139. Pedagogies of Care: Digital Reading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jenae Cohn joins us to discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment. Jenae is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

  • Cohn, Jenae (2021, forthcoming). Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Carillo, E. C. (2017). A writer’s guide to mindful reading. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer –  website
  • Plato (360 BCE). Phaedras
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Mueller, D. N. (2009). Digital underlife in the networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 26(4), 240-250.
  • Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in”—Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading”. CUNY Academic Works, 1–10.
  • Lang, James (2020, forthcoming). Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
  • Hypothesis
  • PowerNotes
  • Perusall
  • PowerNotes
  • VoiceThread

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment.

[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. Jenae Cohn. She is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.

John: Welcome.

Jenae: Thank you for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Jenae: I have got a white and green tea blend with jasmine today. It’s really delicious.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Scottish afternoon tea

John: That’s a little bit stronger, isn’t it?

Rebecca: I like it. It’s good.

John: And I am still drinking English Breakfast tea.

Jenae: A black tea crew. I respect that in the afternoon… a little pick me up.

John: And it’s grading time here so I need the extra caffeine.

Jenae: Yeah, I get that. Makes sense.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, Skim, Dive, and Surface. Could you tell us what motivated your work on this topic?

Jenae: Absolutely. I have always found great solace and inspiration in reading. I’ve considered myself a reader for my entire life, and I noticed as a reader when I was in college that I largely depended on tried and true techniques for remembering content from reading: from highlighting and note taking in the margins to drawing little doodles and scribbles. And when I transitioned to graduate school, when I was getting my PhD, I was reading longer, more complex texts. And at that point, I really didn’t have the resources to be printing everything out hundreds of pages of reading a week, to do those techniques that had served me so well as a college student. So I think at that point forward, I started thinking a lot about how does our media, how do our spaces for reading, shape what we’re able to glean from a reading and how we’re able to orient ourselves to the really critical task of reading and being readers. And this became even a more acute kind of question for me when I started teaching first-year composition, and I saw my own students struggling in the same way that I was struggling as a graduate student with trying to get through really new and challenging complicated texts that were changing our orientation, not only to reading texts, but just being readers. And so I kept mulling over this for years and years, and my research kept dancing around it. And then by the time I got to my job at Stanford, it really struck me that it was the time to start writing a book that would help people recognize and see these real distinctions, but not from a language of a deficit model, and not from the language that was kind of coming out the 2016 moment that Google made us stupid, or that smartphones are bad for our brain, like those dialogues are still happening, much to my great dismay, but to actually provide sort of a more open and inclusive and, I think, kind of compassionate take on the possibilities of reading across spaces and finding promise and hope for readers to be more flexible in different ways of reading, especially when it comes to academic context.

Rebecca: I find your work really exciting because I was always an avid reader, even when I was young, but when reading academic texts, it’s a really different kind of reading, like reading fiction is really different than reading an academic text. And I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had an intervention because I was struggling with our Global Studies class because I had really poor reading comprehension on the topic. And I was lucky that a family friend happened to be the reading specialist and helped me out. But otherwise, no one had taught me how to read those kinds of texts, and I really struggled.

Jenae: Oh my gosh, I love that story, Rebecca, because it really speaks to how your context can shape your behaviors and how you approach that task. And I love that you’ve even worked with a reading specialist. I think we take for granted that if you can read in one space, you can read in another space. You are an avid reader and able to really dive into fiction, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily could read those more technical texts or texts that were speaking to different audiences and engaging with different purposes and it’s easy to take for granted, especially at the college level, that the students will have sort of equal proficiencies if they’re able to like technically read, but we know when we get to higher ed context, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Rebecca: So, like me, I think a lot of students don’t get training on how to read academic texts or critical texts when they’re in K-12. So what do you recommend? Or how do we help students transition to college reading?

Jenae: I think there’s a few ways we can begin. First, I think that what college instructors can really do is help demystify the purposes of reading. I think that a lot of instructors, and I’ve done this myself, assume that just if you say, “Okay, read chapter one of this book,” everyone will understand what the purpose is of reading chapter one of the book, but that’s not necessarily so, especially since in different contexts and disciplines those purposes for engaging with a particular chapter article might be really different. And I think as instructors too, we want to think about what we want students to get out of the reading. Do we want students to be reading for content? Are we trying to help them understand a particular concept and how that concept might be in dialogue with something from an in-class discussion or a lecture, or something else, or we want the students to read what we call reading rhetorically, or I want them to read to understand the strategies an author’s using to communicate a claim. So in writing classes in particular, rhetorical reading might happen when we’re trying to understand a particular historical context or moment that might be shaping how an author might be orienting to a topic, to kind of understand the context around that reading, or understand the writer’s writerly moves. So someone who’s also trying to read to understand a written genre might be another thing we need to help students understand when it comes to purpose. So, in the sciences, you might have students read a scientific article to understand: “This is standard format in the scientific article structure: the introduction, methods, description, results.” There’s always sort of a standard pattern to that. That’s all to say, I think just making our purposes clear is Thing number one, Thing number two, that I think instructors could do to help students really develop a stronger sense of being a reader, is to also help them understand different approaches to note take, and to think about how they glean important pieces of information from a context. And different students will do this in different ways. So I certainly wouldn’t recommend a prescriptive, like note-taking model that everyone has to do. I think that it over determines a certain kind of thought process. But there can be a moment, and I think a lot of instructors don’t think of themselves as having to teach academic skills, but it can be really valuable to make explicit: “Here’s the skill you’ll need to develop to do this work.” And to have an open discussion with students: What do you do? Why do you do these kinds of behaviors? How does this help you learn? And to make that really explicit. These are just starting points. The real expert on academic reading proper, I would point you to Ellen Carrillo, she has a great book for college students called Mindful Reading. Ellen Carrillo’s work about really bridging students to academic reading skills is like the best place to start for instructors who want to start at the foundation of what it means to help students read. I cite her a lot in my book because I think her work is really quite foundational to this thinking,

John: As you noted, the type of reading skills vary quite a bit by your discipline. Reading a chemistry article is very different than reading a math paper or reading a novel or reading poetry. Should each discipline include something about teaching students, what’s important in reading in that discipline early in a student’s career?

Jenae: Oh, I think that would be tremendously helpful if, in an intro course, that was a part of the unit. It would help students recognize what it means to be a professional in that discipline too, which can also help students I think, from the level of choosing a major and deciding what academic conversations they want to remain a part of in terms of their career. I think that many students, and I know I was this way in college, don’t tend to see the subjects as communities. We call these discourse communities: mathematicians, chemists, compositions, they’re all part of different discourse, communities that have different goals and functions and ways of communicating and behaving. So the more visible we can make those sorts of tacit understandings of how people communicate, the more we can demystify a bit of a hidden curriculum around how disciplinarity, how intellectual thought, operates. And I think that can be really exciting for students to see “Oh, people who are in math and chemistry, they have a way of talking. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. [LAUGHTER] It doesn’t mean that I can’t get it. It just means that it’s a community that I don’t know yet, and that I want to understand better through accessing and unpacking what it means to be a reader or a writer in that space.”

John: You need to know the language of the discipline to some extent to be able to participate in the conversation.

Jenae: Exactly. That’s a great way to sum it up. I was like the “too long, didn’t read” version of what I just said.

Rebecca: I think another space where you’re switching contexts is between the physical environment and the virtual environment, which many of us are experiencing maybe more intensely now [LAUGHTER] than we had in the past. I know that while I was on sabbatical, doing research, I found myself doing a lot more reading online in digital format than I ever had before, because our physical library was closed. [LAUGHTER]

Jenae: Yeah, how was that for you?

Rebecca: At first, I was really resistant and I read every single physical book that I had first. So, I could take notes in the margins and things that I was used to and accustomed to doing. But I’ve recently read a couple of texts on my Kindle and really love that I can highlight and take notes there and then end up with a digital file that’s searchable. It’s actually way more useful, but I had never really been forced into trying a new way of reading.

Jenae: Fabulous.

Rebecca: So, I think it’s interesting to start thinking about how do we help students take advantage of some of the affordances that a digital environment actually has, rather than just the resistance. And one of that, for me, is like moving from reading from my computer to a Kindle, which has the e-paper, which is a little better in my eyes and it’s a little more comfortable of a reading environment, but then taking advantage of those tools and techniques that are built into some of the software that’s available.

Jenae: Absolutely. You’ve pointed out several really great affordances to digital reading, where you’re able to archive your notes in a particular space, organize them, create certain kinds of like topical categories for the notes that you’ve got from your Kindle. So, you’re already opening up so many of the wide world of possibilities, especially when it comes to academic reading, in your own experience of having the library closed up for you. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thought process around that.

John: But if students haven’t done much academic work prior to coming to college with e-texts, the skills that they had, as you mentioned in the intro to your book, in terms of dog-earing the pages and using highlighters and so forth, might not translate as easily unless they’ve perhaps learn to adapt with those. Rebecca talked about the ability to take notes and index them, but students don’t always know how to do that. And one thing that complicates it a little bit is they may get their books in different formats, some may be on a Kindle, some may be in Blackboard or Canvas or some other learning management system, and others may be PDFs. So how do we help students with that transition?

Rebecca: And also maybe faculty? Because sometimes I think that’s a barrier, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s probably a more common barrier… we’ve had some people give us all sorts of interesting explanations of why books are better, most of them based on neuromyths that have been debunked for decades. But there is this perception that the tangible nature of a book makes it better in some way. Just as, you know, the book was seen as being bad when it was first introduced, because it weakened the need for people to develop their memories. I think people feel the same way about electronic texts. So how do we get past those barriers on the part of faculty and students?

Jenae: Right. Wow. Lots of good questions nested in that one question. And I will say that in the first part of the book, I talk about history, affect, and neuroscience as kind of categories of ways that instructors, in particular, might find their own resistances or anxieties, as I put it, reflected. John, when you mentioned that people once worried that the book was going to destroy memory. And Socrates and Plato had a famous dialogue about this in the Phaedrus. Right, that’s like an anxiety that’s just been really… there’s historical echoes actually all around the world that I detail in the book. That was a really fun section to write because I love history, too. But anyway, I’ll get to your question here, which is how do we help students make this transition? And again, I think we have to unpack that in a few different ways. And one is sort of starting with meeting both students and faculty where they are, engaging, I think, in some dialogue around “Why do you like a paper book? Why do you like to use a physical highlighter? Why do you like to doodle in the margins?” We’ll learn interesting things, and in the book, I do a little bit of a lit review of some major surveys that have been done around faculty and student perceptions of reading on paper and reading on screen and I’ll offer the really like two-minute gloss version of that, which is that the stated reasons these surveys have found is that, for both students and instructors alike, it is familiar. And there’s a perception that it’s better for their memory and attention. And you’re right, John, too, that some of that comes from neuromyths. Some of it just comes from feeling. A lot of the surveys are about, again, to the affect point, “I like the way the book feels in my hand.” “I like the weight of the book.” People, and this is my favorite, would even say things like “I like the smell of the pages.” And that’s all about feeling, that’s about emotions and the cognitive work are tied, of course. And I actually thought really distinctly of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s work about this, that we can’t unpack the emotions from the learning itself. So all that’s important. So I say you have to start the dialogue there with your own local community and there might be some echoes of that national conversation. And so recognizing why you feel those ways might also help you to see how those feelings or how those perceptions translate into lived experience. A lot of the studies on moving students from print to digital environments are also focused on the memory and retention. And studies have mostly found that students do tend to remember more when they read on paper, but it’s because they don’t actually have strategies for reading in digital spaces. So, something else we might do is, to return to the earlier part of the conversation in some ways, at least, make explicit that there are strategies they’re using in the first place: “Wow, you really like to use the highlighter? What are you doing when you use the highlighter? Oh, you’re pointing out the most important parts of the section? Why is it important to find the most important parts of the section? How are you doing that? What do you do with that information?” Once you find those most important parts, then once you isolate out those skills and what you’re doing with them, we can think about: A. not just how you replicate that in a digital environment, but what a digital environment does differently. So, this is also, I think, part of the conversation needs to include making explicit what the affordances are of a digital environment beyond the fact of it being on a screen, recognizing that paper is a technology. And just as much as that laptops’ are a technology, your Kindle’s a technology. The other technology that I’ll throw in where I think students are doing a bunch of reading these days as their smartphones, I’ve had instructors tell me, “Wow, I’m so horrified that my students are doing all the reading on their phone,” and my response is “Well, especially now on this COVID-19 moment, our students might not have access to laptops that work that are as fast as their 5G network on their phones.” So, I think now more than ever, we have to be really accommodating in thinking about where mobile, and where the affordances of mobile, fit in… What kinds of applications and tools are available across these spaces to, again, both replicate the great labor and thinking around print, but that also take advantage of the easy abilities to link content and connect content across different spaces, the ability to curate and create collections of information across different spaces, and that ability to tag and sort different sets of ideas to see relationships and connections between ideas. This is just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. I will say I recognize the constraints, I think, of digital environments. We can’t ignore things like screen fatigue. Rebecca, you talked about getting tired, your eyes getting tired reading on a screen, I feel that too. The blue light that emits from screens is really exhausting for our brains. I think probably everyone’s experiencing this even more in our move to living on the internet and our COVID-19 moment. So, I think part of this is also figuring out what are the strategies for avoiding fatigue. And in some ways, this can be good for our learning too. It might inspire us to take more breaks, to work in shorter and more concentrated bursts of time and to recognize and have a clear purpose in mind by working within those shorter bursts of time as well.

John: We’ve just been talking about faculty resistance to reading on mobile devices. But, faculty also often seem to have a resistance, back in the days, a long time ago, when we used to be in the classroom at times. There used to be this resistance to students using mobile devices in the classroom. Would you like to talk a little bit about how students, perhaps, might be using mobile devices in ways that may not be as negative as faculty might expect them to be.

Jenae: Yeah. Isn’t it funny how like mobile bans and laptop bans feel like that was so long ago at this moment of recording? Yeah, there’s a big chapter actually in the book about laptop and mobile device bans, because I think that context might come back again. We’ll see. So anyway, yes, there are number of, I think, productive things students are doing with mobile phones in class. One is that students might be using mobile as really their faster internet connection. I will say that mobile networks tend to be a bit more reliable than even if you are face to face. On-campus Wi Fi networks can be very unreliable. And it can certainly be more reliable than students’ home networks. But in the context of class itself, it might actually give students a more stable connection, which can mean greater access. From a learning and engagement perspective too, what students also might get from mobile that I think is really exciting, is the ability to do really flexible note taking and archiving of work. So mobile apps have the real benefit of being able to use your finger or a stylus to actually draw and annotate and nimbly really respond and react in real time. I actually have an activity in the book where I even suggest that instructors create an assignment where they think of students working through their reading as they might create like an Instagram or Snapchat story, where they can take quick screenshots with like emoji reactions from different parts of the book as a way to engage with it. So I think that our students have found really creative ways to engage. They might not realize that those are creative ways to engage. There’s actually a lot of literature that shows that sometimes students get a little uncomfortable when instructors try to like make their class like “My class is cool, it’s like Facebook for learning.” So I don’t know if I would go that direction. But rather, it’s really saying, “Hey, here are tools you can use to do the things that are really good for your learning,” rather than saying, “Learning is just like Facebook,” which makes some students feel a little bit like their lives are getting too uncomfortably blurred. I’ll say one last thing about the mobile phones in class, which is that for many students who are either working from home or staying connected to the family, it’s important to recognize that students might be needing to connect with people outside the classroom during class. That might seem like a distraction, but for many students, if they are caretakers, for example, they might need to be reading off of their phone, to also be checking to see “Okay, does my parent need me right now? Does my sibling need me right now? Does someone else I’m caring about really need me to stay connected and engaged during class?” Some people refer to these behaviors as being part of the digital underlife. Derek Mueller has a great essay about this concept that I think is really valuable. Maura Smale, I should say, and Mariana Regaldo have done really great work on how students are thinking about mobile as sort of lifelines to the world outside. So, I think that the benefits to mobile happen both at the learning level, but also the access and connection and inclusion level. And I don’t know, man, I don’t think we need policing of how our students are engaging with devices in class, as part of the work of showing compassion, I think, towards our students, is trusting and recognizing good intent. And if students don’t want to engage, they just want to disconnect, even if you ban the devices, maybe they’ll doodle and zone out.[LAUGHTER] So, like there are lots of ways to be distracted and the device is sort of a red herring in a way for that, in my opinion.

John: I found many ways to be distracted as a student long before there were cell phones. So, I fully agree with that. And it can also be a good indicator, if the instructor is walking around and sees a lot of students doing things that aren’t related to the class, that maybe there’s not as much engagement there as you might like.

Jenae: Yeah, exactly.

John: One of the differences between an e-text and a book is that generally the book doesn’t have pop-up messages that might interrupt your focus and attention. Most mobile devices, though, do. What can we do to help students perhaps better manage the distractions that they deal with when they’re reading on a mobile device?

