37. Evidence is Trending

Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode, Michelle Miller joins us to discuss recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.

Michelle is Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.

Show Notes

Rebecca: Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode we talk to a cognitive psychologist about recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.

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: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.
Welcome, Michelle!

Michelle: Hi, I’m so glad to be here.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.
Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I’m drinking a fresh peppermint infused tea, and it’s my favorite afternoon pick-me-up.

Rebecca: …and it looks like it’s in a really wonderfully designed teapot.

Michelle: Well, thank you… and this is a thrift store find… one of my favorite things to do. Yeah, so I’m enjoying it.

John: I have Twinings Blackcurrant Breeze.

Rebecca: …and I’m drinking chai today.

Michelle: Pretty rough.

John: We invited you here to talk a little bit about things that you’ve been observing in terms of what’s catching on in higher education in terms of new and interesting innovations in teaching.

Michelle: Right, that’s one of things that I really had the luxury of being able to step back and look at over this last semester and over this last spring when I was on sabbatical… One of the really neat things about my book Minds Online, especially now that it’s been out for a few years, is that it does open up all these opportunities to speak with really engaged faculty and others, such as: instructional designers, librarians, academic leadership, educational technology coordinators… all these individuals around the country who are really, really involved in these issues. It’s a great opportunity to see how these trends, how these ideas, how these innovations are rolling out, and these can be some things that have been around for quite some time and just continue to rock along and even pickup steam, and some newer things that are on the horizon.

John: You’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling. You just got back from China recently, I believe.

Michelle: I sure did. It was a short visit and I do hope to go back, both to keep getting involved in educational innovations there and, hopefully, as a tourist as well. So, I was not there for very long but I had the opportunity to speak at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is a really dynamic institution that’s been around for about a hundred years. For a while in its history it specialized in things like engineering education polytechnic, but now it’s really a selective comprehensive university with very vibrant graduate and undergraduate programs that are really very relatable for those of us in the United States working in similar contexts. My invitation was to be one of the featured speakers at the Future Education, Future Learning Conference, which was a very interdisciplinary gathering of doctoral students, faculty, even others from the community, who were all interested in the intersection of things like technology, online learning, MOOCs even, and educational research (including research into the brain and cognitive psychology), and bringing all of those together… and it was a multilingual conference. I do not speak Chinese but much of the conference was in both English and Chinese and so I was also able to really absorb a lot of these new ideas. So yes, that was a real highlight of my sabbatical semester and one that I’m going to be thinking about for quite some time.

I should say that part of what tied in there as well is that Minds Online, I’ve just learned, is going to be translated into Chinese and that’s going to come out in May 2019. So, I also got to meet with some of the people who were involved in the translation… start to put together some promotional materials such as videos and things like that.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: So, you’ve had a good opportunity, as you’ve been traveling, to almost do a scavenger hunt of what faculty are doing with evidence-based practices related to your book. Can you share some of what you’ve found or heard?

Michelle: This theme of evidence-based practice, and really tying into the findings that have been coming out of cognitive psychology for quite some time, that really is one of the exciting trends and things that I was really excited to see and hear for so many different quarters I visited in different institutions… and so I would say definitely, this is a trend that is continuing and is increasing. There really does continue to be a lot of wonderful interest and wonderful activity around these real cognitively informed approaches to teaching, and what I think we could call scientifically based and evidence-based strategies. One form this has taken is Josh Eyler’s new book, called How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. This is a brand new book by a faculty development professional, and a person coming out of the humanities, actually, who’s weaving together even from his humanities background everything from evolutionary biology to classical research in early childhood education to the latest brain-based research. He’s weaving this together into this new book for faculty. So, that’s one of the things that I’ve noticed and then there’s the issue which i think is another great illustration of best-known practice which is the testing effect and retrieval practice.

John: One of the nice things is how so many branches of research are converging… testing in the classroom, brain-based research, and so forth, are all finding those same basic effects. It’s nice to see such robust results, which we don’t always see in all research in all disciplines.

Rebecca: …and just breaking down the silos in general. The things are all related and finding out what those relationships are… exploring those relationships… is really important and it’s nice to see that it’s starting to open up.

John: We should also note that when you visited here, we had a reading group and we had faculty working on trying to apply some of these concepts, and they’re still doing that… and they still keep making references back to your visit. So, it’s had quite a big impact on our campus.

Michelle: This wasn’t true, I don’t think, when I first entered the teaching profession… and even to the extent when I first started getting interested in applied work in course redesign and in faculty professional development. you would get kind of this pushback or just strange looks when you said “Oh, how about we bring in something from cognitive psychology” and now that is just highly normalized and something that people are really speaking across the curriculum… and taking it and running with it in a lasting ongoing way, not just as a “Oh, well that was an interesting idea. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing” but really people making some deep changes as you mentioned. This theme of breaking down silos… I mean I think if there’s kind of one umbrella trend that all of these things fits under it’s that breakdown of boundaries. So, that’s one that I keep coming back to, I know, in my work.

