48. The Culture of EdTech

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Rolin Moe, the Director of Academic Innovation and an Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University. Welcome, Rolin.

Rolin: Thanks for having me.

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

Rolin: I am John.

Rebecca: Yes!

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

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

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

Rolin: Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolin: Not at all.

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

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

Rebecca: Thank you.


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

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

34. Flex courses

Working towards a degree for some students can be a struggle as they balance full-time work, families and coursework. In this episode, Marela Fiacco, a Healthcare Management Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator at SUNY Canton joins us to explore options that give students greater access to courses and co-curricular activities. Dr. Fiacco is the first instructor at her institution to teach a flex course, a modality in which students may participate either in person or remotely.

Show Notes


Rebecca: Working towards a degree for some students can be a struggle as they balance full-time work, families and coursework. In this episode we’ll explore options that give students greater access to courses and co-curricular activities.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


Rebecca: Today our guest is Marela Fiacco. Marela is a Healthcare Management Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator for the Healthcare Management Program at SUNY Canton. She is also the first instructor in this program to teach a flex course. Welcome Marela.

Marela: Thank you, thank you for having me.

John: We’re happy to have you here. Are you drinking tea?

Marela: I’m drinking water.

Rebecca: It’s a nice, healthy choice.

John: Our teas today are…

Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon tea… again.

John: And I have Harry and David’s Bing Cherry Black Tea.

Marela: Oh, that sounds yummy.

John: It really is. It’s hard to find– you have to go to a Harry and David store or order from them online, but it’s a Republic of Tea tea that’s custom made for them.

You were the first instructor at your institution and one of the first in SUNY, I believe, to teach a flex course. Could you tell us a little bit about what a flex course is?

Marela: Certainly, at SUNY Canton we received a grant from SUNY system, I believe, and this is by our Dean of Instructional Technologies and the idea was born to create what we called at the time, probably about this time last year, we called it a converged modality classroom delivery. We can call it a flex class or a converged modality. To us at the time, it was a mix of face-to-face and an online class, so we have students in a face-to-face class and students in an online class. Students in an online class can watch the video live or they can watch a recording later. Face-to-face students, if they are not in attendance, could watch a recording later. It’s really a mix, and when you say a flex course that’s what it is. It provides flexibility.

John: A flex course, then, is a combination of a face-to-face and an online class. Are students free to choose the modality, or are they enrolled in one section or the other?

Marela: Since this was a pilot, it was really difficult for students to understand and determine when they were first registering for a class. We have since gotten a little bit better and created two different sections and they understand what it is and they understand what they’re signing up for. At the time, we just provided a face-to-face and an online section. Those students who were purely online and couldn’t come to class physically, they chose an online version. Little did they know that they were going to be in a converged class, or a flex course, but at the very beginning I had a video done where I was explaining what it is and should they choose not to participate they could have picked a different section… but, this was just something added that they could benefit from. It wasn’t anything that we were taking away from their online experience.

John: So, if they were in the online course, could they attend face-to-face classes?

Marela: They absolutely had an opportunity to participate in a face-to-face class if they chose to do that. But, I think, for the health care management program, we advertised it as a hundred percent online program, and so most of our online students choose online because of the convenience. But we also do have students on campus and commuters who come to class face-to-face.

Rebecca: What was it like teaching a flex class?

Marela: Quite frankly, it was a lot of prep work at the very beginning. Well, first I thought: “How am I gonna do this? I’ve never done anything like this. It’s going to be a lot of work and then I thought “Well I have to start from somewhere.” I taught this class both online and face-to-face in the past, so that helped. We teach in Blackboard. I took the online class and just really took a hard look at it, and thought to myself “How do I make this class more user-friendly for both groups. I modified my online class. I of course added both on converged modality. We have videos for each lecture capture, so each time I’m in class and I’m lecturing I am using those to upload into those weekly modules for those online students to watch and for livestream. The thing I really wanted to achieve is I didn’t want to have it separate. The face-to-face students, I think they had more work than anybody else. They were asked to participate in discussion posts online together with online students. So, for them, it was almost a hybrid. They were supposed to upload assignments in Blackboard and also discussed whatever topic it is… whatever questions that we had for those weeks in Blackboard.

I also created a group assignment that I think was a bit of a challenge for all of us, because I intentionally picked the groups and they didn’t have any say in that and I picked online students and face-to-face students, and provided him with links in Blackboard Collaborate to get together and work on their assignment. That was a challenge for all of us.

John: From your perspective, are you compensated for teaching two courses or is it treated as if it’s one course, in terms of your workload.

Marela: I did get an extra that an adjunct would be paid or that a faculty member would be paid for teaching an extra course, because of the workload. Because this was a pilot because we capped both of the sections at 15 students normally our caps are at 30. So, I did get an additional pay last semester for teaching this converged modality or flex class. Moving forward, I don’t think that they’re actually doing that with other faculty.

John: To get things started, it often helps to give a stipend to encourage people to experiment. In the future, would the combined sections be capped at the same level as a single section would have been?

Marela: They are capped at 30 and it’s just one section.

John: …and then students are free to either attend in person or online. That’s what I was thinking..

Marela: Yeah.

John: …because that’s what I’ve generally heard about flex courses. I just haven’t seen many examples of them in practice yet.

Rebecca: What was one of the biggest challenges you had as an instructor? and what might you do differently next time you teach a class like this?

