63. Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility

Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our institution is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

Show Notes


John: Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, we examine how one college is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.


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.

John: Today our guest is Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers. Sean is the author of the recently published Educause Review article, “Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education.” Welcome, Sean.

Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Welcome.

Sean: It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Sean: Well I’m having my Tim Horton’s coffee. I usually have my tea after dinner, so it’s too early for my tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.


John: It’s not just for afternoons.

Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.

John: And it never has been, I guess.

Rebecca: Yeah. Before we jump into our conversation, first, can you define what accessibility is?

Sean: Well, accessibility is the idea that every user of the content has a similar experience. They’re not gonna be able to have exactly the same experience… So if you think of people who might have blindness, the content that they access on a website or in a document should be able to give them the same knowledge and understanding in terms of they would hear the content or have it read to them so that they would gain the same knowledge and understanding of what’s there. The disabilities that we have vary from people to people and you also have different issues in the way that content is provided; people who are blind can’t experience a picture in the same way, so there’s an expectation that you would explain what’s inside of an image so that they can understand what other people are seeing.

John: Accessibility issues have been around for a long time, but it seems that campuses are starting to pay more attention to this. What has prompted this increase in attention to issues of accessibility.

Sean: It’s an issue that has really raised in prominence over the last 15 to 20 years and has become a large issue for us here in New York state over the last couple years. So I’m originally from Canada, and I would say that accessibility and digital resources has been an issue there easily for 10 to 15 years and we spent a lot of time at the last institution I worked at, which was the University of Windsor, in terms of making our website accessible and meeting the accessibility laws and guidelines that the Canadian government has put in, and a lot of resources and time were put into that. When I moved to the United States, and particularly here at SUNY Oswego… that would have been five and a half years ago… I think it was less of an issue and people didn’t necessarily realize the need for accessibility and the effect that it had on others. The reason that it’s really come to more prominence is that some individuals have gone and worked towards making everyone aware of the law. So there are a couple of laws in the United States, and one would be the American Disabilities Act, and the second a law that really came into effect over the last couple years, has to do with digital resources and the requirements for them to be accessible for people. Now, one individual in particular has gone and put complaints against universities that their websites weren’t accessible and it really kicked off an awareness in terms of how people wanted to do it. At SUNY Oswego and throughout the state of New York—actually all the SUNY schools had complaints brought against them two years ago—it was really largely around the websites that were inaccessible and most of the SUNY schools got together and we looked at ways to go and comply. Now many of us were really not that far away from being a hundred percent compliant on the website. To go and to remediate most of the website isn’t that difficult when you start talking about items such as the HTML. It gets a lot more complex once you start looking at documents and PDF documents… and no one, I would say, is really a hundred percent compliant. Understanding the complexity of the issue once you start working on it, you really start to see how the issue—if you just try to go in to remediate it and fix it it becomes next to impossible, really. The only way to go and work and to become compliant and to really design the experience you want for the end user is to go and get in front of it to do it. Well, that’s one part of it is the legal issue, but part of it also is a social justice issue. I think when you want to go and start to think about how you want to design your website and make it attractive to all end-users you have to understand that there are people that need these accommodations and have different needs and you have to go and design your website to go and to make it accessible to them, and I think when you start to go and think of it from the social justice issue rather than meeting the requirements it just changes your whole way of thinking in terms of why you want to do it, how you want to do it and how you can get more people to buy in.

John: And when we’re talking about accessibility it goes far beyond just a website; there’s also EdTech tools and there’s also teaching materials and resources. Could you talk a little bit about those issues in higher ed and what we’re trying to do to deal with those?

Sean: A lot of the focus does go on websites, and particularly at the very beginning, I would say, in terms of when we go and try to meet accessibility from a digital point of view from an IT department, but there are a number of other items—we have digital content on PCs throughout the campus and run all kinds of applications and mobile applications. There’s an expectation that those will be accessible by all users as well. So one of the issues is that we have applications that are running on mobile devices… PCs… and our goal would be to have those accessible for all end-users as well. Really to go in, to manage that we have to look at how we procure those items and ensure and work with the people who want those applications that they’re going to be accessible… and ensure that the vendors that we’re dealing with are making it a priority to go and to make their applications accessible… and I think particularly there’s a couple of in-state systems that have done quite a bit of work and that would be the California State System… the Washington State System have done quite a bit of work in terms of going and making accessibility of applications a priority, and I think with the SUNY system joining in we can have quite a bit of power with the amount that we purchase and accessibility can even raise to a higher awareness with the vendors and we can push it forward from there. The other area where it really becomes an issue is inside the classroom; we’re delivering far more electronic resources to students than we have in the past and I think that’s partly because the experience is a more online and there are online classes that are delivered totally digitally or with an instructor helping, but accessibility becomes a larger part as we work there. But also as we deliver content to students through the computer as opposed to handing pieces of paper to them we have to go and think accessibility upfront. As we go and expand our markets… as we become more aware of students that have accessibility issues—we are having more students who come to school and have these requirements and it is going and adding a lot more requirements to go in to help those students succeed.

John: One of the nice things, though, about a move to digital materials is the content is already in digital format which makes it easier to convert as long as provisions are made for that; the old text-based systems were a lot harder—you had to have people either read materials to people or other types of content back in the earlier days. It creates opportunities as well as some challenges.

Rebecca: I mean the web, in general, was designed in a way from the beginning to be accessible to all; it has that power and capability as long as it’s used correctly. So one of the things that I know that we’re working on with this campus is helping people understand how to use all of these platforms more effectively to make the content accessible, because if you design things with accessibility in mind from the beginning it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more effective and it’s a lot more powerful than trying to fix everything afterwards, which we’ve certainly experienced here; it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

Sean: Yes, for sure. I think we have also tried to look at using the right medium for delivering the message. So, I would give examples on the website, particularly where people might go and make flyers and they’d create a PDF document that they go in and stick on bulletin boards around the campus and then just go and stick that same PDF onto the web which immediately isn’t accessible unless they have done it (properly). The proper way to go and to use the medium of the web is to go and create a website or a web page that would go and deliver that content. It’s more effective for people when they go and do it… that extra little step… and don’t take the shortcuts and it also helps them to go in to market their materials in the right way.

John: Economists often make the same argument; it’s called a putty-clay analogy that when you’re designing technology it’s like putty; you can shape it in many different ways, but once you bake that clay and turn it into ceramics you can no longer alter it as easily—it’s much more costly and you often have to start over, but it’s very malleable at the start when you’re designing things, like making curb cuts, where it’s fairly expensive, but now when new curbs are built they’re automatically including those curb cuts and that’s really not any more costly to build than the old system was but it was much more costly to go back and rebuild things and to start over, which was the argument you were making, I think.

Rebecca: I think curb cuts is a great topic too—it goes back to what Sean was mentioning earlier in the difference between checking a box to say that I’m compliant versus really thinking about what it means to have a curb cut. There’s an example that I often use when I give presentations on accessibility that’s a curb cut to nowhere, it’s a curb cut to some grass that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s compliant because there is one, but it’s not usable. So, I think that’s the key thing that you have to think about when you’re dealing with accessibility issues, that it’s not just ticking boxes off but you’re really thinking about the real people who it’s meant to impact.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really exciting too is that not only does it help people with disabilities get the content and have an equitable experience but it also means that people that are using different kinds of devices or might be in noisy situations or other kinds of circumstances also have a better experience overall. From a design point of view, when it’s accessible the user experiences has just improved for everybody.

John: Before I got an iPad Pro with a higher volume level, when I was watching videos while flying I often would turn captions on because it was sometimes easier to read the captions than to hear over the noise of the jet and that applies certainly to students watching multimedia content in quiet places where they can’t play audio out loud or students in noisy environments who might not be able to hear the audio.

Rebecca: Or non-traditional students who might be around their kids or whatever and might need to control things like that.

Sean: Yeah, there’s many examples of technology that was brought in to help people with accessibility that become really mainstream that help everyone’s life.

It brings up the conversation or the thought that having the tools to do what you need to do and then actually using those tools appropriately and in the best way… and I would say that in many ways with accessibility at this point, some of the tools that are required still aren’t there to make things easy. We’re still working on having those tools and I think as we move forward that we’ll go and we’ll develop the tools and make it easy, but I think that’s really the stage of maturity that we’re at right now.

Rebecca: Going back to what you’re saying about the tools that we need don’t really exist yet to some extent. Using the tools that we do have to do the things that we can do, still makes a big impact. So, even using Microsoft Word to make assignment sheets and things but using the styles that are built in so that you’re identifying what’s a heading, what’s a subheading, et cetera, makes a huge impact and that takes care of a large percentage of the material, but then there’s that smaller percentage of a more complicated content and multimedia that’s a little more difficult to deal with… especially when there’s interaction as well as motion and some of these other things… but there’s still a lot that we can do with what we do have.

Sean: Yes, why then I think it goes back too to a skills issue and then part of it being knowledge and skills. So, people are used to using Microsoft Word for 20-plus years the way that they use it… and they’ve found their own shortcuts to just meet their own needs… But to go and to deliver and use a tool at the highest effectiveness you really need to have this additional knowledge and understanding of having templates that you can use and marking images that need to have a tag with them too. So we do have the tools but we also need to give people the skills and knowledge to understand how to use them effectively for this.

John: On past episodes we talked about how faculty coming through grad school generally don’t receive much training in how to teach, although that’s been changing a bit. But virtually no graduate students, I would suspect, has received much training in graduate school on creating accessible documents, so there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Rebecca: Not even in fields that deal with accessibility as part of their background—they might not even have that experience either. So, like computer science, design, et cetera… that’s something that’s just starting to bubble into curricula now.

John: One of the things, Sean, you and Rebecca have both been working on is developing an accessibility fellows program here at Oswego. Could you talk a little bit about that program… what it is and what’s the purpose of it?

Sean: Rebecca and I were talking about this earlier… and looking at it from an institutional point of view, I think if we want to go and to create this culture of accessibility, you’re really gonna have to go and put resources towards it and make it a priority… and I think here at Oswego we’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, and one would be to bring on an intern that Rebecca had trained and had excellent skills and we could go and work to remediate courses, for one item… and then to build a culture of accessibility here… and the only way I think to go and to build a culture is to go and to build it from bottom up… and show people it’s important by putting resources towards it… making time available for people to go and to work on it. So, the accessibility fellowship that we’re starting this year does that… and it does it in one way in terms of giving Rebecca some time to go and to provide the leadership that she does in terms of accessibility and it fits in with the work that she’s doing and the priorities that she has… and it also set some time aside for faculty to go and to work on accessibility and for them to become advocates for going and spreading the word as we move forward… and I think by going and putting the resources in, it’ll make a difference at the beginning, but the real difference will be four or five, six years down the road when we have a number of people and the person sitting next to you says to you, “Oh, you could make that more accessible if you did this…” and it just becomes part of the culture that everybody’s working on it. Rather than just Rebecca going and starting we got to make the triangle much larger.

John: The fellows are receiving a course release to free up time so that they can work on these activities.

Sean: Right, and with the expectation that they’ll have training… they’ll understand what it means to create accessible courses. They’re going to create accessible courses. They’ll have an opportunity to travel and go to a conference with accessible related material, become advocates for it as well…

John: We’ll also ask them to give some workshops for their colleagues. People are much more likely to show up for a workshop when it’s someone from their own department or area so by doing this across the campus we’re hoping that this will start spreading a bit more rapidly.

Rebecca: It’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of fellows from different disciplines. We have people from Business… we’ve got people from Science… people from English… people from Political Science… people from Education… people from… Sean: Comm studies…

Rebecca: Comm studies. Did I get them all? Oh… no… and Health, Promotion and Wellness.

Sean: So we were hoping to have four originally and we have seven. So, I think we’re very happy that people were interested and wanted to go and spread the word… and I think also as Rebecca says with the wide number of fellows that we have, we’ll be able to go and do some work… So particularly, like in the sciences there’s a lot of questions around accessibility and how do you go and create the accessible content? I think the person that we have will be able to go and to start some of the work and help it go in to build a knowledge base and be able to pass it on to others as we move forward.

Rebecca: I think that’s really key because there’s definitely some holes in the knowledge of the team that’s been working on these things as soon as it starts getting more specialized.

John: That person in the sciences is Casey Raymond, who is on our podcast on the first and third episodes.

Sean: Yes.

Rebecca: Uh hmm. Sean, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is building it from the ground up versus retrofitting or remediating. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in the workload and resources needed…

Sean: Right.

Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?

Sean: I would say one item that we’ve seen really over the last couple years, particularly as we’ve started to work on it, is the amount of time that we’ve had to go and spend remediating courses… and we do put a lot of focus in terms of online classes and we’ve just seen a tremendous growth in the amount of classes that need to be remediated. We have processes inside (Banner) and we’ve written applications inside Banner and create reports to go in and to identify students who are taking classes that are online that are going to go and be remediated. Where we might have been doing a couple or a few courses a semester before… the number has grown five hundred to a thousand percent more than it was before and that really required us to go in to create a position for an individual to go and to work and basically try to stay a couple weeks ahead of the course material for all the students that we’re dealing with… or at least all the courses that we’re dealing with for these students… and actually I would say with the growth and with the students that we have coming in this solution is not scalable. We’re not going to be able to hire enough people to go and to do it… and I’d say within a couple years if we keep doing it, we just won’t be able to keep up. It’s getting to that point. We have an accessibility committee on campus that would consist of people from the President’s office, our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, our communications, our web people, student disabilities, Rebecca, from the academic point of view… our web developer and Extended Learning, who do a lot of the online classes, and we spend a lot of time in those meetings. First of all, they start with the remediation that has to be done and when we have discussions around it, we realize it feels like the hole that we’re digging around accessibility just keeps getting larger and larger… and at this point our goal would be to stop the rate of the hole getting as large as it is. At some point maybe we can even it off and then get to the point where we can start filling it in, but I think the only way we’re gonna go and fill it in is over many, many years and when we redo classes they’ll be designed with accessible format as we move forward – going back and remediating all the work, it’s just not doable.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think you’re highlighting, Sean, is the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility is much more proactive where we’re actually going in ahead of time, making sure that when we’re designing content, it’s set up so that it’s accessible no matter what device you’re using it’s gonna work; whereas accommodation is… you register through the office of disabilities or whatever you have on your campus and you get a specific accommodation letter… the accommodation letter is given to the faculty member and then you’re given those accommodations and that office might provide the resources to convert a text or whatever might need to be done. This is much more front-loaded, but it helps more students and it also helps students who don’t want to identify as being disabled, especially if they have a hidden disability that they’d prefer to keep private. One thing that’s also different is that students who might have hidden disabilities or disabilities in general have always had the burden of getting the materials or asking and having to take all of the extra steps. In this case it’s the content generators with (the responsibility for) accessibility, so that’s a key difference between the two.

John: You noted that some students might choose not to report learning disabilities, but we should also note that some students might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those students can also benefit from the creation of accessible materials.

In order for our campus and other campuses to become fully accessible, it’s going to require the teamwork of quite a few people. Could you talk a little about how that process has been going here?

Sean: We’ve done a good job here at Oswego and we have a really good mix of people that are really interested in this topic and want to move it forward… so I think of our web developer, Rick Buck and how he’s gone and redesigned our website (although it was very compliant to begin with, let me say)… but he’s gone and put in the extra features that go and work to going to keep us compliant and he’s also spent considerable time with his team to educate our content editors who go in… and in any university you would have a very diverse group of people who would develop content in their specific department or area to keep the information relevant… but they need to understand their responsibilities inside of it… so going and training them and giving the knowledge and the tools. So, from the web point of view, I think we’ve done a lot, but also we’re lucky to have a mix of people here in the academic area who want to go and and do this. So, for example, with Rebecca and with the work that she does, first of all in the class and in the area of accessibility… we’re really lucky to go and to be able to tap into that and to put the resources necessary to move the whole project forward… and I would say that goes right up to the President here at the university and the Provost and them making it a priority and ensuring that we put resources towards this to move the project forward.

Rebecca: I would also add that without Sean really being the advocate for the entire process, I don’t think a lot of the things that we have in place would happen. He was the convener of the committee and some of these other things that really got the ball rolling… and it got rolling quickly. [LAUGHTER]

Sean: Why I do think it really helps being proactive and going and looking at it from a systemic point of view and going and trying to change the system and starting at the bottom; otherwise you just spin your wheels all the time and the hole gets deeper and deeper.

Rebecca: That leads us to: What next, Sean?

Sean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of the things that are coming up for us. You earlier referenced that I’m the Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs. So, inside the SUNY system we’ve done a lot of work and tried to work with the CIOs to share knowledge in terms of what we’re doing, whether it be on our website and with applications that we’re purchasing and implementing. A couple of the other schools are doing even more. So the University of Buffalo is actually doing quite a bit and they’ve implemented a new procurement process that will go and put better, I would say, guardrails around how we go and purchase application software and I would imagine a lot of the schools will adopt what they’re doing… and the SUNY Provost is about to come out with a accessibility statement or policy and inside that statement and policy will be the need to have someone responsible for accessibility at each school, and how a school is going to need to have a plan in order to do it… and I would say that we’re among the leaders in terms of doing that. We’ll have a plan in terms of how we want to go and move it forward… and really the next part of it is I would say at this point is to go in and implement and let it grow and let the people do their work and share the knowledge that our fellows will have over the next period of time and then look where we want to go for that—we’ll need to go back and assess how we did this year and then I would say just guide ourselves through those waters and decide how we want to go and grow the program and share it with others.

John: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean: Thank you for having me.


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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

55. Open pedagogy

Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such  a commons.

Show Notes


John: Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build, and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, we discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such a commons.


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.


John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

John: …Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Plymouth State University. Robin is an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics, including the Salem witch trials. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Robin: Oh, I thought we were talking about teasing people for a second and I was like, I don’t have a tease. [LAUGHING] What am I teasing?

Robin: No, I actually have two cups of tea in front of me, which is how I like it. One is a ginger tea and one is a sunny orange because I have to stay away from the caffeine at a certain hour of the day, so I’m all herbal.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

Robin: I know, I’m just taking one and then the other; it’s perfect.

John: And I have a Tea Forte Black Currant Tea.

Rebecca: I have a Jasmine Earl Grey, that wasn’t there before, so I gave it a try.

John: It’s been there for a year.

Rebecca: Wow, it’s been hiding under the big pile of tea that we have.

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

Rebecca: Oh, you know what, it was the box sitting on top that you didn’t take back after we refilled the tray.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

Robin: But your listeners are probably like, how could you not see a box, but if they saw this table, my jaw was on the ground; it is a really quite an impressive tea table that you’ve assembled here. You should be very proud.

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

Robin: You do not mess around. I would use even other words but I know… public… this is some serious hardcore tea happening here. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your work with Open Pedagogy. For those that are unfamiliar, can you explain what is meant by Open Pedagogy?

Robin: Sure, which is such a funny question really because if there is a thing—and I could just say it—because there’s a lot of productive disagreement in the community about what Open Ped is; it’s one of the reasons that my colleague Rajiv Jhangiani and I started the Open Pedagogy Notebook because it’s more of a collage approach to defining Open Ped by people doing and practicing in different ways and then sharing that, but if I had to boil it down I would say it’s really about access, both to knowledge and to knowledge creation… so, the idea that we remove barriers to sharing resources and helping people access conversations and find pathways into education, but then we also try to find ways to amplify student voices to make them contributors to the Knowledge Commons and not just consumers, and I think it’s pretty salient right now as students are really in some ways maybe being pushed into these kind of training and competency models that are really about kind of downloading information and instead Open Ped suggests that we really want students to interact with knowledge and shape the world that they’re going to graduate into, not just train for it.

John: So they’re more actively engaged in the academic conversation?

Robin: That’s the idea. Right. In some ways there’s a lot of kinship, I think, with connected learning and with the idea of involving students in their academic and professional networks. Right from the beginning, because even as people who are new to our particular field, they have so much to offer and as an interdisciplinarian, we talk about that all the time that the outsider’s perspective is beneficial—it’s part of the reason you assemble an interdisciplinary team to tackle a problem and newcomers to a field ask sometimes questions that really can illuminate the challenges that a field is facing in new ways, so I have found that even the most beginning introductory students in a particular area have something to contribute both to the field itself and also in terms of helping their peers in terms of, for example, making educational materials. Students are really well positioned to make great educational materials ‘cause they understand better than anybody what’s hard to understand about a certain area.