So, the idea of retrieval practice, drilling down on that one key finding which goes back a very long ways in cognitive psychology. I think of that as such a good example of what we’re talking about here… about how this very detailed effect in cognition and yet it does have these applications across disciplinary silos. Now when I go to conferences and I say “Okay, raise your hand. How many people have ever heard of retrieval practice? How many people have ever heard of the testing effect? How many people have heard of the book Make it Stick (which really places this phenomena at its center)?” and I’m seeing more hands raising.

With retrieval practice, by the way, we’re talking about that principle that taking a test on something, that retrieving something from memory actively, has this huge impact on future memorability of that information. As its proponents like to say, tests are not neutral from a memory or from a learning standpoint… and while some of the research has focused on very kind of stripped-down laboratory style tasks like memorizing words pairs, there are also some other research projects showing that it does flow out to more realistic learning situations.

So, more people simply know about this, and that’s really the first hurdle, oftentimes, with getting this involved disciplinary sometimes jargon riddled research out there to practitioners and getting it into their hands. So, people heard of it and they’re starting to build this into their teaching. As I’ve traveled around I love to hear some of the specific examples and to see it as well crop up in scholarship of teaching and learning.

Just recently, for example, I ran across and really got into the work of Bruce Kirchhoff who is at University of North Carolina – Greensboro and his area is botany and plant identification. He has actually put together some different really technology-based apps and tools that students and teachers can use in something like a botany course to rehearse and review plant identification. He says in one of his articles, for example, that there just isn’t time in class to really adequately master plant identification. It’s just too complex of a perceptual and cognitive and memory test to do that. So, he really built in from the get-go very specific principles drawn from cognitive psychology… so, the testing effect is in there… there’s different varieties of quizzing and it all is about just getting students to retrieve and identify example after example. It brings in also principles such as interleaving, which we could return to in a little bit, but has to do with the sequencing of different examples… their spacing… So, that’s even planned out exactly how and when students encounter different things that they’re studying. It’s really wonderful. So, for example he and his colleagues put out a scholarship of teaching and learning article talking about how this approach was used effectively in veterinary medicine students who have to learn to identify poisonous plants that they’ll see around their practice. This is something that can be time-consuming and very tough, but they have some good data showing that this technology enhanced cognitively based approach really does work. That’s one example. Coincidentally, I’ve seen some other work in the literature, also on plant identification, where the instructors tagged plants in an arboretum… they went around and tagged them with QR codes… that students can walk up to a plant in the real environment with an iPad… hold the iPad over it… and it would immediately start producing quiz questions that were are specific to exactly the plants they were looking at.
So, those are some of the exciting things that people are taking and running with now that this principle is out there.

Rebecca: What I really love about the two stories that you just shared was the faculty are really designing their curriculum and designing the learning experiences with the students in mind… and what students need and when they need it. So, not only is it employing these cognitive science principles, but it’s actually applying design principles as well. It’s really designing for a user experience and thinking about the idea that if I need to identify a plant, being able to identify it in this situation in which I would need to identify it in makes it much more dynamic I think for a student… but also really meets them where they’re at and where they need it.

John: …and there’s so many apps out there now that will do the plant identification just from imagery without the QR code, that I can see it taking it one step further where they can do it in the wild without having that… so they can build it in for plants that are in the region without needing to encode that specifically for the application.

Michelle: I think you’re absolutely right once we put the technology in the hands of faculties who, as I said, they’re the one to know: “Where are my students at? Where are the weak points? Where are the gaps that they really need to bridge?” and that’s where their creativity is giving rise to all these new applications… and sometimes these can be low-tech as well… or also things that we can put in a face-to-face environment… and I’d like to to share just some experiences that I’ve had with this over the last few semesters.

In addition to trying to teach online with a lot of technology, I also have in my teaching rotation a small required course in research methods in psychology which can be a real stumbling block… the big challenge course… it’s kind of a gateway course to continued progress in our major. So, in this research methods course, some of the things that I’ve done around assessment and testing to really try again to stretch that retrieval practice idea… to make assessments really a more dynamic part of the course and more central part of the course… to move away from that idea that tests are just this kind of every now and again this panic mode opportunity for me to kind of measure in sorts of students and judge them… to make good on that idea that tests are part of learning. So, here’s some of the things that I try to do. For one thing, I took time out of the class almost every single class meeting as part of the routine to have students first of all generate quiz questions out of their textbook. So, we do have a certain amount of foundational material in that course as well as a project and a whole lot of other stuff is going on. So they need to get that foundational stuff.

Every Tuesday they would come in and they knew their routine: you get index cards and you crack your textbook and you generate for me three quiz questions. Everybody does it. I’m not policing whether you read the chapter or not. It’s active… they’re generating it… and also that makes it something like frequent quizzing. That’s a great practical advantage for me since I’m not writing everything. They would turn those in and I would select some of my favorites I would turn those into a traditional looking paper quiz and hand that out on Thursday. I said “Hey, take this like a realistic quiz.” I had explained to them that quizzes can really boost their learning, so that was the justification for spending time on it and then I said: “You know what? I’m not going to grade it either. You take it home because this is a learning experience for you. It’s a learning activity.” so we did that every single week as those students got into that routine.