Jenae: So this is tricky, because our brains respond to novelty. And of course, mobile phones have been designed to be addictive. [LAUGHTER] With all those pop-up notifications and things that fire off our endorphins. There’s a concrete tip, right, like encourage students to disable notifications for certain kinds of apps. Not all of our students know how to do that. I think, there is often assumptions too about a traditional college-aged student, or I’ll put traditional scare quotes in the air that our students between 18 and 21 know everything about all digital devices, because they are… and I just love this expression… digital natives… not a real thing… it doesn’t exist. [LAUGHTER] Because even if you’re born when technology’s invented, it doesn’t mean that you are adept at it in every single context and environment. So, I think offering some explicit, just tactical, infrastructure advice around that. The other thing that’s not a technical piece, that’s a cognitive piece, again, to help students recognize their purpose in reading too. So when you veer away to check a notification from your reading, why? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because the text is confusing? Is it because you simply just want to read the notification? Just recognizing and making clear what your intentions are as you’re reading can also be a way of managing attention. The other thing I’ll add around distraction, I think it’s important to recognize that attention does not look the same for every student, either. There are some students who I think actually read really well when they’re multitasking, so to speak. The example I go to is when teaching composition I always have students who work with like 5000, tabs open, approximate number, and they’ll often sort of flip between those tabs, and as an instructor I often asked about students; workflow, cause that’s just of interest to me. And many students will share that they’re looking at Wikipedia for an encyclopedic explanation of something they’ve read, or they’re looking up a word in the dictionary, or they’re looking for an image that illustrates something the book described. So sometimes that ability to kind of flip between different things might look like distraction. It might look like it’s not on task when, in fact, it very much could be tied into the task. Of course, those tabs could also be, you know, the latest TikTok stream, or whatever students are watching right now, which of course, can divert attention and isn’t particularly good for memory. But, I think that mindfulness about why they’re reading and why they might click a notification, just making that explicit, right. And rather than just being some sort of a punishment for the sake of being a punishment, or a better way to put this is rather than just sort of deriding the action as a given… really unpacking the assumption that distractions always bad, and thinking through what does it really mean to be distracted? And I suspect Jim Lang’s newest book on Teaching Distracted Minds is actually going to be a really helpful complement to some of this conversation, too. So I think that’s another text I’m really looking forward to reading as part of this conversation as well.

John: We are too and we’ve actually scheduled an interview with him in a few months when it’s closer to coming out to talk about that book.

Jenae: Oh, fabulous.

John: We’re very much looking forward to it, and I think many faculty will be.

Jenae: Super relevant.

Rebecca: I think related to some of the distraction stuff that you’re talking about to is format, and that digital texts come in different formats. And the idea that students are not digital natives, that they don’t just somehow magically know how to use technology unless we’re showing them how to use it. I found that showing students how to take advantage of accessibility features and alternative formats and the ability to make their text reflow, and things like that, has really opened doors for students because they just didn’t even know that those features were available to them and really changed how they experienced texts or other media on their devices, because they could really change how they could actually consume it or interact with it.

Jenae: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up accessibility features. Because, you’re right, that text to speech features, screen reading features, even the visual accessibility features that are part of digital technologies… even just understanding where the alt text is… and where, like, image descriptions might be, makes a difference for all learners. This is of course part of a universal design for learning philosophy, that when students are aware, to your point, Rebecca, of the technologies available to them, it’s all students who benefit from that because it gives them multiple models for engaging with those ideas. It gives them multiple models for potentially representing ideas themselves. And so the book really actually deals with UDL philosophies, at its core. I almost had an entire chapter dedicated to UDL. And then as I was revising it, it’s like, I can’t even have just one chapter. This has to be strung into every chapter in this book. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to encourage students to read in digital spaces, the most compelling reason to encourage faculty to overcome, I think, sometimes resistant perspectives about what digital reading doesn’t offer is, think about the range of students you’re seeing, their ranges of circumstances, their ranges of thinking about the world. And when you open up all these new possibilities for reading in digital spaces, you get to include so many more people who maybe never thought of themselves as readers, right? Who weren’t those avid readers reading their paperback books in the bathtub at three in the morning. That was me. It might be just a different group that you get to bring into the fold and who get to maybe experience reading as they might have never thought of reading before. I found like a million think pieces that were like “Are audio books real books?” Does it mean something to read an audio book, and I did a little bit of like a forehead slap. “Of course, reading an audio book is reading a book. It’s still reading.” But when we disparage based on media, we just exclude so many potential people we could just bring into the fold of being readers and finding people who want to be excited about reading.

John: So besides the accessibility and the UDL nature of this, there’s also some advantages, I think in terms of perhaps the cost of digital readings. College textbooks have grown in price fairly dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to become a much larger share of college costs. So, by encouraging that, aren’t we also perhaps making education at least a little bit more affordable?

Jenae: I hope so. And certainly the OER movement is really tied to these conversations about accessibility. So, yes, I think that the more we can point students to digital resources that might reduce those kinds of costs, we respond to a major faculty concern. Surveys from EDUCAUSE and the Babson survey group actually suggest that one of faculty members’ major concerns is this very question of affordability. So, if we could be more open minded about the ways that we teach certain academic skills, we kind of kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We manage to kind of help solve the affordability piece, while also expanding out accessibility options. And I think OERs could be even more powerful as a resource, if we help students understand how to leverage them beyond the ways that they might just read a website, which if you look to research and usability studies and user experience, a lot of people read websites in what’s been called like an L-formation, like the eyes sort of scan only a portion of the page. It’s not really reading in depth. And that’s because people have certain behaviors or attitudes about what they’re trying to find on a website. And you can spend hours and hours thinking about the user experience of website and where you place the pieces to draw attention to the most important pieces of information. And so that’s a matter of training, right? We know that website genres invite certain kinds of reading. So, if we open it up to students, we say, “Hey, you’re going to be doing all your reading online in this OER, that’s a more affordable option. How will you identify the important pieces? What’s going to be your behavior through this text? This isn’t just like reading the website for the news. It isn’t just like going on your Twitter feed. This operates in a very different way. Here’s how we can leverage that and not just sort of feel like we’re following the same patterns we do with other pieces of kind of flattened out web content. So, I deviated a little from your affordability question, but it got me thinking about the UX side as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the exciting things that you discuss in your book, but also capture in the infographic that you are including in the Pedagogies of Care project are some really interesting ways that students can read in a digital environment that allows us to make connections and interact with other people and other texts. Can you talk about some of the ways that we can use digital texts that people don’t always think about.

Jenae: Sure. So, I have a framework that’s at the core of the book. I don’t call it the five C’s for digital read, I call this the digital reading framework, but it is the five C words. So, some of the strategies include connection, curation, contextualization, creation, and what I call contemplation. And so some things people might not think about is when I think especially with connection and curation. We’ll start with curation, that’s actually the first item in the framework. Reading is always an act of curation in many ways. When you take a text, unless it’s just something you’re reading for fun. I should say reading is always an act of curation in an academic or a learning context, because you’re trying to sort of parse out what pieces of information or what examples are the best examples to help me make a claim, remember an idea, draw a conclusion, whatever the case might be. And so with a digital text, what you can do is you can make that curation process visible by… and this is simple… this isn’t even high tech: copying and pasting parts of your text into a taxonomy of your own design that helps you to see “Oh, right, this collection of quotes is really about this topic that I’m learning about in my class.” “Oh, wow, this text A and text B are both speaking to content area one.” You can really bridge that much more easily than on paper when you might have to, you know, an old school technique would be to make like note cards, where you write down the quotes and their different paper books that correspond to these topics. It’s a great strategy, but pretty cumbersome and time consuming, and difficult to manage if you don’t have access to print books, like the moment we’re in right now. So, that might be one strategy that is exciting, I think, for a digital environment, especially. I’ll point to creation as another example. So one of the benefits of being in a digital environment is you can really manipulate text easily. And that goes to everything from modifying fonts, especially if you’re just reading something off of like, an HTML regular old website. You could copy and paste that text into any word processor, you could change the font colors, shapes, sizes, to create different kinds of taxonomies. and customize that more, even in text like a PDF document that you can’t customize the design of text itself, you can still lift parts of that text, you can convert it into different file forms to modify the appearance as well and create something new for you a different kind of map, that’s not just limited to highlighting and doodles, but is actually dealing with and manipulating the words themselves. You can’t lift words out of a print book. So it’s kind of cool to think about what could you do if you could take these words. In the creation chapter I give an example of an activity where you could even create like a visualization of the text itself or create like an audio guide through your text, or maybe you lift those words and create word clouds or mind maps to see relationships between ideas that way. I’m sort of riffing abstractly here because I think you would do this differently depending on different concrete disciplines and contexts. But I think that the framework itself offers lots of different options that I point out the creation and creation categories in particular because in many ways it is the most unique for the digital context and might be the most surprising to people who might think of reading as just a process of underlining, and maybe leaving notes in the margin. There’s a lot more ways to think about and play with the ideas you get from text than just like “This idea is cool” or like “I have a question here.” You could expand a lot more and do a lot more and do a lot more to make text dynamic, I think.

John: One of the things I’ve been using in a couple of my classes for the last couple years is Hypothesis, where I have digital versions of some readings, generally working papers and studies, within the LMS. And then students go through and annotate it and tag it, which kind of forces them, I think, to analyze things a little bit more deeply. And they can comment on each other’s and so forth. And it’s been a really useful tool, which wouldn’t work very well with a physical text.

Jenae: Yes, I love the collaborative component of a tool like Hypothesis, too. It makes reading social, which is something we also lose out on sometimes, unless you go to a used bookstore and you find like the treasure of a book that has someone else’s old annotations. That’s like one of my favorite things of all time. I miss used bookstores in our COVID-19 moment, I have to say. But, Hypothesis, it’s like getting to uncover that treasure of seeing how someone else thought of something, to make it clear that no one text exists in isolation, that you always necessarily need to have text together. I always feel reluctant to cite myself, but I’ll do it since I’m talking about my book in this podcast, anyway. I actually wrote a book chapter all about social annotation in an edited collection about marginalia, that I think speaks to exactly what tools like Hypothesis do. There’s actually a ton of great tools on the market now that do similar things. Perusall is also really good for doing what Hypothesis does. It’s a bit more of a closed system than Hypothesis. It doesn’t exist on the open web, it kind of locks it into a class community. I think there are pros and cons to that. PowerNotes is also a really cool tool that’s new on the market, where students can also collaboratively comment on each other’s. It’s not annotations tied directly to the text, but you comment on annotations in an outline view. So, it kind of privileges how students are rearranging ideas and building them into a topically formed outline. In the book, I have an appendix of tools that will be current as of the writing. Unfortunately, in any book about technology, the instant you publish it, some of it’s obsolete. So I tried really hard in the book not to get too tied to particular tools, because I wanted the concepts to be sort of translatable, because the sort of secret to this book is it’s about digital reading. But really, it’s more about having an expansive attitude to what it means to be a reader in the first place. And it happens to be responding to digital media as the technology that is most prevalent and most centrally part of our lives right now. But I think it’s really valuable to talk about particular tools to make this more concrete. That’s why there are tools in that appendix. And John, I love that you’re using Hypothesis. Have you tried out that too, Rebecca, or other kinds of annotation tools like that?

Rebecca: I haven’t, but I’m looking for an option that will allow us to also comment on images and layout.

Jenae: Yes.

Rebecca: So there’s some limitations to Hypothesis in the ways that I would want my students to use it. So, I haven’t quite found the best solution yet for what I’m hoping I can get in place for the fall?

Jenae: Yeah, I really would like to see a tool that does better image annotation too.

John: That might be an interesting application of VoiceThread, for example, where students can put the image on the screen and either put text notes to it or annotate the image directly, or just talk over it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really like Hypothesis and VoiceThread need to like talk to each other and make a tool that combines some of the features of both, [LAUGHTER] because I like the fact that you can go to an actual web page and interact with something in that space where it was designed, because the design piece of it is actually important to me, and it’s dynamic nature, rather than just taking screenshots. So, that’s where I’m finding limitations in the tools currently.

Jenae: VoiceThread is a great recommendation though, John for engaging with multimedia. I love that students too can comment with either text or audio or video. And this conversation’s really speaking to the importance of space and making options and opportunities available. And to Rebecca’s point about limitations, it’s also important from the instructor side to know… Rebecca, it sounds like you have a really clear sense of purpose, what you want your students to do. It sounds like you have that too, John, and that’s where we really want people to begin… this is my technologist side speaking… we want people to begin with their own pedagogical purpose, with their goals, before they start selecting tools. That’s the danger in this conversation about digital reading is that we start first with foregrounding the tool and don’t think about the why. So I always like to begin with that purpose piece. It’s important to go down the features rabbit hole, because part of how we shape the environment. But, we also don’t want ta decision to adopt novel things for the sake of adopting novel things.

Rebecca: I think the foundation of compassion in the work that you’re doing is really important too, because it really is a very inclusive perspective in who’s involved in reading, why we’re reading, and it’s against the deficit model. I really appreciate the idea that there’s like a future of reading that’s exciting and new, and we can all be a part of it, that really supports this moment today. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the compassion pieces of your work if you would be willing to share them.

Jenae: Sure. So, I’d say put up like the UDL piece that kind of gets strung throughout. This compassion piece to me gets threaded throughout the book in the same way that I think my work on UDL, or grappling with UDL, gets threaded across the book, because I think a student-centered philosophy is inherently compassionate. If you’re thinking about who’s going to be a part of your learning experience on the other end, and recognize that students are really bringing good intent into the classroom… when you start from that space and saying, students are the ones experiencing this learning. And for the most part, we have to trust our students to want to come and and have agency in their learning experience. I think something that’s important when you center compassion is recognizing, too, that not every student is like you. I know for me as a really enthusiastic reader, it’s easy occasionally to feel disheartened when students don’t like to read, or don’t want to read, or don’t do the reading. At the end of my book, in my conclusion, I talked about hearing lots of hallway conversations as an instructor about “Oh, I’m so upset. My students never do the reading. They don’t like to do the readings.” and that can feel sad because we want people to feel as excited about what we assigned to them as we feel about it. A third thread in the book then is sort of saying, “Hey, when you can open up your practices, you also help students come at reading where they are.” a student-centered design philosophy says, “You’re going to find your own enthusiastic pathway in here.” And we also need to recognize as part of the compassionate philosophy, also a forgiveness side of like, “If you don’t like this, this isn’t what you like, that’s cool, too.” I was never a strong STEM student. And so I remember in college, I never put very much time… I took like the dinosaurs class for my science class, which I thought be like the easy science option. It was not. I’ll just say that. That was like one of the hardest classes I took in college was the class on dinosaurs. We had to identify dinosaur bone structures. [LAUGHTER] That was really tough, but I can still tell you the different kinds of dinosaur hips, just saying, if you ever want to know, that the dinosaurs have two different kinds of hips. So, I learned things but that’s not to say that like I did the bare minimum in the dinosaurs class to learn the dinosaur bone structures. And I think that we have to accept that our students like that our classes might not be the class, this might not be their major, this might not be what they’re passionate about. So, the more options that we give, to helping them kind of get into this, the more we can again, recognize, see, appreciate, where they are at different moments. One last thing I’ll say about compassionate courses in our current moment, where we’re all sort of forced to be remote, this compassion is even more important. So, I see understanding the possibilities of digital reading as yet another way to include students who might not have preferred to read on screen, but who find they’re forced to because they don’t have access to printers to make paper copies of their readings, they don’t have access to the library, because every library everywhere is closed. And so, a part of this is saying, “Hey, you can still get what you need. Do what is motivating you right now, even if you don’t have access to these materials, rather than kind of falling back to this model of ‘being online is deficient.’ ‘Reading digitally is deficient,’” and saying “Look, it doesn’t have to be, and it might not still be your preference.” I mean, I think lots of students at this moment are going to appreciate face-to-face instruction even more. Many might find a lot to love about remote learning, it’s going to be a range. But again, the more options we can give, the more we show compassion to the different circumstances and needs that might be shaping our student experiences. So, kind of a long answer to that question, but there’s a lot to unpack there too. I think.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Jenae: So a few things are next, given that the book will not be out until sometime in early 2021, I am designing right now as workshops and webinars around components of the book that I’m hoping will make certain pieces sort of portable and accessible in the meantime, since as at the time of recording, a lot of colleges are deciding about remote learning options, hybrid learning options, HyFlex learning options, so I’m hoping to tie in some conversation about digital reading with designing in different course models and how we could design learning activities around reading and writing that might be aligned with some online course design work. So I’m really, really excited about thinking through those possibilities. Another component, and I don’t know if this is a piece of writing yet, or something else. But a big piece of the book that I had to cut was about how digital reading operates in the service of developing digital literacy. I’m really interested in thinking about how, in our moment of being more connected and more remote, how colleges can better support students in acquiring digital literacies of various kinds, whether this is using different kinds of software applications for learning, or whether this is just becoming sort of more aware and critical of the infrastructures and tools that shape our reading experiences. I have a chapter in the book that’s all about kind of the dark underbelly of EdTech and the ways in which, even with adopting new tools, we need to be mindful of the lifespan of digital archives as in things that are on the web live forever. [LAUGHTER] And there’s still a lot more awareness raising we need to do and questioning we need to do of people who design EdTech solutions to make sure that we’re remaining cognizant of student safety and privacy. And as instructors, we need to know how to ask good questions about data collection, even around work like reading that might feel like it’s sort of innocuous and not terribly invasive. It still could be, depending on what students are reading or what they’re commenting on. So, I do think that there’s more work, I would like to do that interrogates how we help students become more aware and more critical of the infrastructures in which texts are available to them. And on the instructor end, I’d like to help think about how instructors themselves might develop the literacies to also be able to question and adopt ethical solutions for reading as well.

John: I’m really looking forward to reading your book, and I’ll put it on pre-order as soon as it’s listed somewhere. And we will share a link to your infographic and any other things you referred to in our show notes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading your work and also your new work that you’re thinking about and ruminating over and also the workshops and things that you might do related to your book prior to your book coming out. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jenae: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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

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

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138. Pedagogies of Care: UDL

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Thomas J. Tobin joins us to discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success.