John: They’re not subject to the curse of knowledge…

Robin: The curse of knowledge. [LAUGHTER] I have that curse, John.

John: We all do to some extent.

Robin: But it is true like when especially when I was teaching Early American Lit and you just finished your PhD and you start teaching and then you teach something for 15 years and no matter how gifted of a teacher you are, sometimes you’re like, “I don’t understand how they don’t understand this,” like “what’s hard about this?” and of course they really understand what’s hard about it, so when we did student projects where students were working on a textbook that we were crafting together, they really made some great materials for each other that I think were far better than some of the lectures I would have prepared or had prepared over the years.

John: So tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that first project you had?

Robin: I was at, ya know, one of those faculty development events that you guys might be aware of and they had brought in, ya know, a keynote speaker, and I don’t want to say I wasn’t prepared to be impressed, but it was a technology oriented conference and I was definitely one of those curmudgeons that was highly skeptical about how useful… or actually more skeptical about the ways technology was being deployed, so I was prepared to be mad, that was how I came in the room, and I actually still think that’s generally my positionality with technology is like, I’m pretty prepared to be skeptical at all times. But the keynote speaker happened to be Cable Green from Creative Commons and I had this really just pivotal “aha” moment when he was talking about the Creative Commons licenses where I realized that my students were paying 90 bucks every semester, each student, for access to public domain Early American Literature and my heart just sort of fell on the floor. It’s like why are we paying commercial publishers when all of this stuff is out of copyright. So, some students and I spent that summer before the next fall’s class rebuilding the Heath Anthology of American Literature out of public domain texts that we found online and we did not build a hearty replacement for the Heath, but we built a sufficient replacement and when we got into the class the students were super psyched that I had saved them 90 dollars, which is totally real money to my students and makes a big difference. They were grateful but they did not like the book, because it had nothing except public domain literature, so there were no introductions, no maps, no footnotes, no glossaries, no “Don’t worry, I know this doesn’t make sense to you, but let me walk you through it” kind of ancillary scaffolds. So, of course, it seems obvious now but at the time we thought we were rock star smart when we figured out like, hey, the students can make this stuff for the book, and so the students worked ahead, different pods of students would work ahead a week or two and build wrap around materials for that chapter and we got there the rest of the students would use it and, of course, it just ended up being 500 times better than the Heath Anthology of American Literature, partially because they were excited that their classmates were reading their work instead of putting it in Moodle or Canvas or Blackboard, where things go to die. So, they got excited about doing what David Wiley and others have called these non-disposable assignments and then they start getting creative, they start making little videos. Ee’d drop those in… two-minute intro to the Haitian Revolution or whatever. I put a little app in the sidebar called Hypothesis where students can annotate and so they liked that and then at the end of the semester people are like, “The best part of this class was the textbook,” which…

Rebecca: Which they made.

Robin: … they made… and they never said about the Heath anthology. So, that transformed my pedagogy partially because I was excited about making all sorts of access oriented changes in our program; we opened a food pantry at the same time as we did this, so we were thinking about lots of things in terms of accessibility of resources for students. But, in terms of thinking about not dumping my student’s work down the digital toilet every semester, it gave me stomach cramps when I first thought about what I had been doing. Every time I taught the course it was the same course, the student’s contributions weren’t transforming anything—it was no wonder that some of it felt dry to them. There was a lot of hoop jumping, and I still think I was a good teacher, that wasn’t like I was bad, but this idea of really empowering students to really, truly engage with the fields and the materials and shaping how the course runs has really changed everything for me.

Rebecca: There’s something that you’re talking about… the idea of building the textbook together, but then the course material is sort of the same from semester to semester and the materials are created by the students, so how does that continue to transform semester to semester so it doesn’t feel like it’s a one-off project… that it continues to evolve and it continues to be a value and that students continue to learn new things?

Robin: Such a great question and I get it a lot because people—I think in some ways mistakenly assume—that that first build was the exciting build, but totally that first build was the annoying build, right, because we got to do a lot of legwork tracking down these texts. We had to do a lot of copyright discovery, like “Can we use this version of Thomas Jefferson or not” and it wasn’t all that exciting, and that’s still ongoing. So Rebus community, who’s working on that textbook now, they took our version and they’re building it out; they’re still doing that kind of discovery in that initial work, and to be frank, that will never end. Even with Early American Literature you’re constantly discovering, changing excerpts, building things out, but to me what’s even more exciting is, for example, there’s a whole unit at the beginning of Native American Oral Tradition and asking critical questions about what’s the genesis of American literature. So, at the same time as I was teaching that that semester we had the Dakota Pipeline stuff happening and lots of stuff about water protectors and about native history so you can relate things to current events that way, but also think about when I finished the course, my colleague Abby Goode, who teaches Early American Literature, but very much from an environmental and sustainability perspective, she kind of remixed the whole book so that now it was about the environment in Early American Lit; they chose some different texts, they reframed the introductions. Her book, in my opinion, is quite a bit more coherent than ours was, which was more of just a collage of things. So, there’s all sorts of opportunities for how you shape and reshape, and, of course, what students are learning there, which is really the point of those survey classes in English is that there is no American literature; there is only the canon that you intentionally assemble. There’s a lot of politics and a lot of editorial choices and each semester it could look different and that’s an important lesson because the Heath anthology was not a neutral objective collection either and I think that’s been a helpful way for them to encounter the building of canon.

Rebecca: I think it’s really easy for people to imagine how this works in the humanities. Can you provide some examples or ways of thinking about being open in the same way in STEM or in business or other disciplines that might not latch on quite as quickly?

Robin: Yeah, and my colleague at Keene State, which is one of our sister institutions, Karen Cangialosi, published a wonderful article recently called “You Can’t Do That in a STEM Class,” which is basically the answer to your questions. We should just stop answering questions and you should go read that article now. But really, the open dcience movement is a huge movement, in some ways dwarfs open education and I think climate change is a really good example of this, but also just open access publishing, the idea that in order to have scientific breakthroughs we need to have the public sharing of scientific knowledge and collaboration in science and so bringing our students into that early as opposed to saying, “Here when you’re a student you’ll be confined to this one class and stuck in this one book, but then when you become a scientist we assume you’ll just understand how to become part of this larger, more public scientific community.” That makes really little sense. So, what you’ll see in classes by people who work this way in STEM, and Karen’s a good example, is that their students are working on issues that are of critical importance and they’re putting their research and ideas into the commons and asking mentor scientists to engage with them. So, we understand that our students are not always going to be doing top-level research; the next breakthrough in diabetes research is not necessarily gonna come from a sophomore. Although occasionally you hear those stories, right, but really what they’re gonna do is they’re gonna ask for guidance, they’re gonna ask for help, they’re going to amplify other scientists’ work and translate them for their communities so that a new generation of scientists can get access to the issues and that’s how we’re going to assure that our scientists are working for what I might call the public goods. So, we’re seeing lots of people using blogs for this purpose instead of just doing their labs in a vacuum or whatever, sharing some of that work and creating sites together, or working in experiential ways through internships. This is why I sometimes bristle about OER being kind of like a cheap or free textbook movement. It’s really very much about a public knowledge commons and how we bring students authentically into that, so when my students are out in the field… and I teach interdisciplinary studies now, so my students are pretty much not in the humanities, to be honest. I have lots of business students, lots of students working in marketing, lots of students in allied health, physical therapy; they’re all in my program, and the work that they do in our open textbook and with OERs is one thing and we do create all of our own materials for the program, but beyond that they’re also creating capstone projects that are generally online, often openly licensed; of course they hold the autonomy to make those decisions for themselves. At that point they’re pretty educated about how open they want to be and then they’re also working on applied projects out in their fields and I see all that stuff as part of the same way that we engage our students in the public world of knowledge.

John: And science is often taught, or at least it’s perceived by students, as this body of knowledge they have to memorize rather than this ongoing dialogue and a series of active research projects, and when they are more engaged in the process of making those connections it’s likely they’ll learn it better and they’re likely to become much more interested in the subject, because one of the main problems in the STEM fields is that students give up early on. But if they can see the relevance, I would think they’d be much more likely to continue onward.

Robin: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. I’m also the mom of a teenager right now who—is this gonna make my whole family sound bizarre? I’m not sure… but she’s got an obsession with taxidermy, so if you go into her room it’s all—I’m not joking; we’ve got boars, we’ve got bison, we’ve got deer, we’ve got every pelt you could imagine, and then her bookshelves are filled with skulls and bones…loves it. She’s out there digging for bones from the time she was little, researching which skull is this, what skull is that; she doesn’t like science, though; that’s what she tells me: she doesn’t like science. I’m like, you do like science, you nutty kid.

John: You’re kind of doing it; this is where a lot of science started.

Robin: That’s right, and so I’ve been waiting for her and she’s had great teachers here and there, but she really did finally have a biology teacher last year who helped her understand that she does love science, but before that she thought, I don’t really like these worksheets and I don’t really like memorizing these tables, and she’s an interactive person. So, I think there’s a lot of compatibility between open and active learning and experiential learning and high-impact practice and all these buzzwords. People call me an advocate for open, which I am, but really I’m an advocate for learners, like paying attention to the kinds of things they are constantly telling us that they need in order to be successful. While we’re over here shopping for some kind of software program, they’re sitting right here telling us, I’m hungry or I can’t afford my materials or I don’t feel like my voice matters or I don’t know enough to be useful here, so you just tell me what I need to know.

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

Robin: I’m not represented. That’s a huge one because when you transfer to this mode of learning, it’s a little bit the sort of Wikipedia model, although Wikipedia is a horrible example because of representation in Wikipedia and the stats we have on that, but the idea that you can pay attention to all the voices in your community but the open movement is really wrestling with this right now to figure out how much is about open and licenses and sharing and how much is about creating an ecosystem of inclusivity, access… the kinds of things that truly do shape a commons, which we mostly don’t have in education, so the commitment, I think, is for me is less to the technicalities of open and more towards the long-game vision, which is really about how do we bring more voices to the table to engage in the community for whatever the community’s needs are.

John: I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier; it reminded me a little bit about some behavioral economic studies and I haven’t thought about this before, but I think it’s relevant. There was some interesting experiments done by Dan Ariely a while back. Dan Ariely calls this the IKEA Effect and he notes that when Duncan Hines first started selling cake mix they sold horribly and the reason was you just added water, you stirred and you baked and people didn’t feel that they had created something, so they changed the mix so you had to add an egg to it and stirred and mixed in and baked it, but by the simple act of breaking an egg and mixing it in, it felt like they had created something in a way it wasn’t where they just added water. One of the experiments he did was he had people create these origami by following directions… of paper cranes and he asked them to evaluate how much they thought their creations were worth and then he swapped them and he asked them to evaluate someone else’s creation and people valued their own at roughly twice as high as the others across the board, and then he changed it in another iteration of this and he took some of the directions out… so it was really hard to replicate and objectively, when people evaluated the other people’s that time they rated the value of them much lower in terms of how much they were willing to pay, but because they put more work into building these things themselves, they rated their own creations much higher, and the simple act of creating something gives you this feeling of ownership and value that I think would be a useful part of this in terms of getting students much more engaged with the process and more engaged with their own learning.

Robin: Yeah, so I would say two things about that super fascinating set of stories that I’m totally going to use all the time, maybe tomorrow, when I speak with your faculty. So the first is that we run a customized major program where students create their own majors and the cake mix effect is enormous in our program; we have almost a hundred percent retention in our program, which I think is so very much attached to this idea that if you create it yourself that sense of ownership is huge. So, the one way I would revise your stories is the Duncan Hines model is kind of a slight of hand, right, you know, we could of just put the egg in there, and so that’s the part that I’m always wrestling with is this no hoops and mean it, so it’s actually kind of a big leap because in education we’ve known for a long time that we want to build student ownership, but we do a lot of tricks to kind of say, doesn’t this look like ownership, so how do we authentically do that instead of just sort of fake removing the egg and that’s where I think you see a lot of institutions push back—they are happy to make their students feel empowered, but they are not happy to empower their students.

John: That’s scary.

Robin: Yeah, it’s very scary and we talked about student-centered learning; when I started doing student-centered learning I was like, “Chumps, you are not doing no student-centered learning because once you center your students the whole course changes, falls apart a little bit.” It’s also the magic of tenure; it’s very risky to do a lot of the things that I’ve been blessed enough to be able to experiment with it, which have paid off, I think, hugely for our students, but there’s a lot of pushback sometimes from students and oftentimes just from institutional structures that can’t really accommodate learning that looks like this very easily, so that egg is kind of the whole thing there, right, and I love your metaphors; I’m gonna borrow them.

Rebecca: When you want to be authentic that also means that you have to be ready to completely change any plans; it’s like, oh, now we’re going down this rabbit hole that I didn’t know we were gonna go down, but I guess we’re going there and we’re all gonna go together and be open to that.

Robin: Some people are like wired for that, like my husband is a sculptor and that’s kind of the studio ethos, but so not how I came to teaching. I mean, I didn’t have my lectures written out but just super organized and when I would come to an epiphany it was always an epiphany that I had planned for many weeks… I think, “Oh my gosh, this reminds me of this thing, can you believe it?” And of course I knew all along that we were gonna be arriving at that epiphany, so when students would move in a different direction, even if I could tell at the time it was brilliant, you would have to pull them back to the place that you were going, but I have definitely changed my mode of operation because the content, really whatever you teach, it doesn’t exist in the world in 14-week packages, so the idea that you can’t do such-and-such because you’re going to miss this key fundamental thing is just bizarre when you think of the scope of knowledge, so I understand people wrestle with accreditation and we wrestle with standards and all these things are realities. But, for the most part, I think really radically meaning a lot of those buzzwords that we use is revolutionary. If you read your mission statement for your university and then you actually do some of that stuff, it’s gonna be crazy; nobody’s actually doing the things they say that they do, in my opinion.

Rebecca: A couple of weeks ago we had an episode about metaliteracy, which expands the idea of information literacy to include the idea of creation, so the idea of becoming more literate in the making of things as part of that information literacy process, which is clearly very connected to the idea of being open, especially when your students are creating this content and creating knowledge. The question that I have is one that I’m wrestling with currently as an educator who’s really about access as well, but I’ve been focusing a lot on access for people with disabilities in thinking about accessibility in that way, digital accessibility and learning those skill sets and where those come in and how do we make sure that things are visually organized and consistent so that an experience through these things that students are making is a good one for everyone who comes afterwards as well?

Robin: I am so happy that you asked that question because this has been my last three weeks; I have barely slept because I’ve started getting so excited. So, for probably the last year or so my own personal challenge has been to think about accessibility in terms of making our materials more accessible, so I’ve been learning about how screen readers actually work in order to fix my own syllabus to redo a lot of annoying things because I didn’t realize you had to use the headings to make things easier. So, I’ve just been learning that basic stuff and that’s been just a long, slow and interesting process. One of the last things that I really hadn’t learned about at all or hadn’t even really thought about was in giving presentations, which I give a lot, I had to think about slides… and so at Open Ed ‘18 in Niagara Falls… I wasn’t there, which is actually an important part of the story because one of the keynoters was Jess Mitchell, who is kind of a mentor of mine in terms of accessibility stuff—she’d be a great guest—and Jess gave a really moving and powerful keynote focusing mostly on inclusion in open and she is very much an accessibility advocate and what was amazing to me as someone who was not there and didn’t see a recording was when I looked at her slides afterwards I was able to experience really the whole keynote because they were designed to be accessible to folks who were in the room, text was organized in a certain ways and things were very clear and I came away really grateful for how she had set up these slides, which was interesting because they were really different than the kinds of slides I make. I had always prided myself on like “Robin made some fancy slides,” you know, they’re like just pretty and like visual impact and bold images, but because they were, I think, graphically designed in a lovely way, I mistakenly thought that that meant that they were actually accessible because they were clear in certain kinds of ways, but they weren’t, they weren’t set up well, so what happened was when I learned and saw in action some of the techniques that she was using, I started to look at this keynote that I was giving the other day—I had like two days left—and now the keynote was ready to go, all the slides were made; I looked at the slides and I was like, oh, crap, you know, no… So, I thought I’ll just redo these slides real quick, but what I ended up doing was really learning about the accessibility changed everything about how I approached the making, which actually ended up changing all of the ideas in the keynote in this dramatically productive way. So accessibility for me, of course, is not really just about like, oh, you have low vision or whatever; it’s very much part of this access broadly-writ idea… that openness… But beyond that because it’s built into how we build; it’s really about how we’re gonna design infrastructure and that is actually my passion right now; it’s less about making these materials—okay, so great, here’s an accessible material, great, they should be—but beyond that it’s about let’s just design an ecosystem now with access at the heart. So, in terms of accessibility, none of that sort of retrofitting one-by-one whatever, but also just what would happen with everything if access for the broadest array of learners was key. I was recently in Providence, Rhode Island at College Unbound, which is just a very cool program for adult learners completing college—they have to have least nine credits to start—but many of them have many more… and there are mostly students of color, mostly poorer students and mostly, I’d say, they seem like over 30 in age and they start their seminars with a hot meal and then after the hot meal they go into their different cohorted seminar rooms and tons of those students have their kids with them and the kids are just a normal part of the learning environment there and the whole place is designed around what kinds of access people needed, what times of day and what services in order to come here to learn and I just feel like everything about the content that we’ll produce and the ways we’ll set up schools and just everything will change if that’s how we build—we build around what I might call human beings, right, which is like the most innovative idea of all, right, it was not technology, it was humans.

John: Audience matters, as Rebecca is fond of mentioning on this podcast.

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

John: Well, I did it for you this time.

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

Robin: And it’s exciting, I mean, honestly, it’s just exciting because you do realize when you start thinking this way that it is again gonna change everything, right, you’re not just gonna put a caption on your video, it’s gonna be like every single thing is gonna change and that’s why it’s also important to say like, “Here’s how I still suck,” because you can’t just decide to do this and then be done. I’m just learning every single day, I’m messing up every single day and I think it’s better to kind of own that and think of it as a process, which is really invigorating.

Rebecca: To speaking about the process, how would someone get started? What advice would you give someone who is inspired to be more open in their process and the way that they teach and what they put out in the world? What’s the first step?

Robin: Well, the first thing I might encourage people to think about is what excites or interests you here? I think starting with a thing is not really the way to start. So, for example, a lot of times people will come down into our teaching and learning center (where my office is co-located—in the teaching and learning center). So, people will come down—“I need to start a blog with my students”—“Oh, okay, we can help you with that, why do you want to do a blog? “I don’t know; everybody’s blogging.” “Okay, we got to blog.” You really don’t have to blog; you could blog, we could help you, but I think having a sense of the goal: do you want to connect your students out to their communities? Do you feel like that would be valuable for your students? Would you like to lower some access barriers for your students? For me, there’s a lot of excitement that happens when I think about the hardships that we face in public education and trying to make a case for working in more public ways and what public work looks like, so I tried to start with what might excite faculty. So, you can do that on a one-on-one level or when I talk to large groups of faculty I usually start by helping them understand some of the implications of the high cost of textbooks, so if you just say to a faculty member, “That textbook costs a lot,” it’s too abstract. Usually they’ll just say, okay, this was 200 dollars and this one is $180; I’ve picked the 180 dollar textbook, I’m a good person… and they are… but showing them some of the data on what happens to students who can’t afford textbooks, and we have that data collected now and you can reach out to your librarians to access that data really quickly, talking about that with faculty and helping them see this as a social justice issue that impacts whether their students will pass classes, take credits, graduate from college, that I have found is persuasive, but then also talking about engaging their students in the world, really helping them to contribute rather than just consume, become better critical thinkers, all of those things are persuasive. Saying faculty don’t care about cost… I think first of all is not super true, but it’s also like we’re told all the time as faculty, cut costs. Cutting costs does not do wonderful things for learning most of the time. The things we’re asked to cut, especially in our public institutions right now. The age of austerity is decimating to innovation, in my opinion.

John: And the cost of textbooks has been rising at three to four times the rate of inflation for the last several decades?

Robin: Yeah, If you graph it out, I think the thing that I found most shocking was there’s the Consumer Price Index, you know, down below and then there’s the spiky line of the textbook cost and then if you map healthcare—it’s actually in between—it hasn’t been rising as fast as textbook costs, so I think people sometimes find that alarming.