The second thing that I did to really re-envision how assessment testing and quizzing worked in this particular course, was something inspired by different kinds of group testing and exam wrapper activities I’ve seen, particularly coming out of the STEM field, where there’s been a lot of innovation in this area. What I would do is… we had these high stakes exams at a few points during the semester. But, the class day after the exam, we didn’t do the traditional “Let’s go over the exam.” [LAUGHTER] That’s kind of deadly dull, and it just tends to generate a lot of pushback from students… and as we know from the research, simply reviewing… passing your eyes over the information… is not going to do much to advance your learning. So, what I would do is… I would photocopy all those exams, so it has a secure copy. They were not graded. I would not look at this before we did this… and I would pass everybody’s exams back to them along with a blank copy of that same exam. I assigned them to small groups and I said “Okay, here’s your job. Go back over this exam, fill it out as perfectly as you can as a group, and to make it interesting I said I will grade that exam as well, the one you do with your group, and anything you get over 90% gets added to everybody’s grade. This time it was open book, it was open Google, it was everything except you can’t ask me questions. So, you have each other and that’s where these great conversations started to happen. The things that we always want students to say. So, I would eavesdrop and hear students say “Oh, well you know what, I think on this question she was really talking about validity because reliability is this other thing…” and they’d have a deep conversation about it. I’m still kind of going back through the numbers to see what are the impacts of learning? Are there any trends that I can identify? But, I will say this: in the semesters that I did this, I didn’t have a single question ever come back to me along the lines of “Well, this question was unclear. I didn’t understand it. I think I was graded unfairly.” it really did shut all that down and again extended the learning that I feel students got out of that. Now it meant a big sacrifice of class time, but I feel strongly enough about these principles that I’m always going to do this in one form or another anytime I can can in face-to-face classes.

Rebecca: This sounds really familiar, John.

John: I’ve just done the same, or something remarkably similar, this semester, in my econometrics class which is very similar to the psych research methods class. I actually picked it up following a discussion with Doug McKee. He actually was doing it this semester too. He had a podcast episode on it. It sounded so exciting, I did something… a little bit different. I actually graded it but I didn’t give it back to them because I wanted to see what they had the most trouble with, and then I was going to have them only answer the ones in a group that they struggled with… and it turned out that that was pretty much all them anyway. So, it’s very similar to what you did except I gave them a weighted average of their original grade and the group grade and all except one person improved and the one person’s score went down by two points because the group grade was just slightly lower… but he did extremely well and he wasn’t that confident. The benefits to them of that peer explanation and explaining was just tremendous and it was so much more fun for them and for me and, as you said, it just completely wiped out all those things like “Well, that was tricky” because when they hear their peers explaining it to them the students were much more likely to respond by saying “Oh yeah, I remember that now” and it was a wonderful experience and I’m gonna do that everywhere I can.

In fact. I was talking about it with my TA just this morning here at Duke and we’re planning to do something like that in our classes here at TIP this summer, which i think is somewhat familiar to you from earlier in your academic career.

Michelle: That is right we do have this connection. I was among, not the very first year, but I believe the second cohort of Talent Identification Program students who came in, I guess you would call it now, middle school (back then, it was called junior high) and what a life-transforming experience. We’ve had even more opportunities to talk about the development of all these educational ideas through that experience.

John: That two-stage exam is wonderful and it’s so much more positive… because it didn’t really take, in my class, much more time, because I would have spent most of that class period going over the exam and problems they had. But the students who did well would have been bored and not paying much attention to it; the students who did poorly would just be depressed and upset that they did so poorly… and here, they were actively processing the information and it was so positive.

Michelle: That’s a big shift. We really have to step back and acknowledge that, I think. that is a huge shift in how we look at assessment, and how we think about the use of class time… and it’s not just “Oh my gosh, I have to use every minute to put such content in front of the students.” Just the fact that more of us are making that leap, I think, really is evidence this progress is happening… and we see also a lot of raised consciousness around issues such as learning styles. That’s another one that, when I go out and speak to faculty audiences, 10 years ago you would get these shocked looks or even very indignant commentary when you say “Ok, this idea of learning styles, in the sense that say there are visual learners, auditory learners, what I call sensory learning styles (VAK is another name it sometimes goes by). The idea that that just holds no water from a cognitive point of view…” People were not good with that, and now when I mentioned that at a conference, I get the knowing nods and even a few groans… people like “Oh, yeah. we get that. Now, K-12, which I want to acknowledge it’s not my area, but I’m constantly reminded by people across the spectrum that it’s a very different story in K-12. So, setting that aside… but this is what I’m seeing… that faculty are realizing… they’re saying “Oh, this is what the evidence says…” and maybe they even take the time to look at some of the really great thinkers and writers who put together the facts on this. They say “You know what? I’m not going to take my limited time and resources and spend that on this matching to styles when the styles can’t even be accurately diagnosed and are of no use in a learning situation. So, that’s another area of real progress.