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

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist&helliip;

John: &helliip;and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Thomas J. Tobin. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series. Welcome, Tom.

John: Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thanks. I’m glad to be here, and thank you for inviting me.

John: Our teas today are:

Tom: I’m drinking decaf black tea as always, nothing added, nothing, taken away.

Rebecca: Sounds perfect. I’m drinking strawberry grapefruit green tea today.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint tea. I’ve had a lot of caffeine today, so I’m watering it down a little bit. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your work with the Pedagogies of Care project as well as your work with Universal Design for Learning. Could you tell us about how this project came together?

Tom: I’m one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning and it started with an idea from Jim Lang at Assumption College. He wanted to put together a series of books that wasn’t so much “Here’s all the research and all the bona fides and all the scholarship on teaching and learning topics. He wanted books that talked directly to practitioners about what those best practices are, in a way that’s easily digestible and practical and implementable. My co-author Kirsten Behling and I, we wrote the book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education for the series. Jim is the editor of the whole series. We’ve got lots of other folks in the series. Michelle Miller is coming up. Josh Eyler just published. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Kevin Gannon. A lot of the people that you see on academic Twitter. The public intellectuals among us are published in this series and that’s a credit to Derek Chrisoff, the series editor. A number of us who are or will be published in that series in the future, we were part of the emergency response teams at our colleges and universities when the COVID-19 pandemic came up. And we found that whether we were reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside HigherEd, Edsurge, we were reading a lot of, “Well, this is the time when we should be evaluating online teaching because now everyone’s teaching online” or “We should be guarding the ivory tower and defending against these rings of cheating students.” And almost everyone in the series thought these are reactionary takes that are getting published out there. And it’s almost the opposite of how we would advise people to go. So a few of us got out our trusty keyboards and we wrote response articles. I responded to a couple of pieces in The Chronicle. Michelle Miller in Inside Higher Ed. Derek Bruff went over onto Edsurge. And we wrote our responses up and people said, “Oh, this is really humane. This treats students like co-learners in the process Instead of adversaries. What else do you have? Do you have more?” And the answer was, “Well, Perhaps we should have more.” And Tori Mondelli from the University of Missouri, asked, “Why not envision and help to shape what the new normal of colleges and universities and higher education could look like post pandemic, if we’re just going back to the way things were, that’s an opportunity missed.” And so we decided to put together this Pedagogies of Care collection from all of the authors and soon-to-be authors in the WVU Press series. So a lot of things went into it. So it was conversations on the POD network open discussion group topic, Josh Eyler was especially active over there, academic Twitter, Kevin Gannon, Viji Sathy, Kelly Hogan from the University of North Carolina. We’ve been voices out there that people trust. We’ve been doing the research, we’ve been listening to our colleagues. And what we’re doing with this Pedagogies of Care Collection, is we’re trying to create a unified voice for what colleges and universities could look like, with the understanding that we have a huge budget crisis, that we only have so much in terms of people, money, and time to be able to implement things. So this isn’t really a rose-colored glasses utopian vision. But it’s a practical look at what we can actually accomplish if we’re working together, thinking together, and thinking in terms of student success.

John: In terms of the contributions, I understand it’s going to be a mix of different types of inputs. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Tom: Of course. As the Universal Design for Learning thinker among the group, we’ve got a few of us who are also fans of that idea, the initial prompt to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t “Please write an essay,” although I totally wrote an essay, but it was “Please respond in the way that you feel represents your ideas best.” And so for example, Cyndi Kernahan and Kevin Gannon decided that they wanted to, even though they wrote two different books, they wanted to get together and create a video podcast. For example, Sarah Rose Cavanagh decided that she wanted to put together an audio podcast along with a bunch of reference resources and handouts that people could take away. Jessamyn Neuhaus, the author of Geeky Pedagogy, she decided that she wanted to do a video log of different pieces of advice that she had collected and created. And a lot of folks went in lots of different creative ways. So the prompt was: respond how you like, and we got a really varied bunch of contributions from everybody. And we’re in the process of editing that right now as we’re recording this interview, and we hope that that’ll be coming out soon.

Rebecca: Sounds like a very caring way to address everybody’s needs during COVID-19, including all the authors’. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Well, absolutely. And the flexibility is almost the key here is that we’re trying to model, in our advice, the kinds of strategies that we’re asking people to adopt, and really the overarching idea is that students are coming to us from lots of varied circumstances. One of the things that the pandemic has done for everyone is shown that everybody has barriers to learning. And whether those barriers have to do with disability, whether those barriers just have to do with time&helliip; people are working, they have family responsibilities, their kids are home from school and they’re taking care of them. All different kinds of barriers. And if there are ways that we can address those barriers, help to minimize them, help to lower them, and help to reach out to our students as human beings first, that’s going to actually make our lives as instructors and support staffers, smoother, easier, and it’s going to mean that we’re not as bureaucratic about things as we might have been previously. We’d thought about a number of different titles for the collection, you know, “The road back from COVID-19,” and we didn’t really want to focus everything on the virus. We wanted to focus on the interpersonal dynamics, on the interactions, on the caring that we saw people engaging in, that emotional and affective labor that really marks the best teachers and instructors. And so I think it was Tori Mondelli who came up with the title of Pedagogies of Care, because that was the thread that ran through all of our approaches to this collection and to how we wanted to work with our colleagues at our individual institutions.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the conversations I’ve observed on Twitter and other spaces is how much the focus has been on humans: students as humans, faculty as humans, and that faculty and staff have barriers just like students do. And that’s something that hasn’t really been highlighted in the past in a lot of conversation about disability or universal design or any of these things that tend to be very student driven. And so it’s nice that the conversation has actually widened to be more inclusive.

Tom: Yeah, and this is the myth of the faculty super person, right? The students can have all these challenges but faculty members have got it together, right? We are super and awesome and always good and always on and always perfect, which is baloney. We’re human beings as well. And it’s actually how I got started in the field. Dial back 23 years, it’s 1997, and I’m at a two-year college in Pennsylvania. I’m a 27 year old kid with just about almost have my doctorate. And I’m tasked with creating online courses for this community college. I help them adopt Blackboard version one. That’s how long ago that was. Your listeners can’t see me, but all this gray hair, I earned it. And one of my business faculty members came to me, Marty, and he says, “I would like to teach online, not because I think it’s the next world beating thing or the thing that’s the best for me. But I see the handwriting on the wall. We’re moving in this direction. And I want to know how to do it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll help you.” The only problem, Marty in his 40s, had gone blind due to complications from undiagnosed and so untreated diabetes. Now that meant that he didn’t, and I’ll put air quotes here, he didn’t know how to be a blind person. He didn’t walk with a cane. He didn’t touch type&helliip; couldn’t read Braille. And so I said, “Oh, the literature will save me.” And I went back to the literature and there was no literature. And so, by good grace and good luck, I got connected with Norm Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology. Norm is a faculty member who has been blind since birth. He was a great big advocate for the rights of faculty members and instructors who have disabilities. And his advice was essentially “Good luck, kid.” But along the way, he also turned me on to a lot of different ways that I could help Marty, and we did actually get him to teach his business courses online. This is in the days before JAWS and screen readers, and we ended up getting some graduate students from a local university and using them as Marty’s eyes and ears. He memorized what the Blackboard interface, the LMS interface, looked like. And when his students would send him things or put discussion messages on the posts, the graduate students would read them out loud and Marty would say, “Here’s my feedback. Here’s the grade,” and the graduate students would put those things in there. It was wildly successful for about the three semesters before we realized we were violating FERPA privacy laws about eight different ways and we had to stop. It was that failure, though, that really caused me&helliip; and to your point, Rebecca&helliip; it caused me to look around and start seeing people who we weren’t serving well, or maybe not at all. People with those military deployments, those weird work shifts, the family responsibilities, the people who weren’t even in our classrooms because they couldn’t get there. And if I had my way I would teach all of my courses face to face. But that means that I’m leaving out a big number of people whom we could otherwise be serving well, and so I’ve been an advocate for using technology to lower barriers for years and years and years. So, thank you for letting me take off on a little bit of a side note there, but it’s actually the absence of scholarship and research about instructors who have various barriers. And it’s not just disability barriers. It’s instructors who are single parents, folks who are the adjuncts among us, contingent faculty members who are trying to put a life together by moving from among four or five different institutions. These are all barriers that we should be talking more about and surfacing. And that kind of advocating on behalf of, and trying to bring visibility to, a lot of people who aren’t really visible right now, that’s one of those driving impetus behind the Pedagogies of Care collection.

John: The timing of this seems very appropriate because as you suggested before, many of these barriers became much more visible both in faculties own lives and also being on a college campus makes it easier for those barriers to be invisible, that we don’t observe different socioeconomic differences in quite the same way because we’re in the same environment. Students on college campuses at least appear to have equal access to technology through computer labs and college provided WiFi. But there’s a lot of hidden barriers there, as you’ve talked about in many different ways, but I think now is a really good time to be providing these resources because people are thinking about them in ways that many faculty have been able to avoid.

Tom: You bring up a good point because it’s really easy to sort of hide inside the ivory tower, because you see students only in controlled circumstances. And with the pandemic, now everybody’s teaching remotely using Zoom and other remote instruction tools like that. And when you start seeing into students’ living rooms, and seeing how other people live, it’s kind of eye opening in a literal sense. And it also means that we’re at a moment where people are going in one of two different directions that I’m seeing. They’re either going in the direction of compassion, and understanding, you know, that my students are human beings just like I am and our goal for this course is to get them from “I don’t know yet” to “now I know.” But the other direction is also pretty prevalent where you’ve got instructors saying “Now is the time where I really need to tighten up and get hard and maintain my standards, because I’m in a situation that’s way beyond my control and unlike something that I’ve ever seen before,” and both of those are very natural reactions to a situation where you’re in unfamiliar territory. So, in this Pedagogies of Care collection, one of the aims of all of it is to help to show that that road of compassion is one that actually solves more problems for us as instructors. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had as instructional designers and public thinkers for years is that we have the data to show that the best way to ensure academic integrity is actually to build a culture of academic honesty in your class, not setting up panoptical surveillance of your students and assuming that they’re cheating. But why do people still use those other methods of surveillance? Because there’s the promise of, there’s the illusion of, control. There’s the illusion of “I’ve got this all set,” and you’ve both been teaching for a while and so have I. If I go back to when I was first an instructor, I was the worst professor in the world because I had a legal pad filled with reminders to myself: “tell this story,” “make sure they understand this concept,” “do these things.” And I was so focused on the content itself, that I forgot to actually interact with my students. [LAUGHTER] It was just a big lecture, it was a bunch of information presentation. And I can’t tell you how many of the same questions that we all struggled with, when online teaching was brand new back in 1997 and 98. they’re coming right back up again, from people who didn’t think they had to pay attention to technology-mediated instruction, and now everyone must. So that’s one of the things that we want to address in the collection as well. So, I appreciate where you’re going with your thinking process there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about UDL and what it is, and how faculty might start thinking about universal design for learning, moving into the fall?

Tom: Yeah, absolutely. There’s four different ways that I talk about UDL a lot, and one of them is the least helpful for most instructors. And that’s the neuroscience behind it. When we learn anything, and it sticks, we have to activate three different chemical pathways in our brains. So there’s the acetylcholine uptake pathway through the hippocampus, there’s the norepinephrine cycle through the frontal cortex. And then we have to stimulate the amygdala in order to reduce fear response and actually put things into long-term memory. If you go around telling people that their eyes glaze over or they run away, so I usually don’t start there. What I usually do is, the folks at CAST, C_A_S_T, the Center for Advanced Specialized Technology in Boston, they are the neuroscientists who figured out in the early 1990s that those three brain networks correspond to: the how, the why, and the what of learning. So they figured out that if you design learning interactions, to give people a “Why,” “Why am I learning this,” right? So if a pipe underneath your sink breaks at eight o’clock at night, it’s just around dinnertime, and there’s water gushing out, what’s the first thing you need to do? You need to turn off the water. If you don’t know where that shutoff valve is, you have to figure that out. Most people these days, they would turn on their phones if they don’t know, and they say “Where’s the shutoff valve?” Usually under a sink. But having that “why,” having a reason to learn something is the reason that we stay engaged. And if you can give people more than one way to stay engaged, that’s what the folks in CAST talk about multiple means of engagement, then having the choice that leads everybody to the same goal means that people feel that they can have a measure of control, have a measure of agency in their learning. So that’s one of the three principles. The next one is the “what” of learning. You need to have some content to learn, some information. And so if you’re teaching a microbiology course and you’re talking about the cellular energy transfer process, you might be talking about meiosis and mitosis. Well, people have to be able to experience what that looks like, or see a description of how that process works in meiosis and mitosis and the difference between the two of them. So, you have to have multiple ways of taking in the information. So, perhaps that microbiology Professor might have a video animation that the textbook publisher provided, and might also have a text-based description of each of those processes as well. So, students can use one, both, or make a choice about where they’re going to get the information and how. So, that’s multiple means of representing information. And the third part of universal design for learning, and this is the part that no one’s using yet, and it’s most powerful, is multiple means of action and expression. When we learn anything, we have to have a way to show what we know with which we are comfortable. And the way that we’ve been failing folks, that we’ve been letting them down, is asking everybody to demonstrate their skills in exactly the same way. Mark in the bubble sheets on this final examination. Write out your thoughts on the exam and tell us what you know, when a demonstration might be something that would be equally valid to show that someone has internalized the concepts for your course, but is not necessarily a written format. So, we’ve got multiple means of staying engaged, multiple means of representing information, and multiple means of action and expression – that’s allowing students to write out the traditional three-page essay, or it’s allowing students the choice to take out their phones and take the selfie camera and put it to good use and narrate what they would have said in an essay as though they were doing a news report. So long as you can grade both of those according to the same criteria, you have the same learning objectives, the same demonstration of skills, then give students the choices there. So, those three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representing information, multiple means of action and expression come together into universal design for learning. And you know what? That was a long explanation. And people’s eyes… well, they still kind of glaze over when you talk like that. So I and Kirsten, in the book, try to simplify it even further. And at its root… this isn’t the whole thing, but it’s a wonderful place to start&helliip; Universal Design for Learning is really just “plus one” thinking. Think about all the interactions that your students have. The interactions that they have with the materials, yes, but also the interactions that they have with one another, that they have with you as the instructor, with support staffers at your college or your university, and with the wider world when you ask them to go out and talk to people in the field. All those interactions. If there’s one way for it to happen now, make one more way. And that is a very UDL approach to things and then you can start getting into the details of the three different principles and how to apply them. But that’s a quick overview of UDL. And what I love about universal design for learning is that it is a mindset. It’s a framework. It’s not a set of practices that you do, it’s a way of thinking about the interactions that you create. So if you’re a fan of active learning, or the flipped classroom model, or any other specific way of teaching, you don’t have to change what you do, or how you do it. You just have to think in terms of being more inclusive and doing that “plus one” thinking.

Rebecca: How common are these UDL practices in higher education right now?

Tom: Ah, not common enough. The data that we have suggests that it’s about 10% of college courses that actually use any kind of inclusive design methods, including UDL. And we would love for that number to be higher. Because Universal Design for Learning&helliip; Yes, it does require work up front… it’s work that pays you back, many, many fold. So, when we’re thinking about Universal Design for Learning, that’s actually the hardest part of the conversation to have with a lot of college and university instructors. Because they say “Do I have to do absolutely everything and set everything up ahead of time?” And the answer is largely “Yes, there is work involved.” And once you design those choices for your students, you can start in three different ways. One: where are the pinch points in your course? Where do you… that microbiology professor&helliip; where do your students always get the concept of mitosis and meiosis confused and they send you the same email 700 times every time you teach the course? That’s a wonderful place to start doing some plus one thinking. Where do your students get things wrong on tests and quizzes, everybody, and you end up having to reteach, again&helliip; a good place to start doing some choices, or to give them information in more than one format to help reduce that reteaching load. And where do your students say, “Hey, Professor John, Professor Rebecca, that was a great lecture, but I still don’t get it.” And when they’re confused, that’s another good place to give them more options for engagement, more options for how they take in information. And if people start there, it doesn’t have to be “Oh, I have 30 half-minute videos in my course. And now I have to caption all of them.” It’s just looking for those pinch points, starting small and starting in the places where you already have identified things aren’t going the way that you wanted them to go. So, how common is UDL in higher education? Ah, right about 10% adoption right now. That number is climbing. It was a buzzword in higher ed, maybe a couple years ago, 2015, 2016. And I’d like to advocate that it not be a buzzword. It’s not like, you know, “my President went away to some leadership conference, and every year that person comes back with a new thing that we’re all going to try, and UDL was one of those new things.” [LAUGHTER] Instead, I’d like to say that Universal Design for Learning is one of those toolkit issues that everybody should have in their panoply of strategies that they’re going to use when they’re designing and when they’re teaching, because it helps with persistence, retention, and satisfaction for our students. Students who have choices and feel that their instructor is helping them to move through their own education with a sense of agency. We’ve got 35 years of data that show that students who have that feeling, they stick around better, so more students who are there on day one are there to take the exam. They retain better. More students who are with us this semester will come back next semester, and they’re more satisfied with their experience, they’re more likely to tell their friends, “Hey, come to this college or this university.” So, the idea of how common is UDL? We haven’t had as much of a head start, as the folks in K-12 have, it’s only really been a big thing in higher education for the past four or five years. But, we’re getting there. So I’m happy to be an evangelist for it. And I’m really grateful to see how people are applying it in small ways and then moving from those small beginnings into larger and larger iterations as word spreads. You’d be surprised, you’d be absolutely surprised. One person in a faculty meeting says, “Hey, you know, I made this one change. And now I don’t have to reteach the hard concept in our field every semester.” And then that person just sits back and is quiet. And everyone else in the faculty meeting goes, “What did you do? How can we get in on that? Help us, please.” And then UDL takes root. So, there are some good things coming out of it.

