Faculty new to online instruction often attempt to replicate their face-to-face learning activities in the online environment, only to discover that they don’t work as well in this modality. In this episode, Alexandra Pickett joins us to discuss evidence on effective online teaching practices, gathered from a quarter century of experience in a large public university system. Alex is the SUNY Online Director of Online Teaching and an Adjunct Professor in the Education Department at SUNY Albany. Previously, she was the Director of the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching and prior to that the Associate Director of the SUNY Learning Network for over 12 years, and has directly supported and coordinated the professional development of over 5000 online SUNY Online faculty.
- SUNY Online
- Pickett, Alexandra (2010) A Series of Unfortunate Online Events and How to Avoid Them.
- Simunich, B., Robins, D. B., & Kelly, V. (2015). The impact of findability on student motivation, self-efficacy, and perceptions of online course quality. American Journal of Distance Education, 29(3), 174-185. (the Kent State study that Alex referenced).
- The Twitter thread that Alex referenced
- Designing equitable, inclusive, accessible online teaching environments
- Self-serve/Self-paced openly licensed tools and resources including Bb templates to quick start effective course designs for various modes of Remote Online Teaching
- Online Course Design Resources
- Discipline Specific Resources
- SUNY Online Teaching video series:
- Effective Practice video series
- Advanced Topics in Online Learning
- Faculty Questions
- Topics and Ideas for New Online Faculty
- Topics and Recommendations for Experienced Online Faculty
- Topics for Online Instructional Designers
- Topics for Online Learning Administrators
- Assessment of Learning
- Full set of playlists
- Interested in Teaching Online?
- Ready to Teach Online?
- Checklist for Remote Teaching
- List of icebreaking activities
John: Faculty new to online instruction often attempt to replicate their face-to-face learning activities in the online environment, only to discover that they don’t work as well in this modality. In this episode, we examine evidence on effective online teaching practices, gathered from a quarter century of experience in a large public university system.
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.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Alexandra Pickett. Alexandra is the SUNY Online Director of Online Teaching and an Adjunct Professor in the Education Department at SUNY Albany. Previously, she was the Director of the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching and prior to that the Associate Director of the SUNY Learning Network for over 12 years, and has directly supported and coordinated the professional development of over 5000 online SUNY Online faculty. Welcome, Alex.
Alex: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
John: We’re happy to have you here.
Alex: It’s so cool to be able to sit here and talk with you both and I’m just really excited to be here.
John: Our teas today are:
Alex: I drink only Darjeeling tea… organic, of course. It’s the most delicious tea. I just can’t drink anything else. That’s what I drink.
Rebecca: I have my very last cup of Scottish afternoon tea. All gone. Last one.
John: And I am drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.
Alex: Wow, that looks interesting.
John: It really is.
Alex: Does it have caffeine in it?
John: It does. It’s a standard black tea with a really wonderful blackcurrant flavor, and it’s in this nice little silk pyramid-shaped object with a little wire leaf at the end.
Rebecca: It’s nice and light too. It’s a good summer tea.
Alex: Well, I used to use tea as my sugar and cream delivery system. [LAUGHTER] But, I have, over the last year and a half or so, cut sugar out and so I still use it as a cream delivery system. But, I just love my Darjeeling tea… at night… I usually have that at night.
John: Yeah, I’ve been using a lot of black teas in the mornings and early afternoons and then switching to green tea and herbal teas later in the day, with a lot of iced tea on the warmer days.
Alex: So, that’s never bothered me… the whole caffeine thing. Like I could drink whatever caffeine right before I go to bed and not a problem. My husband I’m not sure he agrees with that, because he thinks I stay up too late. [LAUGHTER] But, I don’t feel a problem.
John: You’ve been involved in online education for as long as I’ve known you. I think the first time I met you was at one of the Sloan-C conferences in Washington back in the mid- to late-1990s, when I was first getting involved and you were already working with the SUNY SLN network. So, what are some of the major lessons that we’ve learned since the early days of online instruction?
Alex: I was the first Online Instructional Designer in SUNY starting back in 1994, and have been working in this space for that entire time. We’ve learned a lot over the last 25 years, or whatever it is. I think when we first started, we were in a period of time of research and development and thinking about what works. We then spent some time thinking about: Will it scale? How do we scale it? and synthesizing our models and our processes: the procedures, infrastructure, support services, thinking about all those things. We then had a period of time where we were kind of in full-scale production, and this is SUNY Learning Network that I’m talking about, and then somewhere around 2006 to 2009 we really were in a process of transition and migration from our homegrown learning management system to ANGEL. And then right when we finished our migration with ANGEL, Blackboard bought ANGEL, and so we immediately started another migration. And so we have had these different phases of proof of concept to scalability to institutionalization to today where we are, which is continued evolution and scale. We have continued to grow and to learn and to scale over the many years that we’ve been doing it and we went from the SUNY Learning Network to Open SUNY and now from Open SUNY to SUNY Online. And at each of those evolutionary stages, we have shifted in either technology or focus or thinking or certain initiatives. And so today, the transition has to do with scale… and though by many measures, one would say that the SUNY Learning Network was large. At one point, we were one of the three largest online asynchronous learning networks in the country, and Open SUNY certainly continued that scaling trend. But the scale today that we’re talking about has to do with really focusing in on online degree programs that are specifically identified to support the needs of New York State and the needs of adult learners in the workforce and to increase the ability to serve larger and larger numbers of students.