John: Shocking, because that was also rising much faster than the inflation rate.

Robin: Exactly.

John: Going back to the issue of access, the students who have the most trouble affording textbooks often come from households where the parents have less education. Because there’s less early human capital development in those households, those students are already often starting at a bit of a disadvantage and many of them will choose either not to buy the book or wait as long as they can before buying the book. So, they’re far behind when they’re starting their classes and that would be a major factor in their retention on campus.

Robin: Yeah, actually some of this data that you’re talking about comes from the Florida Textbook Study in 2016, which is very persuasive for faculty, I think, but there’s some really new data—Eddie Watson out of Georgia, I believe, that just came out that shows that the benefits of switching to OER in terms of things like course throughput rates, grades and passing and…

John: the drop, fail, withdrawal rate, yeah.

Robin: …that the benefits are especially pronounced for students of color and for Pell eligible students. Some of our most vulnerable learners stand to make the biggest gains when they have access right from day one, and faculty recognize this when you talk to them about it because they are very used to having the small number of students in this side of the room saying, “My check isn’t in yet; I need to wait two weeks until I get paid,” or “I ordered a cheaper version that’s gonna be here in six to eight weeks” or whatever, so nobody’s surprised by it, but to realize that you are actually empowered to solve a problem in higher education is surprising to people and OER actually solves a pretty concrete problem and pretty quickly and the data shows us it solves it pretty well.

Rebecca: So what you’re saying is that OER is the gateway to open pedagogy?

Robin: Well, it’s so funny… [LAUGHTER] I have actually become maybe more famous in the community for saying the opposite because that is actually the party line: catch them with the OER and then show them the pedagogy, but as you’ll see in the faculty development talk that I’ll do here at SUNY Oswego tomorrow, I do that a little bit but definitely I think people are kinda like, “Okay, I’m in, yeah, sure,” and then you start talking about the teaching and learning and that’s when people really kind of come alive and then they shrink back again because they say, “Well, that’s you, because you’re techie and you’ve been doing this forever” because it looks overwhelming and I just want to tell them, first of all, I’m an early Americanist; there is nobody less oriented to this work than I was when I started, but I only heard about Creative Commons maybe like four years ago, like that was the first time I heard of it and now every single thing I do is related to this stuff. The learning curve is overwhelming at the very, very beginning, but the tools that you use and the ability to make these kinds of changes, especially if you do them incrementally. It is really within anybody’s ability and people should trust me when I say that because my husband is a sculptor—he’s a studio sculptor, teaches welding and that kind of stuff and he’s doing all of this now. So, he does OER, but he’s also doing lots of connected learning and his students have their own domains and he is somebody who for the most part does not really even enjoy email, so anybody can engage and I think we need good librarians and good instructional designers and we need to keep funding teaching and learning centers because paying big money to fancy software programs and outside contractors, these are sort of Hail Mary passes to save education. But, in my opinion, teaching and learning and instruction shows real benefits, but we don’t invest in it and we therefore can’t expect to get the full rewards that we could get if we were really focused on working with our faculty.

John: And a lot of the really powerful tools used in these courses are free, like Hypothesis, as you mentioned before. Do you recommend, for example, the use of Pressbooks for OER materials?

Robin: Yes, I’ve been very inspired by the Critical Digital Pedagogy folks out of Hybrid Ped and one of the things they talk about is analyzing your tools and I’ve been really trying, along with my work in accessibility—the other kind of learning curve for me right now has been trying to go through my own tools and gravitate towards not just free but open tools and that’s challenging in some ways; in other ways we’re all ready to go. I favor nonprofit companies like Hypothesis and Pressbooks is Open-source software; I use it through Rebus Community, which is a non-profit OER publishing community that’s developing now under the direction of Hugh McGuire, who was previously with Pressbooks and developed Pressbooks. So, I think the tools should not stress anybody out because the tools will be different next week, right? So, it’s not worth getting too worried if you’re like, this tool it makes no sense, okay, well wait till next week; they’ll be another tool, but it’s good to ask critical questions about if we’re really trying to not just save some cash but to maybe transform into more of a learning ecosystem that focuses on the public good, then we need to build infrastructure that has similar commitments to the kinds of content we might look at or the kinds of processes we might use in our pedagogy. That’s my goal now, is to transfer whatever I’m using into tools that have the same sort of investments that I do.

Rebecca: Speaking of infrastructure… We have infrastructure for students in teaching and learning the classroom kind of side of things, but we also need infrastructure to support faculty who want to be open and do open publishing and do this public good or public discourse methods in general. So what recommendations do you have for helping us move in that direction for public scholarship?

Robin: Yeah, but there’s a lot of myth-busting that needs to happen around open access publishing. Mostly faculty do have some pretty good autonomy, so the promotion and tenure processes that faculty will tell you, “I can’t publish in this journal because it doesn’t meet the impact factor regulations for my field.” Well, those are mostly coming from, like that old joke, “It’s coming from inside the house,” right? Really what this is is about faculty education to help faculty understand that it’s not in the best interest of faculty or knowledge to have the commercial publishing industry stranglehold on academic publishing, but of course faculty are concerned that there are quality issues, they think open access publishing sometimes is like, “I self-published this on Amazon” or whatever, so helping them understand that there are definitely low quality, predatory open access presses just like there are low quality, predatory commercial presses and helping people understand that what you’re really talking about is not whether it’s open or closed but what’s the peer review and what are you looking for in peer review. I think we’re seeing lots of institutions move towards open access policies that give faculty lots of autonomy in how they control their materials, but we need to do a better job educating ourselves about what’s wrong and broken in academic publishing right now.

John: SUNY has just introduced an open-access policy for the whole SUNY system very recently, and (at least at our institution) the upper administration, including the President, the Provost, and the Deans, have generally been very supportive, but it doesn’t always make it down to the departmental chairs and personnel committees and that’s a barrier that, as you said, we’re imposing on ourselves and it’s tough to get through, especially if you’re a junior faculty member coming up for tenure.

Robin: That’s right, and usually I tell administrators that I work with, it’s great that you’re supportive; please don’t tell anyone, you know, because we don’t want these to be top-down initiatives, they have to grow from the faculty and I don’t mean that again in the kind of Duncan Hines egg sense—like a fake way; it’s important that faculty steward the new era of academic publishing—that matters; that should not come from administration, should not come from state legislators. The state legislators are only too excited really to say, everyone must use OER. I went to our board of trustees and they were really happy to give us money for open and they said, we’re gonna pass a resolution that everybody needs to consider an open textbook—I said, thank you, I don’t want your resolution; I’m very grateful… Because it really is important that we do the education at the source which really is for the most part with faculty and actually with students, I think, is where it matters and we’ll grow it that way and the reason I have hope is that I’ve never talked with anyone for any length of time and had them say at the end, well that’s horrible and stupid. There’s lots of nitty-gritty problems to iron out and the open access community does not yet know exactly what the best path is for funding open access presses or all sorts of issues, but it’s very hard to find someone to say to you what you’re saying is horrible, so I think that we will see huge transformation in both OER and open access publishing in the next five to ten years, but we need to grow it with our people.

John: And some of the STEM fields have led the way there; the National Institute of Health and all their grants require

Robin: NASA, the White House….

John: …that things be publicly available and in public access.

Robin: Yeah, and of course those publishing models are a little bit different because there’s so much grant funding in science and the public has a right and that might be a little bit different than, say, a monograph by a historian. When we talk about open we always want to talk contextually, I think, and specifically about what makes sense for, I think, two groups: the public and the knowledge—thinking about both knowledge and users for every different example.

John: Where do you see open pedagogy as going in the future? It’s a relatively recent area and you’ve been very actively involved in this, but where do you see things going in terms of new and interesting directions?

Robin: I cannot answer that question because it boggles my mind… the question you’ve asked and I don’t think I can answer it and it wouldn’t help me to go away and think about it. I think what I could answer is where I hope things are going, and I feel very strongly that there needs to be a robust connection between open education and public education, and I feel like we are in a very dark time where our public education channels are being insidiously co-opted for private profits, and even in some of our public institutions you’re seeing the language of public just dissolve, so we’re seeing college presidents saying, “Yeah, that’s over, that era is over; we’re not going to get any more public dollars; it’s dried up; we need to get corporate money, we need to do partnerships, we’re gonna fund ourselves in these new private ways.” I think this is our chance to intercede in what I see is a very downward trend and I think open education has some really incredible possibilities for helping us articulate what public practice looks like and if we can articulate what public practice looks like, the fact of the matter is, and I do not think this is an argument, I think it’s a fact;—it’s true—I really think it’s true that it is in the public’s benefit for the public to fund the kinds of public work that we’re talking about here for both students and researchers and if we could help explain why by being a little more coherent for ourselves with what it means to work in and at public education and research, I think we’d have a better chance at making that case for the public. So that’s where I’m hoping to take all of this is to say really what we’re talking about here is a resurgence for public education at the K-12 level, resistance to the charter takeover and higher ed to say it’s time to reclaim a public mission for our public universities and fund them appropriately and realize that innovation comes from people and not from private, gated… Right now, the idea is that all things innovative thrive in the market and I think that’s because we’ve been intentionally starving and strangling our publics. Wow, that was like really radical.

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

Robin: I think it’s coherent and I think it’s persuasive; I feel people come alive when I talk about it, but we need also some national leadership on this both from inside education and inside government and I don’t just mean nationally,—the United States is in a squalid mess right now, which it is—but just even in the Obama years and whatever like who are our champions for public, where is that coming from? I’d like to see more mentors and like to see our college presidents use this kind of language—if you’d like to hire me to be your college president… [LAUGHTER] Call me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Maybe that’s a “what’s next.” [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we usually end these podcasts by asking, what are you doing next?

Robin: Tomorrow, I will be here at SUNY Oswego. You know, the question of next is a really hard one; My own personal life has been changed so radically by this. I never saw myself leaving the English department, I never saw myself having a whole in some ways second career. I used to be asked to be department chair because it was your turn, not because I was anything special, and I would go under the table, you can’t make me do it. I declined everything. I really think, though, people with a grassroots passion for doing this work need support at higher levels in higher education. In terms of me personally, I started thinking about trying to step into some of those roles and I can’t say I feel sort of super personally excited about some of the aspects of that work, but I know that even though I see this as a grassroots movement,—and I do use that word—it’s really hard to change institutions, and in order to do it we’re gonna need to get people at every level to care about these kinds of things and so I’m inspired by people like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Sara Goldrick-Rab and they’re faculty, but they step out to set a national example, and I’d like to maybe think about trying to move this stuff a little bit more institutionally, as opposed to just inside of programs or with particular faculty development events. I’d like to see some institutions really step out and lead. SUNY is doing a great job. You guys have about 48 of your 64 institutions, I think, actively engaged and you are careening towards some system-wide impacts, partnerships with CUNY, statewide conversations; this is where I think things really get exciting to me.

John: The community college and SUNY have really been leading and they’ve been very active in doing this. The four-year colleges have been moving, but not quite as quickly and the university centers have a bit more inertia. So, SUNY has been making some really great efforts in providing incentives and doing a lot of encouragement and the workshops they’ve been funding have helped to try to get more grassroots movement, but it’s not as quick as many of us would like, but it’s much faster than it was a few years ago.

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

Robin: It absolutely is. Someone was telling me… Is this an economics thing about the parable of the ant, that ants are going up a hill? Okay, somebody on Twitter, you just sent me this,—I’m losing my brain now—but anyway, an ant is going up a hill and when because of the position of the ants eyes they can’t assess the whole hill, so all they do is at every point they could assess, I want to get to the top of the hill, and all they can assess is, okay, this is the next step that I take, so then the ant gets to the next step and it assesses again and that’s the kind of way incrementally the ant will get up. In that sense the ant doesn’t really even have to know where it’s going; it is just able to constantly resurvey and take one more step and I found that really reassuring when someone sent that over to me today. That’s kind of a metaphor for how you can keep going when you don’t always know exactly where you’re going, and also to your other point, community colleges are clearly the national leaders in this work and I find that really good for education because community colleges are actually really good at teaching and learning and it’s important to look at what they’re doing with open to learn our lessons, but also we can just learn a lot from partnering with our community colleges more effectively.

John: And they’re often the first point of access for first-generation students who may find it difficult to go directly into a four-year college, and they have many of the students who most need that sort of access.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and engaging us in this really great conversation; I hope that incremental change becomes much bigger increments as we hear more people and more people get on board.

John: And if you get one person in department doing it, it’s a whole lot easier to convince others to try.

Robin: There’s no secret trick or no secret sauce, it’s just people, so every time somebody as a human gets invested you actually get a lot closer to where you’re going, I think. It’s exciting, it’s exciting, and thank you guys for having me because this like fancy stuff and I feel very listened to and I’m gonna put all sorts of pictures on Twitter of myself in front of these microphones. [LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please subscribe and leave 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen, and Dante Perez.


48. The Culture of EdTech

As faculty, we engage with education technology as it relates to our classes but rarely consider the larger EdTech ecosystem. Dr. Rolin Moe,  the director of Academic Innovation and an Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University, joins us to discuss the politics, economics, and culture of EdTech.

Show Notes


John: As faculty, we engage with education technology as it relates to our classes, but rarely consider the larger EdTech ecosystem. In this episode we examine the politics, economics and culture of EdTech.


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 Dr. Rolin Moe, the Director of Academic Innovation and an Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University. Welcome, Rolin.

Rolin: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re glad to have you here. Our teas today are…Rolin, are you drinking tea?

Rolin: I am John.

Rebecca: Yes!

Rolin: I am having the Maui Up Country blend that I picked up on a on a vacation that I had brought for the office, and we ran out. So I am drinking the wonderful Keurig inspired Celestial green tea today. But I am joining you guys over there. [LAUGHTER] What are you guys having?

Rebecca: I think it’s a green tea day. I’m having black raspberry green tea.

John: …and I have a ginger peach green tea.

Rolin: Excellent.

Rebecca: We’re all in sync without planning, so that’s nice.

John: We invited you here to talk a little bit about your April 2017 EDUCAUSE Review article (which has created a little bit of a stir) where you were talking about the growth of educational technology in higher ed. What types of EdTech in particular were you talking about?

Rolin: So, John that’s a good question… and a little bit of preface on the article itself. I wrote that with George Veletsianos, who is Canada Research Chair in Innovation and a Professor of Education and Innovation at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. We started this project in 2013 at a time when MOOCs had just come into conceptualization. Laura Pappano noted that the year before had been the “Year of the MOOC.” John Hennessy at Stanford said that the MOOCs were going to be a “tsunami that was going to wash away higher education as we knew it.” Clay Shirky compared higher education to a rotting tree that was in need of a lightning strike and this was going to change it… and so, this very optimistic (to the point of Pollyanna) thought on educational technology. And George and I both, as people who are scholars and practitioners in educational technology, were a little taken aback by this. The promises that were being related to educational technology didn’t match the literature. The history of educational technology didn’t match the present and the future track of these innovations, based on their previous experiences (kind of Silicon Valley startups) was not a positive one. As I mentioned, we started writing this in 2013 and the landscape kept changing. Ownership would change, or business models would pivot, and we had to rethink what we were doing. So we kind of, instead, came back to this more systematic review of what is educational technology, or EdTech, and we thought of it in socio-cultural terms as a phenomenon. So, thinking about that, it’s not necessarily a product that we are providing critique for but it’s more of the idea that by bringing products in, whether they be cloud based softwares, learning management systems, apps, learning technologies interoperability, or LTI, or outsourcing it to a third-party vendor, whatever that vendor may be. That approach cannot be thought of as altruistic in and of itself, but it is built in society that is usually, at best, tangential to education, but often completely separate… being brought in for profit bearing reasons, whereas our institutions, by and large, are education-bearing institutions that are looking to gain enough profit to continue operation. So, what EdTech are we looking at? We really want to be creating a more critical consumer of all EdTech. And you can definitely see that today in privacy issues that are coming out with Facebook and algorithmic issues that are happening with Twitter, and discussions of what constitutes free speech or hate speech on these platforms. When we wrote, we were much more thinking about the technology that’s getting into schools, but even there, some of the things that are happening in K-12: the data from these students is not necessarily protected, whether it’s getting hacked and sold to other places or if the companies themselves have connections to other products and other vendors. So, it’s a really meta piece to be thinking about. I don’t necessarily have an axe to grind with any particular software. That’s why we were very software agnostic when we were writing the piece. We just really want to be much more conscious of how we’re using technology in our teaching practice and what is happening because of the technology we’re bringing into our classrooms.

Rebecca: Thanks for laying down that groundwork. I think that foundation is gonna give us a good ground for discussion today and will help our listeners know exactly where we’re starting.

John: A lot of these things, where people were really optimistic about the introduction of MOOCs and so forth, we’ve seen all this before. Television was going to do the same thing. Before that radio was, if we go back further, printed books were going to have this big impact. So, these are issues that have been around for a long time. But, you focus on several issues that, perhaps, are more pressing now. One of the things you talked a little bit about is how colleges have been pressured by economic circumstances, by rising tuition costs and pressure to keep costs lower, to rely more on these external vendors. Could you talk a little bit more about that aspect?

Rolin: Absolutely. I need to preface here again, John, I appreciate you bringing up television. Because there’s a time that a lot of institutions invested in broadcast studios, with the idea being that we were going to be able to amplify education and we’re going to be able to have closed-circuit educational opportunities at senior centers and satellite campuses. And so you have in many land-grant colleges these forgotten studios, that in some cases are now being turned into teaching and learning centers where you have a green screen and you can show what you’re doing in Canvas, or Desire to Learn, or Blackboard, or whatever the system is that you may use… Moodle, I don’t want to leave anybody out. But, to think about my experience as an educator, I have a connection to this particular podcast. I cut my teeth as an educator in my first career, which was in film, at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program where I got to know John Kane, who has been kind of very foundational in how I think about teaching and learning. So John, thank you for that, and it’s wonderful to be on your show. We’ve seen all of this before and we failed to learn our lessons in education. So, we didn’t get out of television what we thought… what we thought we’d get out of radio we didn’t get. It’s important to look back and see “Well, what didn’t happen that we expected to happen? What did we plan for? What was the consequence? What were the unintended benefits? and what were the unintended pitfalls?” The problem, or the big difference today, is a lot of the technology is being looked at from an efficiency standpoint. So, television and radio and even if you go back, like you mentioned with the printed books, you go back to correspondence courses and using the Penny Post in order to be able to give keyboarding instruction for secretarial jobs. So, those technologies were based on much more inclusivity in education. You had a technology that made education available for more, and you had an opportunity to get away from geographic distance as what was keeping people from school. With digital technology what we’re seeing now is almost an inverse relationship that “Yes, we have this opportunity and we sell it.” So, the MOOCs were sold as an opportunity to democratize education for everybody. But, this is really framed in a cost-cutting perspective. That we’re going to bring in technology to keep costs down. That’s very important, costs in education, and higher education especially have skyrocketed, and to think about how we can be looking at this. But it’s disingenuous to say that our digital technologies are going to democratize education for all when we want to use them to save money more so than grant access. We have to look at both critically. We have to put the same research behind both. Moreover, what’s happening when our use of technology is in the gaining of data analytics that could be used, at best, in our spaces, but at worst by third-party vendors that we’ve signed contracts with that we don’t truly understand where they’re going or where they’re taking these things. So, I started with your question and went in a lot of different directions I’m realizing. But, I think it’s important to do that historical review and think about all those places because there’s a desire there, with what education’s supposed to be, if you want to think about Enlightenment-based thinking on education. But, we are at a different point now than we were with what someone like Soren Nipper would have called generations of technology. The first generation being radio, the second television, the third digital. This fourth kind, of web 2.0, has a much greater economic impact, both on the institutions as well as the whole purpose of education. That’s something that we don’t see a lot of in the literature and something that compelled George and I to write this article.

Rebecca: I’m hearing you talk about the the desire for more access but then also these rising costs. If we’re using EdTech, are students actually just getting more access? or are we just making things more expensive at the cost of actual learning?