Rebecca: What I am hearing is not just progress here in terms of cognitive science, but a real shift towards really thinking about how students learn and designing for that rather than something that would sound more like a penalty for grade like “Oh, did you achieve? Yes or no…” but, rather here’s an opportunity if you didn’t achieve to now actually learn it… and recognize that you haven’t learned it, even though it might seem really familiar.

John: Going back to that point about learning styles. It is spreading in colleges. I wish it was true at all the departments at our institution, but it’s getting there gradually… and whenever people bring it up, we generally remind them that there’s a whole body of research on this and I’ll send them references but what’s really troubling is in my classes the last couple years now, I’ve been using this metacognitive cafe discussion forum to focus on student learning… and one of the week’s discussions is on learning styles and generally about 95 percent of the students who are freshmen or sophomores (typically) come in with a strong belief in learning styles… where they’ve been tested multiple times in elementary or middle school… they’ve been told what their learning styles are… they’ve been told they can only learn that way… It discourages them from trying to learn in other ways and it does a lot of damage… and I hope we eventually reach out further so that it just goes away throughout the educational system.

Rebecca: You’ve worked in your classes, Michelle, haven’t you to help students understand the science of learning and use that to help students understand the methods and things that you’re doing>

Michelle: Yes, I have. I’ve done this in a couple of different ways. Now, partly, I get a little bit of a free pass in some of my teaching because I’m teaching the introduction to psychology or I’m teaching research methods where I just happen to sneak in as the research example will be some work on say attention or distraction or the testing effect. So, I get to do it in those ways covertly. I’ve also had the chance, although it’s not on my current teaching rotation… I’ve had the chance to also take it on as in freestanding courses. As many institutions are doing these days… it’s another trend… and what Northern Arizona University, where I work, has different kinds of freshmen or first-year student offering for courses they can take, not in a specific disciplinary area, but that really crossed some different areas of the student success or even wellbeing. So, I taught a class for awhile called Maximizing Brain Power that was about a lot of these different topics. Not just the kind of very generic study skills tip… “get a good night’s sleep…” that kind of thing… but really some again more evidence-based things that we can tell students and you can really kind of market it… and I think that we do sometimes have to play marketers to say “Hey, I’m going to give you some inside information here. This is sort of gonna be your secret weapon. So, let me tell you what the research has found.”

So, those are some of the things that I share with students… as well as when the right moment arises, say after an exam or before their first round of small stakes assessments, where they’re taking a lot of quizzes… to really explain the difference between this and high stakes or standardized tests they may have taken in the past. So, I do it on a continuing basis. I try to weave it into the disciplinary aspect and I do it in these free-standing ways as well… and I think here’s another area where I’m seeing this take hold in some different places… which is to have these free-standing resources that also just live outside of a traditional class that people can even incorporate into their courses… if say cognitive psychology or learning science isn’t their area… that they can bring in, because faculty really do care about these things. We just don’t always have the means to bring them in in as many ways as we would like.

John: …and your Attention Matters project was an example of that wasn’t it? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle: Oh, I’d love to… and you know this connects to what it seems to be kind of an evergreen topic in the teaching and learning community these days, which is the role of distracted students… and I know this past year there just have been these one op-ed versus another. There’s been some really good blog posts by some people I really like to follow in the teaching and learning community such as Kevin Gannon talking about “Okay, do you have laptops in the classroom? and what happens when you do?” and so I don’t think that this is just a fad that’s going away. This is something that the people do continue to care about, and this is where the attention matters project comes in.

This was something that we conceptualized and put together a couple years ago at Northern Arizona University with myself, and primarily I collaborated with a wonderful instructional designer who also teaches a great deal… John Doherty. So, how this came about is I was seeing all the information on distraction… I’m really getting into this as a cognitive psychologist and going “Wow, students need to know that if they’re texting five friends and watching a video in their class. It’s not going to happen for them.” I was really concerned about “What can I actually do to change students minds?” So, my way of doing this was to go around giving guests presentations in every classes where people would let me burn an hour of their class time… and not a very scalable model… and John Doherty respectfully sat through one my presentations on this and then he approached me and said “Look, you know, we could make a module and put this online… and it could be an open access within the institution module, so that anybody at my school can just click in and they’re signed up. We could put this together. We could use some really great instructional design principles and we could just see what happens… and I bet more people would take that if it were done in that format. We did this with no resources. We just were passionate about the project and that’s what we did. We had no grant backing or anything. We got behind it. So, what this is is about a one- to two-hour module that, it’s a lot like a MOOC in that it there’s not a whole lot of interaction or feedback, but there are discussion forums and it’s very self-paced in that way… so one- to two-hour mini MOOCs that really puts at the forefront demonstrations and activities… so we don’t try to convince students about problems with distraction and multitasking… we don’t try to address that just by laying a bunch of research articles on them… I think that’s great if this were a psychology course, but it’s not. So, we come at it by linking them out to videos, for example, that we were able to choose, that we feel really demonstrate in some memorable ways what gets by us when we aren’t paying attention… and we also give students some research-based tips on how to set a behavioral plan and stick to it… because just like with so many areas of life, just knowing that something is bad for you is not enough to really change your behavior and get you not to do that thing. so we have students talking about their own plans and what they do when, say, they’re having a boring moment in class, or they’re really really tempted to go online while they’re doing homework at home. What kinds of resolutions can they set or what kind of conditions can make that that will help them accomplish that. Things like the software blockers… you set a timer on your computer and it can lock you out of problematic sites… or we learned about a great app called Pocket Points where you actually earn spendable coupon points for keeping your phone off during certain hours. This is students talking to students about things that really concern them and really concern us all because I think a lot of us struggle with that.