So, things we’ve learned… I think, over the years, we focused on things like the models that we used, and learned a lot of lessons about having peer trainers and having interdisciplinary cohorts of people, and using our experienced faculty to help and mentor our novice faculty, we interspersed face-to-face training and online training and mentoring and one-on-one work with instructional designers. We integrated and developed templates to quick start online faculty into really effective research-based course environments so that they could just focus on their discipline in their content rather than the wrapper. We implemented courses for observation, which helped novice faculty actually see and visualize what an online course could look like. And we then began, as the numbers increased of existing experienced online faculty, we started to devote energy and efforts and professional development towards the growing group of experienced online faculty. So, support was another thing that we developed and have learned how to do better over time, and really focusing on supporting the instructor, supporting their course, supporting instructional designers, which was not a role that existed back in 1994. That’s evolved over time. I mentioned courses, faculty, IDs, and students, obviously. So, that has changed and evolved and grown over time. In terms of our approaches, we’ve learned a lot of things, and shifted that as we have done scholarly work to understand how people can teach and learn well online. Having access to large groups of faculty and large groups of students, we’ve been in a unique position in the SUNY system to really use it as an organic petri dish of research to continuously observe, to continuously apply interventions, and study the effects of those, and then to learn from those, and feed our learnings back into this sort of organic process that we have. And then, of course, we’ve always had a focus on quality to inform and influence course quality and developing things that allow us to better do that, I guess I’d say. We build into the processes, into the models, opportunities to integrate research and our lessons learned to extract information from students and from faculty and to build in time for faculty to reflect on their own experiences so that they can then infuse those lessons learned into their own ongoing course design, and their evolving pedagogical practices.
Rebecca: What are some of the most important things for faculty to do in online courses? You have such a rich history of experience, what advice that you have for faculty moving online?
Alex: Somebody just reminded me the other day of this paper that I wrote and did some presentations, and I can’t remember when it was, but it was quite a while ago, and it was called “A Series of Unfortunate Online Events and How to Avoid Them.” And it was all written in sort of the style of that story, A Series of Unfortunate Events. So, I had things like the “atrocious assumption” and the “bad beginning” and the “purloined pearls” and the “dreadful design” and all kinds of… [LAUGHTER] the “dilatory dawdler…” it was hilarious. All of these were tongue-in-cheek in terms of the style that it was written, but all trying to focus on things that faculty either should do or shouldn’t do. And all of this, I have to say, I learned directly from faculty themselves, from looking at their course designs, from looking at what students reported and said about their experiences in online courses. And because we started doing research pretty much right from the first day, we have a tremendous bird’s eye view over thousands of courses and hundreds of thousands of students to really see some trends. And so, one of the first things that we learned was the quantity and quality of interaction with the instructor is the thing that influences student satisfaction and learning the most. And so anything that you can do to improve the student’s perception of interaction with the instructor is gonna help that particular finding. it’s going to support that particular finding. And so one of the first things that I did in our template was to add a simple discussion forum labeled “Ask a Question.” And in that “Ask a Question” discussion, the expectation is that students will be able to ask any question that they have, and the instructor would monitor that area and answer it in one place. Because if one student has the question, it’s likely others have it and then over time that evolved to our understanding of teaching presence that extends out to students, and it allowed for students to express their teaching presence, so that they could help each other out, because the second most significant effect on student learning and satisfaction is the quantity and quality of interaction between students. So, the first one with the highest impact is between the student and the instructor and the second one is between the students. So, by having students help each other out in the “Ask a Question” discussion forum, they were able to support each other, express their teaching presence, and attend to that particular finding as well. It’s a simple discussion forum just labeled “Ask a Question” that meets those needs. And that is underpinned by the research that we did. The other thing that I added to the template was an “Ask the Professor” question area. So, it’s distinct, between the straight up “Ask a question” where the students interact with each other, or the expectation is that they can and will, and this is when a student wants to hear specifically from the instructor. And so, this supports that interaction between student and instructor. Interaction, I think, is one of those things that instructors need to pay particular attention to, it’s particularly important.