Marela: One of the biggest challenges was technology, to be honest. Just working out the kinks… because this was new for all of us, including the online support staff. You come in and the camera is not working… or the sound’s not working… videos not working. We might be missing a livestream or we might be missing a recording. It was the technical difficulties that were really the hardest. I struggled with attendance in the face-to-face class, because now students are thinking: “This is super flexible, I don’t have to show up.” So, I struggled with the balance between allowing them to have flexibility and the fact that you signed up for this class. So, you want to provide students that flexibility if there is a snowstorm and we lose power and whatever it might be and if they’re traveling a distance. So that was kind of the fine line, but I think each instructor determines their own attendance policy, so every one of us will approach it differently, I suppose.

John: Did you use any tools such as polling or quizzing in class where students had to participate either virtually or physically?

Marela: No, not this time. Just because the technology was new and I think next time I do it I definitely would want to do that. But at the same time, that is another hard one, because the online students, the reason that they take online classes is for convenience. Most of them are working professionals. In my program, 85% of the students are working professionals. The classes… let’s say nine o’clock in the morning… well, they can’t exactly participate live. They do appreciate the recording later at night working on their homework or whatever it might be.

John: So, for online students synchronous attendance isn’t required? It’s an option but not required?

Marela: Correct.

John: What would you say would be the major advantages that students get from this sort of offering?

Marela: I think the greatest advantage for online students specifically is the lecture capture. If there are any misunderstandings about the assignments, whatever it might be they, they actually get a lecture instead of being self taught if, you think about a purely online class. Another thing too, is it provided greater connectivity with students. I really can’t stress that enough, that it really gave me an opportunity to connect with the online students… one that I wouldn’t have otherwise… because it often feels disconnected from the campus. With this grant, it wasn’t just the converged modality, it was also to connect with online students. We invested money in live streaming our Excellence in Leadership lectures and speakers so that we can bring online students and have them participate in different things on campus. We really wanted to create that connection and that’s one thing that they really appreciated the most… that was their feedback. They want to see us, that we exist… we’re here… and that we care enough that we want to do this for them. So, I think that was one thing that they really appreciated the most.

John: It created more sense of instructor presence and more of a connection to the institution.

MAREA: Yes, and they feel a sense of community… they feel a sense of belonging.

Rebecca: Did you find that a lot of the students took advantage of some of the extra things that the college invested in, so they could take advantage of those extracurricular opportunities?

Marela: They did. They really did… and we were really pleased with that… and actually the Dean of Students, myself, the Assistant to the Provost, and the Dean of Instructional Technologies we are presenting at the CIT conference and we are reporting our findings, not just on academic side but also the extracurricular and non-academic piece of it… and what is it that students took part in, what they enjoyed the most, what is it that we should continue doing for our online students. We have a large population, and let’s face it, we are all looking to online to look outside of local and geographic area because our enrollments here are really declining because of the graduation rates in high schools. We are all looking for ways to connect with online students on different levels to make them feel part of our campus and our community.

Rebecca: The extracurricular piece seems like it’s one of the most powerful additions to this particular opportunity because I think you’re right that the students, when they’re taking a class online and they’re not coming to campus, they miss out on a lot of that intellectual development from these other points of view that we don’t always offer just in the class… having the opportunity to get involved just seems like it would be really exciting for some students.

Marela: It is. It is. It’s very exciting for them. Actually we have had, for instance, one time we had a CEO of one of the local hospitals come and speak… particularly to the networking and career goals and things like that… and the students were very interested… and actually emailing and asking when is the live stream going on? Usually, these are in the evenings… part of our Excellence in Leadership series. They really wanted to take part in that… listen and understand their career options. or whatever it might be. So, those are some of the things of value to them. Actually, I was just talking to the President the other day… we had our scholarly activities, where students come and faculty come… present their poster presentations… and present their research and such… and I was just talking to him and I said: “You know, it would be great to involve our online students in these scholarly activities a little bit more, not only our engineering students and nursing students who are here on campus, but because our online students are getting involved a lot and some of them are lobbying. They’re involved in so many different activities… in their own communities and some of them do research, so it would be really great for them to present… to have their posters there and have them on Skype or somehow live streaming, where they can be present or invest in bringing them here or whatever it might be.

John: For the synchronous sessions what are you using as a platform for live streaming the classes? are you using interactive video?

Marela: We were using Panopto. This was purchased by our online programs. So they were using Panopto, which is embedded in Blackboard and then that’s how we’re doing that.

John: We use that here too. We have it in pretty much all of the classrooms and we have a site license for it. It works really well. The only limitation I could see for it in this context, and I’ve experienced the same thing, is it doesn’t work as well for two-way communication. The remote students who are viewing synchronously only have the option of typing in little text messages. They’re not able to interact in real time other than with text.

Marela: That is correct, and we are looking at different ways to fix that. I don’t know if they were able to accomplish that this semester, but you’re absolutely right. Students would have to type in their question. I would have to come back to the computer to check every now and then to see if there are messages there.

John: Because when it pops up, it’s only there for a few seconds, so it’s really hard to see unless you check on the screen itself.

Marela: That’s correct.

John: Just a thought… it might work better if you use something like Google Hangouts or Zoom or something similar for real-time sessions where students who are viewing in real time could actually communicate with voice without having that barrier. We used Panopto for many years here for our workshops with remote participants, and it wasn’t quite the same experience. We switched over a few of the workshops about a year and a half ago, and we switched all of them in the past year to using Zoom and it’s been a much better experience for people who are participating from other cities, countries or just from their offices even.

Rebecca: It’s a better experience for the person doing the presentation or teaching as well, because then you can see what the students are doing. You can see who those other participants are, when they might have questions, if they’re bored, or whatever, just like you can students in the class.

John: Just having those recordings can be useful. We have a lot of ESL students, students who are foreign who sometimes struggle with English, and having the ability to go back and replay parts of the course or look things up while they’re watching it and pausing, or slowing it down to half speed sometimes, is something they find really helpful, and in Panopto you can go back and look to see what portions of the video people were watching, and it’s also could be useful to see “well, maybe I need to explain this a little bit better, next time” if you see that there’s areas where students were going back more often.