So, we try to do that… and the bigger frame for this as well is this is, I feel, a life skill for the 21st century… thinking about how technology is going to be an asset to you and not detract from what you accomplish in your life. What a great time to be reflecting on that, when you’re in this early college career. so that’s what we try to do with the project…and we’ve had over a thousand students come through. They oftentimes earn extra credit. Our faculty are great about offering small amounts of extra credit for completing this and we’re just starting to roll out some research showing some of the impacts… and showing it in a bigger way just how you can go about setting up something like this.

Rebecca: I like that the focus seems to be on helping students with a life skill rather than using technology is just a blame or an excuse. We’re in control of our own behaviors and taking ownership over our behaviors is important rather than just kind of object blaming.

Michelle: So, looking at future trends, I would like to see more faculty looking at it in the way that you just described, Rebecca, as this is a life skill and it’s something that we collaborate on with our students… not lay down the law… because, after all, students are in online environments where we’re not there policing that and they do need to go out into work environments and further study and things like that. So, that’s what I feel is the best value. For faculty who are looking at this, if they don’t want to do… or don’t have the means to do something really formal like our Attention Matters approach, just thinking about it ahead of time… I think nobody can afford to ignore this issue anymore and whether you go the route of “No tech in my classroom” or “We’re going to use the technology in my classroom“ or something in between… just reading over, in a very mindful way, not just the opinion pieces, but hopefully also a bit of the research, I think, can help faculty as they go in to deal with this… and really to look at it in another way, just to be honest, we also have to consider how much of this is driven by our egos as teachers and how much of it is driven by a real concern for student learning and those student life skills. I think that’s where we can really take this on effectively and make some progress when we are de-emphasizing that ego aspect and making sure that it really is about the students.

John: We should note there’s a really nice chapter in this book called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology that deals with these types of issues. It was one of the chapters that got our faculty particularly interested in these issues… on to what extent technology should be used in the classroom… and to what extent it serves as a distraction.

Michelle: I think that really speaks to another thing which I think is an enduring trend… which is the emphasis on really supporting the whole student in success and what we’ve come to call academic persistence… kind of a big umbrella term that has to do with, not just succeeding in a given class, but also being retained… coming back after the first year. As many leaders in higher education point out, this is as a financial issue. As someone pointed out, it does cost a lot less to hang on to the students you have instead of recruiting more students to replace ones who are lost. This is, of course, yet another really big shift in mindset of our own, because after all we did used to measure our success by “Hey, I flunked this many students out of this course” or” Look at how many people have to switch into different majors…our major is so challenging…”

So, we really have turned that thinking around and this does include faculty now. I think that we did used to see those silos. We had that very narrow view of “I’m here to convey content. I’m here to be an expert in this discipline, and that’s what I’m gonna do…” and sure, we want to think about things like do students have learning skills? Do they have metacognition? Are they happy and socially connected at the school? Are they likely to be retained so that we can have this robust university environment?

We had people for that, right? It used to be somebody else’s job… student services or upper administration. They were the ones who heard about that and now I think on both sides we really are changing our vision. More and more forward-thinking faculty are saying “You know what? Besides being a disciplinary expert, I want to become at least conversant with learning science. I want to become at least conversant with the science of academic persistence…” There is a robust early literature on this and that’s something that we’ve been working on at NAU over this past year as well… kind of an exciting newer project that I like very much. We’ve started to engage faculty in a new faculty development program called Persistence Scholars and this is there to really speak to people’s academic and evidence-based side, as well as get them to engage in some perspective-taking around things like the challenges that students face and what it is like to be a student at our institution. We do some really selected readings in the area we look at things like mindset… belongingness… these are really hot areas in that science of persistence… in that emerging field. But, we have to look at it in a really integrated way.

