, this has to be a two-way street. Because if you get a bunch of students, you can ask for all the student perspectives that you want. But if the professors are not listening and responding, it’s screaming into the void. And you can get me, you can get all the freshmen, you can get the seniors, you can get the grad students, you can get anyone you want. And if we’re screaming into the void, then that doesn’t really produce any kind of results. And I think that they’re kind of multiple problems here. Like I mentioned, the problem with convincing students to speak up to begin with, getting faculty who maybe are less inclined to listen to actually listen and pay attention and follow through, and making sure that the students actually feel like they’ve been heard. And that, even if something doesn’t happen immediately, that something is happening behind the scenes, because I think sometimes they can say something and then nothing happens. And then they go, “Oh, you’re asking me for my opinion again? Well, the last time I gave you my opinion, nothing happened. So, why am I going to bother this time?” So yes, it’s important to focus on that one end of how do I get the students to share their feelings and their thoughts, but there’s also how do we get the faculty and administration to respond in a way that encourages that to continue.

Jessamyn: And here’s another problem. In this context of meaningful student feedback, we have a serious issue in academia getting meaningful student feedback, just from our own individual classes. Even during the before times, the student evaluations of teaching are deeply flawed. They’re often administered very poorly. And every faculty member has a horror story about student evaluations of teaching. They’ve got some incredibly mean, miserable, sexist, racist, homophobic, derogatory, hurtful, demeaning comments, and they will remember them forever. And, for many faculty, that’s the only experience they’ve had with directly soliciting student feedback. And it’s terrible. It’s the worst possible place to start. And it’s not good for students, either. It’s often presented in a way that they don’t understand what they’re being used for. If it’s the first time they’ve been asked for their opinion, they’re going to feel, just like Theresa said, “What’s the point?” They don’t know how it’s used in evaluations. So, in this already really pretty toxic way, we have established… because like Theresa said, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” And then to try to wrestle us out of that and have a more meaningful student voice and student perspective in faculty development. I think, like Theresa said, that the problems are multiple. The challenges are many layered.

Theresa: And with those kinds of evaluations, I think, that also gets back to the point of students don’t know where a problem is coming from, they might know that there’s a problem, or they perceive that as a problem, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. So, something that’s actually an administrative problem gets taken out on the faculty. The racism and sexism, that’s obviously a problem with the student. We know where that problem is coming from. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with, but it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of one individual professor to deal with that. So, just to be clear, I think that’s completely inappropriate of the students and they should not be doing that. [LAUGHTER] But, consider it, too, from the student side, the side of the non-racist and non-sexist students [LAUGHTER] who are angry about something legit, but they don’t know who to direct it at. They don’t know how to direct it…

Jessamyn: Yes.

Theresa: …because they’ve never had the chance to speak before.

Jessamyn: That’s right.

Theresa: I was thinking, even for myself, I have some feedback I really want to give to a professor of mine right now. But I’m kind of sitting here going, “What’s the point? I’m sure this person has tenure and isn’t really going to pay attention. I’m sure that this is how this has been taught forever. Why am I gonna do this?” And it’s a really harmless thing that I’m talking about. And I know that it’s a professor thing, not an administration thing. And I’m obviously not going to go out there and be horrible to this person, because I’m not the kind of person and there’s no need for it. But I’m literally sitting here going, “I want to give you feedback on this part of how the class is taught, but why should I? …because I don’t think that anything is going to happen if I do.” And a lot of times too, remember, there are situations, of course, where students have the same Professor over and over again. But that doesn’t happen all the time. So, very often we give feedback, and we never see if anything comes of it, because we never see that person again. So we have no idea if anything comes of it. So again, it’s that screaming into the void. Why should I bother?

Rebecca: That’s actually one of the challenges of anonymous feedback…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …to some extent, is like not being able to have the two-way communication or having a dialogue about something. It’s kind of a one-way scream one way or another, but maybe listened to or not. But, being able to have a dialogue can be really rich and helpful and you can ask follow up questions about like, “What do you mean by that?” or “Have you had an experience somewhere else where it’s worked better? Can you tell me about that?” I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of those experiences of being able to have the dialogue version of that. And it’s so powerful and so helpful, and it helps everybody. It helps the students, because then we can immediately act. It helps the faculty long term. But, I think that’s going to work the best in the situation where the faculty’s open to feedback and sets up a situation where it’s known that feedback will be used. You’re telling students how that feedbacks going to be used, you’re validating the student voice, and then also providing that feedback… like why you might not have done something even though that suggestion was made or whatever. And from my experience, students respond really well when you have that dialogue piece.