Rolin: Yes. [LAUGHTER] It’s difficult because in some cases there is an upcharge on taking the course online. And there’s good reason for that because in order to teach a course online, if I’m an administrator, I now have to think about a faculty member who’s going to be working through that course. I have to think about any licensing that I need for contents. So, making sure that my reserves in the library can be easily flown into my LMS and that I have the rights for reproduction in that space. I have to think about instructional design, I have to think about information technology. I have this much larger infrastructure that’s involved, depending on what I’m doing: if I’m going to be using an anti-plagiarism software; if I’m going to be using an online proctoring software, a special grader, a video library of contents. There are four or five different buckets of LTI and those are the general ones, not anything discipline-specific. So, that brings this cost up. At the same time, if you think about Moore’s law, and as technology is increasing and the capacity to do things continues to increase, traditionally we have seen costs go down in this model. That hasn’t happened with education. So you have a space where students are presented in media and, I would say in a lot of cases by schools themselves, that this online efficiency opportunity to engage is going to bring your cost down, but then your cost is becoming more, because the cost on the institution is more. All of that is to say, at some point, if you’re gonna be selling both cost savings and access, that’s not a recipe for success. In many cases, we have the access, but it’s not to people, it’s not to a high impact educational experience that you have come to think with a stereotypical higher education space. I think of the Sally Struthers ITT Tech, you know, where you can do the courses in your pajamas. So we’re giving access in real time to curriculum and to materials, are we necessarily giving it to really engaging learning activities? In some cases, yes… but I don’t think the literature would say that those brightest cases of access are meeting that romanticized version of what it means to be a student in higher education. In many cases the most successful institutions in creating access and bringing costs down are the ones where faculty have been replaced by kind of quasi-administrators who work as admissions support specialists, tutors, retention specialists, program developers, and fundraisers. Kind of doing all of that from an office space, and that looks remarkably different from what we see in cinema, as somebody who works in film studies… what we see in cinema as that college experience. So, we’re gonna have to rectify what it is we think college is supposed to be with what it is we’re selling it as.

John: Might some of that be that, with new technologies… giving an example from economics… when steam engines were first introduced, we didn’t see any real improvements in productivity for decades after that. When the internet was first introduced and people shifted businesses to that, it’s taken decades before we’ve seen much of an increase in productivity. Is part of it that we try to use the new tools in the same way that we traditionally taught and we haven’t learned how to use it more efficiently, or is it something inherent in the shift to more digital media that limits the interaction between the instructor and student and may limit learning somehow.

Rolin: John, thank you for bringing that point up. If you think about professional development technology, the stereotypical overhead projector that is used to present material is then replaced by the PowerPoint…and what was interesting is, in some cases, the first uses of PowerPoint in classrooms (because of bandwidth issues) were printouts of PowerPoint slides that were then put onto overhead transparency. So what we see in many cases today what constitutes online learning is the lecture based approach the “sage-on-the-stage” model of teaching where we’re using our learning management system to do what we’ve traditionally done, and it’s what I would call a mediocre middle. It both misses the point of improving education and also misses the point of utilizing the technology, but it’s what we do. My fear is that there has been a financial success in doing things in this way, or at least creating a media culture that equates formal education to the lecture. So you think about a TED talk, or you think about a Coursera lecture… this idea that it is a faculty members responsibility to share their wisdom as the person who’s speaking through it. A podcast is another space, we’re people who are talking in a space. Now that doesn’t mean there’s not a space for podcasts and there’s not a space for lecture, but it’s easy to package that content and put it into a learning space that you’re hoping to monetize. For learning to be effective online and bring down costs, probably requires a pretty seismic shift in how we think about business as normal. Some of the early critiques of online education were that it would turn us into a fordist space, where it was gonna be the assembly line production. That was gonna get away from a faculty member as kind of an auteur, somebody who has the course from its implementation to its full assessment. With online that’s almost impossible to do for the sanity of anybody. So, in some cases, that model is going to need to change in order to be successful. We haven’t figured out what that looks like yet and the human capital costs of doing it right so far outweigh the benefits that you get from allowing students to be able to take classes from a distance and increasing your enrollment, hopefully through online. We haven’t figured out how to weigh the human labor that goes into that. And I think some of it is also we haven’t changed… I’m gonna get radical here, the expectation of what it means to be a professor is still the same as it was 50, 60 years ago, but what we consider is knowledge has changed pretty significantly with Ernest Boyer’s thoughts on scholarship. What it expects to be a faculty member… so the expectations of teaching at even teaching heavy institutions have gone up but the expectations on scholarship or service have not changed. So instead of it being a triangle of scholarship teaching and service it’s this odd triangle that is morphed into a parallelogram with no extra time given to these spaces. So, we’re gonna have to think about our governance structures and our infrastructure if we’re going to be successful. There’s an article in The New York Times this week we’re recording this in mid-September talking about what the next financial bubble may be, and it points to student loans that the cost of education has gone up fourfold over the last 30 years, outpacing everything, including healthcare… and the student loan debt has over the last five years, overtaking credit card debt. It’s the largest amount of debt that exists in any industry. That cannot keep up. Y et costs continue to rise. So another thing; in the next 7 years, that traditional college age, students 18 to 22, is going to decrease in 2025 because of demographic shifts. So, there’s a lot that’s going on at this point, and John, you mentioned the steam engine and how it took decades… Well, we keep saying we’re the Wild West and we only have years until we get to the cliff, and many people would say we’re already past that point; we’re at the point of no return. I like to be a little more optimistic than that.

Rebecca: I’m gonna go back to a little bit of discussion about access. Some of the things that I hear you describing is that the technology is allowing us to have access to information or the distribution of information. Which is why the lectures, the podcasts, et cetera are easy to package and deliver the access to that information. But, what I’m not hearing is access to learning or the access to becoming a scholar, or a way of thinking or being in the world. And I wonder if some of the movements in OER or the open education resources are trying to push the envelope or push the technology and access more in that direction, or if it’s really still emphasizing the ability to just deliver information.

Rolin: Rebecca, you bring up a really great point. And I’ll touch on OER because it’s a fascinating case study in this space, but if you look at the history of distance education with technology, the focus was on bringing people together… that the content operability was not the key point… but it was being able to bring people from disparate geographies or cultures or climates together to learn. And so it is based in constructivism and constructionism and social learning theory and activity theory and all of the wonderful progressive learning theory that is moving teaching and learning today. And the technology that is predominantly used stands much more didactic, maybe behaviorist, in approach because it’s easier to measure that than it is to measure the much more engaging work that happens when you bring people together. So I had an opportunity (I’ll try and not give away any disclosing information on this), but I had an opportunity to work with a group on a MOOC in after the first wave of MOOCs—this was 2013–2014. They were on a major platform and they had created a course, and it was not a traditional STEM course; this was an arts-based course that they had created. And the platform came to them at the end and said, here’s what happened in your class and had this ream of analytics and they said “Well, wait a second. We had a Facebook group, we had meetups, we had a lot of people create artifacts. Where does that fit into this?” And the platform just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, I don’t know. We can tell you how long someone watched the video and they were saying, “That’s not what’s important to us. What’s important is what were the conversations that were happening and how is that gonna relate to where they’re going further.” We’re in a time of measurement today, yet our measurement structures are much more basic than our capabilities with technology. And so we’re engineering the technology to perfect those measurement techniques. We can’t do much more with bringing people together and engaging more progressive emergent learning theory with technology. I think what George and I were arguing is the technology, as it stands today, doesn’t feed that because that’s not what’s getting the clicks, that’s not what’s moving the needle, whatever metaphor that you want to use in that space. MOOCs are a fascinating space to look at this because the MOOC acronym actually comes from an experiment in social connectivist learning from 2008 with George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and the great Canadian contingent. And then Sebastian Thrun didn’t even talk about it when he became the father of the MOOC in 2011. He was looking at a bold experiment in distributed learning at Stanford. It was a New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin who made the link between what George Siemens had done and what Sebastian Thrun had done and called it a MOOC. And it kind of stuck and that’s where we went with that. So it’s very interesting to look at the hype versus the research and why the hype is what’s pushing the cart when in academia we like to say it’s the research that does. Now you mentioned OER. I want to focus on that because this is a really fascinating space that in the last couple years you’ve seen this remarkable push on open educational resources, open textbooks, and I am a longtime advocate of open education… been attending the open ed conferences that David Wiley has been putting on since 2013. I ran the unconference there last year. So I’m advocate for what they’re doing. But it is interesting to think about their success and what their advertising is. Their paramount success is really focused in textbooks. So while you have the opportunity to edit a textbook and you have the opportunity for a faculty member to build artifacts of knowledge with students and cross collaboration, that’s not what’s moving the conversation today. What’s moving the conversation are these static textbooks that bring costs down for students. And I like to be the voice that’s saying, don’t forget about these places, because I worry that we’ll see something, and you can even see a little bit of it happening now with publishers who are wanting to open wash or green wash or astroturf what open is and say, “Oh, you know, here we are over here at Pearson or McGraw Hill and this is our contribution to the space.” When you look under the hood it looks remarkably different, but if the focus remains on this static text book in that adoption, it’s easy for that to co-opt. So, to answer the question in a more broad sense, I think in general we have research that’s telling us one thing and we have marketing and public relations and cultural ideology that’s saying something else. I don’t want to say we’ve done a poor job, but the two are very incongruent right now and usually it’s that media PR machine that’s pushing things and we’re playing catch-up and it’s easy to lose track of the research in that.

Rebecca: As a public institution like we are, obviously access as in all people should have access to the information is really important, but I always get concerned about the people who are generating the technology pushing it in the wrong direction and people who value everybody having education and learning not being able to push the envelope or push the technology in the direction that we want to push it in. They’re kind of butting heads in some ways.

Rolin: I would absolutely agree with that. And accessibility, it’s really wonderful to see accessibility being brought forward in terms not only of contents but also of learners, and so the stigmatism of having learning disability or an emotional or physical or some need to engage with content, that now is going to be supplemented by an institution. And that we are designing with that in mind. We’re designing a universal access and UDL that we’re engaging in this space, and that’s a really wonderful change that has happened in higher education. When people talk about the cost of higher education, it’s important to note that things like that are bringing the cost up, and I don’t think any of us would want to get rid of any of those pieces. The problem, of course, becomes “What is the historical understanding of this place?” and “What is our institutional objective and our institutional memory versus these changes that are happening in how we think about teaching and learning?” And I’ve done as much as I can locally at Seattle Pacific University to start conversations and meet people where they are and I think we’ve had some some pretty remarkable success in rethinking some of our structures, but we’re a private liberal arts institution not dealing with the state bureaucracies, not dealing with a state system, not dealing with tens of thousands of students, and it becomes difficult to navigate all of that. Bureaucracy is the least worst tool that we have in order to work with that. But it’s also a great straw man or easy fall guy for any problems that come up, and too often problems continue to exist rather than being tackled because it’s tough to think about what the benefit would be going forward.

John: In your article, you talked a bit about the increasing reliance on private vendors, outsourcing tasks from institutions to vendors on the grounds that that opens things up to the free market in some way, but when we look at the provision of most of these platforms, it’s a fairly unstable market. We’re seeing so much concentration in the market where many small publishers have disappeared, and many of the innovative educational technology providers have been bought up by other large firms. We’ve seen many providers disappear.

Rolin: I’m glad you bring that up, John, because if you think back… and John, you and I have a background in K-12 and it’s really fascinating to think about this from a K-12 perspective because in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of educational film, it was the job of the media resource specialists at a K-12 library to work with faculty to be able to understand how these pieces fit together, and so they were working with Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book and Disney and ABC and NBC and the different content providers of the time, who were making educational titles. It’s a fascinating, fascinating time. The computing craze in the 1980s came at the same time as a recession. And the idea being for people to think about how this was all going to fit together. When this was created the idea was that that role was going to be vital, and the change that happened was we got rid of the media resource specialist and believed it will be up to institutions and collaborations to grow this, to make this go further. Educational film died because it became less expensive to make it and the belief was more and more people would make it. What we instead make are lectures and YouTube videos, and there’s value to both but the great expectation that we had on what these contents could be is gone and we’ve lost that. And so there’s an opportunity… I think that if you think about learning as this contextualized and locally defined space… there’s an opportunity to be able to create these contents. But there’s a lot of risk that goes into that. There’s a lot of quality control that we we didn’t necessarily expect. And there are a lot of other costs that came in and so we output to these third-party vendors, hoping that we hit pay dirt with somebody. In many cases those companies are folding regularly or they’re being absorbed into others, the learning management system ANGEL, which was a rather popular system in the early 2000s and early part of this decade got bought out by Blackboard, and a lot of the people who liked ANGEL liked it for the reasons that it wasn’t Blackboard. But to think about, in that perspective, it’s almost impossible today for institutions to take this on their own. There’s just not a return on investment that works for that, so that means you either have to create these partnerships across institutions that historically have been at war with one another, or you invest in the promises of third-party vendor, either a small one that’s telling you what you want but may not be around in a month, or a large one that you have a lot of trust issues… best-case scenario, trust issues on the kind of service you’re going to receive; worst-case scenario, what does it look like what’s happening to your data, what’s happening to your analytics, what’s happening to the ownership of what you’re producing.

John: Going back to ANGEL a little bit, we used to use ANGEL here and in many ways I loved it; it had some really nice features that Blackboard is a ways away from getting. It had automated agents and so forth, but ANGEL was actually created at Indiana University. And one of the problems they had was that in the 2007 recession, state support for Indiana University was cut significantly and they owned this big cash cow that they could sell off… and so we lost a fairly viable provider in large part because we see in general a decline in federal and state support for higher ed and it puts institutions in a difficult bind where they often outsource more and more.

Rolin: Absolutely and ANGEL is a good example of that. You can go into the 60s with Plato. It was a Midwest State school that was doing Plato. I think about Quest Atlantis was another great thing that gets mentioned in all sorts of progressive educational research that was funded by grants and the funding dried up and there was no way to sustain it. The MEK Corporation, the people who created Oregon Trail and super munchers and that educational software, where is that today? And I work in educational film, I think about it from that perspective. How have we lost those film providers and now we just think that content will fit in for what was historically this really rich and vibrant place to engage, but we’ve lost it on the software side and the teaching and learning side, and we’re outsourcing so much of what we already do to the free market. Certainly there is benefit to that, but at what cost? And I don’t think there’s been enough analysis of what that cost has been.

Rebecca: So, you’re really bringing up the idea that EdTech is not neutral and that there’s competing goals. So, technology companies are obviously trying to make money and then we’re trying to have students learn, ideally. How do we help those things become more aligned? What needs to happen so that we’re not at odds but that we actually find alignment and essentially make the world better which, in theory or in PR, is what’s being said?

Rolin: I think for the first piece, Rebecca, is understanding that EdTech is not neutral, and once we have that foundation, that we understand what we’re using and what it relates to, we can be much more thoughtful about how we use it. So, I am a faculty member but I am primarily an administrator and I use our learning management system here on campus. I could go off the grid; I could try and do something completely different, but it’s important to show support of what we’re doing with an understanding of how that works, and so we have our LTI, whether it’s anti-plagiarism software or proctoring software and all these pieces, and as a scholar I can have criticism of that. So, as a practitioner, how do I help my students understand what they’re getting into with this and making informed decisions about that space. So, I think it really comes into this idea of understanding the learning environment and what my job is: to control… to create pathways for students to be able to learn and to scaffold that and to fill knowledge gaps and help people expand their zones of proximal development, to go Vygotsky on us. I need to cede some of the “management control” that goes into: “Well, we use this, and this is what’s going on.” But, let people make thoughtful decisions about what’s happening with the technology that they’re using. My son in K-12 can opt out of state standardized testing and that’s a decision that’s made as a family. Dealing with college students, we don’t give them the same rights to opt out of some of the technologies that are being used. So, I think about the proctoring technology that was out of Rutgers that was running in the background on computers using retinal scans to engage people and that’s just what you get when you sign up and there’s no informed decision or consent. There’s not even a Terms of Service that you have to read through and then click a button that you don’t actually end up reading. Can we have more of these conversations? Can we be more informed? Because, if we have that information, we’ll be much more thoughtful in the decisions we make on what vendors we choose. The vendors will then have to respond to that market in making software that is more open or more transparent in its use and the application of its data. People have to make a profit. Education has to make a profit. We can marry those pieces together and have a somewhat vibrant marketplace that is serving the learning of students. I think the issue is, right now for EdTech, the student is the customer, not the buyer, and so there’s a gap there that if we have students much more involved in all aspects of that and involved in those conversations, that becomes part of learning experience. I think that that could see some more direct improvements than just generally saying, “well, we’re thinking about this and we’ll continue to think about this going forward.”

Rebecca: I think one of the things I’m sorry I was gonna pick up on the threat of audience but okay

John: You mentioned keeping students in the zone of proximal development. One concern with standard lecture based teaching is that students are pretty much forced to move along at one pace. What’s your reaction to adaptive learning? Is that something that could help, or are there some limitations that we should be concerned with there?

Rolin: I mentioned Plato earlier, the first personalized learning network—basically adaptive learning. I think that there’s a wonderful opportunity for adaptive learning platforms and for being able to bring in competency-based education into spaces. Thomas Edison University has an amazing program that is built on the idea of competency-based education. Alternative pathways and moving away from “seat time…” there’s definitely viability for that. It just has to be thoughtfully executed… and what is the purpose of the learning that is happening in that space? So, if I think about a School of Health Sciences, I think about nursing… if I’m going to get a degree in nursing, there are really specific things that I need to do. I need to pass very specific exams that are proctored in very specific ways that expect me to maneuver in very specific fashions. The seat time is important for that, and that space there needs to model what I’m going to be getting into in an industry. So, I can’t be an intrepid change agent saying, “No, this needs to be social learning theory,” it needs to be what takes off in nursing. No, nursing students need to be able to be successful in the expectations of their field. There are the places that adaptive learning can fit into that. You see it in foreign language in many cases and the supplements that are happening there. Keyboard instruction is another one where that comes in. So, how could we use the best of that to be getting into other spaces. I think some things that we could explore there, as we rethink disciplines and what works for economics or film studies or education. I think there’s some places with that critical thinking… that soft skills, 21st century learner stuff… where the adaptive learning could come in…. so, misinformation, media literacy, fake news… big hot topic and I wrote an article in 2017 that got a lot of attention (not all positive) saying that fake news wasn’t the problem; it’s not what’s ended up resulting in Brexit or the results of the 2016 election. But it was a small part of a landscape that had been neglected and was suffering from blight for a long time because of how we teach this stuff. And I wonder if thinking about digital literacy, which we’re all expected to incorporate into our classrooms, if that could be served by an adaptive learning platform that engaged content, theory, criticism and evocative video to be able to move somebody on a pathway. That’s a place where all of us could come together because there’s no discipline that owns information literacy. It’s built out of information literacy in libraries. But librarians often are the most flexible in thinking about how their craft is going to change. Places like that, critical thinking, the stuff that we’re all told needs to be imparted to our students, but it’s just kind of this hooray concept of “Oh yeah, let’s have this.” Maybe those are the places to really focus on the successes of that and then the research can help define how economics could engage adaptive learning or film studies or education or cell biology.

Rebecca: One of the things that you said earlier is that students aren’t the audience of or aren’t the buyers of the technology. And I wanted to shift that a little bit to thinking about audience and who things are designed to and I think you’re right in that tech companies are selling to administrators who are the ones that are doing the buying and the purchasing who are trying to facilitate certain things, keep cost down, et cetera. How do we shift that conversation so that tech companies start to see the end users who are really students and faculty as the audience of their marketing, of their conversations, and actually shift things so that they focus on the research around learning and improve learning rather than just facilitating something?