Marela: Exactly.

Rebecca: If someone wanted to pursue a flex class what advice would you give them?

Marela: Be flexible.


John: I think that’s good advice with any form of teaching.

Marela: Really… be flexible. Actually, at the beginning of this semester, the Dean asked me to do a bit of a SWOT analysis for the instructors who are teaching it this semester… and I said: “Be ready to have technical difficulties. Be ready to laugh it off and not get caught up in it. Be ready for students to not show up. Be ready for multiple things.” So really, be flexible and allow for it to take its own course, I suppose… and just try to be as accommodating with students as possible. They don’t always understand it. They like it and I just keep going back to this connection with students. Just keep that in mind. It’s worth it. It does take a little bit more work outside of class and you have to be ready to be there a little bit early to get set up and stay after the class is over to make sure it’s all uploaded. Make sure that you give a lot of instructions. Revisit your attendance policy, those types of things, but really be flexible for a flex class.

John: You mentioned that you started with your online course and then you thought carefully about how to restructure it to work in this environment. What were some of the things that you did more of? Some things that you trimmed back? How would you characterize the main changes you made so that things would work better in this environment?

Marela: To be honest with you, I did not alter the online course as much as I thought I would have to. The biggest change was capturing the lectures. The one thing that was challenging was the discussions. The online students were not participating, so they are participating afterwards when the discussion post is due. Face-to-face students may be having a discussion in class. My biggest worry was how do I now capture that and make it fair because they are participating, there is a classroom participation. So, I then additionally was asking my face-to-face students to almost hold on to those discussions. Go back after class… go into the blackboard… and post those, and write about it. So, I had to think about the grading policy actually the most… and make sure that they receive credit for their thoughts and discussions in addition to what they were providing in class. The assignments I altered a little bit more. I wanted him to know that I valued their patience with the group assignment and so I gave more weight to that assignment… and I know some of them really saw a benefit to it. There was a student or two who complained about it, but I said: “Well, think of it this way…. If you are in the real world and you have to work with a facility that’s hundred miles away and you still have to connect and you’re working on this project. There is logic behind my madness, and why I’m asking you to do this.” That was one of the things. But, in terms of the material, the content what was being taught wasn’t anything different. I would say probably the assessment piece was a bit different and then capturing the lectures for students.

Rebecca: I’ve been thinking this whole time as you’ve been talking about what the classroom experience is like versus an online experience and so I was thinking about my own classes…. thinking about: “Well, how would I change a hands-on activity that’s in class so that people could participate in a different time and space, and then make sure that everyone can come back together and see what the results were and share out.” One of the kinds of activities that I do a lot in my web design classes is little code examples where they’re practicing putting code into play… and I guess what I’ve discovered is, over the course of this semester, I started doing things in a more flexible way because I realized that my mix of students was a lot more diverse than I had been in the past. I had students from different majors that I hadn’t had in the past before and to accommodate that I started giving out little exercises… giving some time in class… giving some tips out in a lecture… that I could easily have shared out to online students and then having students finish the exercise for homework, taking the tips into place, and then coming back and going over the example or going over the results the following class period. I think that over time I ended up having to implement something that was flex-like just because my students were a lot more different from one another than they had been in the past… and so, although it wasn’t because they were in different places, I think this strategy might work in other scenarios.

John: …and actually I’ve done a couple of things over the last five or six years too, partly because of the availability of things like Panopto. I teach a class in the fall with generally 360 to 420 students in it, and it’s always offered on Tuesday-Thursday and we have this Thursday Thanksgiving holiday, and a lot of the buses leave late afternoon on Tuesday and often there aren’t a lot of students in class… and a lot of classes on campus end up being canceled effectively or not covering anything substantive on that day… and I never wanted to miss that class. So, what I’ve been doing is in my class we use clicker questions, but now that over the last several years over half of the students use mobile apps for it, they don’t have to physically be there. So, each Tuesday before Thanksgiving when I have class I may have half or two-thirds of my students sometimes even three-quarters of them not physically present but I’ve had up to 150 students who’ve been watching the video stream on Panopto and participating in the clicker quizzes all through the class. They don’t have to miss the class… and I’ve had students who are on vacation… I’ve had students on cruises… I had students participating on that Tuesday class while they were on a family vacation in Florida, for example.

Rebecca: Or on the bus somewhere…

John: …and it’s worked pretty well… and actually, more generally, I have students who are at various sports events in my other classes, where they’re going to be away traveling on a bus or they’re going to be out of town and if they tell me in advance, if it’s not a class that I regularly livestream, I’ll just click the little button in Panopto to set up the live stream, especially in classes we they have clicker options… and they can participate and even though some of them use a physical radio frequency clicker, they have the option of getting two weeks of free use of the app version of it. So, that allows them to participate from wherever they are, and it’s essentially a mini version of the Flex course. Going back to Rebecca’s comment, the other case where I did something very similar, in some ways to yours, is I taught a COIL course which was jointly offered with an instructor in Mexico. My class was an online class, her class was a face-to-face class, but we had some common components where they were working in groups. Most of their work was done asynchronously. But they worked in small groups synchronously with each other and there was a lot of benefits from that… and the students really enjoyed that community, especially the cross-cultural community where they were working with students from another country. There’s a lot of advantage of this modality that makes our offerings more available to a wider range of students who wouldn’t otherwise be as much a part of the college communities. I think it’s great.

Rebecca: I’m appreciating your advice to be more flexible. As you were talking I was thinking like “What else could I do that would be more flexible in general.”

John: That’s really good advice.

