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

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

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.

[MUSIC]

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

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer. Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]

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….

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[LAUGHTER]
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.

[LAUGHTER]

[Music]

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.

[Music]

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!

Transcript

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.

Transcript

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

Transcript

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.