Another is, for example, setting expectations very explicitly and very clearly. I think that sometimes for novice faculty, they underestimate, because they’re so used to being in the classroom where someone can just ask a question, it can be quickly answered. In the online environment, the only thing that the student has is whatever you have actually typed out or recorded and put into your course. And so any sort of question that they have, you sort of have to anticipate what questions students are going to have, and then respond to it somehow in the design of your course and have it be findable. One of the things that we found, and that there is research to support, is that findability is an incredible predictor of satisfaction or of not satisfaction in an online course. So, if a student has to spend a lot of clicks, and a lot of time… and by a lot of time we don’t mean like an hour, right? [LAUGHTER] Like it’s just really having trouble finding the piece of information that they need in that moment. When they have that experience, their satisfaction goes down. Actually, in this particular study by Kent State on findability, they found that the student’s perception of the course was not only lower, but they also had a perception of the instructor as not being qualified to teach the course when they couldn’t find something. So, setting expectations for the course, and making sure that those are in a very visible place… not like buried somewhere in the syllabus… but in a very visible place that is easily findable by the student. So, things like how to contact the instructor, how they’re going to be assessed, what types of activities are going to be required, what the percentages of how they’re going to be evaluated, those kinds of things. They want to be able to find those things very easily. And while all instructors no doubt have those in their syllabus, it’s important, how it’s communicated, and where, and that it be easily findable for the students, I think the main areas that online instructors need to think about are how they’re going to present content effectively and efficiently, how they’re going to facilitate interaction and collaboration between students, with the students, with the content, and how they’re going to provide feedback and authentically assess the students. What kinds of activities they are going to design and how they’re going to facilitate the feedback and the assessment of those activities and really understanding that they need to pay attention to. And in some ways, this notion of backwards design is critical for faculty so that they can really understand: What are the objectives of the course? What are the activities that they’re designing that are targeting specific objectives? What’s the content that’s necessary for that? And then how are they going to assess and give feedback on those specific objectives? And that formula is a magic formula for an online course because it immediately helps faculty understand how much content they need. That’s a question novice faculty always have. Without this kind of a formula, faculty will end up creating a course and a half. So they put everything and the kitchen sink into the course because they don’t want their students to miss anything and they know a lot about their discipline. And so they want to make sure that everything is in there. And then they also, because they don’t really know how to judge the amount of work that the students should do, they end up having a course and a half so the students become overwhelmed and it could potentially be very disorganized. And so that backwards design really is a magic formula to help faculty really hone in on what the specific content is that’s necessary, what the interactions need to be in order to address those objectives, and then what specific feedback or assessment they’re going to be doing in order to address those.
Rebecca: Alex, based on your experience, where do students struggle if they’ve never had an asynchronous experience before? Obviously, you’ve hinted at things that faculty can do to make that online experience better. But, if you’re not used to controlling your own destiny, in an asynchronous environment, what are some things that students really need support in, that we don’t always think about?
Alex: There are definitely behaviors that successful online students have either intrinsically or are able to adopt. They need to really understand how to set goals for themselves and how to plan. And so students who are not good at that are going to struggle. They need to have some kind of approach to organizing their study materials and their work. They need to have a stable, structured environment in which to work. And it’s not like they have to have like an office…that’s not really what I’m saying… just that they have to have a sense that when they go to school, online, when they go to class, that they’re in a setting where they’re comfortable, where they have what they need, where they can have access to the stuff that they need in order to not be struggling. They need to be willing to ask for help, which is not always something that students know or… there’s this wonderful thread this week from a first-generation student in Twitter, talking about all the things that she didn’t know or didn’t understand that was assumed that she did. And asking for help was one of them. And in some cases, they don’t know that the help is available. In other cases, they are self conscious about asking for help and appearing stupid or deficient in some way. And so I think successful online students are willing to put themselves out there to ask for help when they need it, and they also are aware of where the different help sources are, and how to approach them. And assumptions that faculty might make are that students already know this or should know this. So, I think it’s kind of like faculty can support student success and students need to understand what helps them be more successful. I think being able to self monitor… like checking the gradebook, for example, checking how they’re doing in terms of the progress of the course, with the deadlines of the course… simple strategies like not typing their paper or their discussion posts straight into the discussion forum where if you lose connection, you lose your post. A simple strategy of drafting your responses in Word, for example, where you can spell check, or in Google Docs where there’s auto backup, before you post it into the forum. These are strategies or behaviors that students know somehow, but many, many do not. Another thing in terms of supporting success is self reflection and metacognition, thinking about what’s helping you learn, thinking about what’s hindering your learning, making checklists