It’s easy for people to say just go to a workshop on mindset and that’s a nice concept, but we wanted to think about it in this bigger picture… really know what are some of the strengths of that and why? Where do these concepts come from? What’s the evidence? That’s something that I think is another real trend and I think as well we will see more academic leaders and people in staff and support roles all over universities needing to know more about learning science. There are still some misconceptions that persist, as we’ve talked about. We’re making progress in getting rid of some of these myths around learning, but I will say… I’m not gonna name any names… but, every now and again I will hear from somebody who says “Oh well, we need to match student learning styles” or “Digital natives think differently, don’t you know?” and I have to wonder whether that’s a great thing. I mean, these are oftentimes individuals that have the power to set the agenda for learning all over a campus. Faculty need to be in the retention arena and I think that leaders need to be in the learning science arena. The boundaries is breaking down and it’s about time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was really exciting with the reading groups that we’ve been having on our campus… that we started with your book, but then we’ve read Make it Stick and Small Teaching since… is that a lot of administrators in a lot of different kinds of roles engaged with us in those reading groups, it wasn’t just faculty. There was a mix of faculty, staff, and some administrators, and I think that that was really exciting. For people who don’t have the luxury of being in your persistence scholar program, what would you recommend they read to get started to learn more about the science of persistence?

Michelle: I really, even after working with this for quite some time, I loved the core text that we have in that program, which is Completing College by Vincent Tinto. It’s just got a great combination of passionate and very direct writing style. So, there’s no ambiguity, there’s not a whole lot of “on the one hand this and on the other hand that.” It’s got an absolutely stellar research base, which faculty of course appreciate… and it has a great deal of concrete examples. So, in that book they talk about “okay, what does it mean to give really good support to first semester college students? What does that look like?” and they’ll go out and they’ll cite very specific “Here’s a school and here’s what they’re doing… here’s what their program looks like… here’s another example that looks very different but gets at the same thing.” So, that’s one of the things that really speak to our faculty… that they really appreciated and enjoyed.

I think that as well we tested good feedback about work that’s come out of the David Yeager and his research group on belongingness and lay theories, and lay theories is maybe a counterintuitive term for kind of a body of ideas about what students believe about academic success and why some people are successful and others are not and how those beliefs can be changed sometimes through relatively simple interventions and when it happens we see great effects such as the narrowing of achievement gaps among students who have more privilege or less privileged backgrounds… and that’s something that, philosophically, many faculty really really care about but they’ve never had the chance to really learn “Okay, how can I actually address something like that with what I’m doing in my classroom, and how can I really know that the things that I’m choosing do have that great evidence base…”

John: …and I think that whole issue is more important now and is very much a social justice issue because, with the rate of increase we’ve seen in college cost inflation, people who start college and don’t finish it are saddled with an awfully high burden of debt. The rate of return to a college degree is the highest that we’ve ever seen and college graduates end up not only getting paid a lot more but they end up with more comfortable jobs and so forth… and if we really want to move people out of poverty and try to reduce income inequality, getting more people into higher education and successfully completing higher education is a really important issue. I’m glad to see that your institution is doing this so heavily and I know a lot of SUNY schools have been hiring Student Success specialists. At our institution they’ve been very actively involved in the reading group, so that message is spreading and I think some of them started with your book and then moved to each of the others. So, they are working with students in trying to help the students who are struggling the most with evidence-based practices …and I think that’s becoming more and more common and it’s a wonderful thing.

Rebecca: So, I really liked Michelle that you were talking about faculty getting involved in retention and this idea of helping students develop persistence skills, and also administrators learning more about evidence-based practices. There’s these grassroots movements happening in both of these areas. Can you talk about some of the other grassroots movements that are working toward, or efforts that faculty are making to engage students and capture their attention and their excitement for education?

Michelle: Right, and here I think a neat thing to think about too is just it’s the big ambitious projects… the big textbook replacement projects or the artificial intelligence informed adaptive learning systems… those are the things that get a lot of the press and end up in The Chronicle of Higher Education that we read about… But, outside of that, there is this very vibrant community and grassroots led scene of developing different technologies and approaches. So, it really goes back for a while. I mean, the MERLOT database that I do talk about in Minds Online has been trove for years of well hidden gems that take on one thing in a discipline and come at it from a way that’s not just great from a subject-matter perspective but brings up the new creative approaches. In the MERLOT database, for example, there’s a great tutorial on statistical significance and the interrelationship between statistical significance and issues like simple sizes. You know, that’s a tough one for students, but it has a little animation involving a horse and a rider that really turns it into something that’s very visual… that’s very tangible… and it really actually tying into analogies, which is a well-known cognitive process that can support the advancement of learning something new. There is something on fluid pressures in the body that was treated for nursing students by nurses, and it’s got an analogy of a soaker hose that this is really fun and is actually interactive. So, those are the kinds of things. The PhET project, P-h-E-T which comes out of University of Colorado, that has been around for a while… again, faculty-led and a way to have these very useful interactive simulations for concepts in physics and chemistry. So, that’s one. CogLab, that’s an auxiliary product that I’ve used for some time in like hundred psychology courses that simulates very famous experimental paradigms which are notoriously difficult to describe on stage for cognitive psychology students. That started out many years ago as a project that very much has this flavor of “We have this need in our classroom. We need something interactive. There’s nothing out there. Let’s see what we can build.” It has since then picked up and turned into a commercial product, but that’s the type of thing that I’m seeing out there.