Rebecca: Tom, what do you think the biggest barrier is for faculty to get started with UDL?

Tom: The biggest barrier is really the investment of time and effort, as well as misunderstandings about what it is. So imagine for a minute&helliip; I’ll ask you and John a quick question. You both teach at SUNY Oswego. When was the last time that you had an accommodation paperwork from a student with a disability barrier?

John: I get them every semester.

Rebecca: I get them less often.

Tom: Ok.

Rebecca: But, I also teach in the arts.

John: I usually teach three to four hundred students at a time. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Ah yes, but you’re both familiar with that paperwork, right?

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: Yes.

Tom: So, it’s usually “give this student extra time on a test” or “set up some individual accommodation for the student” that is different from how you treat all the other students. Because our disability services areas are often understaffed and overworked, that Disability Services paperwork often comes to you like in week two of the semester. And it’s almost always a surprise, right? And you think, “you know, I did all of my prep for this course. And now here’s this paperwork that says, I have to do all this extra work just for this one student.” Now, I’ll be charitable, I don’t think either of you, or any of your listeners hold that kind of mindset. But there’s a lot of people who say, “You know what? I’m mad about this. Is this student faking a disability? Is this a real thing?” I hear these kinds of questions from people and it kind of breaks my heart because the answer is these students are struggling and they’re trying to get a level playing field and they’re doing their best to be good students in your class. And that mindset of “Well, this accommodation paperwork is just a thorn in my side or it’s extra work,” that’s what people think about when we all say, accessibility. So, if I come to you and I say Universal Design for Learning, it’s easy to make the mental mistake of thinking, “Oh, that must be about students with disabilities and that accessibility paperwork, that’s a bunch of work” and it makes me kind of frustrated, and the emotions that come up for a lot of people are negative ones. Now Universal Design for Learning has nothing to do with accommodations, individually. It really has nothing to do with Disability Services. It’s all about constructing interactions so that we are reducing the effort and work that’s needed to engage in the conversation in the first place for students. Universal Design for Learning has the good benefit of reducing the need for individual accommodations. Fewer of your students will need that piece of paper to come to you and say treat me differently. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever get rid of the need for those accommodations, but it does help to reduce them quite significantly. Because, if you’re giving people information in more than one way, if you’re helping them stay engaged in more than one way, and you’re giving them options for how they demonstrate their skills in more than one way, then, by definition, fewer people are going to have to say, “You know what? I can’t write that essay because I have a physical disability barrier, or I can’t do this project because I have this time crunch and I have personal family care obligations, so please treat me differently.” But that’s the biggest barrier is people mistake UDL with disability accommodations. And so when I talk about Universal Design for Learning, I actually don’t&helliip; I know there’s lots of people listening, but don’t hate me on this one&helliip; I don’t talk about people with disability, not first, and not only. What I talk about is mobile devices. Absolutely everybody in college and university has a smartphone, just about. Now granted, there are lots of people who don’t, but the latest Pew Research and Pearson Research surveys show that between 90 and 95% of college and university students have smartphones. Does that mean that they all prefer to work on their smartphones? No. Katie Linder at Kansas State University now, when she was with Oregon State University, they did a huge nationwide survey in the United States and Canada, and found that by and large college students prefer to learn using their laptops or desktop devices. But, oftentimes they don’t have those or they don’t have access to those. So, they’re trying to learn using their mobile devices. With the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody got thrown into that same situation where everybody needed to be remote. And it was “Let’s be remote students with whatever devices and whatever connectivity we have at the moment.” So, the challenge there is with Universal Design for Learning, when I talk about students and their mobile devices everybody understands that, everybody knows how students are tied to their mobile devices. And it applies to everybody in the course. it’s not “Oh, this is just for those students over there, that small percentage of our population with disability barriers.” No, Universal Design for Learning is design that helps absolutely everyone in the class to lower access barriers, rather than just accessibility barriers. And in fact, I chop the end of the word off when I’m talking to people. I seldom talk about “accessibility” anymore, and talk just in terms of “access.” And that is what helps to address that main barrier, Rebecca, that you talked about.

John: For someone who wants to get started, what would be a relatively easy way of providing the thing that’s missing most, the multiple means of expression?

Tom: So, for example, when we talk about multiple means of action and expression, this can be as easy as helping people with drafting content. So, if I’m teaching a chemistry lab, and I would like for my students to understand how to mix reagents safely, I might create a video that shows how to mix these two chemicals together in order to create a component for a chemical experiment, and if my students are remote or they’re at home, they might not be able to do that process themselves. But, I still want to know that they know the process well. And in a single-stream course, I would say, “Please write up five paragraphs where you go through the five steps of this process and send it to me, and I’ll grade it based on how well you’re following the safety protocol and how you’re well you understand the process of mixing reagents.” In UDL, a plus one way to do that is to use the same criteria, you still want to see those five steps. But you might ask your students to take the choice: write it out in a word processing document, or do an audio podcast where you walk people through the process and describe all the steps of the process in that audio file. You’ll notice two things in that sort of first way of doing multiple means of expression. First, we’re using the same grading criteria or the same learning objectives for the activities. So that the instructor can give a grade or give feedback in the same way regardless of how the students choose to perform that activity. Second, and this is the fun part, the students still get to demonstrate their knowledge, but they choose how they do it. And both of the choices lead them to the same goal. You’re not giving choice just for the sake of choice, but the choice actually helps students to demonstrate needed knowledge or information so that they can move on to whatever is next. I teach English Composition courses. And it’s really difficult to ask students to demonstrate APA format in any way other than doing a word processed file. I cannot tell whether someone has Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced one-inch margins, all those things, unless there’s a word processed document. For those of you who really didn’t like English composition, I’m very sorry if that was just traumatic for you. [LAUGHTER] But, in that case, the format is the requirement. So I don’t give my students a choice. I say “On your final essay, you have to demonstrate that you know APA format by writing it correctly in APA.” Does that mean that my students don’t have any choices as they’re writing? No. When they’re drafting, when I’m not concerned about their APA format, but I am concerned about them being able to structure things with a thesis statement, giving details, evidence and examples, following a rhetorical mode. In those instances&helliip; writing instructors don’t hate me here&helliip;I don’t care whether they write that in a word processed format. What I care about is “Can they state a thesis statement? Can they demonstrate those details, evidence, and examples?” So, I give my students the choice between writing it in Microsoft Word or turning on the camera on their phone and just talking to me about how they want to compose a particular paragraph or a section of their writing. All the while knowing that the final product does have to be a word processed document. So, multiple means of action and expression can be something small, it can be a draft. But, wherever you have an opportunity to give students those options and choices that all lead to the same outcome, and you can grade them the same way, do so. Your students are going to feel like they have more of a choice. Like they have more control, like they have more agency in your class. They’re likely to stick with you better. And it’s an engagement strategy, par excellence. So, thanks for the question. It’s a really good one.

John: I’ve been teaching at this program for middle school and high school students at Duke for about 30 some years now. Unfortunately, I’m not doing it this summer. I used to have a final project, a capstone project at the end of the course, it was basically a college-level course in micro and macro economics. I had them do a policy debate at the end. And then after reading a little bit about Universal Design, I gave them a choice and said “Here are some options, but basically you can find whatever way works for you. If you want to write a song, you can do that. If you want to make a video. you can do that.” I even threw in the option, since at the time I had just seen some of the YouTube videos on dance your PhD, I said if you want to do an interpretive dance illustrating the concept, you can do it. But these are the things you need to achieve. And it was so much more fun.

Tom: They lit right up, didn’t they?

John: They did. And the quality of the work and their engagement was so dramatically higher. And it was so much more fun for me too to watch what they were doing. The additional creativity that that unleashed was really amazing.

Tom: But, and that’s actually one of the joys of Universal Design for Learning when it’s done well, is that you can start with that plus one mentality. And that’s actually speaking from a position of control, where I don’t want to give people lots of lots of choices, because then I’ve got to grade lots and lots of things. And so starting out small with that plus one mentality is a way to dip your toe into the water of Universal Design for Learning. But really, the goal of UDL is to create expert learners rather than expert students. We in the K-12 and higher education system have so structured things that we have created students who know how to take a test, rather than students who know how to do an inquiry and how to explore and learn on their own. The goal for Universal Design for Learning is creating those expert learning strategies. And think about it. John, what’s the hobby that you’ve enjoyed over your lifetime?

John: Music, I suppose, is probably the longest one.

Tom: What instruments do you play?

John: Mostly keyboard but also bass and guitar. At one point, I played drums back in high school.

Tom: Oh, fantastic. Rebecca, how about you?

Rebecca: I embroider.

Tom: Ooh, embroidery. So, hand eye coordination, those skills, that takes a lot of concentration and effort. That’s awesome. And when you were learning those hobbies, who graded you? What tests did you have to take to prove that you could move from one level to the next?

Rebecca: Nobody.

Tom: Nobody, right? And if someone tried to do it, you’d laugh at them. Because when you’re into something because you’re engaged with it, when you’re into something because you have a choice or you get to go and have some control or agency over it, it becomes rewarding. It becomes, dare I say it, fun, sometimes. And I don’t mean to say that every single college course that people take should be an exercise in fun. It should, though, offer a way for people to catch fire, to light up, to understand, to bring a little bit of themselves into the scholarship, and the research, and the curiosity that they’re expressing. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning is really about. And it actually brings me back into the Pedagogies of Care collection. The academic climate that we envision in the Pedagogies of Care collection is one that is more open, more equitable, and more just. It reaches more people who want to learn. It provides them with choices, voices, and agency in how they take a path through our colleges and universities. Now, at the same time, we’re all helping to keep the lights on at our individual institutions. We’re now in a time of catastrophic budget shortfalls. We need collectively to be thinking about the best ways that we should be serving students, to bring them in and keep them coming back. One of the things that we haven’t been able to really figure out in higher education is something called the freshmen cliff. And I imagine that some of your listeners are familiar with it. But what it means is, if at my university, if we bring in 2000 freshmen, we’re probably only going to get about 1400 of them back as sophomores. The number one reason why those 600 students dropped out among them, it’s financial, and we really can’t touch that with our instruction. But the number two reason is time. And we can definitely touch that with our instruction, with our design, with the way that we teach our courses. We can help students to manage and juggle among lots of competing priorities. School is usually down toward the bottom of the list if caring for your family, going to work, and putting food on the table are top of the list. And that freshmen cliff&helliip; If we can keep more of those students who are freshmen to become sophomores, that actually costs us less in terms of dollars, in terms of resources, in terms of time, in terms of people. For every $10 that we spend bringing a freshmen into our institutions, we usually only spend about $2 on upkeep and maintenance supporting that student in the next years. But every time a student drops out, and we have to go find another one, that’s another 10 bucks. So in terms of just keeping the lights on, being sensitive to our budget crises, that Universal Design for Learning helps more of our students, and all of the caring ideas in the Pedagogies of Care collection help more of our students stick with us, feel valued, and move through their education with us in a way that they feel they have some control and agency. And of course, Universal Design for Learning helps us to address exactly that. It’s a tool that helps us reach more broadly, teach more inclusively, increase students’ persistence, retention, and satisfaction. We’ve got 30 years of data to show that engaged and active students who feel that they have choices and a say in their programs of study, stick with us in higher numbers. So, it’s not just that we have our rose-colored glasses on. I’m talking to you: Presidents, Provosts, Chancellors right now, these are mission-critical efforts. While our collection speaks most directly to individual instructors and designers, the issues for which we advocate are those ones at the C-suite level. We’re trying to create a new normal at colleges and universities in order to find and serve new populations of students and then keep them with us better than we’ve done in the past.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Tom: So the what’s next for me is I’m doing research on a book that addresses a problem that I’ve seen in terms of quality and it gets a little bit outside of my usual wheelhouse. We’ve all been to academic conferences where somebody who is talking to us about the latest way of keeping students engaged is standing there reading from a script and using a bunch of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and reading them directly to us verbatim. Oh, my goodness, if I have to sit through one more of those. But that frustration is what is causing my new research in what are the real bare bones of how to give a good presentation? How do you present information? And it’s not just for people at conferences, it’s for instructors in the classroom. It’s for people who are doing research and grants. It’s for presidents, Provost, and Deans who need to share information with the people who are under their direct reports. So, I’m working on that book and it’s been lots and lots of fun doing the research. I’ve taken a bunch of photographs at conferences over the past couple of years here. And if you see me taking a photograph of your slides, it means one of two things: you are a rock star, or goodness, you need help. And it’s gonna be a fun book, I’ve been repurposing a lot of these things. I’ve been reading up on the literature of how to present information. And you can tell I’m an advocate for it. I did a little stint of radio voiceover when I lived in Chicago and really just fell in love with it. And I’m a big believer in communicating information in a simple way, that then helps people to get fired up and want to learn more about the details and the complexities behind it. So, I’m really grateful to be here on the Tea for Teaching podcast. And I hope that your listeners have enjoyed it. If you’d like to reach out to me, my website is just my name, ThomasJTobin.com. And I’d be happy to talk with you about whatever we’ve talked about here on the podcast or any other technology mediated teaching issues. So, thank you again for having me on.

John: Thank you. This has been fascinating, and we’ve long had you on a list of guests that we wanted to invite and this provided a nice convenient reason.

Tom: Splendid, awesome deal.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing the Pedagogies of Care when it comes out.

Tom: We’re hoping that this will come out close to when the collection comes out as well.

Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks so much.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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130. Radical Hope

Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.

While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.

Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]

John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.

John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?

Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.

John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?

Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.

Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.

Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.

John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?

Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right.

John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.

Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.

Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.

Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.

Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.

Kevin: Very on brand, yes.

Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.

Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.

John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.

John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?

Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.

John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.

John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.

Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.

Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.

Rebecca: That was a good choice.

Kevin: Exactly.

Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”

Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?

Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.

John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.

John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?

Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.

Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.

Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?

John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.

John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.

Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”

Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.

Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.

John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?

Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.

Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?

Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]

John: I get that all the time.

Rebecca: Yeah, me too.

Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?

John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.

Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.

John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Kevin: Oh, thank you.

John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”

Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.

John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?

Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.

Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.

Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.

John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I appreciate it.

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

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

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129. Pandemic Planning

The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, Dr. Josh Eyler joins us to discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote learning. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, we discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote learning.

[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: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching. Welcome back, Josh.

Josh: Thanks very much for having me. I hope you’re both doing well.

John: It’s good to see you again. Our teas today are:

Josh: I’m just drinking water today. [LAUGHTER] Hydrating.

Rebecca: I have Lady Grey.

John: And I have Irish Breakfast Tea today. Most of my teas are up in the office safely locked away.

Josh: [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: By contrast I have a really good array, so I’ve been having a bigger selection since then.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the situation we’re now in. This is only the second time that Rebecca and I have been recording from different locations because of the social distancing that’s taking place now, the second time during this event at least, and we’d like to talk a little bit about that. In the last few weeks, most colleges throughout the country and much of the rest of the world have suddenly had faculty transition from their usual instruction to remote instruction, with very little planning and prior notice, and many times for the very first time for faculty. How has this been going at the University of Mississippi?

Josh: I think it’s been going as best as can be expected. The faculty have really done heroic work, they’ve taken it very, very seriously and are really placing our students’ well being and welfare and learning at the center of the process. You know, it’s hard to learn… and that’s true for me as anyone… it’s hard to learn new modalities in such a short time. And they’ve all handled it with such grace that it’s been really inspiring, and so we dealt with hiccups and technical difficulties and things along the way. And the scale of it with 800 faculty is pretty enormous, but it’s gone relatively smoothly as far as that goes.

John: I think our experience is about the same and we have, I believe, about 800 faculty and I’ve been really impressed with people who had never used Blackboard, or Zoom, or Collaborate, or other tools, to step up and learn that within a really short time. One thing that was somewhat fortunate is it hit right before our spring break, which gave people some time to, not so much take a break, but to learn some new skills really, really quickly, and I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve stepped up.

Josh: Yeah, me too, and I hear similar stories from across the country. I mean, in many ways, faculty were given zero time with very strict parameters. It reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13, where they have to take bits of things that are around the cabin and make the carbon monoxide filter. It’s very, very similar, I think, in that faculty were given very strict parameters in some ways, technological capacity and frameworks that they hadn’t worked with before and said, “Okay, now we have to meet our students and help them through this crisis,” and they’ve all handled it just so brilliantly, I think.

Rebecca: As someone who’s been sitting a little bit on the sidelines because I’m not teaching this semester, it’s been really interesting to see faculty from across institutions and across departments working together to troubleshoot and help each other out. And the communities that have formed online of faculty across the country and across the world has been really impressive to me. It’s sad that it took a pandemic for that to occur, but I hope that some of these communities will maintain.

Josh: I do too. Yeah, and I’ve noticed that as well. I think that the community building has been an important element of this, I think, where higher ed recognizes that we’re all in this together, and we’re all in a very similar situation, so how can we work together to make this the best experience possible given the circumstances?

John: There’s that nationwide Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook group that I’ve seen lots of people have been joining. In our institution, Donna Steiner created a local Facebook group for people to share issues and stories and so forth, and just this morning, someone asked how they can work without a document camera and someone posted an image they found elsewhere of a document camera created by a smartphone wedged in between two cans of soup, [LAUGHTER] holding it in place above paper that then works through Zoom or some other application. It was impressive to see people coming up with interesting and creative solutions, sort of like as you described in that Apollo situation. So what have been some of the most difficult transitions for faculty and for students as well that you’ve observed?