or using rubrics if they’re provided. That notion of student self-efficacy is another one that you want to develop these self-regulated learning strategies to help support your belief in yourself, that you are able to achieve whatever it is that’s being asked of you. Obviously having goals, that whole notion of self-motivated student. And this is often something that is talked about, or that characterizes the difference between pedagogy and andragogy or heautogogy, that is the notion of motivation. In children or young people, the motivation is sort of forced on them… they have deadlines, and they have things that sort of scaffold them and that they don’t have to do a lot of that pushing of themselves, because they’re kind of just going through the motions with everyone else. As an adult learner or a non-traditional learner or a post-traditional learner or an online learner, I would argue, you really have to find that motivation to go to class because there is no one point, one time, one place where you’re going to meet on a certain day, at a certain time, with everybody. You have to actually get yourself in there, understand what is being expected of you, and be able to produce it In an effective way, in a high quality way, and in a timely way. And so there’s a tremendous amount of self pushing that needs to happen. So, those are some of the strategies or the things that students stumble on, and the strategies that successful online students need. And like I said, I think that this comes both from the student and from the faculty and from the course design, all of those things can work in concert. I have heard recently with the influx of tons of new novice online faculty, and I remember hearing it when I was working with cohorts of novice faculty, there is this tendency to feel, from the faculty perspective, this is like babying them or hand holding them. And while that might be true, I’m not going to say whether it is or not in a face-to-face environment… although I have an opinion about that… it’s definitely not true in an online environment. I think because of the nature of the environment. It is different when a student only has the computer screen in front of them, it really needs to be crystal clear to them… what they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it, how they’re supposed to do it… and any supports and any efforts to help the student understand what’s going to help them be most successful is going to help them. And ultimately, at the end of the day, we want students to have successful and positive experiences, and faculty to have successful and positive experiences, in an online environment. So, anything any of us can do to support that, I think, is particularly important. And when you think about students who are disadvantaged in any way, whether we’re talking about first-generation students, or whether we’re talking about COVID-related students who come from such varied backgrounds and who are not opting to learn online, it’s being foisted on them like it is on all of us, it’s particularly important to pay attention to anything that will help them be as successful as possible.
Rebecca: I think what you described is a bit onboarding method that needs to be done for students, especially if they weren’t expecting to be online, and now that they are.
John: And I think faculty probably underestimate the amount of cues and support they provide in face-to-face classes. At the beginning and end of the class, they’ll talk about what needs to be done… they’ll talk about deadlines. When they see problems occurring in student work, they’ll provide immediate feedback. And that just doesn’t magically happen in an online class. explicit instructions need to be provided so that students online get the same type of instructions they’d have an in-person class.
Alex: That’s exactly right, John, and the immediacy of it… one student may be there at 12 midnight, and another student may be there on the weekend, and another student may be there at some other time. And it is at any moment in 24/7 time on any day of the week that a student needs to be able to find the answer to their question right then. Otherwise, there’s a boulder in their way from moving forward in their learning. And so I always say that faculty should try to first, make no assumptions, which is difficult to do, because sometimes you don’t know you have an assumption, but to try and anticipate every question or any question that a student might have, and have something in the course that attends to that question. And it’s not an easy thing to do, because the assumptions are insidious there. And if you’re coming from a face-to-face environment, you have a lot of assumptions. And this isn’t intuitive, that teaching online is not an intuitive exercise. And it doesn’t just happen magically. There is effort and energy that needs to go into the design of the course, the sequencing of the course, the pacing of the course, the content, the interaction, the feedback, the assessment, all of that needs to be thought through, given the environment. So, you’re not thinking about it in a face-to-face way, you’re thinking about it in an online way with the lens of online students who only see what’s in front of them on the computer screen. So, it’s just a different way of thinking. And it’s not rocket science or anything, but I think faculty need to see examples of it, to have some of the foundational research understanding about it, and to be guided, maybe mentored, in some ways. It’s not like the first time you teach an online course you’re going to be a master at it. It’s the practice of teaching online, also. Practice means you keep doing it, and you keep getting better at it, hopefully, and keep improving. To me, it’s a practice in iteration. You do your best the first time when you’re dealing both with the learning curve of the technology and the learning curve of the different types of pedagogies required. And so the first time you do it, you’re dealing with these two major things. So, your first online course and online teaching experience, you’re going to learn a lot and your course might be somewhat vanilla. Nevertheless, it can be a really good tasting vanilla and then you can add some sprinkles and chips, and whatever, some sauce, as you continue to improve your ability to use the technology and your understanding of how you’re using the technology in pedagogically effective ways. What’s cool and wonderful about it is that faculty starting today have the benefit of 25 years of faculty who have been doing this and 25 years of research and best practices and lessons learned from all of us who have gone before, so they don’t have to invent the wheel the way that some of us did back in the early 90s.