Marela: Thank you.

John: How many classes are now being offered? Your’s was the first class… that was in the fall wasn’t it?

Marela: That was in the fall, yes. Right now we have, I believe, two classes from the School of Business and Liberal Arts. One is a finance course, the other one is economics… and we also have classes in the criminal justice and law enforcement leadership from the School of Health and Sciences and they are using the classroom… and interestingly enough I think some instructors are using the technology in the classroom similar to some of the things that you described… whether it’s clicker, whether it’s using it for different group projects and things like that. My class was just Intro to Healthcare Management, it wasn’t anything super exciting.

John: …as opposed to economics, yes. [LAUGHTER] My students might disagree with that.

Marela: As I was going through the semester, I thought to myself that perhaps greater value in this type of delivery lies in courses such as finance and math and economics where students may struggle with the concept. They really need to pay attention and they really need to be tuned in to the videos and watching it and rewinding it and whatever they have to do to get it and to understand the concept. I think, for them, it may be a little bit more of value versus teaching yourself some concepts that may not be as abstract or as hard to understand. I think even toward the end of the semester it was thinking there are so many things that I would do differently… provided that we might alter the technology and have it where students can be interacting and asking questions. I really wanted that classroom interaction to be better, or to foster more of it, rather than just online students watching it later and listening to other students having a discussion… and then I was thinking “well, how can they participate?” So, there are a lot of ideas. Of course, everything in hindsight is different… some of the things that you might do differently and have them build more of a connection, I suppose, between the face-to-face and online students.

John: But, having your group projects, I think, is a good way of doing that because then it does provide those connections for both groups of students.

Marela: Yeah, they really enjoyed that and I think they learned a lot from each other. Online students are professionals, non-traditional students. About 80-85% of them are already working in the field. A majority of the students on campus are first-time freshmen. I think it was a great way for them to bridge, not only the age gap, but also the knowledge and skills type of gap so students here could learn from the online students.

John: …and we’re moving into a world where people will often be working with people locally but also be working with people remotely, and this type of experience is good preparation for those future work skills.

Marela: Absolutely.

Rebecca: I think the more we emphasize that for students the more adaptable they are and the more likely that they are to appreciate the platform or the methods.

Marela: Yes, you almost need their buy-in and because there are other sections of the same course being offered, you have to sell it to them: “What’s in it for you in this class?” and so, if they really appreciate what they can get out of it, they might be more willing to participate and be vested in that class.

John: How are your colleagues responding? Do they generally enjoy this format or is there opposition to it? What’s the general reaction to this modality?

Marela: I think you’ll hear a mix of both.


Some of us are more technologically challenged than others and some of the facultyu members when they hear the technology and when they hear what it’s like and all of the little things that can go wrong, they shy away from it and are probably unwilling to try it. Some are embracing it and saying “This is awesome, I can do all these different things with my students now.” You will have the early adopters and then…

John: Yeah, even those people who are reluctant to try new technology often drive their vehicles. They’re not riding a horse. So people come around eventually.

Marela: Yes.

Rebecca: So, we usually wrap up our interviews by asking: “What’s next?” What’s next for you?

Marela: I would like to do a converged modality or a flex class model in some of my upper-level courses and try to get our other faculty in the program to use this modality… especially, for instance, healthcare finance courses where we use simulation. I think those would be some of the things that I would like to experiment with and try that and see how students respond to it and whether we have a good response.

Rebecca: I can imagine a flex class at a lower level being quite different from a flex class at an upper level so it’ll be interesting to see how your experiments go and how that experience for you and for the students might be a bit different.

Marela: I believe that it would be different, and yes, I just don’t know how until I do it.


Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It was really interesting and definitely got both of our heads buzzing about ideas for our own classes I think.

John: Yes.

Marela: Thank you so much for having me.


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

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

27. Teaching big

You might think you have a heavy course load. Imagine being the instructor of record for approximately 5,000 students in a semester. In this episode, Dr. Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and director of the online education program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech, joins us again to discuss the design, organization, and management of high-enrollment online introductory political science courses.

Show Notes

  • Mitchell, Kristina M.W., and Robert Posteraro, MD. “Making Arrangements: Best Practice for Organizing Tools in Online Courses.” (manuscript)
  • Mitchell, Kristina M.W., and Whitney Ross Manzo (2018). “The Purpose & Perception of Learning Objectives.” Journal of Political Science Education (forthcoming)
  • Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) at Texas Tech University
  • 2×2 Course Development Matrix
    Low engagment and low customization is like a MOOC style course. High engagement but low customization is akin to an Upper division course using ready-made content. Low engagement but high customization is what the introductory online political science courses at Texas Tech are like. High engagement and high customization would be an upper division course where the university writes their own content.


John: You might think you have a heavy course load. Imagine being the instructor of record for approximately 5,000 students in a semester . In today’s episode, we’ll focus on one extreme teaching scenario.

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 Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and director of the online education program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech. At Texas Tech, she is the instructor of record for over five thousand students each semester. Welcome back, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

John: Black raspberry green tea.

Rebecca: Kristina, what are you drinking?

Kristina: I’ve got my usual Diet Coke.

Rebecca: And I am drinking English Afternoon tea.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about this class of approximately 5000 students?

Kristina: Sure, we have two courses: we have Introduction to American government and then we have Introduction to Texas Government… both of which are required by our Higher Education Coordinating Board here in Texas. And it gives the students the opportunity to learn about our basic political system, and we throw in a little bit of political science theory, and it makes sure that our students leave their public university degree knowing something about how their government works and how they could participate in their government if they chose.