Josh: Well, you know, the scale of this is one of the biggest obstacles across the university, helping folks, just that kind of scale. Within that there are subsets of obstacles. So for example, my wife is in the art department, art and art history. She teaches drawing and 2D design, so that’s a very difficult transition to make, much the same way that lab courses and sciences are hard to transition. So, there have been very specific kinds of obstacles as well as just the mass transition to unfamiliar platforms that we were talking about a second ago. So some of those have been, I think, really tricky. For students, you know, I think students and faculty together are wrestling with the disruptions, the emotional and psychological turmoil, a lot of the stress that comes along with all of this. I do think that students in particular are struggling with now taking five courses in an environment that they weren’t expecting, that are probably using different technological tools that the students may or may not be familiar with, and navigating all the syllabus revisions and all of the workload revisions as well. And so it’s a lot, and it’s one of the reasons that, I know that in our workshops that we were holding for faculty, we were strongly recommending asynchronous courses and asynchronous modes as the most equitable for students who were suddenly juggling all those things together. Not to say that you couldn’t have synchronous elements, but that those should probably be optional for the students who couldn’t be at the same place at the same time. And so yeah, they’re juggling a lot.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s been overlooked by a lot of faculty is actually the complexity of students learning so many different tools because faculty aren’t using something consistent across classes. I think that learning curve is actually pretty substantial and can be really overwhelming, especially because a lot of faculty assume that students, just by nature, know how to use these digital technologies, but like all of us, if it’s not something you haven’t used before or aren’t familiar with, especially in this way, using it as a learning tool, for example, then it’s new.

Josh: I think we make those assumptions too often about students and technology, and the best metaphor for this comes from Todd Zakrajsek who said, “We all grow up in a world with cars, and yet we still have to learn how to use them.” So just being in a world that has technology and having been in that world from birth does not mean that they don’t need to learn how to use some of those tools, and so I think that’s important. The other obstacle for faculty working remotely, we all were just talking about with partners and with children in the same house, and I think that there’s a lot of work-life balance conversations right now, a lot of equity discussions, and I think that’s really important on the faculty side, as well, that we think about. A great piece in The Chronicle about not buying into the over productivity hype about this time. We need to take care of ourselves and our families and our students, and so that’s a baseline that, if we hit that, that’s good, that’s productive, and that’s on target. There’s so much that people are juggling right now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that people who are in caregiving roles, whether they’re parents or if they’re caring for older parents or family members, are in that predicament of complete life work overhaul… upside down… and it’s really challenging to balance all of those things but then expecting to then do all kinds of extra productivity is crazy. And when you see things like that on social media, I’m thinking, “What? I can’t get an hour and a half of work done, like what are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Exactly. I don’t want to see what famous works were written during quarantine. I just want to get up in the morning and make it through the day.

Rebecca: I was like, “Oh, I got to read one whole article today, that’s huge.”

Josh: [LAUGHTER] Right, exactly.

John: In my case, I thought the default option would be to move entirely remotely, but fortunately we had a little bit of notice in my class, so I brought the issue up with my classes, and actually they preferred, at least as an initial position, to continue meeting synchronously, and they stated they all had the technology. I said, if anyone has any barriers to let me know, and it will be optional, and there’ll be other mechanisms if you can’t, but one of the things that I know they were concerned with is… at least a couple of the students said… they chose to take face-to-face classes because they have tried distance learning and it didn’t work well for them, and they preferred to maintain that type of consistency. And I said we’ll keep revisiting it, and I’ve been revisiting it at least once a week, and so far that’s what they want to do, but things may change if they start facing more barriers, but I am providing a mechanism for doing that, and I think it’s important to see what your students would like too, and to work with something that works for everybody.

Josh: Well sure, and I think the most important thing that you just described about that plan was your communication with them. And so I know many folks who are teaching small seminar-based classes where they all as a community decided that they could meet synchronously, and that works as long as it continues to work. So, I think that as long as there are ways for people to communicate that and they feel comfortable communicating that with faculty. On the other hand, the 200-person intro bio lectures is a little bit trickier. So yeah, I think just as long as we allow students the flexibility, which you are doing, so I think that’s great, then helping them to retain as much sense of normalcy of the learning environment as possible, because you are right, students didn’t ask for this any more than we did, and many of them want to be together in the classroom talking about Shakespeare or learning about evolution.

John: And it helped that they all had good broadband access, and they all had devices that made it possible for them to maintain that sort of normalcy up to this point, at least.

Josh: That is a relatively… well, it’s not a new addition… but it’s an issue about inclusive teaching that is getting a lot of spotlight for very good reason: that many students can’t access the internet in such a way to participate in synchronous courses and lots of other overlap between equity, class, and technology, I think, that are really important, and we may have let slip away from the conversation before this, but now it’s front and center for us to think about as a community.

Rebecca: In terms of inclusivity, one of the things that I’ve been exploring that I was surprised about is accessibility, which is an area that I focus a lot of my own attention on in general. So I’ve been doing some analysis of some of the accessibility practices that we’re doing, how to make sure that faculty are keeping up on these things, and so I was exploring a little bit what the students’ side of some of these experiences are like. I had just assumed, for example, as an instructor, because I’ve never been in the student seat of this particular thing, that the Blackboard app would have the same accessibility features as the Blackboard website, for example, and they don’t. We might not know that students are relying on their phones, for example, to get more accessible materials, and if they use the website they can get them, but if they use the app, they can’t. And if we don’t tell them that, they don’t know.

Josh: Right. Accessibility is something that I’ve spent a lot of time with as well, and I do know that it often plays second fiddle in some of these conversations, and it’s also having a spotlight cast on it right now.

John: On Twitter, you initiated some conversations about how we plan for this, should this continue into the summer and perhaps fall. You mentioned three scenarios. One is that we reopen, we go about business as usual sometime between now and the fall, and then we see spikes a bit and things come back again. Or a second one where we’re sheltering in place, or a third one, which is we go back to normal, which, you note, is probably the least likely of those scenarios at this point.

Josh: I know a lot of people are desperately hoping that that’s the case and deep down, so am I, but I also know that it’s much less realistic. And I’m certainly not a scientist, but I follow a lot of scientists, I read their work, and I trust in what they’re doing as experts. And so most of the models show that because it’s a seasonal disease, that even if we minimize the cases during this first wave, that it will spike again sometime in the fall or winter, or both, which suggests that, without knowing the intricacies that biologists know about that, it strikes me that higher ed desperately, at this moment, as soon as possible, needs to just start planning for contingencies. What would our enterprise look like in all those different scenarios? And so I think it ranges from planning for fully online courses from moment one, for both the summer and the fall, to planning face-to-face courses with contingency plans, solid, not the sudden emergency shift that we just did, but solid, well developed contingency plans in the event that we need to resort to social distancing for some period of time. And there is some discussion of the possibility of localized intermittent social distancing, so the kinds of things, in other words, that would affect some colleges but not others, and at certain periods of time, and then that would flip flop. And so the idea that you might be teaching in a classroom and then have a month where you’re not, and then you have another month when you’re in, that’s fully possible, given the range of different models that scientists have put out there. So, I think without knowing what’s going to happen, to really build a bright future for higher education we need to have really well developed plans for all the possibilities.

John: I’ve been reading quite a bit about this, and there’s some question about the seasonality of this, because one of the things that’s happening is it’s hitting the northern and southern hemisphere pretty much equally, so it doesn’t seem to vary that much with temperature as many other types of flu, for example, have varied.

Josh: Exactly, yeah.

John: There’s a lot of unknowns about this, but we should plan for contingencies now. What are some of the things that faculty can do to get ready for such eventualities in either the summer or the fall?

Josh: Well, I think, and this is an important role that teaching centers and instructional designers can play too. One thing that should happen as soon as the semester ends, is to really assess what worked and what didn’t for their particular courses. I have a friend from Rice and I saw that she was saying that she found this tool that works so well that even when she goes back to teaching normal face-to-face courses, she’s still going to use it. That’s really important information to know and to be thinking about… so, assessing what worked and what didn’t and building on the successes. I have another friend who is essentially doing mini-podcast sessions for his students and then tying activities to it. So he’s a tried and true medievalist, no technology for him, just recording his voice and then activities tied to it. And so something like that, assessing what really would work and then since there’s now time to plan, tying it to the most effective teaching strategies for these environments. So, let’s assess what you were most comfortable with and what really worked for you, and now let’s add to the mix ways that you can more effectively design assignments and activities and other assessments utilizing those tools that work. It’s got to be a very quick assessment of pros and cons and then proactive planning pedagogically.

Rebecca: It seems to me, then, it would be really useful to be thinking about this now as a faculty member, because you could be asking your students for their feedback on what’s going on, and obviously, you could be doing it now so that you could make some adjustments and things as the semester goes on, but also for future planning moving forward.

Josh: Right. I think that’s a really important component of this, hearing not so much what students felt about the teaching, because I also think faculty need a break on the normal evaluation structures that are in place, but I do feel the faculty should be free to get whatever formative feedback they want about their teaching. But, I do think that feedback at an institutional level from students about all the mechanics of all this, what worked, what didn’t, what failed, what really flew under the radar as being a super successful tool, something like that, that’s really important, and that can definitely help with the planning as well.

Rebecca: So one thing that I was thinking in terms of having student voice involved, not just at the institutional level but in your own classrooms, might be about particular tools or what parts of the things that they did helped them feel more a part of a community or reasons why they might not have felt like they were a part of a community. Not really putting it on you as a teacher about like, “What did I do well or not as a teacher,” but rather, “What kinds of structures might work well in circumstances to help facilitate some of the things that we miss when we’re not face-to-face?”

Josh: I think those are fantastic ideas, and this ties back into the teaching center conversation, because I think that one way that we could help is to help faculty design those surveys. Some LMSs have a function where you can kind of load survey questions into a cloud and faculty can pull them out to build their own tool. So, I think that kind of feedback is going to be critical, and the teaching center can take some of the burden off of individual faculty by helping design some of those instruments, or at least advise on ways to do it because I think an individual faculty member getting that feedback for him or herself is essential in this case, and that’s separate from a kind of formal teaching evaluation or formalized summative feedback as well.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you’re hoping, as we plan for the future and we have time to actually plan for a circumstance like this moving forward, that you hope teaching centers roll out that maybe they weren’t able to roll out when there was such a time crunch?

Josh: I think you sort of highlighted it a little while ago. I think that there’s an open door for universal design for learning and accessibility in ways that are more holistic. So those conversations tend to be either very specific or isolated in different kinds of workshops, but here, I think you can lead with some of that, and you can also lead with inclusive practices, and I think that that’s kind of an open door for work that teaching centers can do. Not that there hasn’t been interest or that that hasn’t been happening, but given what we see, and over the course of this crisis, we can now lead with those elements because it becomes clear how central they are to the work. I’ve said it a million times, it feels like, over the last two weeks, that at the end of the semester, students aren’t going to remember content as much as they are the community that you built and the care that you showed and the work that everyone did together, and so I think that that has helped to really frame some of these issues in a really important way. So I think that’s certainly true. I also think that, and I’ve experienced this myself, and I know that I hope it will continue, and I strongly believe that it will. A lot of this work for teaching instructional design sometimes gets taken care of in silos in different corners of the university. And I know here, those get broken down completely. I was working with people I hadn’t even met before, and I mean that seriously, I had not met them and they are amazing, and we worked together. We met at 7:45 in the morning during the transition week, and we met at 5:15 every night and we’re in constant communication in between there, and really deployed to prioritize the work that needed to be done that day, and that, I hope, is something that continues, that certainly different instructional designers and different folks within teaching centers have different areas of expertise, and so it can be kind of liaisons with STEM or humanities or whatever, but coming together and seeing it as one project, improving teaching and learning across all corners of higher ed. I hope that that continues.

John: One of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having open office hours for faculty where we have people from many support areas all coming together. Rebecca and I have been there as well as some other people working with us. Some people from our campus computer technology services have been there and some of our instructional designers have been there, and when people have elaborate questions, we send them off into a breakout room where they work with someone over a longer period, and the others’ shorter questions are answered by whoever is best suited to answer that particular question, and that’s been working really well, and it’s been really nice to see that cooperation.

Josh: Yeah, I completely agree. I think people are recognizing that teaching centers have a lot to offer in terms of thinking about policy as well. The pass-fail debate is a great example of this. On the surface, pass-fail is a policy issue that connects to the catalog and the handbook and lots of other things, but beneath that there have to be people on campus who have an awareness of the research on emotions in learning, on how grades have an impact on learning, even in the best of circumstances, and related issues to that. And so I think teaching centers have gotten called on both to contribute to those conversations and even shape them at some universities as well, and I hope that that is a recognition for the work that teaching centers do that continues.

Rebecca: Yeah, one of the other things that came up in the Twitter conversation that you started, Josh, was about the need for trauma-informed pedagogy moving forward related to this particular instance. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: Sure. I’ll admit it right up front, I’m in no way an expert on that. I learned a lot from Karen Costa, who actually brought that up in that thread, and so she’s taught me a lot. I think trauma-informed pedagogy is, if you imagine a Venn diagram, it’s in the overlap between inclusive teaching and the way we understand that emotion affects cognition, and so it occupies that middle space in a really important way. Normally when we talk about trauma-informed teaching, we’re talking about developing teaching practices that would provide access to students in our classrooms who may have experienced trauma in the past. And content warnings or trigger warnings are the most visible elements of that conversation nationwide, but there are lots more. But here we are actually seeing not just nationwide, but worldwide trauma. And so now it’s moved from, in faculty’s minds, “Hypothetically, I may have students in my class who have been affected by trauma and so I should prepare for that,” to many, many students who we will see in our classrooms from this point forward will have experienced a global trauma that we need to now account for. So, that moves beyond what we know genuinely helps decrease an emotional response. In the book that I wrote, I have a chapter on emotion, and there’s a piece of that chapter that deals with what happens when our emotional responses surpass our ability to regulate them. And everything we know about cognition at that point is that it shuts down, and so we have to help students mitigate that response in order to get back to learning. So, that’s at the core of trauma-informed education. Empathy is at the core of that, but there’s more specific things that those who do this work and write about trauma-informed pedagogy know with much more depth than I do, but creating space to make meaning from what is happening. One of the major tenets of trauma-informed pedagogy is that those who have experienced trauma can get caught up in a spiral of helplessness when confronted with the work ahead, in other words. So, helping them process that, making meaning of what has happened globally rather than ignore it, and building the meaning making into the work, accessibility issues, understanding absences and understanding some difficulty with deadlines as the responses spike. So I would encourage folks to go out and look at the experts. I learned, again, from Karen Costa. She writes a lot about this, but The Body Keeps the Score is a book that I know a lot of folks who do this work really recommend, not strictly about teaching, but it’s a very insightful book about what happens to a body that has experienced trauma, so that’s definitely something to look into. But, I guess the moral of the story here is we’re going to have to be much more attuned to that work going forward.

John: One strategy that a number of people have suggested is having a discussion forum or some form of reflection where students are able to share their thoughts and their reactions and their concerns. Do you think that would be helpful in this context?

Josh: Yeah, I think so, but with a caveat that most faculty are not clinical psychologists. And so certainly reflection is a key principle of trauma-informed pedagogy, there’s no doubt about it. I think working with folks who know this area of research in designing a reflection assignment is absolutely key, because those of us who are not clinical psychologists would not be prepared for what could happen if we delve into that, and then it opens the floodgates of emotional response that we are not ourselves trained to help mitigate, and so that can happen in any semester, in which case, we work with folks to try and get students to the right resources. But in this particular case we want to be careful about the construction of those assignments, not that we shouldn’t do them, but that we need to be attuned to that.

John: And also to be aware of what types of support services are available on campus for those who are experiencing trauma and difficulties.

Josh: I think that’s very important to think about. I know my university has them up and running, but certainly it’s not the same as it was for students when they were on campus. So, those folks are doing heroic work, but the situation has shaped that work in a very specific way.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s surfaced a lot in the conversations, with our faculty anyways, and I think I’ve seen in other conversations that are more national and more global in nature, is so much more awareness of the basic needs of students not being met: food, shelter, etc, health care, and also the emotions that play into learning and really having to deal with the basic needs and basic emotional needs before getting to the work of learning. We’re all now in this space trying to figure out what exactly that might mean in our individual classes or subject areas. I think it’s something that we’re all more aware of than we had been prior to this.

Josh: Well, and I think that this situation has brought that to light in a way that, once it’s a part of the conversation, I don’t think you can ever undo it. And so there have been folks who have been screaming this from the rafters for a very long time, Sarah Goldrick-Rab in the Hope Center and Jesse Stommel, and so many people have been doing their part in calling attention to this. But now, I think you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, that there’s more widespread recognition, not just that those things are realities for our students, but that they have a significant impact on the work that students can do and the learning that can happen. And so marrying those two together has been critical, I think, both to help them over this obstacle. I’m hoping very hard that it continues to be a part of the way we see our work as teachers in the classroom, that this didn’t just start happening in early March, it’s always been a part of our students’ experiences of education, and so we need to keep that in kind of the forefront of our minds.

Rebecca: I think another thing that surfaced along these same lines, that pandemic has caused us to confront, is perhaps we all try to cram too much into our classes in the first place. And really thinking about how much content is there and what’s absolutely necessary as we try to scale back and shift gears and things like that. I know that there’s a lot of conversations about what can be edited or cut, and perhaps those were critical conversations that maybe should have happened previously, but are now happening out of necessity.