John: Going back to that issue about providing explicit instructions in a face-to-face class, faculty often make assumptions, as you noted, about what they want students to do that may not be clear to students. In a face-to-face class one student will observe that, will raise a question, and it will be answered for everyone. If you don’t have that degree of explicit instructions in an online class, you’ll get some work that isn’t quite what you expected from students or you’ll be getting, perhaps, dozens of students asking the same question. So, having explicit instructions is not only helpful for the students, so that they know what you want them to do, but also it’s helpful for the instructor so you don’t have to explain the same thing to many different people. So, if you do get a question from a student online class, it’s probably good to use that to improve your course, as you said, in an iterative way to deal with that, so it becomes clearer in the future.
Alex: I totally agree with that. And it’s actually a practice that I have encouraged faculty to adopt, because you will know immediately in your online class where there’s something that needs improving. Because if you get a ton of questions on the same thing, then you know, you have to address that somewhere, either in the design of your course or in the information that you’re providing. You know immediately and so that “Ask a Question” area is specifically to address you know, those kinds of questions that one student has that likely all students have, so you can do it just once. But, it also is a pointer as you suggested to things that you need to shore up in the design of your course or in the information that you’re providing. Instructions come up all the time. If it’s unclear, you will know that immediately and you know that you have to fix your instructions on something.
Rebecca: We have a lot of faculty preparing to teach online as they’re preparing for the uncertainties of the fall with COVID-19, or the explicit decision to be teaching online this fall that maybe they didn’t plan for. And so the planning and development time might be much shorter than it would be traditionally for an online class. What are some priorities? We already talked a lot about priorities. But is there any tip that you might have in this situation, which is a little different than a regular online class, to get faculty going?
Alex: That is a great question. I would say, in March, when everything shut down, it was an emergency situation where we all had to pivot really, really quickly. And many, many…I think the statistic I read was 98% of the faculty and courses across our country… went from being face-to-face to online in some flavor or another, it was a traumatic period of time for all of us, faculty, students, administrators, the country, academically, professionally, socially, very, very crazy. I would argue that even though we have time now to prepare for the fall that we’re still in a state of thinking about remote learning rather than online learning, because we still have uncertainty about the fall… number one. So, there are still folks and campuses and administrations and states who are still grappling with what they’re going to do in the fall regarding education. And is it going to be fully online? Is it going to be partially online? Is it going to be synchronous online? Is it going to be hybrid or HyFlex? Are they going to do things like changing the curriculum to, instead of semesters, be quarters are they going to have freshmen and sophomores come for the first seven weeks of the semester and then juniors and seniors come for the next? We’re still in some uncertainty about this. And even though we have some time to prepare, the problem is that we have many, many, many more faculty that are needing to think this through and prepare than there are people to support. In an online program or environment, you have 16 weeks, you are selected, or you get told that you’re going to teach online. You’re assigned an instructional designer. You have a process that you go through. And this is if it’s a well thought through developed program. You have a faculty development program that helps you with course design and then transitions you from course designe to effective online teaching practices. And so you get a full professional development period of time in advance of your first delivery of your course. And that’s really how it should be done in a well thought through environment and program. But what we have right now, even though we have time before the fall, we just have many more faculty than there are resources and because of the uncertainty of the modality for the fall, there is uncertainty in terms of the designs of the courses. And many, many institutions are not prepared, unless they’ve been doing online teaching and learning historically. My daughter’s school, for example, is a small liberal arts residential college that doesn’t do online teaching and learning. And so they like many schools, and even some within SUNY, are not as prepared as others who have been doing it for some time. So, I think we’re still in this stage of remote teaching where there are some unique circumstances for faculty and for the people who support faculty. So, I think for faculty who are trying to be flexible and anticipate different scenarios for the fall, I think the important things for them to think about are things like: prepare for whatever the most online scenario might be, and you have to take your cue, I think, from your state and from your administration, but if it’s likely that you’re going to be online for even some of it, thinking through what the course might be for all of it would be prudent so that you are better prepared, and so it’s a little easier to roll that back, then to start from scratch and have to develop it all. So to prepare for the fall, thinking about what pieces of your course absolutely would have to be face to face. So, I think there are some courses, lab courses, hands-on courses, things that require specialized equipment that might have to be face to face or they couldn’t be done, or couldn’t be done well. But there are courses that can easily be done in a fully online way. And so thinking through the nature of your course, the nature of your discipline, and what the assessments or evaluations are going to be so that you can understand what pieces might have to be face to face if they do and whether or not any or all of it can be online, and then thinking that through in terms of how you would lay that out and plan that out. I think thinking about your students, as a first step in your considerations for what you’re going to be doing in the fall is really, really important and not making