Rebecca: How is it 5,000 students large? [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: The State of Texas does require each of our students to take both of these before they can graduate with a public university degree, and with a large university like Texas Tech, we’re at about 35-36,000 students right now. What that means is that these massive freshman classes all need to get these two courses out of the way and it ends up being about 5,000 of our students every semester needing to take the two courses.

John: How do you manage a class so large… in terms of structure? What type of support do you have in terms of TA’s, co-instructors, or other assistants?

Kristina: We operate under what I call the “umbrella method.” So as an Economist (I’m a trained Economist), I definitely subscribe to David Ricardo’s idea about specializing and trading. So, rather than having each professor as an island where they’re handling every aspect of their 200 or 250 person course, instead we decided to specialize the roles that we needed, so that each person is handling one task for all of the students. So, I am at the little peak of the umbrella and I handle the course content. I make sure that we work with the publisher to get the students their materials and that it’s all delivered appropriately and I work with the various institutions on campus that need reporting data, assessment data, enrollment information. I have a co-instructor who handles the more day-to-day tasks of: students emailing… asking about course policies… asking for exceptions to course policies… questions about the content itself. He handles all of that for all the 5,000 students. We have two course assistants who just handle the mechanics of the course. So again, they get a lot of student emails as well. They deal with the settings in our learning management system… which we use Blackboard. So when a due date needs to be set or changed, they deal with that. And then we have TA’s, we supervise about 24 TA’s, each of them doing grading for the written work. It was really important for us that our students not only be doing multiple choice exams… we wanted to make sure that their they’re doing written work… because that’s, in my opinion, a better way to evaluate student learning. So each of the TA’s is grading one of the sections of the online course. So again, we’ve specialized out each task to make sure that one person isn’t required to do publisher and assessment and emails and content and grading for one section. It’s a lot more efficient, we think, to do it in a more specialized way.

John: Is it one large section or does it consist of multiple smaller sections?

Kristina: It’s multiple smaller sections. A lot of that is because we asked our students to do discussion questions with each other and it’s a little bit overwhelming to ask them to discuss with 2,500 other students. [Laughter] So, it ends up being usually 12 to 14 sections of each of the course. So 12 to 14 American Government, 12 to 14 Texas Government.

Rebecca: What’s the difference between how you teach your class and a MOOC?

Kristina: Yes. So, “MOOC” is definitely a dirty word these days. MOOCs really rose in popularity a few years ago. The idea was to create these just huge open online sections that would let anyone enroll and complete content as they pleased and either get credit or not, depending on how the course was set up. So we distinguish ourselves from a MOOC… first of all, because it’s not an open course. You have to be a student enrolled at the University to take this course, but also we don’t consider ourselves to be massive because we separate these courses into smaller sections, manageable chunks that our TA’s can grade. We also place a lot of value on the interactions that students have… so students interacting with each other (and often that’s done via discussion boards)…. students interacting with the content (and that’s done at their own pace asynchronously as they go through their course content)… and students interacting with the instructor… and that’s both to ask the instructor questions either on the course content or about the course mechanics… but also to provide feedback so that the instructor can take that information and then decide what to do with it. So, as we receive feedback, some of the feedback is, “your class is too hard” and we usually don’t really do much to address that… but if there are specific things: “the content is confusing, things are worded in different ways” then we can interact back with the content and the students to make sure that we are addressing these issues as they come along.

Rebecca: With such a complicated umbrella structure, how does the student know what person to communicate with?

Kristina: Well, sometimes they don’t, and we do have a really good system for navigating students to where they need to be… but we just try to include at the beginning of the semester both on their landing page (their home page when they enter in) and tell them, “Here’s the people that you can contact and here are the kinds of questions that they can help you with…” …and we also try to make sure to include a welcome video at the beginning that we ask students to watch… but give them an idea of how does this course work… who are you going to encounter… who you’re going to talk to… and what’s the most efficient way to get you through this course. I think a lot of times with these introductory mandatory courses, the students and the professor are at opposing goals. The student wants to get through this course as quickly as possible so they can check the box on their degree plan and move on. The professor wants the student to learn something about the discipline that they’ve devoted their lives to. So, I spent a lot of hours writing this content that matters to me a lot and and we tried to tailor the content to where we are. We’re in west Texas and when we talk about international trade, we talk about cotton because that’s what’s grown out here. So, I’m so passionate about the subject and if we aren’t aware that the student and the professor are at opposing goals, then it can lead to frustration for all of us. The students are frustrated because they think I’m asking too much and I’m frustrated because I don’t think they care enough.

So what we try to do is just make sure that we have a set of things that we want our students to accomplish, and some of those are content related: “Who’s your representative? Who are you going to contact if you have a problem?” …that’s something I want my students to know… how you go about registering to vote…. that’s something I want my students to know… political science concepts broadly about what influences judicial behavior… those are the things I want my students know. But I also value them learning things like meeting deadlines, and emailing professionally, and managing their own time, and that’s something that an online course is really uniquely situated to teach. So, we designed the course, knowing we want our students to learn some things. They may not want to engage with the content more than we require, so we give them a way to check the box… get it through their degree plan… while still making sure that they’re learning those concepts that are important to us.

John: What types of activities would students engage in each week in this course?

Kristina: It’s a very typical online course in the sense that the students are asked to do some readings and do some quizzes and write some short answer assignments. The one thing we’ve found to be most successful after doing this for 5 or 6 years… what we found to be most successful is chunking the content… and that’s a really popular phrase in online instructional design these days…. making the content into small manageable pieces. So I’m a millennial, I have to admit, and my attention span is about the attention span of a goldfish. So, I understand what it’s like to not want to watch a 25-minute video of someone lecturing to me. So, we really tried to take the concepts and distill them into manageable chunks. A 5-minute video talking about campaign financing rather than a 25-minute lecture… and at the end of the day, it facilitates that goal of getting the students to know what we need them to know without asking them to engage more than they’re willing to engage for a course that they just view as a checkbox.