Josh: I think what you just ended with there is exactly the point, in that many of those conversations and, you know, I’ve led course design institutes and this is always something that we talk about it, you can do an exercise about trimming content, but until it becomes an absolute necessity, it lives in a kind of theoretical space. “Well, that’s a great idea, but you know, I still had to teach Moby Dick.” But now folks were faced with what is absolutely critical for students to know, and what can I dispense with in terms of supporting their learning, and so I think that, I hope too, has a long lasting effect.

John: Many people have been teaching the same way for 20 or 30 years, but when faced with this, they’ve had to significantly revise what they were doing. Might this provide a nice opportunity for faculty to grow and expand their tool sets so that they can be more productive? You talked about that a little bit before, but maybe we should leave the conversation on the bright spot of the opportunities this may present for the future in terms of faculty development and faculty discovering new ways to work with their students.

Josh: Sure, I absolutely think so. There are tons of stories of folks who didn’t know about something that existed, discovered it, and now are doing really fun things with it that are helping students. What I think we would envision, hopefully, is that folks would find things that they are really drawn to that, when they return to the teaching modalities that they’re most traditionally teaching in, that they utilize those tools that they found that help their students to learn, that we can take lessons from this time, and that should be one of them, I think, that we can stretch our conception of what good teaching is, or what can help us teach effectively, and really think about that for all of our teaching purposes going forward.

Rebecca: Do you think there’s other big lessons from this that we can take forward to stay on more positive notes?

Josh: The fact that we have placed students at the center of this conversation, I think, is an important lesson, and it’s one that I hope higher ed doesn’t forget. Also, something I said recently, but I’d want to echo here, is that the silos have really broken down in ways that are beneficial for higher ed, people who normally don’t work together are working together in trying to craft the best possible way forward, and I think that that’s an important lesson too. I’m sure you both know this well, that making change in higher education is really hard, and often the most daunting prospect is, that’s the way things were always done. And that’s a different office, right? That’s a different silo that takes care of that, and both of those have kind of been fractured, the way things have always happened can no longer be because we’re in a new reality, and the silos just don’t exist anymore, and so I hope that higher ed can take that lesson forward.

John: Tear down some of those silos a little more permanently, perhaps.

Josh: Right, right. Absolutely. And it’s also showing just how permeable those boundaries were from the beginning, I think.

John: One thing that’s come up with some students and some faculty is a question of whether we might lose weather-related cancellations in the future. I know sometimes people get excited when there’s a snow day or something similar, but might this mean those days will disappear?

Josh: Yeah, that’s a hard one to say. I think that here’s the likely outcome if we go all the way back to the planning scenario. A likely outcome, I would hope, in planning for contingencies is that folks are told to build their face-to-face courses with these kind of hybrid fallback models. And so going forward, it is possible that those will exist on a wide scale in higher ed, so if there is a snowstorm, faculty could get guidance just to kick those contingency plans into effect, or they may say that that’s optional. When the snowpocalypse hit Northern Virginia a few years ago, I think that they all had to develop contingency plans because they were canceled for weeks at a time, and I know that when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston when I was at Rice, there was a lot of talk of alternate assignments, digital resources that we could find, so things like that. So, this is something that I think individual campuses have been thinking about when the situations have arisen, and now we’re talking about those decisions on a much wider scale. I am an optimist by nature, I wear rose-colored glasses, I freely admit that. But the fact that you have a school like Tulane, whose former president was writing in The Chronicle last week, that came back from Katrina, and is a thriving university. We have institutions, even groups of institutions that have faced major crises before, and they have come out even stronger on the other side. If we continue to work together in higher education, we can have that same recovery on a broader scale. So the fact that these institutions have succeeded, that gives me a lot of hope, I think, for what we can do as a community, and a recognition that this isn’t the end or even beginning of the end. It’s a way of rethinking what we used to think of as normal and learning lessons that we can take forward.

Rebecca: Sometimes it takes a big disruption like this for us to realize that we need to think in different ways and that little boost in that direction isn’t always a bad thing.

Josh: As long as we capture those lessons and learn from them, I think that we can build a bright way forward, definitely.

Rebecca: So I think then in terms of snow days, if they’re going away, then we just need to make sure we build in rest days or something into our schedule going forward.

Josh: Well, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the south. So I haven’t had a snow day since I was in high school, I think. But yes, I agree.

Rebecca: We just really want just one.

John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners?

Josh: I just wish everyone luck. I mean, everyone’s trying their hardest in working this out, and we’re going to get through it, and we’ll move into the next terms with clear eyes, I think, as to how to move forward.

John: So we always end with the question, as you know. What’s next?

Josh: That’s the most loaded question at this time, I think. I don’t know, but what I hope is next is recovering and rebuilding. That’s what I hope.

John: Thank you. This was wonderful, and thank you for doing it on such short notice.

Josh: No problem at all, I appreciate the invitation. I hope you both are well.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much, Josh. This was a really good conversation, an important one to have right now.

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

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

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126. Pandemic-Related Remote Learning

Over the last two weeks colleges across the U.S. have made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, Flower Darby joins us explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.  Flower Darby is the Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE).

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Colleges across the U.S. have recently made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, we explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Flower Darby, Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE). Welcome, Flower.

Flower: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.

Flower: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us quickly.

Flower: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are

Flower: I’m drinking a tall iced tea.

Rebecca: It can never be tall enough these days, right?

[LAUGHTER]

Flower: That’s right.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon. Sometimes you just got to go with comfort.

John: This would be one of those times.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think so.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the transition that faculty are having to go through throughout the country, and probably throughout the world, on fairly short notice to migrating classes from face-to-face to remote instruction. And a lot of faculty are really anxious about that. What advice do you give faculty in terms of where
they should focus their attention, especially if they haven’t done much work with online instruction?

Flower: I think the most important thing to start with is frequent communication with your students. Students are also very anxious, and so even if all you’re saying to your students is that you don’t know yet how it’s going to go, I think that that really puts students at ease, and the transparency will really serve everyone well. In addition to that, I know that centers like the one that you have there are offering all kinds of support workshops, tutorials, self-help, articles, all kinds of resources that faculty can avail themselves of. I’m not sure that the word is consistently getting out to faculty members. So, I would encourage you to turn to your teaching and learning center or your learning management system support area in order to find out what they’re offering. Schools across the country have broken down: Here’s the basics that you need to know to get up to speed with your LMS, especially for people who aren’t familiar with or don’t typically use it.

John: One of the nice things is how widely those resources are being shared. Look online and there’s lots of places, and your teaching and learning center is likely to be sharing them with you fairly regularly as long as you open their emails. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: I was working one-on-one with several faculty members yesterday in our drop-in support sessions, and my experience was that faculty didn’t know about all the websites that we launched last week and all the resources. So, as you said, John, one of the heartwarming aspects of this current situation is to see how institutions are sharing resources with each other very openly. So, as you said, do a little exploring, see what’s available generally online and what your own institution is offering as well.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, though, there’s also information overload because there is actually so much being shared right now. So if we’re looking for specific topics or subject matter related to this, what are maybe a couple of things that faculty should focus on to just get going?

Flower: That’s a great point, Rebecca, because I myself have felt that I’ve been in a blizzard of emails and resources, and distilling the awesome information into usable and organized material has been a real challenge this past week. So, again, I think the main thing at this point is to communicate. So, learning how to use the announcement tool in your LMS, deciding what is going to be your primary communication strategy, it might be that
you’re going to use email. Then the next thing that we recommend is getting your syllabus and a course schedule into your LMS if you haven’t already done that, and then third, understanding how to use the grade center to allow students to track for themselves how they’re doing in your course. Those are communications, uploading basic files or putting basic, like I said, course syllabus type of information and then beginning to understand how to use the grade center. That would be my recommendation.

John: And in terms of the syllabus, perhaps an updated or some type of addendum for the syllabus might be useful to let students know how things might be modified given the shift in instruction, right?

Flower: Great point, John. Faculty, while we don’t want to let go of or change our learning outcomes for the course, it is absolutely the case that many of us might be modifying what the original plan was, we might be changing the structure of tests and quizzes or creating new and different assignments. So yes, I love that idea of post an updated or an addendum to syllabus. And of course, maybe you also include a prominent statement that says “Subject to change with appropriate notice” to the students. One of the things that I’ve always communicated to my students is that if I make any changes in the syllabus or the course schedule, it will always be to your advantage. And I think students appreciate that sort of sense of security, that knowing things could change, but it will be done to help them if needed.

Rebecca: I think one of the other things that faculty are feeling a little overwhelmed by are all the possible tools and technologies that they can use, right, and sometimes this is opening wide doors of possibilities that they didn’t know existed, but then also, there are so many possibilities… “And my colleague here is using this tool and
my colleague over here is doing this tool, should I be doing that, too?” ends up being this common question, and I know my response has been “Don’t introduce too many new tools because information overload or that now there’s a whole learning curve there.” What are your thoughts on this? There’s so many tool possibilities.

Flower: Sure, Rebecca, I think we’re exactly on the same page, and I’ve been doing this kind of support work for several years now. And my philosophy really does align, as you might imagine, with the book, Small Teaching Online, and James Lang’s original , which is to start small. In terms of technology, I always recommend faculty to choose
something that they themselves are comfortable with, and to not make the mistake of trying, as you said, either several new tools, or possibly trying a tool, a technology, that is so sophisticated and complex that it’s outside of faculty’s comfort zone. So, I’m a big fan of deciding something that you feel comfortable with… starting small. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is we’re kind of in triage mode, I mean, pretty clearly right now,
but maybe four weeks from now, we may have settled into a better rhythm and you may be able to add or layer on additional approaches or technologies or different ways of engaging with your students. Again, as long as you’re communicating with your students, this is what we’re going to start with. And then later on, if you have the bandwidth personally to learn something new, or maybe after surveying what your colleagues are doing, you identify and isolate the one thing that you really want to bring in. Definitely keep it simple and understand that if you as
faculty are not comfortable using a tool, it’s going to create additional challenge for yourself and for your students as well. So stick with what you’re comfortable with.

Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, and sometimes faculty just need a little reassurance that what they know is okay.

Flower: Absolutely. For sure.

John: Might you also recommend that they check with the students to see how it’s working and ask them if they have any barriers to whatever they’re doing? We have some people in the region who live in areas without broadband, or there’s some people who are living in households where they can’t afford wireless.

Flower: Yeah, there’s a really robust national conversation going on, which is helpful to really think about the student experience. Once again, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re all people and worldwide this is a weird situation, and everybody is under unusual stress and anxiety. And so another one of my basic rules of advice or guidelines here is to practice empathy and flexibility as much as you can. And so that said, I’m seeing contradicting opinions or different approaches, I should say, “Should we be asking students what technology they have available? Or should we not? Is that too intrusive?” I think, again, being transparent with your students and saying, “Hey, we’re going to try this, and if it’s not going well we will figure it out, we’ll change the plan,” can be a really helpful way to go. And then the other guideline that I’ve been sharing with faculty is to go low tech as
much as possible. So I know many faculty and many institutions are suggesting synchronous, live lecturing, audio and video options. Those are actually the hardest and most complicated, and the most prone to fail or challenge. That’s the peak of what we could be doing. In order to ensure the greatest accessibility, including both student access to technology and also any students who might be using things like screen readers or other tools, going lower tech and
using the tools and functions that are within the learning management systems, such as PDF readings and online discussion forums, and quizzes and assignments, those are actually the most possible to create success. Again, for the moment, it may be that later, after you’ve taken the pulse of how your students are doing, you might add more. Or you might host optional synchronous sessions, maybe a virtual office hour or a review session. But for the most success, I recommend going low tech, aiming for the lowest common denominator.

John: And that would certainly satisfy lower bandwidth requirements for people who might be on slower connections.

Flower: Absolutely.

Rebecca: What are some things faculty might want to think about if they know that a lot of their students are using mobile technology rather than desktops and laptops? So in addition to this lower tech approach, are there other things that you would recommend when you know screens might be small that our students are relying on?

Flower: Great question, and I’ve long thought that higher ed is way behind the curve on mobile learning. If you look at industry or corporate training and professional development, there’s some really great mobile apps now. I’m not
saying that now is the time to go out and find a new mobile learning app, let me be clear about that. But I think higher ed has some work to do here, just a couple of simple strategies to consider. First of all, keep in mind the powerful computer that the smartphone is, and again, you have to be careful not to assume that everybody has a smartphone, but it can be a really interesting tool. Maybe students will record video reflections on their smartphone camera, the tablet camera, and upload those or maybe instead of a long, robust written assignment, maybe
you’re going to be okay with little blurbs of text that students can type with their thumbs on their device. It’s a time for flexibility, for creativity, for rethinking the way that you normally do things, and just embracing the adventure, really.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about too is making sure that you’re not putting too much emphasis on things that have nothing to do with your learning objectives. So if grammar and spelling really isn’t part of your learning objective, then some forgiveness over mistyping,[LAUGHTER] and maybe using voice commands and
things like that and using voice to text maybe is appropriate in this case.

Flower: Yeah, Rebecca, I think this is a time to rethink everything, honestly, in higher ed. And I’ve been thinking hard about “What are we going to reflect on looking back when we’re through this immediate crisis situation?” Absolutely, I’m a fan of: if the scholarly citation isn’t really needed for this particular demonstration of student knowledge, then maybe you don’t need to require that. So, I would invite faculty to really critically examine all of their usual practices because it’s not the use right now.

Rebecca: What are some of the questions that you’re getting hammered with?

Flower: Faculty have different levels of experience and comfort, and so some faculty are like, “Okay, I already use the Learning Management System, help me think about additional ways to engage my students online.” The necessity of building and creating and maintaining community cannot be overstated. Again, especially in precarious times such as
these, so many faculty want to know how to engage and interact meaningfully with students. Then we also have, of course, the very predictable question about “How do we do what we do in person such as a lab, or a studio or performance class or field work experience? How do we do that in an online setting?” That’s complicated and challenging, but faculty are resourceful and creative people, and I know that they’ll figure it out. The main takeaway for that question is really identify what the learning goal is for that activity, and then think creatively about how students can achieve that learning in an online or remote setting. Now, keeping in mind that it may be the case that you start to have students do some kitchen sink science labs, or some living room dance moves, or whatever it might be. Students don’t have to stay in the learning management systems, again, with their devices, they can capture video, they can take pictures and upload the evidence of what they did. Just a matter of really focusing on that learning goal and then thinking about the activities that will help students… and again, we have to be careful
not to assume that all students have all the things, that providing options for students to achieve that learning no matter where they are.

Rebecca: Can we circle back to this community piece? You’ve mentioned facilitating community is really important. You’ve talked a lot about communication. What are some ways to get students to come together and feel like they’re still a cohesive whole, rather than disparate people who have been dispersed across the world or across the nation?

Flower: So, before all of this happened, if you’re familiar with my work, you may know that I’ve really focused a lot on increasing the social connections in online classes because there is an inherent distance. It is most often the case that students doing online classwork are by themselves sitting at their home desk or at a coffee shop. It
is unusual for students who are doing online classwork to be sitting with another student or with others. And so just really thinking about that physical isolation, and then thinking about how we can’t use the non-verbal cues that we use when we’re in the classroom. So if we’re explaining something as we’re presenting a mini lecture, and we see a whole bunch of furrowed brows or we see that students are clearly off daydreaming about something else, we can
adjust our approach, we can stop, slow down, re-explain, ask the students what their questions are, and we don’t have that real-time feedback in an online environment. So it’s just very important to be really intentional to cultivate that. It can absolutely be done, you think about how we interact in social media settings. We can engage with other people in online situations, but it takes a little bit more intentionality. So, be visibly present for your students, post those announcements, return assignments, timely answer emails… students still say all the time
that they just wish their online instructors would answer their emails. But those are just ways that you want to be visibly present, posting in an online discussion forum, those kinds of things. And then encourage students. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it might be helpful to just create a discussion forum just to say “What’s on your mind right now? How can we help? What are you dealing with? What are the challenges?” and just encourage people in
the class to interact with each other as people.

Rebecca: Wait, we’re all people? [LAUGHTER]

John: Students don’t always have that perception of their faculty face-to-face. This is a nice opportunity to open up in ways that perhaps you haven’t done in the past.

Flower: For sure.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty will be teaching remotely from their homes with their own levels of distraction and pets and kids and relatives.

Flower: Yes.

Rebecca: Other habitats, right, to their households, just like students. And I think the more that we can share that and that we’re also trying to manage, or even strategies that we’re using for managing that, could actually be useful as a model for students as well.

Flower: I read a really funny, the beginning of what I think will be a series in The Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning, and it was basically, I think The Chronicle has now dispersed to all working from home. And this one reporter was just describing the challenges of sharing a house with three other working adults and two pets that
don’t get along with each other, and trying to be professional, and be on video conference calls or whatever when the cat’s rear end is brushing against the monitor. [LAUGHTER] So I do think, Rebecca, your point about being really authentic about the challenges that we’re all facing, and again, just practicing flexibility, both for your own approach, and then encouraging your students to do the best they can and you’re there to support them. I don’t think
we can message that frequently enough.