Rolin: The key part of what you said, Rebecca, you kept going back to learning, and I think that’s what’s missing in these vendor conversations. We have this idea of what learning is and if I’m a vendor and have mounds of data I can point to achievement and I can point to the things that I measure in my platform that lead to that achievement, and for most instructors that’s not evidence of learning. That might be a small part of it but there’s a much larger picture. And we do a poor job of amplifying that research. That research doesn’t play well in mainstream media, so how do we do a better job of sharing that research. What constitutes learning? What makes learning happen? I love going to YouTube and looking up “do-it-yourself how to fold a fitted sheet,” ‘cause I don’t do a good job of folding a fitted sheet. And I’ve tried numerous times and I still struggle, so that video isn’t the piece that I need to be able to move me there. Now, there are other pieces, potentially making something for dinner that I would be able to replicate in that space, but replication again is not learning. So, even an understanding of: What is learning? What does that mean? How do we define what it is to have learned something? What it is to be a learner? “Lifelong learner” is a commodified term at this point when it really should be a state of being for, I would say, pretty much anybody. How do we engage those conversations? That’s a really complex question. In terms of an institution, how do we bring more student voices into these spaces? and not in a placating fashion of, “Well, we now have a student sitting on this committee.” But to really understand how that student can canvass and caucus with their peers to be able to provide us information. In the same way that if I’m serving on a faculty committee so that I’m meeting my service requirements, but if I’m getting something out of that and I’m giving back that’s a wonderful experience. A student serving on a committee… how can we provide them what they need for their CV or for their graduation in a way that what we’re asking from them they can provide us? …and not just sitting there and saying we’re listening to what they’re providing but often not doing that. So, more student voices in those decision-making processes… more research that’s going to be shown to the vendors… and I think we need to be more thoughtful about those vendor conversations. One thing we do here at Seattle Pacific University, we actually have… with our faculty… we provide entry points for vendor assessment when we do test demos. What are some of the things that faculty who are very interested in being part of these conversations but are coming in the middle of it… what’s happened so far and what are questions they can ask we’ll be able to draw out their expertise and what we need from the vendor? The more of that that we do, the better. I know the California State University systems doing something similar on automating a great deal of the pre-production that goes into assessing vendors so that the stakeholders who are asked these questions have that information in a repository and can access it very easily to make an informed decision, rather than it being brought down from higher administrators… lots of information that’s tough to digest in a small period of time.

John: What do you see as some of the most promising areas where EdTech has some potential?

Rolin: Excellent. My wife loves to say it’s very easy to show why you’re against something, but you get into this business to be for something. Get in education to really share the diffusion of knowledge and help people rise to heights they didn’t know were possible. Fall in love with things they don’t yet know exist as Dr. Gary Stager would say. So, what are some of the positive things that are happening? I really think there’s a chance for a revolution in multimedia. Here’s this podcast that is happening in an interdisciplinary fashion in SUNY Oswego bringing in a faculty member from a completely different perspective who serves an administrator having this conversation. More and more of this is happening. Before we went on the air, John, you were talking about editing your two channels and making sure the sound was right and all of these skills that were picked up that don’t come when you get your PhD in economics. So, as these pieces are coming in how do we value that and so you see more administrations and more governance bodies that are providing value to that. We were talking, Rebecca, about open education. The University of British Columbia now will recognize the editing of OER materials as part of promotion, tenure, and review for their School of Education. That’s a phenomenal change that has happened in how we think about the role of the faculty member as a distributor and conveyor of knowledge. I think people are being more thoughtful at this in this day and age. But, you did ask specifically about technology, so I need to pivot back there for a second. I love some of the stuff that’s happening in virtual and augmented reality. Some of the really interesting research that’s happening there. I like the drop-in classes that are happening around special interest topics that often, in many cases, are informal or non-formal learning spaces. Museums putting on areas where you can come in and learn in a certain time. Kind of a gap between a human experience and the MOOC but you’re kind of doing both at the same time. I think that the opportunities that we have with free and ubiquitous devices… and I don’t mean free as in cost but I mean free as in access to… and especially in the West with broadband capabilities, what’s going on with video and how we can better engage that and as more people learn about nonlinear editing and cinematography and camera and sound. What are some of the resources we’re gonna build there? Opportunities for students to share their knowledge is the main thing that comes forward for me. WordPress, which runs, what, a quarter of websites in the world is getting incorporated more and more into courses. You think about the WordPress camps. There’s a great thing happening in New York City coming up on managing the web and how you can work with students to be able to be creators and owners of the knowledge that they’ve created and what the implications are in that space. It is kind of a tough time to be bullish on technology if you think about Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon and antitrust that’s going on in all of those spaces. And so a lot of the stuff that I’ve mentioned here is somewhat renegade, somewhat guerrilla even. So where are those opportunities to engage with environments through online? It comes back to community in that space. How do you find and foster that in your networked identity. There are opportunities and more and more that’s going to be happening. I think that we’re in this storm and after this there will be, not a calm, but there will be an opportunity to look at what’s been broken and how can we build and improve going forward, and I think that we’re getting to that point sooner rather than later.

Rebecca: We generally wrap up by asking what’s next. You talked a little bit about what’s next in EdTech, but what’s next for you?

Rolin: What we’re doing at Seattle Pacific University around academic innovation; we have been offering seed grants to faculty for the innovations that they see as necessary, whether that’s in a classroom, in a department, in a college across the entire campus working out in the community. We provided 45 of those over a two-year period, so almost a third of our faculty directly affected by those and it was very powerful, so we’re taking that a step further and engaging at a school or college level and finding innovations that we can then potentially put into day-to-day operations. So, one of the things we’re thinking about actually are adaptive courses. What would it look like for a course in nonlinear video editing to be almost entirely online. And you think about that with lynda.com. I can go to lynda.com and take a tutorial in using Final Cut or Adobe Premiere. What am I getting out of being in a higher education institution that I can’t get off of Lynda? That’s what we’re exploring: what does it look like to have that scaffolding and support that’s directed toward a greater understanding of knowledge? Other things are definitely around social justice. We are seeing at Seattle Pacific an increase in first-generation and historically underrepresented students who are coming in with the same scores as their peers but, once they get here, we’re seeing a discrepancy between where we would expect them to score and where they are scoring. And we have statistically significant research showing that that is the first-generation student demographic. So, what are some pieces we can put into play to be able to help them with their success? Because it’s not a matter of not being able to do it; it’s a matter of the structure and the culture is not befitting them. So, we have a program called the Bio Core Scholars where we are working with tutoring and mentorship on research, community, and knowledge gaps to be able to move these students. We’re in our fifth year of this program, we’re looking at expanding it. But we have brought the students up a full standard deviation in their scores, and we had an 86 percent success rate in graduating people to pre-professional health programs, which is just a remarkable number. Personally, I’m really big on what we can do with educational video. What are some of the things instead of it just being a lecture? I love Skunk Bear on NPR, taking a topic and in three minutes doing an entertaining, evocative dive into that topic, but again, that’s Oliver Gaycken would call “decontextualized curiosity.” How do we take that and actually put it towards learning? So, I’m looking at what does it look like to have lecture mixed with a very product based assessment mixed with more evocative filmmaking to move people into learning? How does that all go forward? It’s a very exciting time to be in higher education, even with all of the things that are looming on the horizon.

Rebecca: Certainly doesn’t sound like you’re gonna be bored any time soon.

Rolin: Not at all.

John: Thank you for joining us. We look forward to hearing more about this.

Rolin: John, Rebecca, thank you guys for having me.

Rebecca: Thank you.


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. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.

32. The Three Little Pigs

What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. Rebecca Mushtare discusses how a trip through fairy tales may open up the opportunity to develop empathy skills and conversations about race, disability and identity.

Allison Rank joins us again this week, this time as a guest host.

Show Notes


John: What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. In this episode, we’ll explore how a trip through fairy tales opens up the opportunity to develop empathy skills in conversations about race, disability, and identity.


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


John: Allison Rank, a frequent guest on this podcast, joins us today as guest host. Our guest today is Rebecca Mushtare who, until this episode, had been the co-host of this podcast.

Allison: Nobody panic. She’ll be back in this chair next week.

John: Today our teas are:

Allison: English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: What?!?

Allison: …under duress. I’m highly under caffeinated.

Rebecca: I’m drinking my normal English afternoon tea.

John: …and I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.
We invited you here today… because you’re always here… but we’re asking you…

Rebecca: …it’s a matter of convenience….


John: A year ago your daughter was born… now the three little pigs have invaded your class. Could you tell us a little bit about how the three little pigs made their way into your web design class?

Rebecca: I’ve been looking for ways to help students develop more empathy for their audiences, and it’s been a struggle. Students (or anybody who’s new to anything) will immediately try to make things for themselves, because it’s the audience they know best. So, it’s the easiest way. If you’re working on technical things or other concepts you don’t have to worry about audience too, because you have that part figured out. But, I’ve been really wanting to challenge students to dive into audience and also deal with accessibility issues which doesn’t come intuitively to them. So, the three little pigs actually offers a really great opportunity to have different audience members to think about (and audience members that don’t really exist); it becomes a safe zone. In this scenario, I’m using three titles as ethnographies for the students to read to get to know their audience better. I spent some time reading about ten different versions of the “three little pigs” and I’ve identified the best three. They are: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by John Scieszka and Lane Smith, and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, and There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales Retold by Z.B. Alley and R.W. Alley.
They read those books and then we come into class and I ask them to help me understand who all the characters are, what’s important to them, and some of their characteristics or qualities that we need to think about in terms of design… and then (from the perspective of the characters) what’s going on in the community that they live in… and the frame that I’m giving my students is that they’re in this community called Dragon Town. Dragon Town has a mayor named Mayor Melanie McDonald, and she’s human, but there are talking animals and dragons and other creatures that live in this community together and there’s a clear creature divide going on. So, the humans seem to value themselves more than the other critters in town. The poor pigs, they’ve got houses that are falling down. They don’t even up stand the Wolf’s breath. So, we’ve got some issues going on here.
The students read the stories, came to class, brainstormed about these characters, and helped identify some really big issues that were happening in Dragon Town… and then my challenge to them was, in teams of three or four, to identify one of those 10 that we identified as a class…choose one that they were gonna use a web design to help raise awareness of or to start to tackle. Obviously they’re not gonna solve these big problems, but they could make a dent into it.

John: The purpose then is to have students look at a problem from another perspective, from the perspective of the intended audience of the webpage, rather than using their own biases.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly, and it’s something that they really need to practice… and so, yeah, this is a good opportunity to do that. They’re characters that their familiar with, but the books actually challenged a lot of their initial remembrances of some of the stories. So, it’s a nice way to get them to revisit that in a different way.

Allison: How was this different than how you’ve tried to approach the same topic in earlier iterations of the class?

Rebecca: In a previous episode, I think I talked about my simulated client project where I had these big company scenarios with the audience members being Oswego (the community that we live in) and they worked okay… but the students had trouble aligning themselves with older adults or middle-aged individuals who they just don’t seem to find relevant to themselves and even though these are individuals that are readily available in our community that you could interview and get to know, it was a struggle. We did a project in the fall, “The Voices of Oswego Veterans” project that we had a guest (Stephanie Pritchard) on who talked about that project… and we did a web project with that as well… and that was another way to deal with the audience. This time the audience was members of the Oswego community (the SUNY Oswego community), so they had a little bit easier access to that community… but the community that they were representing was different from themselves. These were students, so the population that they were addressing or talking about was student veterans, which was an identity that nobody in the class happened to identify with. That got us closest to solving the problem… but it wasn’t quite where I wanted them to be yet. What’s nice about this is that you don’t have to worry about offending anybody, because they’re not real.

Allison: I can imagine how the fictional characters are really helpful in terms of giving students a lot of space to play and a lot of leverage, but I have to imagine that there are some real challenges associated with giving them that amount of space as well. I guess I sort of have a gut reaction that thinks that they will make up things that cause problems in and of themselves. They’ve got enough rope to get in some dangerous positions. What are some of the challenges that you faced?

Rebecca: That’s a really good question. What I found was, they were willing to talk about things that they were never willing to talk about before. That, first of all, was a good space to be in. That was things like: “oh, there’s species profiling going on…,” “oh, there’s accessibility issues because pigs have hooves so they can’t type and tap on the computer screen…” …the accessibility issues that just bubble up. There was also the concern that critters were eating other neighbors, so we needed to start a campaign to be vegetarian, for example. So, there’s a lot of different things that came up…. a lot of social issues… another one was stranger danger… and then they did these presentations to the mayor, and it was important because we brought someone from outside in and I think that helped prevent some of the issues that you were identifying could bubble up as being a problem, but there was someone that wasn’t me who was the audience but I didn’t tell him who it was gonna be (it was just a grad student I bribed) who came in and just sat and played the part and asked questions and what have you…. and they were taking notes and then we went away and had a meeting and I came back with notes to the students about what the client was concerned about. So, that helped resolve some issues. But, you know, in the presentations there were some crazy things that happened… like the one on stranger danger, for example, the students had still indicated that the stranger, the bad character, was the wolf and the whole point was that all of the animals, and all of the creatures, and all of the humans, also have children and they all need to be concerned about strangers. That we shouldn’t associate one population as the bad actor. We ended up having to have a conversation about that. You can’t perpetuate these stereotypes, but what happened was we could have that conversation safely.

Allison: The familiarity played in the same way that a stereotype would traditionally function in class, but in a much safer space to have the conversation that resolves it.

Rebecca: Exactly. We were having crazy conversations about racial bias, and all these sorts of things, but under this guise of “it’s about the species” and the species problem that’s going on. And now all of a sudden it became safe. When that one group was having issues getting their head around it, I said to them: “You realize that this is the exact same thing as racial bias, right?” and they just looked at me with deer-in-the-headlights look. The next time they came back, the whole project was fixed.

Allison: That was actually gonna be my next question. At what point did you pull out from playing in the sort of allegorical space to say: “Hey, here’s what we actually just did” or did you let the experience and the skill building stand on its own?

Rebecca: I let things unfold organically, and I prodded and probed as necessary. I didn’t want any projects to perpetuate stereotypes or to perpetuate lack of accessibility… those two key issues. I probed and invaded their team time a lot with those particular things to push them on that, but you know they’re not perfect. But, I think they did a lot more growing in that area than they would have otherwise. What I think is missing, that I want to do next time is allow for more of that reflection at the end, so that they could apply it to some other projects. What I’m thinking about doing is have them present the work as if they were in an interview, and so how would you explain this project and what you learned from this project to a potential employer who has no idea what Dragon Town is, so that it becomes something that’s valid and useful… and I think that’s going to take some effort on their part to make that leap. But I think it’s actually a really good project for them to talk about in an interview and most employers would see the value in that.
I already have them do portfolio documentation. I already have them thinking about that, but I need to coach them through that process a little bit more…. and maybe actually make them present that.

John: Yeah, I could see an employer looking at a webpage making a case on avoiding inter-species consumption and being perhaps a little bit puzzled….

Rebecca: The tagline was “don’t eat your neighbor.”

John: Yes.

Rebecca:… which I thought was right on.

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: Well, and that group actually was interesting too because they wanted to do something that was: “Don’t eat your neighbor.” They wanted to be vegetarian but I was like, “Well, dragons have a big appetite. What are you gonna do for them?” So they came up with this tree salad or whatever that has just bigger things. They had to adapt the recipes and things like don’t forget there’s small kids. You got to think about these different populations, and they adjusted their content accordingly, to rise to that occasion. I also found this really great article about whether or not pigs are colorblind that I used as a doorway into thinking about accessibility issues. Apparently, I learned, pigs don’t perceive color the same way that humans do. They can’t perceive as many colors, so we have to really be concerned about the spectrum of colors and the kind of contrast that colors have… so that they would be accessible to pigs,,, but that led into conversations about maybe the pigs have to use voice activation because their hooves won’t let them type on their devices… and then we also had to talk about a mobile device for a dragon is pretty large…. so we had certainly some fun playful conversations, but they were really meaningful. We started talking about those issues pretty deeply in a way that I’ve never had in my class before.

John: Were the students more open to addressing these issues when it was in this safe zone or this safe space?

Rebecca: Yeah, even when I called that one group out on being stereotypical and perpetuating bias, they just received… and were like: “Oh, okay” and then you try it again… “is this better?” “My god, could you push it a little bit more?” and gave them some ideas about how they could push it… and our first solution wasn’t great after that…. It was to put in a separate monster that didn’t exist in this world as being the stranger, and then I identified that like when someone the other, we shouldn’t just assume that they’re the bad person or the bad creature. We had to be careful. I tried to call them out on whether or not we were using the word person, because it didn’t apply to dragons. So, it was funny [in] their presentations they were really conscious about things like that and trying to be inclusive in their language. So, yeah we ended up trying to tackle some of those things, and I was pretty impressed with how far they got… but it took some pushing. That one group took four or five tries before they had something that was gonna work.

John: How did students respond when you first gave them the assignment?

Rebecca: Well, I should probably provide a little setup in that my class includes design students, marketing students, and graduate students in HCI. So, it’s a fairly diverse population in and of itself in terms of disciplinary background. So there’s that. There are a number of people in the class who may not be traditionally artsy or creative, so it’s a little risky, right? I think I’m also known for being very serious. Which if you know me personally, that might not be true, but in the classroom students perceive me as being very serious… and the semester just was not going great, to be honest. It’s like something’s got to give, the students were struggling with a lot of the technical things, and so I basically threw the syllabus out or revised it significantly. stopped and did just technical exercises so students get comfortable with some of the things that they were really struggling with… and then one day I just showed up and said this is what we’re doing… and they had a ton of fun…. and were shocked… they’re just like “Is she serious? She lost it?” There was definitely those looks, but then there was a couple of key students who just jumped in and ran with it… and I think that really helped. So, I’m hoping that that will happen again. I think if everyone in the class is a little too serious, I don’t know that it would work.

Allison: Would you plan on sticking with, in the future, the three little pigs as sort of the through line story or it sounds like the story with the five different ways that the wolf is at your door? Does that give you some entree into some other storytelling avenues?

Rebecca: There is some entree into some other avenues and I maybe need to read some more fairy tales to be up on that, but the reason why I stuck with the Three Little Pigs is actually the wolf is the character that carries through all of them. So, that the five stories that are connected are all based on the wolf and different stories. So there’s Little Red Riding Hood, the Boy who Called Wolf, those are some of the stories in that other one. So, maybe there’d be some versions? I also happen to know that there was like the version of the Three Little Pigs told from the wolf’s point of view, so I really like that because it’s in direct conflict with the Three Little Pigs version of the story. I liked that the ethnographies that they were collecting were realistic in that they conflicted with one another, that they had to deal with the fact that there was conflicting information, and that they had to resolve that or deal with the fact that a wolf’s perspective was different than the pigs perspective of what the wolves perspective was… and I think that was a healthy messiness about it that worked pretty well… and the particular version of the Three Little Pigs that I used pigs escaped getting eaten by the wolf because they jump out of the storybook. So, there’s some plot twists in there that the students wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s not a traditional version of the story… plus, they all have really great illustrations and they’re beautifully designed.

Allison: Are there other classes where you’d be interested in trying the same type of fictional ethnography technique?

Rebecca: I think it could work in some other scenarios, but I like this because it’s in my intro class. It’s a nice doorway in. What I’m really interested in seeing is, when I have a couple of these students in the advanced class next time, if that impacts their ability to do some actual real audience research and use that research in context. I think I want to monitor that first before doing some of this other work. I like it in particular because it’s a beginning class even though it’s at the 300 level.

John: It sounds like a really fun project, and there’s nothing really wrong with making learning fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, I had a good time and we had some moments where you had to really practice the deadpan look, you know, be really serious about what it is that we’re doing… and that part was really fun.

Allison: …and that seems like an amazing turnaround on a class where you have to scrap the syllabus halfway through a semester.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was amazing… the community that was formed around the project… and the way that they were exchanging with one another and coming together was incredible, and I was so thankful.

There’s nothing worse than an off semester and you just want out. I think everybody wanted out and so I just said “We’re out. We’re gonna try something new” and it worked, so that was good.

John: I guess the next question is: “what are you going to do next?”

Rebecca: That’s a good question… I think that with this project I’m hoping to expand it a little bit… so I’m currently thinking through “are there things that I can eliminate that I was doing before that I could embed in this project or I just allow them to have the time and space to fully build things out?” They have really good ideas and pretty good plans and the execution is almost there and I’d like to be able to have them have that time for the “almost there” to be “there” and then also to do that reflection piece that I kind of half-assed.

John: Okay, well thank you for joining us and I guess we’ll see you again on our next episode… and back as a host.

Rebecca: I mean, that is, if you’ll have me back.



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.


28. Augmented reality

Does reality sometimes fall short of your expectations? Perhaps it’s time to augment your reality. In this episode, Renee Stevens joins us to discuss the creation and use of augmented and virtual reality experiences that can increase our productivity, overcome cultural and language barriers, and provide a richer learning environment. Renee is an award-winning Interactive and Motion Designer and Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of Design at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. In addition to teaching, Renee also runs her own design studio, is an exclusive designer for Minted and the co-director of education for the upstate New York Chapter of AIGA, the Professional Association for Design.