any assumptions. And again, this is an area where there’s a lot of uncertainty because we don’t know what the Fall is going to look like for other aspects of life. Will the K-12 people go back to face to face, because if not, the kids are home. And if the kids are home, there may be burdens on the family regarding child care… whether or not students have safe and secure places to live, whether or not they have access to the internet… whether or not they are able to either financially or physically do synchronous components to a course. If you’re assuming that you can do a three-hour lecture once a week with your students at a specific time, there’s a lot of assumptions in that: that your students are in the same timezone, that your students are available at that time, that they have a data plan that will allow them to do that, and so forth. So, I think you need to think about things in terms of your course from those perspectives as you think about the planning and the design of your activities and how you’re going to go about it. For remote faculty, I think reviewing your syllabus, revising your syllabus, reviewing your objectives and articulating them in ways that are measurable, in ways that are really thinking about Bloom’s and what you’re targeting in Bloom’s, depending on the level of the course, the discipline, and really thinking if any revisions are necessary there so that you can do some of that backwards design that I mentioned earlier. Really starting out with a good solid set of objectives will help you do that backwards design, that magic formula, in a really effective way. I think thinking about the types of learning activities is a good exercise. I always say that it is impossible to duplicate what you do in a face-to-face classroom online, you actually have to reconceptualize your online activities, your online interactions, you have to reconceptualize those things for the online environment, given the options and limitations of the online environment. And that’s not to say that online environments… I mean, face-to-face environments have options and limitations as well. I guess my point is just to say you need to be attentive to what those are in an online environment in order to design activities that are going to be as maximally effective and engaging as possible. I think you need to pay attention to accessibility. You need to pay attention to your feedback and your assessments. You need to be attentive to developing a sense of class community and how you interact and where you interact and where you scaffold and support student-to-student interaction. I think you need to know and understand best practices in synchronous interaction or asynchronous interaction if you’re doing either of those or both of those. And accessibility is another one you need to pay attention to. Accessibility is an important thing because those courses where you see everything and the kitchen sink… it could be PDFs that you’ve had for years, or it could be a favorite video, or it could be that cartoon that you like to post from the New Yorker… whatever it is, you just need to pay attention to the fact that, in an online environment, there are issues and especially for those who are differently abled, let alone copyright permissions and so forth. But you do need to pay attention to making things as universally accessible as possible. And so the Universal Learning Design principles are really helpful in that regard. And if you plan for an inclusive, equitable, accessible course from the get go, you address all of those things without having to go back and retrofit which is super, super hard and annoying. So if you do it right from the beginning, it makes it a better plan.
John: And for those who are working towards preparing for the uncertainties of the fall, knowing that there’s a good chance that at least some of the semester will be spent online in some form, you’ve worked with other people to create quite a few online resources that perhaps we could talk a little bit about. One of those is the SUNY Online Teaching Effective Practice video series. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And some of the other resources?
Alex: Yeah, sure. I’d love to, I would love to have people check these resources out. In our YouTube channel, and over the years, we have sort of on an annual basis, I guess, now created a series of videos that have themes, and typically I collect these at our annual summit event. So I’ll have a theme and we will interview guests and participants around that particular theme. And so some of the collections that we’ve put together… =We have an effective practices series for example. We have advanced topics in online learning. We have faculty questions, there’s 23 videos in the collection on questions that faculty typically have about online learning. We have some ideas for new online faculty. We have recommendations for experienced online faculty, we even targeted topics that were targeting instructional designers and questions and issues that they have and online learning administrators, topics and themes that they would be interested in. There’s 12 videos in that collection and 21 videos in the instructional designer collection. There’s one collection that is about relationships, both with students and with instructional designers. There’s one about assessment. We have an ideas for engagement series that talks about helping faculty to think about how to create effective and engaging environments and all of these videos are beautifully produced by my friend Jeremy Case at Monroe Community College, who is a fabulous instructional designer and videographer and he has been my partner in crime here on all of these videos over the years and has done a fabulous job, so I need to give a shout out to him. In that “Ideas for Engagement” series, for example, we talk about things like assignments with real-world applications, using case study, critical thinking, teaching leadership through self reflection, preparing online tests, making team projects work, incorporating service learning, teaching in scientific method through example, using Wikis. So, there’s a lot of depth to these videos, and you can go and look at each of the playlists and they’re very well described, and they’re well titled, so you can just hunt for one within the collection that you might be interested in, based on the topic. Or you can just listen to them in an ad hoc way. There’s multiple people that are interviewed in each of the videos from varying perspectives, varying disciplines, various sectors of institutions (from community colleges to research institutions). So we have a really wonderful video collection that I would love people to know about and to explore.