Rebecca: I certainly had cars getting drawn across my keyboard yesterday. So… [LAUGHTER] And up my arm and on my head. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: It’s a challenging situation, and this is just one aspect. You think about the potential financial impact that students and their families might be facing as so many businesses are shutting down right now. You think about if a student becomes sick themselves or somebody in their family becomes sick, there’s so many potential challenges
and barriers. I really think this is a moment for humanity to shine without overstating that, and just supporting each other and being willing to be as flexible as we possibly can, helping students achieve the learning, holding them accountable, but being really willing to flex and empathize as needed. I guess I would just reiterate that we should be kind to ourselves, we should not expect to be online teaching rockstars, we should remember that this is not online teaching as we traditionally think of it, this is a triage mode remote delivery of instruction. And we can’t become really well developed online teachers on the spin of a dime. So be kind to yourself, be patient, take it slow, do what you know how to do. It may be the case that in coming weeks, you can add more, you can become more educated as you avail yourself of the resources that your center and others are providing. But ,just kindness is all that I can really recommend to yourself and to your students.

Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on, and a good reminder that that flexibility goes both to yourself as well as to your students.

Flower: Absolutely. These are unusual times. We’re all freaking out about lots of different things. And so we have a job to do, and students have a job to do, and we can band together and support each other. I’m just thinking about what movie will be made by Hollywood. [LAUGHTER] I mean, there’s got to be tons of movies that will come out after
this, but specifically about higher ed, that would be interesting. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think the term you used earlier was weird times, and I would agree, we can all be together in these weird times. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: Just practicing basic humanity and consideration for your fellow human beings, I think, is gonna go a long way.

John: It was just so much nicer reading Stephen King novels than it is to live in one of them.

Flower: That’s true. This is bizarre. Let’s just admit that and determine how we can best move on.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the tips, and also just allowing us all to realize that we’re not alone.

Flower: That’s a great reminder, Rebecca, we are not alone. Let’s help our students feel like they are not alone, and we’ll get through this. We’re resourceful people.

John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?

Flower: So, John, just this morning I offered and was encouraged to write a new column for The Chronicle. Now, I haven’t written it yet. But the tentative title of my new column, which I hope to develop in the next couple of days, is “Okay, So You’ve Pivoted Online. Now What?” and I really want to talk to people about, there was all this adrenaline, and all this frenzy and excitement, and then after we get through this rush, I can imagine that people might begin to deflate, they might become discouraged, the prospect of finishing this semester, it might not be really energizing to people. So I would like to write out some suggestions for regaining your energy and your enthusiasm and discovering the benefits of teaching remotely in this particular situation. We’ll see, I haven’t written that yet. We’ll see.

Rebecca: Yeah, I know that some of the conversation about graduations, and in my department it’s senior exhibitions and things, those kind of capstone moments that are really special and how we can make them special remotely, maybe they’ll be extra special.

Flower: So much opportunity for creative thinking right now. I’ve been wondering if this is going to be the demise of the higher ed conference or other industries as well, if we’ll ever get back together in person or if we’ll find so many other ways to interact virtually that things might be really different from here on out.

John: I know in our workshops, we’re seeing a lot of people coming in over Zoom that we’ve never seen before in workshops, and we’re hoping to see a lot more of them in the future. So, it’s opening up this type of remote access to people who have never tried it before, and that’s a really positive aspect.

Flower: Yeah, I love the focus on the opportunities that this situation is affording us. And then let’s think carefully, when we get to a point that we can kind of look back on the situation, I think higher ed leaders really need to be thinking critically about what needs to change to support effective teaching with technology, because if
there’s one thing we’re learning here, it’s a staple, it’s a support that we can’t do without. And yet many institutions don’t really support the effective use of technology in our teaching in a really sort of simple and sustainable way. So I’m, I’m encouraging, again, specifically leadership in higher ed to think critically about centers such as the ones that we live in, and about the role of instructional designers and “How do we make this much more of a core function in support of our institutions?”

Rebecca: I hope those conversations start.

Flower: I’m gonna do everything I can, talk to everybody I can about it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Agreed.

John: And I think those types of support are more valued than they ever have been before. I think a lot of people have discovered the instructional designers and the teaching centers across the country.

Flower: 100%. Again, that’s an opportunity that we’re being afforded right now is to help people see what we can do and access those people who haven’t come to our workshops before and demonstrate our value, a real opportunity to do that right now.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you again.

Rebecca: Stay well.

Flower: Thank you, you too. Thanks for having me.

[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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

[MUSIC]

120. Scaling Accessibility

Adopting a culture of accessibility at an institution can seem both daunting and full of barriers, but movement forward can happen with the right strategies in place. In this episode, Dr. Sherri Restauri joins us to discuss how institutions can progress from providing accommodations for individual students to an institutional commitment to building accessibility into the course design process.

Sherri is the Director of Coastal’s Office of Online Learning and also serves as a teaching associate at the Department of Psychology at Coastal Carolina University. Sherri has served for a number of years on the steering committee for the OLC Innovate and Accelerate Annual Conferences, including serving at the 2020 OLC Innovate Conference in Chicago in the role of Co-Chair for Equity and Inclusion.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Adopting a culture of accessibility at an institution can seem both daunting and full of barriers, but movement forward can happen with the right strategies in place. In this episode, we discuss how institutions can progress from providing accommodations for individual students to an institutional commitment to building accessibility into the course design process.

[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 Sherri Restauri. Sherri is the Director of Coastal’s Office of Online Learning and also serves as a teaching associate at the Department of Psychology at Coastal Carolina University. Sherri has served for a number of years on the steering committee for the OLC Innovate and Accelerate Annual Conferences, including serving at the upcoming Innovate Conference in Chicago in the role of Co-Chair for Equity and Inclusion. Welcome, Sherri.

John: Welcome.

Sherri: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Sherri: So, I actually am drinking my favorite iced coffee. I have a salted caramel mocha with me.

Rebecca: That sounds good. Sounds a little chilly for us to have that around here today… it’s a little cold, but… I have a vanilla coconut tea.

John: That one’s new.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: I have a Forest Fruits tea from Epcot… from the Twinings pavilion there, which I picked up at the OLC conference.

Rebecca: How appropriate. [LAUGHTER].

So, digital accessibility is becoming increasingly important, valued, and a topic of focus at many institutions, but really requires a cultural shift to fully implement. You’ve been really successful at directing these efforts at Coastal. Can you tell us a little bit about your efforts and strategy for becoming a more accessible campus?

Sherri: I would be happy to share. One of the things that I feel like we have really been most successful at here at Coastal was trying to change the language that we use, specifically around the concept of accessibility. And my work specifically began when I got here about three and a half years ago, and originally, there wasn’t any kind of workshop or training on our campus specific to accessibility or digital access. And I built the first workshop, which was actually called Digital Accessibility in Online and Hybrid Learning, around the concept of increasing student access to learning. And so the premise of the workshop, in the first five minutes actually, introduces the faculty, staff, and students who attend that workshop to the concept of increasing access to education and educational material, rather than to the idea of accessibility. And so they’re taught the scope of access is something that’s much, much larger than maybe the way that we were taught when I started in the field of education teaching 21 years ago. It’s not about accommodating one student out of 400 in an entire academic year. Instead, it’s about designing from the ground up in a way to make content accessible for all users. And so it is truly taught under the umbrella of a universal design for learning and teaching approach. And honestly, this is many times the first time that faculty have heard that approach. In the past, a lot of times they were instead under the assumption that we were making accommodations to address one specific student. And so instead, we’re actually designing so that all content is accessible and is readily available to all students, even prior to the first day of class, if possible. So, I think our work in the culture shift here on campus started with modifying the language and the vocabulary. So, we don’t actually say accessibility as much as we do instead use the term digital access, because for us, that includes things such as affordable learning, and OER, all of that actually falls into the scope of access on my campus.

Rebecca: How do you recommend allies and advocates nudge or pull or push others to join them in accessibility efforts to actually make for true cultural shift in the organization and institutions that they’re a part of? Sometimes it’s really easy if you’re the person that’s like really excited about it, to make some efforts, but it’s hard to figure out how to get others engaged and really feel as committed as you are.

Sherri: I totally agree with that, and I think that I’ve seen it be successful, as well as unsuccessful in my own campuses at different institutions. And one of the things that I found that was most instrumental, looking at the three campuses now that I’ve served on, the two that it was most successful on, were ones in which I could launch a digital accessibility initiative, not as a champion myself, but with a committee backing me. And so on the two institutions where I found the most success, it actually specifically was ones in which there was already a designated body that I could bring on board who had perhaps a faculty representative from each academic college. So, when I began initially launching the digital accessibility initiative on the Coastal campus, I immediately presented that my Digital Learning Committee, which is actually what used to be called the Distance Learning Committee, and presented to them initially the idea that “This is coming, I need you to come on board as my college representative advocate, and I need you to be a champion as well within your academic unit.” In doing that I brought allies on board. It’s advantageous that the main technology tool that we were to later adopt is actually called Ally. But, one of the tools that we were to later adopt, it was actually in conjunction with my Digital Learning Committee, where they were able to be an advocate through our budgeting, our purchasing, and instructional needs in order to provide support for me. If I had tried to do this type of an initiative without having a standing committee to support me that I don’t think it would have been quite as successful. So being able to form allies with maybe committees that already are in existence, and maybe even also to strategically reach out to certain committees and/or departments on campus that look like they may be a benefit to use. So we made an outreach directly to accessibility and disability services, to diversity and inclusion, to the university library, to our provost’s office, and then also to freshman orientation, in order to find a way to make sure that access to all students was truly viewed as something much broader than just accessibility.

John: How did you get faculty to buy into the program? And what sort of training did you provide for faculty?

Sherri: I was honestly extremely excited when I took this position to know that there was already what we actually like to call COOL grant. COOL grants are a faculty monetary incentive grant that has required as well as optional elective training opportunities built in with the ultimate outcome that’s twofold. The twofold piece of that is faculty will learn information that will help them to build and administer better, stronger, high quality digital learning courses. But, the ultimate outcome is also specifically that the courses that they are actually building for digital learning purposes will be submitted to my unit for a quality review with evaluative feedback on how to improve those. And so from that particular perspective, there was already an existent grant program that existed. When I came on board, I decided to modify that grant program and incorporate accessibility into it. When I got here, it was focused on quality, but accessibility had not yet been incorporated. And so when I got here in 2016, that was one of our first components that we actually added into it. And we were able to incorporate that as the ninth of our 10 core components. And within our second semester of arrival here, we began offering the digital accessibility as a required component of that training. We do offer additional, I would call them optional electives, for faculty as well, so they just can’t get enough about digital accessibility. Then part of the grant is that they can take up to five elective trainings to learn more and they can take as much about digital accessibility as they want. I think one of the things that really became advantageous to our faculty is, the more they learn… even if they submitted with the intention of one specific class, let’s say, Psychology 425 was a grant program… they learned so much that they initially might have intended to only apply it to that first course, but then they turned around and applied it to every course from that point forward. So, that’s where that cultural shift started was once they learned how advantageous these principles were to every single one of students in every class, they started modifying the way that they taught. And they started modifying the way that they uploaded materials and that they built the course items into their course as well. It was amazing to actually watch that type of a shift for our faculty. It’s like watching light bulbs come on, because they suddenly understand there’s technologies that already exist here that can make it so that my students who have an hour-long commute can learn. It’s not just about a student who may or may not have a disability, it’s about a student who has a long commute, or a student who doesn’t own the software, or a student who can’t afford my textbook. So, their accommodations were for all kinds of students that met all kinds of needs that I don’t think that they had anticipated, but they learned very quickly it could help the students in many, many different ways.

Rebecca: I think it’s one thing to learn about some of the technology related or the strategies you can use to make things more accessible to increase access, but it’s different from making that part of your regular workflow. Do you have any tips for faculty about how to incorporate these practices in the way that they generally approach their classes and prepping for classes and preparing their classes each semester?

Sherri: I do, and one of the things that I think is important to understand is every single university, campus, or school environment is configured and structured in such a very different way. Some of us have centralized units that support faculty and some campuses do not. I’ve served on both types of campuses. And so it’s important to recognize that faculty may be coming at this from a very different perspective. Some have more support than others. We have a very small unit. We have two instructional designers for a campus of over 10,000 students. And so with that in mind, to make this successful, we actually invested as a unit all of our time in building very well structured templates, both course templates as well as material templates… and by material templates I mean accessible syllabi, accessible course modules, everything that we have is already compliant with WCAG standards, so that all they have to do is make modifications and adapt it. In addition to the template materials and the template courses that we generated, I think one of the things that we also found most exciting for faculty is we started looking at ways to expedite the administrative struggles that they were running into. And a good example is, when a faculty member submits a course for a grant review, we end up looking at it for every single component. And so one of the biggest red flags that we would see is our faculty were spending hours and hours and hours creating wonderful lectures, but none of these had closed captions. They couldn’t pass a grant without having accessible courses. And so one of the very first things that we were able to do was implement a component by which faculty simply alert us of all multimedia, and my unit, in my department of online learning, actually complete the closed captions for all of them for everybody on the entire campus. So, we’ve taken the workload off of them. We actually, through a training program, have trained our graduate assistants and student workers to do closed captioning to standards. We utilize a third party program called Echo 360 for our lecture capture. And starting in the fall of 2019, we enabled what is called ASR for automatic speech recognition, so that there is a component in place to begin the captioning to standard, and then our student workers and graduate assistants pop in and make the modifications. The faculty actually have no administrative responsibilities for that, unless they choose to caption themselves. So, one of the pieces that’s heaviest lifting for compliance, specifically, was just simply the time to make those modifications. And so I immediately started looking at what are the heaviest lifting pieces and what can we do as a unit to lift that for the faculty so that they don’t have to make those accommodations. One of the things I think that we got such positive feedback as well about during the 2018-2019 academic year was when our campus learning management system integrated the Ally accessibility tool. I was looking for ways for faculty to best understand how to use that tool to convert their files. And the tool itself is fairly simplistic, but it can be implemented in different ways. So, the technique that I actually created, and I’ll be happy to share with your listeners, is we actually created what we call an Ally drop spot. And in that particular drop spot, faculty simply mass or batch upload all files at one time, check all files at one time, and then move content around once it’s corrected. That’s not something that’s actually taught by the vendor. It was just a creative idea that I came up with because I too am a faculty member, and was trying to figure out a way to save time. And so that seems to be something to celebrate. And so we use the Ally drop spot, not just for academic classes, because the culture has changed so much on our campus that administrative documents, things like announcements about upcoming movies on campus that are going out via email, everything that is now distributed digitally must be WCAG compliant, which makes my heart very happy. And so from that perspective, having an Ally drop spot, having a centralized technique in which faculty can batch upload or staff can batch upload content to be checked and corrected immediately, again, with administrative heavy lifting that we built into simplify the process for them.

John: So, the focus has been on new development and redesign. Have faculty started to go back and redesign or re-tool some of their older materials as well?

Sherri: Yes, is the short answer to that. I think that one of the things that, and I’m going to point at Ally but it wasn’t necessarily because of Ally, that having that particular type of tool on our campus helped us realize is: Ally, for example, scans all documents that may exist in your learning management system and inadvertently one of the after effects of that is that happens to alert you to the age of your original file creation. So for example, if I’m teaching a spring 2020 psychology class, and Ally scans my file, it may alert me that that file was originally developed
in Microsoft Word 1997. And so it will alert faculty, through happenstance, that it might be time to update the version that they have been using to create their files. And so I think one of the things that’s been really interesting to watch is even though the intention was “let’s make content more accessible,” the answer, John, is that actually the tools that we’ve given them, whether it be Echo 360, or whether it be Ally, they started using these to improve all courses all the time. I had a conversation just this morning after our “welcome back to our campus” presentation with a faculty member. And we were discussing how when we started teaching more than two decades ago, we used to be taught that the best way to make files accessible for everybody, because everybody doesn’t have the same software, is just save it as a PDF and everybody can access it… and actually, that backwards now…

Rebecca:: Yup. [LAUGHTER]

Sherri: …and we were talking about how important it is to understand that the times have changed. And if you started teaching like I did two decades ago, the things we were originally taught have changed so drastically, and I think faculty coming to a 90-minute digital accessibility workshop, that sounds so short. But, that one 90-minute workshop gives them enough information to understand times have changed. “Wow, here’s these 18 tools that are available. And here’s these five processes that exist. And I thought that I couldn’t do these things because I don’t have an extra 100 hours available this semester to add captions, but I have services that are provided by my institution to allow for that.” Our campus is not one that has a significant technology budget. And so most of the items that I’ve mentioned today in your episode are things that we developed internally. We don’t send off for closed captioning for third parties, we simply don’t have the funds for that. Most of the types of things that we’ve done have all been in-built. The quality metrics that we use for evaluating our courses to make sure that they’re compliant and that they meet standards are all in-built. We are not using a third-party for quality evaluation, we instead built our own. And so many of these are actually using the resources you already have. They’re using the personnel you already have. Again, we retrained and retooled our graduate assistants and student workers to make sure that they can assist that with doing a ton of heavy lifting. And I feel like one of the things that I think, if I could communicate to other campuses who are looking to implement something like a digital accessibility initiative, is this isn’t really about having to have an extra $300,000 per year or having to have an extra 10 staff. We don’t. [LAUGHTER] We didn’t actually purchase really anything additionally, minus one extra product. Past that it was just finding ways to make this fit into and enhance our current processes so that everybody was compliant, and really bringing the whole campus forward alongside of us.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your student staff team and their role? You mentioned it a little bit, but can you talk a little bit more about the scope, the kind of training that they received, and what tasks they actually help your team with?