Theresa: Absolutely. But it’s something that has to happen from day one of the class.

Jessamyn: And all these nuances are just making me think about how it’s even more challenging right now. So everything is harder now, period. Every single thing is harder now. But when emotions are running high, and we want to lash out, because the world’s on fire, and we’re angry, and we’re disempowered, which is everybody to some extent, and more for some groups than others. And into this, like boiling of emotions, we’re gonna add a complicated dynamic. It’s hard.

John: One of the things we’ve always recommended to faculty is that they request student feedback periodically, either with a form or with open discussions. But one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of people, as they move into new modalities of teaching, have been doing that fairly regularly. Some people do it every class period, asking what’s working, what’s not working, and many people are doing it every week in some way. So, I hope that’s a practice that will continue once we move past the current crisis, as faculty become more used to inviting feedback. And it is important that faculty respond to it. So, just collecting the feedback doesn’t do much if the students don’t see any sort of response. But, if faculty would respond to it, and sometimes it might be by saying, “Well, I understand why you would like this change, but here’s why I don’t think we can do that at this time.” But, at least having that dialogue, whether it’s anonymous or not, at least they’re responding to the voices that they’re hearing and letting people know that their voices are valued and taken into account.

Rebecca: …and not responding in the moment, not being able to take action in the moment is still reasonable. It is a pandemic, it is really difficult to shift gears right now. And if it’s something that’s just too big to change, maybe it does need to wait until next semester, but communicating that like “Hey, I have my barriers, too.” I found that students are really responsive to that. They recognize we’re humans, if you actually admit that you’re a human.

Theresa: Yeah.

John: …if you act like one.

Theresa: Exactly, yeah. And it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t know our outside lives, but we don’t know yours. We only know what you share with us. And like Rebecca was saying, the more human you seem to us, the more likely you are to get feedback, the more likely you are to get useful feedback, I think, and the more likely you are to actually be able to develop that dialogue with your students that will actually result in something fruitful and good, and not just a bunch of pent up complaining at the end of the term. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yes, exactly. Yeah, that humanizing element is so key to online learning. That’s Michelle Pacansky-Brock talks about humanizing online learning so important. And Flower Darby talks about the online teacher presence. But, it’s also face to face, it’s the whole undertaking of teaching and learning. Communication is so key. And as it’s sort of my shtick here, I mean, there’s a lot of nerdy academic brainiacs who just don’t communicate very well, who may be trying something to cope with this unprecedented time with all the best intentions. But, if it’s not communicated clearly to students, they’re not going to get it, and it’s not going to be effective. So, the clear communication part seems even more important. Theresa mentioned our ability to be flexible, and to really focus in on the key student learning outcomes. What is it we actually want students to be able to do at the end of the class? And really focusing on that, and how can we humanize those and be as flexible as possible? And I think this conversation is making me think too, about just how important the communication part is. Like I had a student tell me she was having trouble connecting with a professor. And I said, “Okay, so you emailed her, she didn’t answer the email.” We have Zoom class. Like, okay, so when you go early… this student always arrives early… is the professor there? She’s like, “Yes, but she doesn’t have the volume on or she’s won’t talk to me or something.” That’s one thing about teleconferencing. your face is right there. How can you not try to communicate with a student when you’re staring into each other’s eyes like, why? It’s that ability to communicate, and just to build that rapport and those connections, and it’s hard right now, because everything’s harder.

Theresa: One thing I was really grateful for in the spring, ironically enough, is that we actually did have those few weeks of in-person learning before we went online because I actually knew my professors, and I knew them as people. Like, I didn’t know every detail about their lives, of course, but I knew them as human beings who stood in front of my classroom and had a presence and had mannerisms and I knew how they acted and I kind of guessed how they would react to certain things. And I think that without that experience, it would have been a lot harder and a lot more miserable really, to go online with so little notice,

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m noticing from this conversation, and the last few conversations we’ve had on Tea for Teaching is how much communication and relationship building is important to learning. It’s so important to underscore that those two things are key to learning and reducing stress. Those are all really fundamental to learning. And we focused a lot on technology as we’ve shifted more to online pieces of teaching. But those elements are important, regardless if there’s technology involved. And it really gets back to that foundation of things that we need to be thinking about as teachers.