Another thing that you’ll definitely hear about if you’re circulating and hearing about the latest project is virtual reality for education. So, with this it seems like, unlike just a few years ago, almost everywhere you visit you’re going to hear that “Oh, we’ve just set up a facility. We’re trying out some new things.” This is something that I also heard about when I was talking to people when I was over in China. So, this is an international phenomenon. It’s going to pick up steam and definitely go some places.

What also strikes me about that is just how many different projects there are. Just when you’re worried that you’re going to be scooped because somebody else is going to get there first with their virtual reality project you realize you’re doing very very different things. So, I’ve seen, for example, it used in a medical application to increase empathy among medical students… and I took a six or seven minute demonstration that just was really heart-rending, simulating the patient experience with a particular set of sensory disorders… and at Northern Arizona University we have a lab that is just going full-steam in coming up with educational applications such as interactive organic chemistry tutorial that is is just fascinating. We actually completed a pilot project and are planning to gear up a much larger study next semester looking at the impacts of this. So, this is really taking off for sure.

But, I think there are some caveats here. We still really need some basic research on this… not just what should we be setting up and what the impacts are but how does this even work? In particular, what I would like to research in the future, or at least see some research on, is what kinds of students… what sort of student profile… really gets the most out of virtual reality for education. Because amidst all the very breathless press that’s going on about this now and all the excitement, we do have to remember this is a very, very labor intensive type of resource to set up. You’re not just going to go home and throw something together for the next week. It takes a team to build these things and to complete them as well. If you have, say, a 300 student chemistry course (which is not atypical at all… these large courses), you’re not going to just have all of them spend hours and hours and hours doing this even with a fairly large facility. It’s a very hands-on thing to guide them through this process, to provide the tech support, and everything else.

So, I think really knowing how we can best target our efforts in this area, so that we can build the absolute best, with the resources we have, and maybe even target and ask the students who are most likely to benefit. I think those are some of the things that we just need to know about this. So, it’s exciting for somebody like me who’s in the research area. I see this as a wonderful open opportunity… but those are some of the real crossroads we’re at with virtual reality right now.

Rebecca: I can imagine there’s a big weighing that would have to happen in terms of expense and time and resources needed to startup versus what that might be saving in the long run. I can imagine if it’s a safety thing that you want to do a virtual reality experience, like saving people’s lives and making sure that they’re not going to be in danger as they practice particular skills, could be a really good investment in these… spending the resources to make that investment… or if it’s a lot of travel that would just be way too expensive to bring a bunch of students to a particular location… but you could virtually… it seems like it would be worth the start-up costs and those are just two ideas off the top of my head where it would make sense to bend all of that resource and time.

John: …and equipment will get cheaper. Right now, it’s really expensive for computers that have sufficient speed and graphics processing capability and the headsets are expensive, but they will come down in price, but as you said, it’s still one person typically and one device… so it doesn’t scale quite as well as a lot of other tools or at least not at this stage.

Rebecca: From what I remember, Michelle, you wrote a blog post about [a] virtual reality experience that you had. Can you share that experience, and maybe what stuck with you from that experience?

Michelle: Right, so I had the opportunity, just as I was getting to collaborate with our incredible team at the immersive virtual reality lab at NAU… one of the things I was treated to was about an hour and a half in the virtual reality setup that they have to explore some of the things that they had… Giovanni Castillo, by the way, is creative director of the lab and he’s the one who was so patient with me through all this. We tried a couple of different things and of course there’s such a huge variety of different things that you can do.
There’s a few things out there like driving simulators that are kind of educational… they’re kind of an entertainment… but he was just trying to give me, first of all, just a view of those… and I had to reject a few of them… I will say, initially, because I am one of the individuals who tends to be prone to motion sickness. So, that limits what I can personally do in VR and that is yet another thing that we’re gonna have to figure out. At least informally, what we hear is that women in particular tend to experience more of this. So, I needed, first of all, to go to a very low motion VR. I wasn’t gonna be whizzing through these environments. That was not going to happen for me. So, we did something that probably sounds incredibly simplistic, but it just touched me to my core… which is getting to play with Google Earth. You can spin the globe and either just pick a place at random or what Giovanni told me is… “You know, I’ve observed that when people do this, when we have an opportunity to interact with Google Earth, they all either go to where they grew up or they’ll go to someplace that they have visited recently or they plan to visit. So, I went to a place that is very special to me and maybe it doesn’t fit into either one of those categories neatly, but it’s my daughter’s University… her school… and I should say that this is also a different thing for me because my daughter goes to school in Frankfort, Germany… an institute that is connected to a Museum. So, I had only been to part of the physical facility… the museum itself… and it was a long time ago… and part of it was closer to the holiday. So, this is my opportunity to go there and explore what it looks like all over… and so, that was an emotional experience for me. It was a sensory experience… it was a social one… because we were talking the whole time… and he’s asking me questions and what kinds of exhibits do they have here… and what’s this part of it. So, that was wonderful. it really did give me a feel for alright, what is it actually like to be in this sort of environment?