Show Notes

  • Tag AR
  • R Studio (Renée’s design studio)
  • Metaverse (referred to as Meta in the podcast)
  • Pokemon Go
  • Snapchat
  • Swift
  • Yelp
  • Zombies, Run!


John Does reality sometimes fall short of your expectations? Perhaps it’s time to augment your reality. In this episode, we discuss the creation and use of augmented and virtual reality experiences that can increase our productivity, overcome cultural and language barriers, and provide a richer learning environment.

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 Renée Stevens, an award-winning Interactive and Motion Designer and Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of Design at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. In addition to teaching, Renée also runs her own design studio, is an exclusive designer for Minted and the co-director of education for the upstate New York Chapter of AIGA, the Professional Association for Design. Welcome, Renée!

Renée: Thank you.

John Today’s teas are…

Rebecca English afternoon.

Renée: Chai!

John Republic of Tea’s Emperor’s White Tea. So could you tell us a little bit about augmented reality? How does it compare to virtual reality and mixed reality and so forth?

Renée: Sure. The biggest difference between virtual and augmented reality is that virtual reality is a fully immersive experience that actually gives you a completely new view and a full inclusive view of another place. So, you could be fully immersed and you have 100% of your attention focused elsewhere, versus an augmented experience which is basically a layer of information that is applied onto the world around you. So, you are getting additional information, but yet you still have all of the things happening in your environment including your sights and sounds that you can then layer information on top of. And then of course you add that to your mixed reality which is kind of just a glorified augmented reality… where it’s a little more technical and a little bit more computer graphics based… a nice happy marriage between virtual and augmented reality.

Rebecca For those that maybe haven’t had an experience with augmented reality and can’t quite envision what you’re talking about, can you describe an augmented reality experience?

Renée: Well the one most people know would be Pokemon Go for better or worse, but that’s one that most people usually have a connection to. Snapchat also has some augmented experiences, with stickers and filters and things like that. Those are the ones that I think are the most mainstream that people understand. But, essentially, it could be something as simple as just adding navigation into the view where you’re driving… having it look like it’s in the road in front of you… or it could be something like using your mobile device to learn about something new in front of you… like a new device…. like how to turn a coffee machine on or something like that. So, it’lll apply an additional layer of information that makes the task at hand easier.

John And that information could be triggered by visual cues, by your phone’s camera, or by geospatial coordinates.

Renée: Yes, absolutely. So yeah, it depends on the function and obviously the users of the app. But yes, it could be based off of the camera… actually tracking a specific location in your environment… or your actual geolocation…. or visual cues or taps… or interactions with the user.

Rebecca What got you interested in augmented reality?

Renée: I was bored, no. [LAUGHTER] Not really.

Rebecca I’ve seen your agenda. I don’t think you are bored.

Renée: I wish. When I actually like sit down and think about it, it’s really been a perfect kind of combination of all my backgrounds. I started off with my undergraduate in graphic design, so I’ve always had this love for design. I obviously love to teach because I’m a professor, but I’ve also have a master’s degree in photography and specifically multimedia and storytelling. So, in my undergraduate, I was focused more on the foundations and the principles of good design practices and that led me in towards being more of a user experience designer and user interface designer. But my love for story and all that kind of got me into motion design, and so when you combine motion design and the user experience design… Merged together, that’s like the perfect marriage of augmented reality. So, I get to create mobile experiences and that kind of UI/UX experience, but with my knowledge and love of storytelling and designing for 3D space using time and interaction and all that good stuff. So I almost got into it by mistake, because I was just starting to do all these things and had all these ideas and I was trying to find a platform to make them come to reality. It turned out that’s in an augmented one.

Rebecca Nice… Nicely done. [LAUGHTER]…

John Nice segue.

Renée: I never said that before, it just kind of came out… so that was good.

Rebecca One of the barriers, I would imagine, in getting into this field as a designer, is having technology or packages available so that you can actually enter into this field and so the timing seems like it timed when… I think you and I talked about this previously… that it timed well when Apple released their AR kit.

Renée: Yes, so I actually had this concept for an app called “Tag AR” and it wasn’t called that at the time, but I had this idea and I was trying to make it come to fruition and I couldn’t get the technology right to do it. I had this idea, this concept… how is this going to work? And I didn’t know exactly how that was going to happen and I was actually talking to developers before AR kit came out from Apple and they were all like “we don’t have a solution for that, we don’t have a platform to release this.” So, I was kind of waiting for something to come along and that’s when ARKit came out. That day I reached out to all those developers and said “Ok, now we have the platform, who’s ready to do this?” and of course they all looked at me like “we don’t know how to do this” and I’m like “well, no one does, that’s the whole point.” So, yeah, the timing of that was great because I had this idea, this concept, and just needed the technology to back it and it all came within weeks, if not even days, looking for that perfect solution.

Rebecca How funny.

Renée: I know. It was meant to be, it’s kind of like one of those things where you don’t ask questions, you just go with the flow, like clearly that’s the path, so I just took it.

John And you’re doing the programming yourself?

Renée: Yes, so I ended up developing it myself, I couldn’t find a developer like I said. They said “you know, we don’t know how to do that, it just came out” and I said “yeah no one knows how to do it”. So I struggled trying to find the developer, and I’ll actually give my husband the credit, he said “you do what you always do” and I said “what’s that?” and he said “you do it yourself.” So, he may regret that now, seeing how many hours I put into development, but yeah that was like: “okay, I can do that” and he just gave me that extra confidence and I have been developing the whole thing independently since.

Rebecca Can you tell us a little bit about Tag AR?

Renée: Tag AR is an augmented, “hello, my name is nametag” essentially. So, what it does is it offers people’s names for you in augmented space. So, when you’re using the app, you actually can look around and see everyone’s names hovering over their heads.

Rebecca It’s not a little like Big Brother or anything [Laughter]

John But… it’s an opt-in program.

Renée: Right, it’s an opt-in program. You have to be signed in… and so the target audience is really specific for groups of people who are networking or working together. So, it’s really meant for educational platforms, for workshops, meetings, networking events where you actually want to be interacting and meeting new people. So, really any place where you would be wearing a nametag, this would be an augmented replacement for that, allowing you to see the people in the room from afar or up close, searching for people who maybe you want to make sure you network with, and then having that extra component where… you’re already on your phone… you have this device… you can then connect digitally, you have like this digital business card feature… where you could then connect with them via the app too.

Rebecca So if people want to get involved with Tag AR, what would they need to do?

Renée: Well, at the time of this recording, it will be launched very very soon, so by the time this comes out it should be in the Apple Store and, it is available for download on all iOS devices, on the iPhone. You just have iOS 11 installed and you have to have an A9 processing chip or higher on your phone to experience the augmented experience… so that’s iPhone 6s and above.

Rebecca Great!

Renée: And it’s free.

Rebecca Even better.. [Laughter] Have you designed any other or been involved in any other augmented reality experience development ?

Renée: Yes, so I’ve been actually working and collaborating with different people and different groups on some other projects at the same time as getting Tag AR up and running. I currently am teaching a class called immersive design, which is focused on augmented reality and I’ve been the creative director heading up the project that they’re creating, which is actually a translator app, but it translates… instead of language, it’s actually translating culture. It’s a 3D object recognition application that then translates that… and the target audience for that app is specifically refugees all over the world, who have been displaced from their homes for various reasons, but are trying to familiarize themselves in new culture… and so what it does is it helps actually scan 3D objects, identifies the name and that’s the augmented reality experience and then it uses resources on the web for them to learn how to use that within the culture and save collections of their words that they use most frequently to help them teach the language in the culture.

Rebecca I remember hearing a story about Syracuse, not that long ago… about refugees…. and one of the things that some refugees were struggling with was having electric stoves and knowing what they were and how they worked. So I can imagine… to someone who’s not a refugee or isn’t familiar with those communities, it would be like “I wouldn’t understand why that would be useful,” but I know of some of these really specific stories where “I don’t know what this device is, I have no idea how to use it because we were living in a tent, like we didn’t have an electric stove.”

Renée: Right, and actually the Syracuse community has a lot of refugees… and not a lot of support necessarily in some areas… and so one of those is obviously the cultural changes that they just need, that extra support that my students are helping to… at least help a little bit with some of that culture shock.

Rebecca Does that project have a timeline associated with it?

Renée: Yes, so by the end of the semester it has to be released, and it will be for iOS devices and then over the summer will be developed for Android as well.

Rebecca Great! Were the students doing the programming for that?

Renée: Yeah, students are doing everything. So we’ve taught them the entire experience, so from concept ideation all the way through designing, prototyping, developing and now they’re onto user testing. So, they’re getting the full experience… as they should.

John Are these undergraduates or graduate students?

Renée: It’s actually a mix. So, this is actually an experimental course. It’s the first time the course has been offered at the University. It’s a combination of undergraduate, graduate, and all different majors. So, we have some with programming backgrounds and some with absolutely none, and they’re all diving in and learning how to program and develop mobile apps and create AR experiences. So, it’s been pretty fun…

We’re also working on a few other ones based off of interest and also just some research projects that I have going on. I have a research project called “Augmented Learning” that I’m working on and it’s basically looking at how we can teach tools within the education platform using AR versus the traditional… like if you wanted to learn Adobe Illustrator for instance, you’d have to go from like a Lynda.com video frame to then going back to Illustrator and then going back and forth…and so what it does is… this research project that I’m implementing over the summer and then I’ll be testing and researching in the fall, having students compare student’s learning outcomes based off of augmented learning versus just your traditional platforms. We’re looking at time and how the timeliness is affected because of the Augmented learning experience, so I have that in the works.

Rebecca Sounds really interesting.

Renée: Yes, it should be very interesting. It’s really just waiting on the technology to catch up with my idea….[Laughter]……. Really… that’s what I’m waiting for.

Rebecca I’m noticing a pattern.

Renée:Yes, and so then the other idea that I’m working on is looking at almost like a closed captioning option for students… and the core of all my work is looking at how augmented reality can help overcome learning disabilities. So, Tag AR has an underlining assistance for those who specifically are dyslexic. So by offering a visual, to usually only an auditory component, it allows for additional resources for people (specifically with dyslexia) to have assistance that they need without really making it obvious that it’s specifically for people with learning disabilities… and so I also look to see how AR can help within the classroom setting for people with learning disabilities, but also people who… maybe English is their second language or additional other ways and so this is almost like a closed captioning option. So people could experience the same classroom setting, but they’ll almost like see your closed captioning, like you would see in a television but you would see that in your AR view…

John …in real time.

Renée: In real time, yup! So you could have that translate to a different language or it could just be English to English or whatever the case may be, based off of your need and the whole concept is that you’re getting assistance, but it’s discreet. And so a lot of people with learning disabilities they don’t even tell anyone they have learning disabilities. They don’t get the resources because it could come with a negative connotation… and myself considered. So I’ve never sought any assistance for any of my learning disabilities, including dyslexia, and it would basically empower those who have any challenges to get assistance without it being even known to others, even the person next to you.

John You gave a talk here earlier today, where you were mentioning that, while on the phone it’s not entirely discreet because you have to hold up the phone in front of your face…

Renée: Yes, it’s a little socially awkward.

John …but, you did mention the possibility of migrating this to various types of glasses that are in the very near horizon.

Renée: Yes, so I’ve been looking for partnerships with different companies that are creating the technology that would make this much more discreet and so obviously one of those things in the forefront is the design, right? You want it to look like normal glasses, it shouldn’t look like…

John Google glass…

Renée: Yeah, it shouldn’t look weird, right? Because then it’s very clear that you’re wearing something that’s an assistive device. Actually there’s a company in Rochester, who I’ve been working with that is really great: one, because of their proximity but also just because of the technology and their form and function of their product. Which will take away the awkwardness of holding up your mobile device and it looks like you’re just wearing glasses and you’re getting the additional assistance where needed.

Rebecca You have any initial research findings related to learning disabilities and augmented reality? Have other people done studies that you’ve been looking at or is this really kind of a new frontier?

Renée: Well, people get a lot of research on learning disabilities… and specifically design or typography for dyslexia and that kind of thing. I’ve been working on that and researching what’s available for those kinds of platforms and then seeing how I can then implement that into the AR space. Part of it has been a lot of research in those fields in what already exists and seeing how I can then take that and apply it to the AR component. A lot of things, specifically typography is a big thing, making it very clear what works best and is most readable, especially on a small mobile device or what will work within the optics, we know wearing glasses.

Rebecca and for an ever changing background that you have no control over…

Renée: Yes, so there’s lots of things you can’t control when it’s AR. Light, for instance, is a huge thing. You don’t know how much light will be in the area where people are using these… especially in an educational platform… it might go from really bright to really dark depending on what the professor is doing and then obviously that becomes harder to design for. So, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. The backgrounds could be really busy or they could be really simple and you really just don’t know. So, you have to have really clear separations between the foreground, background… and being very conscious of that design… especially when you’re dealing with accessibility.

Rebecca A lot of your work focuses on design for good, right and research specifically about learning disabilities. How do you see AR having a social impact?

Renée: Well, I think it’s almost a obligation as a designer to show the power of design for good… because it has so much power to do good. So, I almost see it as something that it’s like “yeah, I’m not gonna just design something for the sake of designing something, I’m going to design something that’s going to have a purpose, right?” and so that purpose could change, but I really see, especially within AR space, it’s this idea of practical augmented reality. You could make dinosaurs go across the street in front of you, right? but why? what’s the purpose? and so by adding that extra element of the why and answering the “why?” you actually can then solve a problem that exists within our society and it would offer additional assistance on top of being a really purposeful and helpful platform to design on. I don’t really necessarily look for the area of design for good, I think it almost is just something I gravitate towards because I am a problem solver and I look at things that I think could be improved through design, because design is that powerful and then finding the right platform to solve those specific issues or problems.

Rebecca Where have you seen students struggling as they’ve been designing for AR?

Renée: Development for sure is huge, especially if they’ve never developed before, but the first initial concept is really… if they’ve never designed within 3D space it’s kind of getting the idea of depth in their work, that’s kind of been the biggest challenge initially. Once we do some… just simple prototyping…. and actually I’ve been having them work in After Effects first, before they get into coding, just because that’s how I got into it and to see how the idea of Z space and depth applies from something that really is 2D to something that is 3D… so, taking what they know about 2D, applying 3D to it, and then making that fully immersive jump.

Rebecca So, in After Effects it allows the students to have video which simulates that regular field of vision and then you have your graphics or whatever layering on top.

Renée: Yes, and then adding cameras or giving that prototype feel, so that they can visualize the experience first, before they design it in a place where they have really no control over the environment…. just to give them that practice run.

John For someone who is interested in programming AR apps, what would they need to learn or what types of tools would they need to know?

Renée: So, it kind of depends on what kind of experience you’re creating. So if it’s going to be more of a 3D based object-oriented app, then right now it would be learning Unity…. it’s a little bit of a clunky program…

John But it’s free.

Renée: But it’s free… yeah, or at least parts of it are free… and so kind of like the industry standard I would say for creating those kinds of objects. But, what I’ve been teaching specifically in class, just because of the accessibility and the mainstream effect, would be just programming within Xcode, which is using a language called Swift and it’s actually the most approachable language I’ve ever had to learn… I guess because Apple created it.

John And that’s what most development is in apple.

Renée: Yes, right and so because Apple has their hand on it they usually try to make it a little bit more design friendly. You can definitely see the effect of Apple’s hand on that for sure. It makes it a little easier to teach and students usually can grasp it faster than other programming languages I’ve seen them try to tackle. So I think it really depends on your platform how you want to get the AR experience out. If you really just want to create an AR experience then Unity would work, but if you want it to be something that people can download and interact with on your phone then you need to have it out on a mobile device… so you could use Xcode specifically getting that out on the Apple Store, but Google just came out with their came out of beta for their ARCore so all the Android devices out there will be catching up too.

Rebecca Can you talk about other ways that augmented reality could be used to help aid the learning experience or any existing apps that you’re aware of that that already start moving forward in that direction?

Renée: Yes. So there is an app… I believe it’s called meta. It’s basically a really easy way for people to create AR experiences without knowing any code, and it’s specifically for educational purposes. It basically uses an application on your phone that you’re already clicking… dragging… all those kinds of things you’re used to doing on a phone to create an AR experience. Part of the hard thing with that is obviously the practicality of it. You’re limited to what you can do but I could see some platform resources where you could just very simply, especially for purposes of education, create a quick experience just to help people learn. Obviously the more immersive your teaching is the faster they’re gonna learn it right? So it’s more hands-on and that’s what their their goal is with that app as well, and it’s free. So that’s great too.

Rebecca So an example of using that platform might be if you’re taking students on a tour and you’re trying to get them to think about what it was like in history… a certain period of time… they could you know aim their phone at a particular location or something, right? …and it it could show a picture of what it looked like at a different time or something like that.

Renée: Yes, yep. Actually they have demos of that. So, yeah, that’s a great example.

John One of our colleagues at Fredonia who gave some workshops here. She hasn’t been on the podcast yet, had students in a Freshman Seminar do a Wikitude layer where they created information about various places on campus… where student reviews of them would pop up on Wikitude.

Renée: Great. Yeah, absolutely… and Yelp is kind of doing a similar thing now as well. So as you’re walking around of course you can see all their reviews right over the restaurants as you’re about to go into them, which could help….

Rebecca …which people who are herd people….

Renée: But yeah… It’s kind of a similar idea or concept, right? …of that immersive information layer that can be really helpful as you’re walking around navigating.

John A lot of apps use at least some level of augmented reality, so a lot of people aren’t really aware they’re doing it when they’re looking at Yelp or when they’re looking when they’re searching for things on maps or other things.

Renée: Yes, actually that’s a big thing when people will say, “I don’t know if I am ready for augmented reality or I don’t know how I feel about that.” Part of my response is a lot of people are already using augmented reality… they just don’t realize it… and actually that’s the best part about technology being used well, is if it’s invisible, right? and you don’t even notice that you’re using something and you wouldn’t even consider that AR because it’s just something that feels so natural, and that’s obviously a goal as a designer for sure.

John One less visual one that deals with sound something you had talked about this morning is the Zombie Run app I think it’s still out there I know some people who use that where you can hear zombies approaching spatially to encourage you to move faster or slower and so forth.

Rebecca That sounds terrifying.

John Well, there you go! But….

Renée: I think that’s what they want.

John I’ve heard some people find it motivating, especially fans of The Walking Dead I think.

Renée: But yes, absolutely… audio is a new component that is definitely going to add to the whole AR experience, right? Anything dealing with the senses and especially with exploration of auditory versus visual and how that sensory processing works. The audio component is very important and needs to be also at the forefront in consideration when you’re thinking about these things… especially with wearable devices. They’re going to be much more integrated in the technology to make the audio very clear in the direction and have control over that while at the same time being able to listen to the sounds in your environment… provides a lot of opportunity.

John And you mentioned that you had just looked at some demos of Bose.

Renée: Yes. I was just at South by Southwest… speaking down there, and got to team up with Bose AR and checked out all their 3d prototypes of their AR sunglasses in their wearables and they have some really cool things going on and looking forward to further conversations with them on that so.

John What might be some other applications of AR software for instructional use? Where assignments could be given and students work with AR materials or develop materials?

Renée: Well, the beauty of AR is that its hands-on and its immersive. So, anywhere that someone could in a normal situation where you wouldn’t necessarily be able to have an object in front of you, or you wouldn’t have an experience that you could have ever experienced, because of location or whatever the case maybe… AR provides that opportunity. So, there are some AR apps out there currently but even like thinking about youths and education… thinking about some of the STEM programs and trying to get people understanding how specific things work and how you could build specific things, I think there’s a huge opportunity for AR to help in a space where you get the information right where you need it.

John So, just-in-time instruction and assistance

Renée: Yes.

John Which is similar to the project you were thinking of working on or you’re planning to work on.

Renée: Yes, yep. In augmented learning. Yup.

Rebecca What are you gonna do next?