Sherri: So, as a student worker myself 20 plus years ago, one of the things that I remember feeling is that I never really felt like part of the team. I was given small tasks and I never really understood the mission, or the vision, or how me putting computer parts together in a computer lab ultimately helped the mission of the university. And so, for my office in digital learning, when we bring our staff on board part-time or full-time I tell them during the orientation it’s the last time they’re going to hear me call them a student. After that, they’re simply referred to as staff or part-time staff. With that in mind, they are asked to, expected to, attend all formal meetings, all informal meetings, all staff meetings about visioning and planning and they go through all levels of training, including they are required to go through the same level of digital accessibility training as our faculty. They spend about the first two to two and a half weeks learning what digital accessibility is and why that’s important… the mission of not just my department, but also to the campus. After that, we have a standardized set of trainings they go through focused on quality enhancement, and also on best practices for digital learning. And then they go through a set of training relating specifically to closed captioning and what we typically call WCAG compliance for the web accessibility. So, they’ll go through those processes. They’re also trained on very specific technologies specific to my campus, like Echo 360, Moodle, and all the other tools that we use here internally. By the time they end up graduating and leaving us, they are truly experts. So they learn a tremendous amount about the technologies, but what we actually ask them to do because we only get to have students for no more than 20 hours a week. I don’t know if any of you have ever had to sit down and try to do closed-captioning or closed-captioning editing…

John: Every day.

Sherri: …but nobody can do that for 20 hours a week. So, I would never ask anybody to do it for more than about five hours a week. So, out of their 20 hours, only about five of that is actually closed-captioning. They will do the edits. And the edits are actually super easy to do through the vendor that we actually have as well. They allot about five of their 20 hours to closed captioning. The other 15 are spent in doing other types of work such as conversions within the Ally system, helping our faculty to make modifications to improve the digital accessibility of their courses. Two of our student assistants, the part-time workers, also directly assist us with the open inclusive education process so that they help our faculty to locate OERs that can be implemented into their courses. We only launched our OER initiative about two and a half years ago, and we already have over 60 faculty. So, we’re very proud of that particular access work. And so we’ve been able to make a tremendous amount of headway super fast, partially because of the assistance of our part-time staff. We’ve been doing a lot of the legwork to locate really high quality, open and inclusive materials for our faculty.

One of the things that we found with our particular students is once they have learned about all the different principles that they’re being taught to use to assist faculty, they’ll turn around and start using those to improve their own learning in their own courses. So that’s actually something that again, wasn’t planned. But students start learning study strategies based on alternative formats. So, a good example is they learn about the Ally tool which provides alternative formats to a PDF, which may have MP3s, and all of a sudden, our student workers may start using that as a study technique, which changes the entire course of how they progress in their own programs, too. We had one particular student who served as a part-time staff member specifically focused on digital accessibility. And she enjoyed it so much, she built an entire website for pre-service elementary education teachers who would benefit from learning more about digital accessibility. So, I feel like bringing students into this couldn’t have been a better choice. It’s actually directly impacting not just our student workers in the way that they actually study, but it’s impacting their careers as well because we recruit students and graduate assistants from every academic college.

John: That’s great training for those who might be doing some of this work in the future. And everyone’s going to be doing more of this as we move forward, so I think it’s a great program.

Rebecca: How many students are on your team?

Sherri: We just had two graduate, which is, of course, what they’re here for. But it’s always so sad that we have to have some of them leave. So currently, we have two student workers and two graduate assistants so that’s four, they’re 80 hours a week of part-time staff.

Rebecca: Great, that’s exciting. Can you talk a little bit more about the faculty grant recipients and their role in onboarding some other faculty to get them excited about accessibility as well?

Sherri: Absolutely. So, you’ve heard me say the term COOL a couple of times, like our COOL grants, that COOL is the acronym for my unit the Coastal Office of Online Learning. These grants which are called COOL grants, there’s actually two different formats of those. One is a year-long, and the year-long course development grant is focused on building brand new courses that have never been placed into an online or a hybrid program. And we give them an entire year to do that. A lot of times what I found is as they’re going through a series of trainings, the thing that they benefit most from, in addition to the 10 trainings that they take along the way in a year-long grant program, is physically being in the same space with other faculty here also going through that grant program. So, we don’t necessarily tell them that they’re going to be put together into a peer group, but they are. We call it a cohort. And so for example, cohort eight ran throughout the 2019 year, they’ve just submitted their grant for review on January 6th. We have about 40 who participated in that program, and they have truly formed a cohort. What will happen is once their courses are reviewed, evaluated, modified and completed, those courses become what are called COOL certified and so those certified individuals from cohort eight all stay on an individual listeserv. And then they also get grouped in with previous cohorts. We have recently formed what we call a Digital and Open Learning Faculty Learning Community. And that particular community pulls from these faculty who have previously completed COOL certified courses. And we’re actually taking this full circle so that not only “Are they learning the material, are they building a course? Are they offering the course?” But the faculty learning community is pulling all of those individuals together, so that we can do research and write manuscripts together. So, that’s our final step: “Wow, we’ve learned so much together. What if we collaborate as a group who successfully completed a certification and a grant and actually pull this together into a journal, or a web article, or a blog, or whatever it might be?” So we’ve already been blogging, our very next step is this faculty learning community is going to start doing some of the outreach regarding manuscripts and presentations as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned universal design for learning a little bit earlier as your approach to accessibility rather than using the accessibility term. Can you talk a little bit about pedagogy and how accessibility and universal design for learning overlap but also where they diverge? And what role you see these initiatives playing in our approach to student learning?

Sherri: That may be my favorite question yet, actually. [LAUGHTER] So, interestingly enough… universal design. I like to ask that question when I begin teaching my digital accessibility workshop, that’s actually one of the first things that I say, Rebecca, is I ask them “How many of you have ever heard this term?” And it shocked me. I am a former instructional designer, so I honestly thought, “How would a history professor know this? How would a math professor know this?” Most of them know. And I don’t know how that has occurred, but most of them have heard it. But, in practice, they’ve never been taught it. And so once I realized about three workshops in that they had conceptual knowledge of what universal design was, I started actually flipping the script a bit on that and saying, “Explain to me, what kinds of workshops fit you’re learning needs better. Let’s start talking about how, if instead of me teaching this workshop face to face, what format would be better for you and explain to me why.” And once I began actually putting into practice for them, from their own learning needs, because my COOL grant recipients are required to take 10 trainings, and with children and with work duties, it’s very difficult for them to fit that in. So I like to give them the opportunity to explain to me what they perceive universal design to be, as it fits their learning needs. And once they grasp that and they personally apply it, then we actually start working on “Let’s talk about what universal design actually means when we build content. Let’s talk about what universal design means when you’re teaching a hybrid class that only meets four times a semester.” And one of those meetings is for an international trip with the class. So, let’s discuss all of these different pieces and how interaction and how accessibility all intersect. I tend to find that, because I do distinguish for them the difference between Universal Design for Instruction and Universal Design for Learning, that seems to actually create a pathway for them. And the way that I tend to distinguish that is UDI, Universal Design for Instruction is what we do. That’s us. That’s the faculty. We provide instruction. Universal Design for Learning, that’s what our students do. That’s how they learn. And so I feel like giving them the two pathways of “Let’s see what you do, and let’s see what they need to do and let’s focus on both of those pathways,” that actually feels like a wave that helps our faculty to best understand how to make adaptations. When I do teach the digital accessibility workshop to our faculty, I think one of the most challenging concepts that we faced prior to the year 2018 was having to individually go through one software program by the next. “Let’s check your document in accessibility for Excel. Let’s check your document for accessibility in Word.” After 2018, once we introduced our newest software purchase, and that’s the Ally tool, We had like a one-stop-shop, and I feel like helping them to understand you don’t have to do all of the legwork, but you can rely on a product that we’ve been able to bring on board for you to help teach you how to do those things. I think that actually relieves a lot of the stress. We have over 10,000 students here, and I truly believe all of our faculty are here for the right reasons. Their hearts are in the right place, their motivations are in the right place. A lot of this is “I don’t understand the steps. I don’t understand this technology, and it’s going to take me too long to learn it. And I don’t have that time available to me.” So, I view my role and my team’s role as being advocates for finding the right technologies and the right techniques. And then again, like I said earlier, doing that heavy lifting. Universal design, then, I think, interestingly enough, ended up applying not just to how our faculty develop their classes for our students, but it also applies to how I teach those classes to our faculty. I have to design my training, my support, in a way that is also universal. I made modifications by the second year I was here so that many of my face-to-face workshops were converted into an online webinar instead to accommodate the learning needs of our faculty. And that, to me, is the epitome of universal design. I didn’t just change my own classes, I changed my training classes for our faculty.

Rebecca: We’ve heard you say a couple of times about the heavy lifting done, in part, by your staff. Not all institutions or campuses have a staff equivalent to yours to do some of the heavy lifting or the student groups set up. How do you suggest individuals get started when they might not have the time resources or the funding resources or the staff resources, and it just seems, like, impossible?

Sherri: So, that particular question is one that I hear at most presentations that I’ve had the opportunity to share our successes with digital accessibility. I think one of the things that stands out for me the most is, both at this campus and another campus that I’ve served at, is we are not a heavily funded campus, most of the resources that we utilize are free. The development that we did with both our quality metric that we use for evaluating our courses is free. And I’d be happy to share that with the listeners as well afterwards that they’d have access to evaluate their own courses to determine the accessibility. We also have many online webinars that we share with our faculty are actually those that are offered for free because we don’t have the budget to actually purchase many of the higher cost ones. And so we utilize, a good example would be many of the free webinars and free downloads, specifically related digital accessibility come from the R&D sector of 3Play Media. And a lot of times we share those with our faculty members as an opportunity for them to self learn. Many of the templates that are available that we actually share with our faculty came from state level consortia. So a good example of that is, in my state, in the state of South Carolina, we have a new initiative called SCALE, which is South Carolina Affordable Learning Initiative. And South Carolina was actually one of the last states to come on board with that type of an initiative. So most states within the U.S. actually do have a state-funded initiative, but many faculty don’t know that it’s there. So one of the things I would definitely encourage them to do is maybe reach out to their library and ask what the state level initiative is. And I also would be happy to share information specific to SCALE because though it is specific to the state of South Carolina, all resources are freely available to anybody outside of the state as well. And it’s one that we like to promote here at Coastal. I would definitely say also, Rebecca, one of the things that I found, because I was one of those faculty members at one campus that had to serve independently without a tremendous amount of support, and I did a lot of my own research. And I found most of mine, interestingly enough initially through some searching, through MERLOT. MERLOT, a lot of times people think is just specifically to OERs. But a lot of times what I actually found was, in my discipline of psychology, I actually did just a direct outreach to other faculty who were members of MERLOT, but in the psychology discipline, and many of them freely share all of their available materials, and that includes things like accessible syllabi. So, it’s really interesting to see where things like OERs and accessibility have intersected in academic disciplines.

Rebecca: Those sound really great and helpful. Can you talk a little bit about the training that you’ve been doing for your faculty? You mentioned a little bit that there are webinars or what have you. Are they structured as full-fledged courses or one-off training opportunities?

Sherri: Yeah, so we actually do offer a number of different training opportunities, some of them do fall directly under the COOL grant initiatives. With the COOL grant initiatives, faculty do have a set of both required and elective courses, and examples of those would be quality assurance. The quality assurance teaches the faculty 10 different core principles and again, I’d be happy to share that information with your listeners. The other one that I think is probably my personal favorite, of course, is the digital accessibility. That one is actually taught in a face-to-face, 90-minute format and we usually offer it anywhere between six and eight times a semester. It usually is part one for our faculty. They learn a lot in that 90-minute workshop but because they were so interested in learning it we had to build a second part. And so they typically take digital accessibility face-to-face and then part two is what we call Ally intensive… and so it’s a hands on work specifically with the Ally tool. We also specifically, of course, teach face-to-face as well as self paced workshops specific to our learning management system, which we use Moodle here on our campus. We also teach both OER I and OER II. OER I, I specifically teach on our campus. And again, it’s taught actually as open and inclusive education. And so I teach the face-to-face one so that faculty learn how to include things that might already have been paid for out of our students tuition and incorporate those into their classes so that there’s no additive cost. And the OER II is a self paced that faculty progress through on their own in order to complete that one. Probably one of my favorite ones though, Rebecca, is actually a little bit different. This is one I get probably the most positive feedback from faculty about is what’s called a hybrid blended workshop institute. That particular workshop is 10 weeks long. And because hybrid is something that maybe, is just a different thing for faculty, is something that sometimes they maybe have already been teaching hybrid but they didn’t understand really, the functionality of what that is. What we decided to do, my co-instructor and I actually built the hybrid blended so that the faculty complete between 60 and 70% of that online, and the other workshops are face-to-face. So, by the time they finish, they have successfully taken as a student, their first hybrid class. I think that has the most impact on them. Being able to actually go through 10 weeks as your own student is so impactful. And that particular course has had a tremendous impact in a positive way. We also teach courses specific to academic integrity. We teach them about not just academic integrity principles for building content, but also about different types of tools that they might employ in order to enhance academic integrity in their courses. And then multimedia… that we teach about like personal lecture capture and utilizing multimedia for learning and those types of things. And my unit actually works hand in hand with a sister unit on our campus, which is the Center for Teaching and Learning. And they offer many of the offshoot classes that have to do with pedagogy as well. So, we’re not all by ourselves, we actually have a sister unit who helps to supplement a lot of what we do by teaching specific pedagogy classes.

John: That’s a nice, rich mix of workshops that you’re providing.

Sherri: Thank you. Yeah, we work very hard. We actually have just done a complete overhaul and have modified all workshops during the fall break before we came back for spring. So, we’re excited about the upcoming offering.

Rebecca: That’s great. So we usually wrap up by asking “What’s next?” You’ve already said so many things that you’ve been doing. But what’s next?

Sherri: So, part of what we’re doing is we’ve been working, we’re trying to figure out a way to bring all this full circle, and so the development of the Open and Digital Learning Faculty Learning Community is brand new. It has just been formed. It hasn’t even formally been announced. I’ve been talking about it for about two months. But, it hasn’t even been formally announced to our campus yet,… with the rollout of the faculty learning community, so that all of these previous cohorts can come together. And for those that are interested, we can conduct research. We can write manuscripts and here’s my most exciting part that I’m actually looking forward to, I can actually collaborate with faculty members on grant proposals. And we have not been able to do that together yet. So being able to sit down and work together and bring all this to fruition in a way that will actually move our campus even further forward by being able to write grant proposals and publish about some of our positive outcomes. I think that will be fantastic. Up to this point, we’ve offered what we call three different exemplary showcases. And the way that those work is we evaluate our COOL grant faculty recipients and to even graduate you have to become COOL certified, their courses have to hit or exceed at least 80% in quality criteria. Some of our faculty who are incredible superstars end up hitting or exceeding at 100%. And so those faculty get nominated as what we call exemplary showcase presenters. We’ve now hosted three of those, and our fourth one will be actually hosted this year in 2020. So, the exemplary showcase will be an opportunity for this next round of faculty to continue to present about the best practices. It will be our first showcase where we have individuals presenting who have implemented OERs in classes that fall outside of the scope of just digital and online learning. So, these will be classes that were taught in a traditional face-to-face environment that have converted to OER for affordability and inclusion reasons. So, I think that’s important because you mentioned, Rebecca, at the very beginning of the interview, “How is this a cultural shift?” I began here with only really being able to do my outreach to just online classes. By year two, I rolled that out to hybrid. And so in year four, which starts very soon, it will have been rolled out to all formats, all classes, all faculty, all students. And so that’s a cultural shift. Being able to find a way to show people that access is for all people, and affordability is for all people, all course formats is important. So that, to me, is the biggest thing that is coming is this cultural shift is going to continue to expand, because we’re opening up so many of these grant opportunities and these faculty support initiatives to faculty here teaching face-to-face, or hybrid, or flex, or flipped, or any variety of format that you might want to teach because access is supposed to be for all learners. And so I think that was our ultimate goal. It’s just taken us a few years to get there. And this will be our first year to actually see it open up and be totally inclusive to all formats as well, and having a faculty learning community as a target goal for how to showcase all of these best practices and all of this incredible hard work and dedication that our faculty have had in converting their courses and making them available, that will be fantastic. In the 2019 academic year, my team first started tracking the success of students based on their GPAs and their drop, fail, withdraw rates in order to see if there was any kind of correlation between those and the courses that had successfully completed quality course review. And I’m so pleased to actually tell you that, for the first time, we were able to actually see decreased drop, fail, withdrawal rates and increased GPAs in classes that had complied with and excelled in all of these quality initiatives there. So, for the 2020 year, we’re going to do a much larger research sample on that and start continuing to investigate quantitatively, “Are we able to track and even predict students success relating to GPAs and drop, fail, withdrawal rates when the faculty have successfully implemented this?” At this point we’ve seen it in undergraduate, graduate, and across all academic college disciplines. So, I’m hopeful we will continue to see it in the 2020 year as well, so we’re excited and this is one of the things that the faculty learning community is going to be helping me with, is tracking the student success metrics. And hopefully seeing some improvements across all the disciplines as well.

John: Were the results statistically significant?

Sherri: They are significant. However, one of the things, John, is the sample is still quite small. So yes, the answer is they are statistically significant. I am not comfortable publishing them yet until we have a much larger sample. So in the 2020 year, we will be working towards a much larger sample, so that I will feel more comfortable in promoting that.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing your insights and strategies today.

Sherri: You’re very welcome.

[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.

63. Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[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.

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

Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Welcome.

Sean: It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

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

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

Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.

[LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not just for afternoons.

Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.

John: And it never has been, I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean: Yes.

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

Sean: Right.

Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean: Thank you for having me.

[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.

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

55. Open pedagogy

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

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

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

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

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

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

John: It’s been there for a year.

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

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

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

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

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

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: We all do to some extent.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Which they made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

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

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

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

John: That’s scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

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

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: NASA, the White House….

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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]