Jessamyn: And it does not have to be a touchy feely, squishy, non rigorous way of connecting. I think one reason Theresa and I work so well together is neither of us is a touchy feely, squishy person. We are not warm and fuzzy at all. But we’ve established a good rapport around our subject, around the intellectual exploration, and now more around teaching and learning. So, you can be yourself, you don’t have to transform into the motherly, fatherly, grandfatherly professor that everybody loves, and you just want to be around, or the professor who, once we’re post OVID is always hugging their students, you don’t have to do all that.

Theresa: Please don’t hug your students. [LAUGHTER] Not without explicit consent, at least. Oh my gosh.

Jessamyn: But, that connection, and that communication, and those productive professional working relationships are so, so key.

Rebecca: So I think we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Theresa: Well, what’s next for me is making it through the rest of the week. Yeah, I have one more class tomorrow. And I have an exam this week. But it’s a pretty easy exam, so I’m not too concerned. In my immediate future, in the spring, I did actually manage to get an entirely online slate of classes, which is important for me, because I’m one of those people who really shouldn’t be around people right now. And I’m not talking emotionally, I’m totally talking in terms of my physical health. And the fact that if I get COVID, it’s not going to go well, for me, so I was going to say I’m looking forward… but I’m looking towards that. [LAUGHTER] And it remains to be seen if I’m looking forward or kind of feeling trepidatious, or what’s gonna happen with that? Yeah, so I guess in the immediate future it’s just kind of plugging along and doing the best I can and making the best of this really horrifying situation.

Jessamyn: I’m not sure I can better that particular goal. But, I’ll say that scholarship wise, I’m currently editing an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women and underrepresented faculty. I’ve got the working table of contents. And the contributors are working on their revisions, and it’s going to be a fantastic collection. It’s the most practical, yet inspiring, collection of articles I’ve read about teaching and learning all in one place. So I’m really excited about that. I’m going to be the Interim Director next semester. So I’ll continue working with the teaching center. And we’re doing a book group with the SUNY Oswego Teaching and Learning Center, hosts of this fine podcast, and I’ll be doing some other programming as well.

Rebecca: Thank you both for your insights and sharing your experiences, and we’re definitely looking forward to your new book, Jessamyn,

John: When is it coming out? Do you have a timetable on its arrival?

Jessamyn: I don’t have a publication date yet. And I am keeping the deadline to get it to the publishers top secret so I can make sure all my contributors get their revisions done on time.

John: Excellent.

Jessamyn: But, hopefully, I would say 2021, I think late in 2021, or very early 2022.

Rebecca: Excellent. Good luck for the rest of the semester, Theresa. You can do it. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Thank you. We’re gonna try.

John: Well, thank you. Thanks for joining us. And this was a great discussion. And I think all of us should spend more time listening to students and having a dialogue with students about what’s working and what’s not… all the time, but especially in these times.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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162. Bichronous Learning

When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components. Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, we discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Glad to be back.

John: It’s great to have you here again. It’s been a while.

Jessica: It has. I’m so excited to be back and drinking tea with the both of you.

John: Speaking of tea, today’s teas are:

Jessica: I’m enjoying green tea with ginseng.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Big Red Sun again.
Bichronous online learning, which you experimented with this past semester. Could you first start by describing what bichronous online learning is?

Jessica: Yes, there was a recent paper, it really put a name to this type of learning. And it is basically a blend of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning. This is where students can participate in anytime, anywhere, and doing that asynchronous part of the course. But then they can also participate in real-time activities in the synchronous sessions. And so this actually can be varied, whether you have a predominantly asynchronous or predominantly synchronous course. So, it allows some flexibility.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how bichronous learning is different from blended, hybrid or hyflex learning that we’ve become so familiar with during COVID-19.

Jessica: There are many terms that are being used for the types of modalities of courses. The blended and hybrid approach, this is where that course in combination has a face-to-face and an asynchronous online delivery. And then that blended synchronous is a combination of face-to-face and synchronous components with online students in the course. And then of course, there’s hyflex, and this is designed as a model where students have options to be online or on-campus. And so this is a little bit different than all of these types, because it’s blending synchronous and asynchronous, but both online. And the neat part about this is that blend could

John: One thing I think people may wonder is, how is this different than a hybrid course where there are some synchronous activities and some asynchronous activities? What’s the difference in the approach that makes it this new category?