Renée: Sleep? [LAUGHTER] I have a couple things on the horizon… the biggest thing has been my augmented learning project. I’m really excited to see how I can implement that into my specific design curriculum and then once I see the benefits or things that need to be changed from that… seeing how that I could then have impact not just specific to design but curriculum and the way we learn and the hands-on learning, which I’m a huge advocate for. So, seeing how that can impact the future but also how we can make it a little bit more approachable and kind of getting over those learning curves of the technology to make it really something that can have impact on the way students learn

Rebecca Do you have collaborators? Do you have people that are gonna help you measure some of that?

Renée: Currently for that I have some grant funding that I’m working on to get me started but my hope is that as I keep working on it more I’ll get some more assistance. That is something I’m looking for: Is people who are interested in collaborating as well as making sure I have all the technology and everything needed to have the most user testing that we can have.

John Great.

Rebecca Well, thanks so much for spending some extra time on campus today with us.

Renée: Yes, thanks for having me, and thanks for the tea.

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.

10. VoiceThread

Tired of boring online text discussions? Looking for a way for students to annotate, critique, or analyze images, videos, presentations and documents? In this episode, we’ll examine how VoiceThread can augment class activities and assignments.

Our guest is Jeffrey Riman. Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a council member and the incoming chair of the State University of New York’s Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology. At FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, he is also the chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on instructional Technology.


John: Today our guest is Jeffrey Riman. Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a council member and the incoming chair of the State University of New York’s Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology. At FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, he is also the chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on instructional Technology.
Welcome, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Good morning.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeffrey: Fresh ground Guatemalan, through a coffee press

John: Very nice! My tea is a black currant black tea from Tea Forte.

Rebecca: I have an Enchanting Forest Fruit Tea.

Jeffrey: I switch in the afternoons to a zesty ginger and chamomile mix.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.
So we invited you to talk a little bit about your use of VoiceThread at FIT and I was wondering if you could start by helping our audience know what VoiceThread even is.

Jeffrey: Okay, that’s a great question. Let’s start by making a comparison. In our online courses and many other teaching modalities, people use text-based content for communicating or having conversations. In online courses, that’s always an asynchronous discussion forum typically used… and none of these tools have presence. You’re reading thoughts… you’re hearing things…. you might see a picture…. you might even see a video, but the third wall, let’s call it, is always up; meaning there’s no interactivity… there’s no sense of presence that is more human. What VoiceThread does is allows you to integrate both voice and video or either into a asynchronous conversation environment that allows people to actually hear each other, so when it comes to storytelling or articulating concepts you can actually see a talking face… hear what they’re saying… and in addition, under the right circumstances, the commenter also has the ability to draw on the image or pause the video and doodle on it, as they call it. The cognitive gain from being able to listen and see a person speak, and actually watch them draw, vastly increase the cognitive gains over a text-based communication.

Rebecca: I would also imagine that it helps with students feeling more safe to converse in that environment because anonymity often makes people feel like they can say whatever and sometimes things come out where it’s not so human, so if you have a human voice and face I could imagine that might eliminate some of those concerns around anonymity.

John: Well, even that’s not anonymous. If you just see a name it doesn’t identify with a person, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, it feels anonymous.

Jeffrey: Well, in order to make that effective, the teacher has to show their game by being a video and by being a voice that’s both animated and relaxed (and that takes practice)… but when the students see the professor actually engaged, I think they’re put much more at ease and I will add that very shy students… and students that were both shy and ESL [English as a second language] loved the fact that they could re-record their comments as many times as they need until they’re satisfied that they’ve articulated. The most difficult thing of face-to-face classes with these type of students is they have to be extemporaneous and that’s what causes the paralysis. I have had students whom I had both in an online course using VoiceThread and then had in the classroom and they all told me that VoiceThread made it easier for them in a face-to-face environment as well.

John: Now you mentioned that text discussions tend not to have the same sense of presence, and I agree, I’ve always been somewhat disappointed in the quality of text discussions in online classes. But the one thing that I noted that they had over face-to-face classes, is the point that you just made… that they have a delete key at least. But with VoiceThread they not only have a delete key, they have a re-record button and they can edit what they say. They can re-record it as many times as they want to make it correct, Which takes one of the advantages of text based online discussions and actually gives it a lot more flexibility.

Jeffrey: Yeah so I might add to that, because you’re absolutely right, when you’re using VoiceThread… just like you don’t feed your dog the same food every day, if you do you have a very bored dog… with VoiceThread you do not you need to use this for each and every lesson. That text-based, mixed in with some VoiceThread,s causes students to think in a variety of ways and express in a variety of ways. So let’s face it, text-based communication is probably equally critical to good presentation skills these days… and so writing is important as well.

John: A starter document could be videos that are posted, it could be text, it could be a portfolio, it could be pdf, it could be a presentation, there could be just links to websites. So, there’s quite a bit of flexibility in terms of what anyone can post, including what the instructor can start with

Jeffrey: Yeah, you can add a link to any, and when we talk about the ways that people use VoiceThread at FIT, and other VoiceThread users, I think you’ll see the flexibility there.

John: I’ve given some workshops at Oswego here in the past, but I never was able to get many people interested in exploring it. What prompted the interest in voicethread at FIT? and how did it get so widely adopted?

Jeffrey: Two words: art history. So, art historians…. There are very few classes that people will see in almost any University that are so linked to visual communication as art history, or history of design, or anything that’s rooted in the creation of visual media. Art historians were among the first at FIT to really engage fully with fully online courses, and as a result they discovered that they could actually put up a painting by Michelangelo and that they could lecture about it… draw on the painting to bring to bear certain pieces of important information regarding symbolism, quality of painting, and so on and to do these in lecture forms that then allow the students to pause the lecture and ask a question. Now that started something. Where this is 7 years ago now… a while ago… and then my background being in visual communications, I began to show instructors how they could, in design class, create a VoiceThread where students post their work and receive critique using VoiceThread. Once again, because you can take a VoiceThread and you can blow it up to full screen, and so if the image upload it is appropriate quality, which requires some practice for the students, a professor can look at a piece of media and comment on it. I wouldn’t say for a drawing class it would be the first choice, but I would say for design …absolutely, and also screen grabs of like web design and so on can be viewed and drawn and some professors actually make a VoiceThread for every single student, so they can have some direct interaction. There’s a way that students can create VoiceThreads, too. FIT has a campus-wide license, which means every student and faculty member has a VoiceThread account. There’s something called Creative VoiceThread where you assign the students to go and create a VoiceThread and they might post their work… or I’ve done things where I said go out with your phones and take pictures of artifacts in New York that represent historical references that have been spackled over or painted over and make a VoiceThread of six slides… and then do a narrative explaining what you found and where you found it and they loved it because they’re used to being in social media to a degree. Yet everything in VoiceThread is behind our authentication wall. Among the early ways we used it was to send students out to the museum, pick an object, and critique it or discuss its history and symbolism and they took to it quite well. There is a text-based comment method in VoiceThread that most of us disable. VoiceThread allows you to control what type of comments are used. It also allows you to moderate them, so if somebody goes off the rails you can make sure that they’re not hitting the class until you get a chance to see what they say.

Rebecca: How long does it take to learn VoiceThread? Is it complicated for students or faculty?

Jeffrey: I do a session with faculty I call quick takes where I promised them in 30 minutes from login they’re going to have made a video and a lecture and all they have to do is come with a PowerPoint and their face, their mouth, and their ears and we’re all set. So because we have a Blackboard integration using LTI, this allows people to go into Blackboard and choose VoiceThread as a tool, and it creates a link that allows the professor to both create and share. So what we do is we go in and we just do a video and I usually ask them to do a welcome video. I encourage all faculty to make welcome videos no matter what course they’re teaching, because if it’s August and you’re opening your course early, or you just want to include a video, you can share it with the students, say “Hey, I’m so excited for you guys to come to class, here’s a little bit about me, and you can tell me something about yourself while you’re at it…” and people like that… and they like the fact that they’re not worried about QuickTime or Premier or Final Cut. They don’t have to worry about editing, because if you record video… say you wanted to do five different videos in one lesson, you can record them as five different items within a given VoiceThread, and even rearrange the order if you want, or delete that. So it eliminates editing… eliminates worrying about lot of stuff. Mac users love it because every computer is fully equipped. PC users get frustrated when they have to run out the Best Buy and buy a cam and a microphone, but many people now are recognizing the importance of just equipping their PCs appropriately.

John: Right, and pretty much all laptops, which is what most students would have, would have cameras in them and microphones, so….

Jeffrey: It’s more a problem with the professor’s clinging to their desktops.

John: …and I believe VoiceThread also works with mobile apps as wel,l so students could use smart phones and so forth to create and participate in VoiceThreads.

Jeffrey: Yeah, any tablet or phone… you can both create, comment, and watch VoiceThreads… and from the professor’s point of view, because everybody always worries when they set up their first discussion, will the students come? Will they participate? You can control notifications so that you not only will be notified when a student makes a comment, you can listen to the comment through your email, and that means you can really closely monitor activity, particularly if you’re in a situation where your access is not consistent. Then you open up your email…. Boom boom boom, five comments. You can listen, you can respond, and they’ll never know whether you’re in Tuscaloosa or Cape Town, you know.

John: For those who don’t have campus integration into their LMS, there are free accounts that people can get ,and fairly inexpensive accounts that people can get that limit the number of VoiceThreads that can be started by the instructor and you have to manually put the students in the group, or you have to share a link with them.

Jeffrey: Right, there are ways of testing it without full integration. Every human being hearing this podcast can go out and go to VoiceThread.com… watch… and listen… and try it, but the roster management and permissions are more limited. It’s all manual. We did it manually for about six months, then we went to a limited-use license and our concurrent users went through the roof. We couldn’t manage it anymore, so we went campus wide. I’ll also add that, you know, they’re off Flash now. It’s all HTML5.

John: Excellent.

Jeffrey: I love the product, obviously, and I really haven’t found a product that does what VoiceThread does. We’ve tried and, as you know, in the State University system we’re supposed to search the earth to find something that can compete, but they’re always current technically, and they’re very adept at informing their public about their improvements and I would also add that they offer a lot of online live sessions that are synchronous, as well as a history of their tutorials. I could provide you some links for that, but they’re easy to find. Google will get you there every time.

John: …. and in the show notes we’ll provide links to VoiceThread as well as some samples of information about them.

Jeffrey: Great… Great.

Rebecca: So you brought up some things about VoiceThread being on top of technology in moving to HTML5, which is great. That does help with accessibility. Can you talk a little bit about other accessible features that you’re aware of with VoiceThread?

Jeffrey: It’s possible to caption every single video comment, and anything that needs captioning can be captioned. They also have an alternative user interface for people who have special needs. To be honest with you, I’ve only looked at it. It’s not nearly as pretty, but then again it’s not for people who are looking at it. It’s for people who need to hear it… but they are compliant, and they’ve been compliant longer than most of the products we’ve been using… including things like contrast… font size. They’re sensitive to the issue.

Rebecca: That’s really exciting, because I feel like a lot of times as media opportunities often don’t think about that so it’s nice to hear that this particular one is one that you can use from the start and know that it will be ok for students and faculty.

John: Let’s go back to the integration with the LMS. So by being integrated it means any grading is automatically put in the gradebook, right?

Jeffrey: Yes.

John: …and the roster is already there, so you create it and it becomes available just as another assignment, is that correct?

Jeffrey: Yes. To be specific, using LTI, every time a student or a faculty member clicks on a VoiceThread link — only faculty can create the Blackboard link, but this is a little bit — let me just get into the weeds very briefly. If John were opening up his online course with a VoiceThread at FIT, every student who is brand new to FIT, once they click on that VoiceThread link, their account is provisioned. Once their account is provisioned, they can also alternatively go directly to fit.voicethread.com and they could actually use the VoiceThread user interface to create as many threads as they want. There’s no limit right now on that, and faculty can do that as well. So, what I often do is we provision the accounts in our training sessions and then I show them how they can build all their VoiceThreads without having to work through Blackboard and then when they open the new link in VoiceThread they can select from every VoiceThread they’ve created to either select one or they could actually select say five and have them all appear in the course in one window, you know, so it’s it’s pretty good.

John: So, could you give us a feel for how widely it’s been adopted, in terms of some of the varieties of disciplines.

Jeffrey: Yes, okay, I’ve got a lot. First of all, it’s used a lot for storytelling in Liberal Studies. FIT does not have a liberal arts degree major, we have a liberal arts minor, but languages are very important, so some people are using it to teach foreign languages: “repeat after me”… or “speak in Italian,” you know, and “tell me how to get to the Colosseum from the airport” and so they get to hear excellent fluent speech and then they get to respond in kind. They also get to hear each other, which is very good. I mentioned that they’re using critique for visual arts. I also mentioned how they’re used in Art History. There are some professors who use it only for lecture, because they find that it’s just so easy to do. It’s easier than even putting a voiceover on PowerPoint, and they like the fact that if they do want to open it up to comments, they can.

John: Are they using it for lecture capture or are they using it for flipping the classroom?

Jeffrey: Well, actually it’s kind of both. So if somebody’s doing a lecture on let’s call it blockchain supplying, they might have a PowerPoint they do a voiceover on. That might be assigned to be… by the way in face-to-face, blended, and online this happens. Watch this… listen to it… if you have questions, add them… and then in the classroom they review the questions that were asked and they talk about the content. So you’re flipping and screencasting all in one big ball of yarn. Other ways that it’s used is: students telling story, students creating their own threads (I think I mentioned that earlier), and I think that among the most popular ways it’s used is students creating assignments giving presentations. So final presentations often are done that way, especially in fully online classes, and I could go on but I won’t.

John: Could you give us some information about the volume of use? How many VoiceThreads are created there?

Jeffrey: Yes. Well, today is almost the end of the semester… we have a couple of straggler classes early next week. Let me just give you a quick background. FIT has about 1200 faculty, about 75% of them are part-time, which is typical for a City University. We have about 9,800 students and we are running about 2,500 sections a semester. So that gives you an idea of scope. From August when the world becomes alive again planning for September, we have created 714 new threads. Now, this is not including threads that are used year over year. Let’s face it, you know, the story of Michelangelo doesn’t change much unless they unearth new content. So these are new threads. During the same period from August first until today there’s been 4421 hours of VoiceThread use, which also could be translated into 7,303 comments. Another way to look at that is about 53 comments per day are pulsing through VoiceThread at FIT. But there are peaks. I mean I have a chart that, if you just visualize looking at the stock market, then it’s two years ago to today. That’s how comment use ups and downs during the semester.

John: So, it sounds like it’s been a fairly viral expansion…. that it’s grown pretty rapidly since you adopted it a few years back.

Jeffrey: Yeah, actually to our surprise, because initially it was a sell. Faculty who are not typically comfortable with technology still get a little skittish when they’re being trained, but it doesn’t take long for them to warm to it… especially when they hear and see the students. So I would say if you asked me five years ago, I would say we’re still pushing uphill but we hit a point where also new faculty tend to be much more interested in taking risks than faculty who over the years have developed strategies that they feel very comfortable with and a new product might disrupt that…. and I know, speaking for myself, training people with Voicethread and using it in my teaching are two very very different experiences. I too sat there biting my nails, waiting for my students to reply to my first VoiceThread. So that’s the beauty of being both a teacher and an instructional designer is you have to practice what you teach and you also have to acknowledge when some of your ideas are not necessarily as effective as you hope. So, I’ve got a whole bunch of humble pie sitting in my office now for some of the things I’ve done.

John: I think we all do.
REBECCA; How did you start to integrate it into your own classes… experimenting with this on your campus? and then so how did you find to integrate it into your own classes…. and your teaching practice, really?

Jeffrey: Okay, well I teach a course on collaboration in creative settings and my icebreaker is actually: “Tell me a story: the best and worst collaborative experience you’ve ever had” and then the way I did it was… I got a video of a campfire and while the campfire is burning I said everybody can… oh, pull up to the campfire and let’s swap stories, and so it’s just that one perpetual loop of video… the students saying “oh, I was in this class last year and nobody who did it all did the work and we had a big fight and we almost failed” and then somebody else would say “Well, that’s nothing compared to mine” and it comes and it’s very good-natured competitive thing and I just had a couple of stragglers who I reached out to outside of VoiceThread to encourage them. Now, there are some things in VoiceThread that have improved dramatically. For those of you who looked at VoiceThread, say three or four years ago, two of them are “direct reply” whereas if you had a student but it’s ten students made comments you would have to say “and Rebecca said this” and “John said that” and this all makes sense in terms of the lesson, whereas now if John makes a comment I can click on direct reply and it will appear like a thread, where my comment to him is direct…and threaded commenting makes it even more effective. Instead of having to feel like you have to listen to every single one, you can say I went into this conversation. So, if Rebecca makes a new thread, John can reply to it directly, but if Rebecca just goes around and replies to others she just shows as a secondary bubble next to the main comment… and more importantly from a professor’s point of view there’s something called “private comment” where John, as the teacher, can say to

Rebecca: “your answers are really, really long and you’re digressing off the point. I’d like to delete this comment and have you do it again…” and the students do take that guidance very well because they can see it’s private; it’s got a big lock on it.
The other thing that is easier to do now than before is to moderate. So in Blackboard, a lot of people like the feature of nobody can see other comments until the first comment is made by each individual. That way, they’re not doing intelligence collection, to make their comment even better than anybody else’s, and you can do that in VoiceThread too, by turning on moderation. So you can basically say “everybody has until next Wednesday to make their initial comment in response to these questions, and then the professor can actually review all of the comments to make sure all the comments are in, and then lift moderation… and everybody else can begin to listen to and respond to each other. It requires a little bit more attention, but if it’s a graded assignment, the way VoiceThread works when you’re grading is: you see a list of all your students who have submitted and all of your students who have not, and there’s a handy little reminder button saying “it’s 10:30 on Sunday night, have you visited your VoiceThread yet?” and the reminders work very effectively as well. Grading works nicely on that. It integrates fully to the Blackboard gradebook.

John: …and so you can manually set up the equivalent of a post first discussion then.

Jeffrey: Yes, you could do that, and even if say you have a VoiceThread that’s lasting for two weeks instead of one week, students can all weigh in… have their interactions pause… turn moderation back on… make a new comment… and then begin the process again.

John: Okay.

Jeffrey: It just requires attention.

Rebecca: You hinted a bit at student engagement throughout our conversation. Can you talk a little bit more about how students have been engaged using VoiceThread?

Jeffrey: So, knowing that FIT is a college which is about half business and half visual communications in the broadest sense of the word…. people can learn how to make shoes and dresses and belts and jewelry, but they also learn how to do marketing and entrepreneurship and so on. The one thing they all have in common is presentation skills are essential. It’s not optional. So Voicethread has immediate recognized value to the students who know they have to get up in front of a class, whether it be virtually or in person. So this is a great tool and it also gives them a chance to hear their professors in presentation mode, where they actually get a model that they can follow… that coupled with the fact that students do not have a fear of the microphone as much as some people who never had to communicate in those modalities.
You guys may remember, I know John you’ve been in online for a long time, that a lot of professors used to create these personas like “I’m a spy” and a trench coat with dark glasses and a pompadour hat. They didn’t necessarily recognize that their sheer presence and personality was enough, and so they became bigger-than-life personas… and what this does is it breaks down what I called the third wall where, in a flipped classroom scenario, there’s bi-directional activity in some way or another or accountability for your activity by communicating… and this really works well.
We do not have problems with students using VoiceThread except oddly enough, and maybe coincidentally, the students who don’t participate until the last minute [laughter] waiting…

John: That’s always an issue.

Jeffrey:…waiting for a thunderstorm to take that Wi-Fi down or, you know, an earthquake to break the cable… but for the most part very, very few complaints at all. Our biggest issue was going through three different types of authentication systems. People who were early adopters who had not revisited, we had to merge their accounts. New users…it’s seamless.

John: Was part of the expansion, then, pushed by students suggesting it in other classes or word-of-mouth among faculty?