John: Another resource that you’ve worked with is the online teaching course. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Alex: Sure. So I developed this self-paced online course that is really basically just a website and it is the “Interested in Teaching Online?” self-paced course or resource. It’s designed like a course, so it has modules, and it has three modules. And every module starts with an overview. So you have some objectives for the module, there’s some presentation of content and it’s either in video or in text, and there’s several sections for each of the modules, and then there is a check your understanding self test at the end of each module. So, you can go through the content from start to end in order or you can look at it like a website and just browse to the topics that are of interest to you. You could just go in and take all the little self assessments if you wanted, just to check your understanding of the content if you already know things about online teaching. This really is intended as a prerequisite to any online teaching activities. So before you start getting trained by your campus to teach online, this could be a prerequisite to that to help everyone establish a common lexicon, for example, about what the common words are, that are used in online teaching in SUNY and beyond. It also helps to establish what we mean when we use the word online teaching, which does not mean a MOOC in this particular case… not to say that there aren’t MOOCs in SUNY or anything about MOOCs. It’s just that in this context, we’re talking about a different type of online teaching and which is now called traditional online teaching, [LAUGHTER] interestingly enough. So you can use it in a variety of different ways, like a website or like a course. You can earn a badge if you’re interested in completing all of the activities and submitting the evidence for the badge. There’s also optional interaction that you can have. You can join an online networking group with other people who are taking the course and interested in online teaching and interact with them around the course and around topics around online teaching. And so there’s a variety of different ways you can use it and a variety of different activities that you can do. There’s a lot of videos in there and a lot of good information. One of the pieces, kind of the first step, is the online readiness section of the course which is kind of like a mini course in and of itself, and it presents some checklists where you can self assess on things like your computer skills, word processing skills, your email skill, so all of the technical skills that are necessary to have a good foundation to take the next step to teach online. Because if you really need some of those technical skills, it’d be best if you get that shored up first before you start thinking about teaching online. And so there’s a bunch of information presented in that readiness section of the course. And this thing is just set up in WordPress, so there are little checklists that will retain your checks from session to session in the same browser, but it’s maximally open and it’s also openly licensed and freely available for anyone to use or adapt in any way that they would like. And it has been used and adapted and adopted in a lot of different ways across SUNY and beyond. So, I try to openly license and make freely available all of the tools and resources that we produce in the SUNY Online teaching unit. I’ve taken that open that we had when we were Open SUNY really to heart and I’ve been doing open pedagogy and being open since before it was a thing, because I feel very, very strongly that we just happened to be where we are because of luck and the position in which we sit, which is at the top of an enormous system with many, many years of experience in this. And these are public funds that have been used for the benefit of the people of the state of New York and beyond, I would argue, and so I’m very, very committed to openly licensing everything that we do. And so you will see that on all of the resources. And I love to hear from people who have adopted and adapted our tools and resources because I’m a learner too. And I want feedback. And I want to improve the things that we have created. And I want to know about things that others have created based on our things, so I can point to them and recognize them and talk about them and learn from them. So yeah, both of these resources, the readiness set of inventories and the teaching online course, are openly licensed.
Rebecca: You also have the remote teaching checklist, which might be really important right now.
Alex: Yeah, when all of this started happening, I thought it was really important that faculty who are novice and instructional designers who are in a position all of a sudden of having to deal with many, many more faculty than they anticipated, to have a little bit of a framework and a guide to help them. And so I did develop this checklist, and it starts out with helping faculty to think about what’s first, what things should they think about first. So putting the lens of the student on is a good first step, checking their syllabus, revising their syllabus, thinking through their activities, checking their accessibility and thinking about the modes, are they going to be primarily synchronous? …so some stuff online asynchronously, like their syllabus and materials maybe, like a paperless situation, but primarily, they’re going to be meeting synchronously with students either through Zoom or through Collaborate or WebEx or some sort of a synchronous tool like this one, or are they going to be primarily asynchronous or are they going to be hybrid in some way. So some face to face and some online and maybe that online is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous or maybe it’s totally asynchronous. I know some campuses and faculty or programs are playing with this HyFlex notion that allows maximum flexibility for students, which allows them at any point to determine or decide whether they’re going to be face to face, synchronous, or asynchronous. I think that is going to have to depend on the campus, because if the campus is not supporting face to face, then the HyFlex is not part of the equation because the whole point of HyFlex is giving students the option of face to face, online synchronous, or online asynchronous at any point. So I think remote faculty need to think about how they’re building community, whether they’re doing that in a synchronous online way or an asynchronous online way. They need to know and understand the effective practices of interaction either in a primarily synchronous or primarily asynchronous or combination kind of a way. And so this checklist gives them lots of resources to mine and suggestions and tips for all these things that I’ve been mentioning. Online assessment is another thing they’re going to have to think about. And this is an area where, with some time, it will be better than if you’re trying to think this through right before you have to deal with it. So I would really recommend that as soon as you are able to start thinking through some