I’m not a gamer. I don’t have that same background that many of our students have. So, it got me up to speed on that… and it did show me how just exploring something that is relatively simple can really acquire a whole new dimension in this kind of immersive environment. Now the postscript that I talked about in that blog post was what happened when I actually visited there earlier in the year. So, I had this very strange experience that human beings have never had before… which is from this… I don’t know whether to call it deja vu or what… of going to the settings and walking around the same environment and seeing the same lighting and all that sort of stuff that was there in that virtual reality environment… but this time, of course, with real human beings in it and the changes… the little subtle changes that take place over time, and so forth.

So, how does it translate into learning? What’s it going to do for our students? I just think that time is going to tell. It won’t take too long, but I think that these are things we need to know. But, sometimes just getting in and being able to explore something like this can really put you back in touch with the things you love about educational technology.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I’m hearing in your voice is the excitement of experimenting and trying something… and that’s, I think, encouragement for faculty in general… is to just put yourself out there and try something out even if you don’t have something specific in mind with what you might do with it. Experiencing it might give you some insight later on. it might take some time to have an idea of what you might do with it, but having that experience, you understand it better… it could be really useful.

John: …and that’s something that could be experienced on a fairly low budget with just your smartphone and a pair of Google cardboard or something similar. Basically, it’s a seven to twelve dollar addition to your phone and you can have that experience… because there’s a lot of 3D videos and 3D images out there on Google Earth as well as on YouTube. So, you can experience other parts of the world and cultures before visiting… and I could see that being useful in quite a few disciplines.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up with asking what are you going to do next?

Michelle: I continue to be really excited about getting the word out about cognitive principles and how we can flow those in to teaching face-to-face with technology… everything else in between. So, that’s what I continue to be excited about… leveraging cognitive principles with technology and with just rethinking our teaching techniques. I’m going to be speaking at the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference in October, and so I’m continuing to develop some of these themes… and I’m very excited to be able to do that. I’m right now also… we’re in the early stages of another really exciting project that has to do with what we will call neuromyth… So, that may be a term that you’ve turn across in some of your reading. It’s something that we touched on a few times, I think, in our conversation today… the misconceptions that people have about teaching and learning and how those can potentially impact the choices we make in our teaching. So, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with this amazing international group of researchers who’s headed up by Dr. Kristen Betts of Drexel University… and I won’t say too much more about it other than we have a very robust crop of survey responses that have come in from, not just instructors, but also instructional designers and administrators from around the world. So, we’re going to be breaking those survey results down and coming up with some results to roll out probably early in the academic year and we’ll be speaking about that at the Accelerate conference, most likely in November. That’s put out by the Online Learning Consortium. So, we’re right in the midst of that project and it’s going to be so interesting to see what has the progress been? What neuromyths are still out there and how can they be addressed by different professional development experiences. We’re continuing to work on the Persistence Scholars Program on academic persistence. So, we’ll be recruiting another cohort of willing faculty to take that on in the fall at Northern Arizona University. I am going to be continuing to collaborate and really work with and hear from John and his research group with respect to the metacognitive material that they’re flowing into foundational coursework and ways to get students up to speed with a lot of critical metacognitive knowledge. So, we’re going to work on that too… and I like to keep up my blog and work on shall we say longer writing project but we’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Rebecca: Sounds like you need to plan some sleep in there too.


John: Well, it’s wonderful talking to you, and you’ve given us a lot of great things to reflect on and to share with people.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you for being so generous with your time.

John: Thank you.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure, an absolute pleasure. Thank you.


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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.

28. Augmented reality

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

Show Notes

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


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

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

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

John …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Renée: Thank you.

John Today’s teas are…

Rebecca English afternoon.

Renée: Chai!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca What got you interested in augmented reality?

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

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

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

Rebecca Nice… Nicely done. [LAUGHTER]…

John Nice segue.

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

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

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

Rebecca How funny.

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

John And you’re doing the programming yourself?

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

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

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

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

John But… it’s an opt-in program.

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

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

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

Rebecca Great!

Renée: And it’s free.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Does that project have a timeline associated with it?

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

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

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

John Are these undergraduates or graduate students?

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

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

Rebecca Sounds really interesting.

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

Rebecca I’m noticing a pattern.

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

John …in real time.

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

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

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

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

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

John Google glass…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John But it’s free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca …which people who are herd people….

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

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

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

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

Rebecca That sounds terrifying.

John Well, there you go! But….

Renée: I think that’s what they want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John So, just-in-time instruction and assistance

Renée: Yes.

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

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

Rebecca What are you gonna do next?

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

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

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

John Great.

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

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

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

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