Rebecca: I know that you wrote a paper on best practices for online courses. Can you summarize some of the key best practices that you’ve implemented in this class?

Kristina: Absolutely. The work that I’ve been doing on best practices… it really does stem from working with people who are trying to help us make our courses better. And I think a big problem in online education and instructional design is that it’s very new… and a lot of times when we think about what are the best practices, most of the evidence is just based on anecdote and experience. And so there’s something extremely useful about sitting down… I mean that’s what you’re doing with me right now… sitting down and listening to what I’ve done and what’s been successful for me…. and then, hopefully, listeners can take what they think will be helpful to them and apply it to their own experience. But I hesitate to say that just taking what has been a good experience for me, because it’s worked in my situation, could then be said to be a best practice for everyone else; that because our umbrella model is working really well for us, it is therefore the best practice. So what I’ve been doing with some co-authors is taking apart these ideas of best practices and empirically testing them to see whether they hold up to a quasi-experimental design.

The most recent work I have (that’s under review) looks at the organization of tools in a learning management system. So my co-author was teaching an online course and was told by his learning management system professionals that he wasn’t allowed to change the order of tools. So, the syllabus, the calendar, the grades– these sorts of things, he was supposed to leave them in a certain order because it was the best practice and he thought, “I don’t believe that… I don’t believe that that’s really a best practice…” So we tested it. We looked at when you manipulate the order, does it change the way students feel about their course? And does it change their performance? And we found it doesn’t and this is initial findings, of course, we do want to see these replicated before we were to say there is no best practice. But I think what most of my research is finding, when it comes to best practices in the order in which students experience content or the kinds of verbs we use when we describe what they’re going to do, it may not always be transferable across courses, across institutions so we need to be careful when we’re saying, “this is the best practice” as opposed to, “this is a practice that worked well for me and take what you will from that.”

John: Have you done any other research on best practices in terms of testing? With that large enrollment, you’ve got some nice possibilities of doing some randomized controlled experiments.

Kristina: Absolutely, and I think my IRB is getting tired of my requests to explore these differences in pedagogical practices. One paper that was recently accepted at the Journal of Political Science Education (and should be published this summer) looks at learning objectives. We’re often told as faculty members that we need to write learning objectives in a certain way. Bloom’s taxonomy, I’m sure you’ve heard of this, where we’re asked to use certain verbs to describe what we want our students to learn…. and my co-author, Whitney Manzo, who’s at Meredith College in Raleigh… we really wanted to dig into this. We argue that learning objectives are only useful to the extent that we all have a higher education community share an understanding of their purpose… of their definition… and to the extent that they help students learn better… learn more… perform better. And as we did interviews and surveys with students, faculty members, and assessment professionals, we found that there’s simply not a shared definition, and not a shared perception of why we have learning objectives…. and using learning objectives that are written and presented in a different way in a classroom didn’t seem to change the way the students perceive them or how they performed in the course. So, it’s not that my research is trying to say that, it doesn’t matter, it’s a free-for-all, you can do whatever you want. I think what my takeaway is… that we should be able to place a little bit more trust in our faculty members to know the nuances of their own classrooms… their own situations… their own institutions… and be able to listen to faculty members more in saying how they think something like Bloom’s taxonomy… or learning objectives.. or ordering of tools in an online course…. listening to faculty tell us what they think is the most useful in their situation.

Rebecca: In classes this large, cheating is likely to come up as a concern, I would imagine. A wide variety of web-based services have appeared to help facilitate academic dishonesty, including sites to facilitate plagiarism. What challenges have you had dealing with academic honesty and what tools have you implemented in your classes?

Kristina: Academic dishonesty is absolutely rampant and not only in an online course, I observe academic dishonesty in face-to-face courses as well. But sometimes, online courses just make it that much easier to get away with cheating. There are lots of tools that we’ve used, Turnitin.com and other plagiarism detection softwares. Sometimes I feel like your own eyes and experience as a faculty member are just as good, if not better, than these detection services because students have learned how to trick them. Students have learned that if you use a thesaurus and change the words, then the Turnitin won’t catch it.

John: And there’s even some websites that will do that automatically… where you can submit a paper and it will automatically change some of the words for you.

Kristina: Oh great… yeah, exactly. So it’s making it much easier to get away with cheating. Sometimes, if I just see a sentence that’s suspicious…with 5,000 students, I’ve seen the Wikipedia page on supply-side economics hundreds of time…. because now I’ve seen the words from it, either in those words or slightly altered in so many of my students writing. I think some level of academic dishonesty is inevitable whether we’re in a face-to-face course or not…. and in some ways, online courses make it easier for me to catch academic dishonesty. So in a written paper where a student hands me ten pages printed out from a printer, it’s a lot more effort for me to Google a sentence that looks suspicious than it would be if I just copied and pasted it out of the learning management system. So maybe it’s facilitated dishonesty, but it’s also made it easier for me to catch.

John: It’s a continuing arms race to some extent.

Kristina: [LAUGHTER] It is.

John: One thing I ran across a couple of years ago is that you can change individual letters, do a global search and replace with a different character set and that will defeat SafeAssign, Turnitin, and most of the other automatic detection services. But one of the clues there is that you end up with a plagiarism rating of zero percent, which is something you never see because of bibliography graphic references and similar things, it was interesting. I had one student do that in two different papers in two of my classes.

Kristina: Yes, the students are definitely ingenious in how they can come up with ways to cheat the system. Sometimes I think that if they would put as much work into their coursework as they did in trying to cheat, they would actually end up doing a lot better.