of these things. Because, as I said, you want to reconceptualize, you can’t duplicate. If you think you’re going to duplicate you can, you can duplicate, but it won’t go well or not from the students’ perspective, right? [LAUGHTER] …and you’ll be frustrated and the students will not be happy and your evaluations will not be good. So you really need to think about assessment and if you’re super, super concerned about online cheating, you need to put a lot more energy into this because you need to reconceptualize the multiple choice test that is 50% of the grade, mid term, is a way to assess something. But in an online environment, I would argue that that is not an authentic assessment, really, of much. And we could talk about what I think about that for a face-to-face class as well, [LAUGHTER] but I’m focused on online. So you need to really think, how is it that you are going to understand how are the students making their thinking and their learning visible to you? What opportunities are you giving students to do that? And then what feedback and ways of assessing them are you able to give? …and it takes some time to think that through. I would also recommend for remote faculty to take as much advantage as possible of any instructional design support that you might have on your campus. And always, always check with them first because there are standards. If your campus does online teaching and learning, they have a learning management system already… they have, potentially, templates for you to use to Quick Start your course design so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They have training and supports and resources to help you think through all of these issues, and they may have things that are required in some ways ,or approaches or methods that they’re recommending for the fall that you need to know about and your students need to know about. So I would recommend very strongly that you check with them first before you start doing anything on your own so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and get down the road aways when you learn that you have to start over again and do something differently. Oh, the other thing I want to make sure that they think about is how they’re going to end their course. So, this has to do with class community and teaching presence and social presence and so paying some attention to how you wind down your course and end your course, I think, and being deliberate, intentional about that. I always have a discussion group at the end of my online course that allows students to reflect on things, to say goodbye to each other, and where I say goodbye to them. And so there’s lots of different ways to do that. So, similarly, I don’t think I said at the start, you want to think about how you start your course… thinking about how do you create a sense of class community? How do you acknowledge that you’re about to embark on this journey together, in some cases, both instructor and students for the first time in different modes, and acknowledging that and saying, we’re in this together and breaking the ice so that you can immediately sort of break through that two dimensionality of the computer screen so that you can begin to establish this sense of learning community, this sense of class community, establish trust, get to know the students, get to know their names, have them get to know you. So, icebreaking, I think, is also equally important. And that’s not something that just happens. Anyone can say, okay, introduce yourself. But if you’re more deliberate about it, and think through how you might be able to create an engaging, interactive activity that is more authentic, that really gets people to know each other. And I have a list of 50 plus different icebreaking activities that we can put in the links for folks to mine for ideas for that.
John: We’ll include all that in the show notes along with links to the resources you refer to.
Alex: Yeah, I guess I would say that there are as many ways to teach online as there are faculty. And there are some effective practices, there are some things that will work better, that will work best, that you should know, that you need to know, in order to have good experiences,your students to have good experiences, to be effective. There are some things that you need to know and there is technology that you need to master and can leverage in a variety of ways. But I think that within that there is so much flexibility and there is so much innovation and so much freedom to do things outside of the four walled classroom box that I’m hoping that faculty will be able to experience, and even though we’re constrained by the limitations of the rush to figure out what to do in the fall with the remote teaching being pushed into things that we may not be ready for. I’m hoping that people will be open to the possibilities that are there. It’s kind of limitless in some ways,
John: We always end our podcast with the question. What’s next?
Alex: I am not sure what’s next for all of us in general, I’m waiting along with the rest of us to understand what COVID is going to do and how that’s going to impact us in August or in September. And I am coping professionally and personally the way that everybody is, and in terms of work, I am working on continuing to develop tools and resources to help instructional designers be more effective, have their lives be easier so that they don’t have to recreate wheels and tools and resources and supports for online faculty as well. We have, like I said, the benefit of years and years of experience, years and years of knowledge, years and years of things that actually already exists that can be leveraged or adapted for this moment in time. And so coming up with tools and resources and supports that make people’s lives easier and better, given the circumstances is what I do. And I always get up in the morning convinced that I can impact the quality of online teaching and learning in the State University of New York. It’s what motivates me and what I love doing. And so I feel very grateful that I am able to do that in my position, and to be able to share that with the folks in SUNY and beyond, and to be able to continuously learn and showcase and turn the spotlight on amazing things that are going on out there from our campuses, from our instructional designers, and from our faculty within SUNY who are doing amazing work. I feel very grateful to have been able to be where I sit, to be able to be witness to all of that, and to observe it. and to learn from it and be able to share it out in multiple, multiple ways. So, maybe that’s what’s next, I think. That’s what I would say.
John: It’s been a pleasure working with you and learning from you over the last couple of decades
Alex: Ditto, John, ditto. [LAUGHTER] Thank you, Rebecca, too.
Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your knowledge and experience, lots of experience.
Alex: You’re welcome. It’s been so much fun. Thank you so much for having me. I love having a cup of tea with you and chatting about this stuff that I really, really love to talk about.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.