Jeffrey: We do show and tells. So, I’ll give you an example. There was one VoiceThread that really kind of rocked the school…. because everybody gets lecture right? You know… here’s a painting… here’s a story… here’s a doodle… you know, whatever… but one of the professors in textile development convinced her husband to help her shoot microscopic shots of knitwear and of fibers that are the equivalent of looking at them through a high-powered microscope and then she would actually do these beautiful narratives where she would talk about the over-and-under and the fiber content and so on… and then she would have the students look at other microscopic photography that was put in there and they would each have to do an analysis… and so it was technical… it was visual… it involved drawing… and it was not the kind of showbiz that a lot of times we do when we use media. It was a strictly technical course and it was really fascinating to see how that grew the minute other people teaching technical things began to realize that. Because FIT has a very robust knitwear division we have looms, and we’re famous for our knitwear. So knitwear analysis is also very important, as is pattern design. As a matter of fact, don’t be caught in a cheap sweater while you’re walking around here. You know, somebody will tell you that for the same money you can do better.

John: Someone should have reminded me of that before I showed up for the visit a couple of weeks ago. …which was a great visit, by the way. I was really impressed.

Jeffrey: It was fun to have you there, John.
So, student adoption has never been a barrier and at this point I’m wondering what the next thing is because one of the questions that we discussed was what is next and I think a huge part of what’s next is the way education is changing. For instance there are some faculty who still have very deep grade books, where they’re grading 30 or 40 items in a semester… all of them by using percentages and letters and so on. I’m beginning to encourage faculty to understand the nurturing aspect of the learning space, and to not make everything a gradable item. Now, obviously this is academic freedom. This is not something that would ever be anything other than a prescriptive as an alternative, but when you do a VoiceThread where you just grade them on completion, it liberates them to be a little bit more dynamic. It also liberates them to speak up. So in a sense by making it pass/fail, it’s almost like they get tenure for an assignment, but they could say anything they want and not get graded down for it and I think that the discourse is really important in the classroom. for students to feel that they can ask challenging and direct questions, especially when the content is not specifically science-based. You know. because obviously if we’re working with algorithms or for working with cellular biology how challenging can you be? I dare you to show me mitosis. I mean. you know, you can’t. It doesn’t work that way… but on the creative thinking and critical thinking skills, many people play it safe, just like politicians.
So, if we de-escalate some of the accessible tasks to have very specific outcomes and to make a clear line: you need to do these 11 things to pass… if you do 7 you won’t, but if you do 11 you will… but you won’t get like a super duper A or a super duper F, you know. So I think that VoiceThread allows you to have evidenced-based performance and to relieve them of some of the burden of being graded for every 5 inches they move and I do this warm-up in my class where before I even introduced myself, this is in my face-to-face class, I said I would like some applause please… and they don’t even know who I am so they’ll, clap gently [clapping sound], somebody will do “Woo-Hoo” in the background or something. I said: “now I want you to clap like you want to get an A in applause” and all of a sudden it’s loud clapping and cheers and excitement… and I said and now I want you to clap like it’s a C and then they immediately begin to realize that they’re raising and lowering their performance in order to be graded appropriately and that doesn’t necessarily mean they care about what they’re doing, you know. So one of my colleagues heard the cheers coming out of my classroom…

John:…in the first few minutes…

Jeffrey: …and said like what did you do, like pay them or something? …and I said no they were clapping like they wanted to get an A. Now, I know that VoiceThread isn’t specifically about an assessment, although it connects up to all the assessment tools, but I think that there’s a causative relationship between how we grade and how students perform that is, I think, a little bit of the secret of opening the classrooms to more dynamic interaction. So…

John: …it shifts from extrinsic to more intrinsic motivation.

Jeffrey: Exactly… exactly… and I feel that what that does is it builds up more trust in the learning space. So you can hear me… you can see me… and I’m not going to get a bad grade if I have not been able to be as comfortable as my colleagues in this environment. Because I’m sure many of us can say that some of the smartest students, in the beginning… they kind of run out of gas sometimes as you’re going to the tenth week of the semester… but some get stronger every semester… and so if they’re graded harshly in the beginning when you’re nurturing them, they may never dig out of the hole and get a decent opportunity unless we make some things… Baby, you got to grow… students let’s make this something where I recognize everybody is not at the same starting point, but we all have to go for the same outcomes. So, some people start off a little slower and they’ll get power and I find, personally, I would love to have the argument at the end of the semester of why did so many students do well.

John: Now, for those who are going to try VoiceThread, are there some things you’d recommend as good practice and some things you might recommend as pitfalls that they may wish to avoid?

Jeffrey: Practice with your friends. Don’t just think that because it’s another tool… I mean I’ve had faculty that… in training… they immediately… the first time they use it… they say “Hi, this is professor so-and-so, Welcome to my class” and they’re trying to actually do the welcome in a room full of ten other people all talking at the same time. So, a best practice is to practice and not share it with anybody, or to practice with your colleagues. …and what we do is we have an administrator here who will say John… I would like John and Rebecca enrolled in my class so we can all practice together and they’ll do that. Another good practice, which is really something everybody should be thinking about, is how are you lit? I mean so many people, when they’re in video, they look like it’s a hostage video, you know… I’m stuck in a basement somewhere in… you know, the Midwest and I have no idea where I am, you know, but if you practice with lighting… So, what I encourage people to do is to sit facing a window, so they get natural light that’s softer, as opposed to putting a lamp right on their face which makes them look super high contrast. You need to look friendly and comfortable and also be careful what’s in the background. This is true of all video, but I still go to Life Drawing and have some paintings and I left them in the background of one of my videos… and somebody said you have naked people in your office, you know, and so I quickly realized that the frame wasn’t cropped the way I wanted it to be. So I just re-recorded it. It wasn’t a big deal but people tend to not necessarily pay attention to those optics and that’s part of the professionalism .

John: One other question is… I know at FIT class sizes are limited to 25 typically. How might this scale? Have you talked to anyone who used it in classes of 40 or 50?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I’m so glad you asked that question. Let’s just make believe 25 is onerous. We don’t have a lot of lecture classes here, so the idea of like 200 people in a room or even a hundred or 50 is unheard of, for the most part, but here’s what I do recommend: groups.

John: Okay.

Jeffrey: You can take a VoiceThread and create it, and then you can clone it as many times as you need to, and then use group management, which works in Blackboard as we all know… and then all of a sudden your group of 50 becomes like you know a very manageable size. The group work works really nicely… and don’t handpick your groups. Just let them happen. It’s just my own personal opinion. I’m sticking to it.

John: OK.

Jeffrey: You get more surprises that way.
So, I think we wore out this topic, right?

John: Yeah, I think so.

Rebecca: Yeah. This is really interesting.

John: Mow I’m gonna try it next semester. I’ve been going back and forth for years.

Jeffrey: My enthusiasm is unabated for the product because so many people have taken a long time to get comfortable with it, but when they do they use it… I actually say to them please don’t use it every module. Don’t use it every week. Use it like you use the special Mediterranean oregano, you know, only for the dish where you’re really gonna taste it and I think that you’ll be surprised.
Okay, this was fun.

John: Thank you, Jeffrey, this was fascinating.

Rebecca: Yeah, so exciting. I can’t wait to try it. Thank you very much.

Jeffrey: It was great to share, and I hope people find value in our discussion.

9. Removing barriers

We want to design courses that allow all of our students to be successful. Students, though, often face barriers that interfere with their learning. In this episode, we examine how we can use universal design principles to help remove some of these barriers and help facilitate learning by all of our students.

Our guest is Kristen Flint, an instructional designer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Kristen is currently spearheading a campus working group on accessible teaching. Rebecca is also working with this group.

Show Notes


John: Our guest today is Kristen Flint, an instructional designer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Prior to joining the team at Oswego, she was part of Syracuse University’s School of Education technology support team. Kristen is currently spearheading a campus working group on accessible teaching that Rebecca is also involved with. Welcome, Kristen.

Kristen: Thank you. Happy to be here today.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Ginger peach green tea.

Kristen: Ginseng Peppermint.

Rebecca: Lady Grey.

John: What is accessibility?

Kristen: When many people hear the term “accessibility,” they immediately start thinking about accessibility in terms of disability and they think that they don’t need to worry about accessibility unless they have a student in their classroom with a letter of disability.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think we can focus on or emphasize for people to understand this better is that we all take advantage of accessibility features on our personal devices. For example, if I want to read late at night on my e-reader… my eyes are tired from working on the computer all day… I just bump up the font size on my e-reader, but that’s an accessibility feature.

Kristen: Yes, and the accessibility feature that I use is the voice recognition software,, especially when I’m driving on my long commute to work. If I receive a message, I can say “Hey Siri, read text messages.”

John: …and your phone is asking you what you’re asking right now. [laughter]

Rebecca: She’s ready… she’s ready for you.

Kristen: She is always ready… and it just makes it so that if something very important comes through, I can be aware of it and I can pull over and stop and make a safe phone call if I need to.

Rebecca: I think the audio interfaces are becoming much more popular as we’re getting the Amazon Echo and all these other sorts of things that are available where people can ask it questions and get information. We’re starting to use these technologies more and more without realizing that they come out of a history of accessibility, and what that really means is that we’re designing and developing content that is in some ways machine readable so that the adaptive technologies and software knows what the content is that it’s sifting through because it’s not a human, right? So it needs prompting… for it to work correctly.

John: …. and it can converted into a format that is more accessible in a certain context for people with disabilities or people who just benefit from that in general. For example, a lot of students will sometimes turn on captioning if they’re watching a video in a noisy environment

Rebecca: …or likewise in a quiet environment where they don’t want the sound to come out, right?

John: Exactly. You have someone you don’t want to wake up for example while they’re sleeping.

Kristen: Absolutely, and then we have other student populations like our international students that use it for better comprehension with their secondary language.

John: A really nice feature there is they can slow it down as well and listen to it. While they may have some instructors who talk very quickly, it’s hard to get them to slow down, but if they’ve recorded what they’re presenting, they can move it to half speed or something similar.

Kristen: Yes, absolutely…. and so, on our campus, we’re really starting to talk about accessibility and raise our campus community’s awareness of accessibility more as having an ability ,and then a barrier to that ability, resulting in a disability… and that can be something that is a permanent disability, a temporary disability, or a situational disability. So when people first think of accessibility being related to disability, they tend to think of those individuals with a permanent disability first. For example, we have individuals with eyesight that is changing and it can go from just being nearsighted or farsighted, but then as individuals get older their eyesight tends to start requiring bifocals and so some of these accessibility features that are designed into our devices will make it so that text can be increased or decreased without potentially changing glasses or contact lenses prescriptions.

John: One of our colleagues also had spinal surgery where some discs were fused together and she was unable to move around very much and she wasn’t able to write, so she used the audio interface to dictate notes and to respond to students while she was recovering from the surgery.

Rebecca:: So the definition that we’re sort of using really comes from a book called The Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences written by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery. It’s a formula that is: ability plus barrier equals disability. Our goal is access for all in removing those barriers.

Kristen: …and one of the ways that we’re approaching access for all is through one of the principles of Universal Design for Learning. There are three principles: one is providing multiple means of representation, which is the presentation of information and content in different ways… and so that is, with a video you also have the closed captioning and a transcript. So you have not only the audio but you also have the text. The second principle is multiple means of action and expression, which is allowing students to identify a different way of providing, or expressing, what they do know… and then the third principle is multiple means of engagement, which is a way of stimulating the motivation and interest in students to learn…. and so we’re really focusing on that first principle of the multiple means of representation and the way that you present the information to your students, and maybe presenting it in ways so that, regardless of their ability, they can consume that information and content in a way that they prefer to consume it.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how accessibility fits into your role in extended learning and working with online courses?

Kristen: Sure, so when we work with faculty in developing online courses all the content that these students are accessing online needs to be designed in a more accessible fashion, and so we have begun working with faculty and talking to faculty to raise their awareness of the need to keep accessibility in mind as they’re designing their courses… and we’re just getting started on this process… and we’re working on developing not only resources to assist them but really developing kind of like a checklist of here’s what we want you to look at.

Rebecca: and workflows too right?, like what/how to do these things efficiently and effectively without making it feel so daunting.

Kristen: Yes, absolutely.

John: ….and it becomes much easier when you do this in the design stage rather than trying to retrofit and do these things later.

Kristen: That’s very true.

Rebecca: Kristen and I have been working on some accessibility things for a while on campus together. I teach web design courses, and part of our curriculum is teaching accessibility, so I spend time in my classes doing simulations and accessibility checks and teaching some of these principles. And, then, in our role at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching we started thinking about these being really important principles and things to share out through professional development opportunities on campus. This led to a working group that was formed.

Kristen: Yes, we formed a work group on accessible teaching and we have individuals involved from our library, from our disability services, from our marketing group, and also from our technology group, in addition to myself from extended learning and online education. And, we are having conversations about how we can work together to create a faculty resource that will let them know who can help them with what aspect of accessibility and also provide resources for how do you make certain types of content accessible.

Rebecca: I think there’s also an assumption that when something is accessible somehow it’s not pleasant or not visually interesting, right? So part of my involvement, as a designer, is to help make sure that the resources and things that we’re pointing out also help to make sure that that breaks down that stereotype of accessibility as well.

Kristen: Oh, yes. What we’ve found so far, at least with the instructional designers, is we can make content accessible but it’s not always the the nicest thing to look at. And so having Rebecca available and working with us to help address the design concerns for pleasantness is very important.

John: An analogy is often made in terms of construction of new buildings and so forth, that if you try to convert bathrooms to an accessible format when you already have the pipes in the ground and in the walls it might look kind of ugly when you go in and try to patch it. But, when you start from the ground up you can design very pleasant looking facilities, and I think that that sort of analogy works pretty well here. That if you build this in… into your design process, as I mentioned before, it makes it a whole lot easier to go forward. What are you doing to help people do that? To help people create more accessible courses, documents, and so forth?

Rebecca: We’re going to work on some templates and also some tutorials, but we can share out some of the key things that we want to communicate right now. For example, one of the key principles is document structure and making sure that the content that you’re providing has a clear hierarchy…. and you’re using the tools that you’re building things with to actually demonstrate that hierarchy. So, for example, if you’re in Microsoft Word you’re using the Styles feature in identifying what’s a heading what’s a subheading, what’s a paragraph. No, I think people think that those are they’re just for stylistic purposes, but actually it’s providing some metadata in the document so that other devices understand what kind of content is there…. and really only a human can identify what kind of content that is so that’s why we’re responsible for marking that up and providing that document structure.

Kristen: Another area where accessibility can be improved is through the imagery that’s being used in various academic materials. When you add an image into your content, there needs to be alternative text that will actually describe what is in that image. If that image is being used as a decoration or to break up content but it has no real meaning behind that image, then there are steps that need to be taken so that screen readers will skip over those images. However, when you’re using an image that has content and meaning, that needs to be described so anyone relying on a screen reader or who has images turned off on their browsers (because they have a very slow internet connection), that they will get the meaning of that images providing regardless of whether they can see that image. That also goes for graphs and charts in terms of… you need to provide that explanation… what that chart where that graph or that data is giving if it cannot be seen.

Rebecca: When I’m teaching text equivalents, I like to always remind students that you’re thinking about the image’s purpose… and what it’s trying to communicate and whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate is what should be written as the alt text or the alternative text. So, in other words, if a chart says 65% of students live on campus, or something then like that’s exactly what the text equivalent is…. shouldn’t just say “graph of where students live,” right? That’s not giving the same information.

John: It should contain essentially the same information so that someone listening to will get the same takeaways as someone able to see it.

Rebecca: Right. You had experience with this in the past right, John?

John: Yeah, about maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I had a student who was taking one of my online classes who downloaded these videos I had provided and was listening to them as a podcast so I would be describing or I’d be referring to shifts in curves and she wanted… she needed… to know what curves were shifting and how they looked. So I became much more careful whenever I was talking about curves to describe what was happening and including the appropriate alt tags as well so that anyone listening to it would get the same picture as someone who is participating… who was able to view it .

Rebecca: Color is another key thing that we need to keep in mind. There are contrast standards that need to be used to make sure that text, for example, against a background color, stands out enough… especially if someone has color blindness or even your device, right, has different kinds of color corrections… and lack of corrections. So you have to kind of adjust for that. So there’s contrast checkers that can help you with that. I recommend using the Webaim contrast checker… and then the other thing to always remember is to not use color alone to convey information. So, for example, if you’re trying to make sure a heading stands out, don’t just make it red… (don’t use red on the screen…) don’t just make it red… but maybe it’s also bold… or it’s red and it’s all in capital letters or something, alright?

Kristen: ….and one of the things that I always share with faculty is if you’re not sure, print it out in black and white and if you can distinguish from the color then leave it as is if you can’t then you need to do something else.

John: Because that will indicate that there’s not enough contrast.

Kristen: Exactly, so hypertext is another item that really needs to be looked at differently.

John: Many faculty, for example, used to say click here to do something. The text was often not very descriptive. So, what would you recommend?

Kristen: I recommend that that link had a meaningful name, so that when they are clicking on it, they know exactly where it’s taking them to without having to go back and read prior or latter information. Some individuals will tab through a website to go from link to link to link to scan information.

John: If the link only has the word “here” it’s not very informative.

Rebecca: Yeah, and this becomes even more problematic if you’re using an audio interface and you ask it to read what the navigation for example and it just says here… here… here… here… here… like where’s “here?” Help! So, using something that says, for example, if we were linking out for the Tea for Teaching podcast, it would say “Tea for Teaching podcast” and when you click on it it would go to the Tea for Teaching podcast url.

John: Similarly, if we’re going to have a registration form that we want people to click on, we will have the words “workshop registration form” or “winter breakout registration form” highlighted so that anyone who’s just getting the information from the link knows what the link will go to.

Kristen: Right, and another instance that’s used a lot is just to provide the website URL so https: etc… and when someone is listening to that audio lee or relying on a screen reader, it’s going to be identified as link HTTP and the rest of the UR.

Rebecca: Can you imagine listening to a whole page of that?

Kristen: I don’t want to listen to a whole page of that.

Rebecca: The last area that we want to share is that, you know, a lot of applications that we use for general data entry and making our documents that we share with students, like Microsoft Office, actually have accessibility checkers built into them… as well as Adobe Acrobat also has it. So these are checkers that you could run once you’ve created your document that will alert you if you’re missing things like text equivalents, if there’s contrast issues, and if there is hierarchy or order issues.

John: In the case of faculty, whose responsibility is it to make documents accessible… to make the course materials accessible?

Kristen: The responsibility really lies with the content creators. As you’re creating your document, it’s important to keep those accessibility features in mind so that you don’t have to go back and redesign your document. However, it’s not always been faculty’s responsibility to design documents.

Rebecca: So, yeah, the democratization of software has really changed who content creators are, so we don’t always think that we’re content creators.

Kristen: So faculty are responsible for making sure that the content and the documents they create are accessible and they have not always been responsible for the actual design of those documents. I think the one thing that many people struggle with is they don’t see themselves as content creators as we use more and more media while we’re creating things, we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as designers and we’re not even trained to be designers, right? If we look at our general education, for example, students aren’t trained in design or any of these techniques. We don’t necessarily think about these things, but we need to start thinking about them and recognize that they’re our responsibility. In the past, perhaps secretaries did some of this work for faculty, or designers, or other individuals with expertise in this area. So as we become the makers we also ethically take on that responsibility

John: What are some resources that would be helpful for people who are working to explore how to make their courses more accessible?

Kristen: One resource is the National Center on Universal Design for Learning that will provide some information and a starting point for how to think about employing those Universal Design for Learning principles that we discussed earlier.

John: We’ll share that resource as well as any others that you’ll mention in the show notes.

Rebecca: For those that are a little more tech savvy, webaim.org might be a really good resource if you’re doing things on the web or using HTML as part of your document creation.

Kristen: …and webaim also does give a nice tutorial on how screen readers work. So if you’re curious about how it works or why certain things are being asked of you to do a certain way, that will give you a really good basis to understand why we’re asking you to design in certain ways…. and then another resource is the University of Minnesota’s Accessible U website. It provides a lot of resources that are geared toward faculty, to help them understand what steps need to be taken, and how to make those documents more accessible…

Rebecca: …and what’s nice about that particular resource is it’s written for a fairly general audience and using the tools and technologies that many of us use in our classrooms already.

John: I’d also like to put in a plug for the SUNY MOOC that was created as a collaborative project growing out of a SUNY level task group which is available for self-paced work as well.
Okay. Well, thank you Kristen.

Kristen: Alright, thank you for having me.

Rebecca: Love to talk accessibility again soon.

Kristen: Okay.