Jessica: I think it’s the approach because it’s not and/or it’s kind of this sliding scale of what you’re doing synchronously versus asynchronously. Traditionally hybrid and blended have been face to face, whereas this is focused more online. And maybe we’re splitting hairs creating a new term for it. But I think it does kind of create this new category that we can begin to think about and further explore. Is this model conducive to specific learners? We don’t know. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to begin researching and exploring these differences.

John: And this whole mode of synchronous online is really something that just exploded recently. That’s an area that we really haven’t looked at very much in the past, or most faculty hadn’t really explored very much in the past, that, for many, has become the dominant mode of instruction. So, thinking about it in this way, I think, could be really helpful. What would be an example of a structure that would use that approach,

Jessica: The bichronous approach? Let me tell you a little bit about my courses. Thi semester, I’m teaching a variety of courses in a variety of different levels. And I accidentally stumbled on doing this because it felt right. I really didn’t want my students to be all asynchronous. I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to be able to have time to ask questions, and for us to do some active learning online. And so how I decided to format my course was that students would have asynchronous components to where they would go through some videos, some readings, but once a week, they would come and join a 30-minute class session. During that class session, there’s a short intro talking about what they’re exploring this week. We also discuss a little bit about the assessments and the upcoming assessments, we answer any questions, and then we move right into active learning. And that’s where they get put into breakout rooms, they get to talk to each other, work on problems, think about solutions. We come back together, debrief for a short period of time, and we’re done. The neat part about that is, because my classes tend to be larger, I offer choice in the section in which they come to. So, students can choose to come to one of two sessions that are offered on that day. And those sessions are actually offered within the class time that’s listed in the course schedule. So, let’s say you’re busy, you have to work that day, or something else came up. I also offer an alternative assessment each week. So whether you’re Zoomed out, or you got called into work, you can still earn those participation points. This allows for flexibility and choice for the students.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the advantages of bichronous online learning and how that synchronous component complements the asynchronous component for students?

Jessica: I think it’s so nice to be able to get to talk to students, especially in this virtual environment. And sometimes it’s as simple as clarifying what you wrote in text. And so a lot of times when we start off class, there’s minor questions about the upcoming assessment such as, “What did you mean by this part of this assignment?” And I can easily clarify that and give some examples. Also, by whatever questions students are asking, I can kind of tailor our synchronous sessions so that we can talk through some of those challenging concepts. I think it also brings together a community. Students get to talk with other students. They’re all going through the same struggles right now, or similar struggles. And so having that time where they get to go into breakout rooms, talk about a topic, say something about their day, I think it really creates that community that we’re looking for online. And hey, when I go to the breakout rooms and say, ‘Hello,” they almost always have their cameras on for each other, which I think is a pretty cool thing.

Rebecca: I think Jessica, I was mentioning before we started recording that I’m also doing the bichronous online learning, I just didn’t know it had a name. And I’m finding that students really enjoy that synchronous time, and they request more time with each other. That’s the piece of it that they really love, is interacting and formulating community with each other and around the topic of the class.

Jessica: And I think that’s so important, especially as we’re all isolated due to COVID, that they have that time to talk out these assignments or to talk through these problems. And yeah, just as you said, the students always want more time. The 30 minutes doesn’t seem to be enough for them.

John: Did students know in advance when they signed up for the course that they would be synchronous meetings, as well as the asynchronous component.

Jessica: The course was actually listed in the course catalog as recorded and live sessions. And so at the beginning, they were actually pretty happy that they didn’t have to come for an hour and 15 minutes twice a week. Instead, they got to come for a shorter period of time and earn those same points and get that same information.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that my class also was listed that it was a synchronous time slot, it was listed as a hybrid. But it really was more of an online synchronous class with these synchronous components. And because I teach a studio class, the normal contact hours are six hours a week, which I couldn’t imagine us doing. It would be terrible. So we did the same thing. We were always meeting at the beginning of the week. And then I do small group meetings with students at other times during our regular class time during the week, and students have requested more time together, even if it’s just… we call it accountability club, where they’re just working during the class time on class things in a breakout room together, even if they’re not talking to each other.

Jessica: I love that idea. That sounds like a great way to get students to interact even outside of the typical class time.

John: It sounds as if these courses could be set up on a continuum where some of them are primarily synchronous with some asynchronous components. Or they could be primarily asynchronous with some optional or flexible, synchronous components. Is that correct?