John: [LAUGHTER] Yes.

Rebecca: What steps have you taken to keep your graders and co-teachers and everybody in your big umbrella on the same page so that students have somewhat of a consistent experience?

Kristina: I think that this inter-rater reliability is always going to be a problem and it’s a problem no matter what. If we were to do this face to face and we had an instructor with a TA handling an individual section of 200 or 250 students and teaching it in a lecture hall, the content would be different… the expectations would be different… the tests would be different… the papers would be different… everything about the course would be different. So moving to this umbrella method has allowed us to ensure some consistency across sections. Now we still certainly allow faculty members who want to teach this course face-to-face to do so and it’s an academic freedom issue in that if they don’t want to use these materials, they certainly don’t have to. But it is nice for us to be able to generate some comparable assessment data that we can see are things changing over time and, if so, is that because the students are changing ?or is it because something about our course is changing? The ways that we try to ensure some consistency… what we can’t control… we do trainings with our graders… and we got this idea from the AP program where they essentially have retreats, where they sit around training these AP scorers on how to be consistent with these rubrics. So that’s one thing that we’ve done in trying to ensure that the graders are grading consistently. We also just monitor throughout. So, not only do I look at the general averages… are some graders scoring more or less strictly… but also spot-checking assignments and trying to do a systematic sample where we check every certain assignment to see if it’s consistent with what I would expect and what we train them to do at the beginning. And if we notice inconsistency it’s not punitive… we don’t threaten to fire TA’s who aren’t grading consistently… but it does give us an opportunity to say, “Hey, I think you’re grading these a little bit too harshly” or “a little bit too generously” or “I think you’re focusing on the wrong aspects of this assignment, you should be focusing on something different.”

Rebecca: One of the other things that you’ve presented on is online accessibility. We’re certainly working on that here. I’m working with faculty and other colleagues in other departments on some accessibility policies and things like that. How have you encouraged this to happen in your program and in your courses?

Kristina: It’s always difficult to tell faculty what they have to do. I don’t know if you’ve had much success going to a faculty member’s office and saying, “Guess what, you have to do this now” and them being like, “Great! I’m in, I want to do it.” I haven’t had a whole lot of success at that approach. Some of what I’ve been doing with my online course…. it’s kind of just accepting that this is how it is and this is what we have to do and so there’s no sense in trying to fight it. We’ve got to make our courses accessible to students with disabilities and there’s no reason to imagine that we wouldn’t want to do so. So we just make sure that all of our videos either have captions or transcripts. We make sure that all of our content that might not be easily accessible for a student with a disability to have an alternative method of accessing it if they need it. We try to avoid time limits on multiple choice questions because of students who might need extra time to complete their work. And so we just, in general, try to avoid the time limits altogether and make it equally accessible for all students, whether they have a disability or not. In terms of trying to encourage other faculty members in my department, who are either designing upper-division online courses or graduate-level online courses, making it less of a burden… providing resources and options for faculty… that’s been really successful. So if you just tell a faculty member you need to make your course accessible, that’s kind of an overwhelming request. There’s a lot to accessibility. So what we try to do is provide resources, ideas, support, ways to still do the same kind of content without running into accessibility problems. That’s been really successful… and taking just a more step-by-step approach. We know that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires everything to be compliant, but what we hope to always show is a good faith effort. So, whether we’ve achieved it perfectly every time or not, I guarantee if somebody combed through every course I’ve ever done, they’re gonna find something that’s not quite in compliance… but we’re making a good-faith effort and anytime a student brings to us an issue that they’re having, we work with the Student Disabilities Office to rectify it as quickly and as completely as possible.

John: With the umbrella framework for the course, it would seem that at least for these two courses, you have more control because you’re the one designing all the materials. So, you have at least some control over all the sections in terms of having the common materials compliant.

Kristina: Exactly, and it also helps that our Students with Disabilities Office, because of this umbrella model, knows exactly who they can call if there’s an issue that a student’s having. They know they can call me at any time, they know that I will always make a good-faith effort to keep things in compliance.

John: Do you teach any upper-level or graduate courses there?

Kristina: Yes I do, and others in our department also teach upper-division and graduate courses. What I envision when designing these courses is a political scientists favorite thing, which is a two-by-two matrix.


We love our two-by-two matrices and I’m happy to draw out this two-by-two matrix so that you guys can have it in your supplementary materials. But when I think about the purpose of the course and the customization of the course… so we can have a course that’s intended to be very in-depth and a deeper understanding and engagement with content (which we would want in a graduate-level course or upper division) versus something that, as I mentioned with our lower division courses., we’re seeking some basic understanding and some basic behaviors to help students learn what we want them to know, while they’re able to still satisfy those requirements. And so that’s one dimension. We can also think about the dimension of: “How customized do we want our content to be. So do we want to use something that’s sort of off-the-shelf or canned?” Or do we want to use something that we’ve written every word… we’ve written all of the quiz questions… all of the readings. And so I think every online class can kind of be placed somewhere in this 2×2 matrix. When we’re doing our introductory courses, we’re looking at maybe a lower level of student engagement but we still have a really high level of customization. So, as I mentioned, we’re in West Texas, I make sure we talk about cotton disputes when we talk about international agreements and international negotiations. In our graduate level courses, we move over to the to the high level of engagement, to the in-depth understanding… and then depending on what the faculty member wants, we can either do a fully customized version of a course where we write most or all of the content. Or we can use some existing resources… and there are publishing companies out there that have a lot of content that’s really good and that’s really ready to be used and it’s really highly interactive and engaging. So, we try to establish what’s the purpose of our course and what is our content that we want to create versus we want to use existing content… and then where does this course fit in. And after we’ve placed it in that matrix, then we can decide how to move forward in designing the course.