Jessica: You know, that’s a great way to look at it. I’ve had a really nice conversation with some of my colleagues who have put so much time and effort into putting their courses online and making them quality, that they’re really kind of sad to see that in the future, hopefully, we’ll get to come back together and be in person, but you really don’t want all that effort and content to go to waste. So thinking about it as providing some extra flexibility might be a nice way to rationalize all that time that we’ve all put into our courses,

John: Like so many other things. It’s not necessarily a binary choice, that there’s a whole continuum on which people can select an option that works best for their specific courses.

Jessica: Yeah, and I think that is really what’s at the core of this model, is that it is really something that can flow one way or another. And I’m even thinking in the future, how can we continue to bolster this or give students more choice when it comes to their learning? We know that the choice is really important. And I think this way of kind of creating courses could be a way of the future.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if the synchronous component is particularly valuable in these online courses for students right now because it does provide that immediacy with one another but also instructor presence. So, we all actually feel like “Hey, there are humans behind the name and things that are in this online environment” …and help us formulate an understanding that we are all a learning community and a classroom community in a way that maybe is more difficult to get your head around in something that’s entirely asynchronous.

Jessica: I think that’s a good point. And I don’t require my students to turn on their cameras when we’re in person, but I do think they get a sense of who I am, and more than they would in just videos. We can have a conversation. And there’s some times I’m asking them to put information in the Zoom chat or reply. But, as I’ve gone through these courses, I’ve noticed more students are willing to unmute and talk out loud, even in these big courses. And that shows me that they’re beginning to be more comfortable not only with their peers, but with me and how I run these courses, which I think is a really good sign that we can create that community, even online.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the specific courses you’re teaching and the size of the courses as well as a little bit more about the division of your activities between what you do synchronously and what you do in an asynchronous modality?

Jessica: Sure. So I, ironically, teach a course called stress and population health. And this is a very salient topic nowadays, as you can imagine. This is an undergraduate course, and I have 125 students within it. During a typical week, I will have readings posted in our learning management system. I like to do a few videos, and I have the luxury of being able to be in front of a green screen for some of those videos. So, students do get a little bit of who I am and the wacky things I do while I’m giving them some lecture material. Along with that there’s some outside information that I like to pull in, whether it’s current news articles, or whatnot. But they have a substantial portion of what they’re doing that is basically asynchronous. When they come during our synchronous session, we start off with “How are you?” I usually have a wacky sort of “how are you?” question that’s themed around whatever the holidays are. I had them rate their mood based on candy and other silly scales, just to kind of have an icebreaker. And then, as we talk a little bit about the content, we then do some breakout sessions. So, today, we were talking about a new report that came out about stress in America. So, they had to look through this report and begin to talk about how this report relates to community stress and how we would assess the stress levels of what’s happening within various communities using some kind of higher level data versus that individual self assessment. And so they’re really applying the content when we’re together. And my other course I teach is a 88-person course… I know, real small. And this class is on models and methods in public health. And so, again, they have videos and readings to go through. In that course, we actually create an OER textbook, which is a fun activity. But, when we come together, we’re applying the models, they’re working together as a team to fit different problems, almost case studies together, or they’re doing something like a scavenger hunt. I’ve even done something like Kahoot!, which has been a lot of fun and students are now requesting we have more Kahoots! It does work virtually, which is kind of neat, except I can’t give them the prizes that I typically would in class. My last course that I teach is a 40-person course on incarceration and public health. And this class is a little bit different because we have more discussion. So, when we’re together, it is purely discussion based. And students do a really good job at interacting with each other. And so sometimes we stay together, sometimes we break into groups, where my TA is helping to run some of the discussion. But, that one works a little bit differently than my two larger courses, and it’s an upper-level course. So, I feel like we can really get into the meat of the conversation.

John: You mentioned that you do provide multiple times. And a nice thing about the Kahoot! is that, while they may have fun doing it synchronously, there’s also the option of posting it online so students could try it later if they weren’t able to attend one of the synchronous sessions. I’ve been doing that in my classes too, and students have really enjoyed it.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s a great way to fit in the alternative assessment or assignment that, if you miss class and aren’t there to hear some of the explanations on Kahoot!, I end up having students actually look up the correct answers and telling me why, as a way to have a little bit of deeper learning with that game.

Rebecca: How have students responded to the format overall?

Jessica: Oh, they absolutely love it. In kind of a midterm assessment that I put out, I asked about how do you like this model, and they said, “It’s great. I love that I can come in 30 minutes. We’re in, we’re out, we’re done.” But it’s also I think, created more of a connection, I have students reaching out asking for advice on “What do I do? Should I go to grad school? How do I do some of these life skills?” …and that shows me that they are making that connection to me as a faculty member, which is exactly what we want in these courses, especially these larger courses. And students will tell you, “I have courses where I sit through hour lectures, and it’s really hard for me to stay focused,” whereas in this, they’re continually doing something new, and they’re doing it in a short amount of time that has ultimately a high impact, because they’re getting their questions answered, they’re doing some active learning, they’re working together, and they’re getting to form a relationship with their instructor,

John: What are some limitations of bichronous learning, compared to, say, a fully online class?

Jessica: I think it takes some time to think about what activities you want to do live. With a totally asynchronous class, I think some of the alignment with the course objectives and the assessments become a little bit easier, because you have your roadmap, you know that this discussion board is going to align with this objective. Whereas this, it can be a little challenging to figure out: one, how to stay creative. You don’t want every session to be boring or the same sort of thing. Also, from an instructor standpoint, I’m repeating the same class. And in the model, it doesn’t mean that you have to repeat the same class. I do that personally, because I want smaller groups. And so, some days, it’s like Groundhog Day, when I’m doing the same class back to back. But, you know what? The second time, it’s always better. So, [LAUGHTER] it’s a good way to continually improve my teaching, and really reflect on how I’m displaying information or teaching the content.

Rebecca: If a faculty member was interested in incorporating something like this in the spring, what should their next steps be? It sounds like one thing is making sure that there’s some sort of time slot established for the class. But, beyond that, what else should they be thinking about?

Jessica: Yeah, I think the university modality’s important, making sure you’re transparent with your students about what they’ve signed up for. It’s never fun to find out that you signed up for a class and it’s going to be presented in a little bit of a different way. Second, I think it’s really figuring out what works best for you and your content. So, what content is going to be asynchronous? What content is going to be synchronous? And how are you going to establish some sort of rhythm or schedule for your students? And is this going to be… you only come one time once a week and you only have that choice? Or no choice in this case? Or are you going to make it with some choice? Are you going to offer multiple sessions? Are you comfortable with offering an alternative assignment for students? The reason why I came up with the alternative assessment is because I have students who are in different countries in different time zones, along with people in the active duty military, and they’re not always able to make it to the synchronous session. So I wanted to give them an opportunity to make up those points and to make it fair for students who… life happens. And the nice part about it is, it actually reduced my time in working through students’ challenges such as Internet outages. One day, we had a huge outage in Buffalo… well, you know, no problem… join the next day’s session, and you’re good to go, or do the alternative assessment. And so figuring out what your teaching philosophy is around the flexibility and choice, I think is kind of that next step, and then go for it. It’s a lot of fun to really get to meet and talk with your students so that you can explore this new way of teaching and engage your students in a different way.

John: For those students who, because of their work schedules need to take courses in an asynchronous manner, might this modality serve as a deterrent for those students?

Jessica: Most definitely, I think students who sign up for an asynchronous course are expecting an asynchronous course, I think this is just a different way to think about our delivery model, whether that be having the option of that synchronous session, or moving to a bichronous model to where you’re kind of in between the two and allowing some flexibility and some choice for the students. Or maybe it’s just a way for you to try something a little bit different each week, whether it’s one day synchronous, and the next day asynchronous. I think testing out these different models are important as we’re moving through this new online world.

John: We always end by asking what’s next? Which is the question we’re always t hinking about this year?

Jessica: That’s for sure. I’m interested in actually doing some research on students’ perception of this modality of learning. It’s so new that I think we need to begin by understanding what do students think about it and does it affect their overall performance in a course? And, from an instructor standpoint, what is it like at the end? We’re still figuring this all out. There is some research that’s being planned around asking faculty about how they’re rationalizing or thinking about this topic. Rebecca, you and I both are teaching this way. But, I’m sure it looks very different from both of our standpoints. And so I’m really excited to see where this research goes and hoping to be part of it.

John: It’s wonderful talking to you again, and we’re looking forward to having you back on the podcast again, with whatever your next venture is. I should also note, you mentioned that you have been doing this OER project. We have a podcast we recorded with you on your first iteration of that, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Jessica: Excellent. I’ll also share our newly published paper on some of the results around that.

Rebecca: Excellent. That sounds exciting. Thanks so much for sharing a new way of thinking about the spring. Hopefully it sparks some ideas for faculty as they move into what’s probably going to be another tough semester,

Jessica: That’s for sure. Hang in there, everyone.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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