Rebecca: Do you work with instructional designers as you’re designing these courses or is that the function that you provide?

Kristina: It’s somewhere in the middle. So I’ve worked with our instructional designers here at Texas Tech and they are very supportive. They have a great way to make sure that they’re providing the level of help that you want and need. There are plenty of faculty members (and I’ve worked with them) who want to assign some readings and then have a final exam and call it an online course. And our instructional designers exist because we all know that that’s not going to work. SACSCOC is going to shut us down if that’s what our online courses look like. And so when I worked with instructional designers, usually once they see where we are in our course development… the fact that we’ve developed a lot of courses before… they provide us a high level overview… they give us some suggestions… compliance issues… and they let us go on our way. But when we have faculty members that have less experience, they are a lot more hands-on. Now I’m not sure they really liked all my learning objectives research… I don’t think they liked that research very much… but they’ve definitely been supportive and interested in hearing what it is that we’re doing here in Political Science.

John: Well they may not like it, but it could become part of their future dissemination that if you find significant results, it can help them improve all the courses there and more broadly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

John: Now you’ve received, I think, an internal grant for “engaging students in global governance and communication, hosting a lecture series and sponsoring in-depth, archival, and undergraduate research as a part of the university’s quality enhancement plan.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Kristina: Sure, so our quality enhancement plan, that’s QEP, it’s a part of SACSCOC program. The goal is to identify a way to enhance student experience and then dig in and make the student experience at our university better. So our QEP plan is about communicating in a global society and our Center for Global Communication offered a grant to programs that were willing to engage in something that would touch a lot of students and would encourage engagement with this global communication. So we have several levels of engagement that our students can participate in. In our introductory course, the students are asked to watch a lecture about communicating in a global society, about having relationships with those who are different than you — from a different country or background. And all of the students who take these introductory courses are exposed to that content, so that’s a great way that… even though maybe it’s in that lower level of engagement in the 2×2 matrix, it’s reaching a lot of students. But we also sponsor a lecture series and this is where we’ve brought in, typically political scientists, but generally social scientists have all been considered to speak as part of our lecture series. And so we’ve had people talk about terrorism and how social media can facilitate terrorist recruitment. We’ve had people talk about presidential travel as a form of global communication. So, when President Trump goes to Saudi Arabia first, as his first international visit, what kind of communication does that send to the world? This lecture series invites our students to come in and get a little bit more in-depth experience with global communication and that’s the way our online students can feel like they’re not just isolated at home… that they’re not participating in a university experience. We invite our online students and we usually get two to four hundred students at each of these events… so they’re wildly successful. In addition, after the lecture series, we’ve offered students an opportunity to participate in undergraduate research and we’re even able to sponsor two of our students to attend a national social science conference under the supervision of a faculty member to present their own research or at least be exposed to other research, related to global communication. As political scientists, we’re very well situated to expose students to the idea of global communication and as a large online program that can reach a lot of students, it also helps us to get the message out about the fact that this is an important part of their education.

Rebecca: Sounds great! It’s a really unique case study.

John: It seems like you’re reaching quite a few students who might not be reached by traditional educational programs.

Kristina: Yeah, I think that this kind of program might be new and different right now, but this is where education is going to be going, as we have the need to educate more and more students, college isn’t something that’s only for wealthy upper-class men and and women. It’s for everyone now… and we’re going to try to meet students where they are. Online education is where the future is and when we see students who are non-traditional trying to come back and get degrees… they have full-time jobs… they have families… they’re not able to go to class like a traditional 18- or 19-year old student is going to be able to attend classes during the day. I really think that this could be a potential equalizer for students. Not only in accessing content and getting degrees, but in learning some of these really valuable skills in how to interact in an increasingly online world.

John: And the rate of return to a college degree is the highest we’ve ever observed. We’re seeing not a lot of jobs out there and not a lot of job growth for people with high school degrees and high school dropouts. We need to do more to get more people to college and certainly the approach you’re taking there is a very efficient way of bringing education to a large number of people.

Rebecca: Well thanks so much for joining us Kristina, it was nice to have you back and it’s always nice to hear what you’re working on.

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.

17. Online learning

Enrollment in online classes has grown steadily over the last few decades. Today, over 30% of college students enroll in at least one online course. In this episode, we discuss the evolution of  and possible future directions of online learning with Greg Ketcham, the Assistant Dean of the Division of Extended Learning at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Books used for SUNY-Oswego reading groups (referenced by Greg):

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press. (one of the books used in a reading group at SUNY-Oswego)


John: Enrollment in online classes has grown steadily over the last few decades. Today, over thirty percent of college students enroll in at least one online course. In this episode, we examine how online learning has evolved, and is continuing to evolve, to better serve student needs.

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.

Today our guest is Greg Ketcham, the Assistant Dean of the Division of Extended Learning at SUNY Oswego. Greg focuses primarily on programs serving adult learners. Greg is actively involved in Educause, the Online Learning Consortium, and the University Professional Continuing Education Association. Welcome, Greg.

John: Welcome.

Greg: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, John.

John: So today, our teas are…

Rebecca: English Afternoon.

Greg: Actually we were just joking about this before we started that I think we have to change the name of the show to “Coffee for Cognition.” So, I’m drinking coffee.

John: …and I am drinking Harry and David’s Bing Cherry tea.

Rebecca: It sounds like a mouthful.

Greg: Well, if you’re going to be giving a plug, I have to give a plug then to Recess Coffee because it’s my favorite coffee roasting vendor in Syracuse.

Rebecca: I say it’s a nice, local, upstate…right?

Greg: Absolutely.

John: So you’ve been involved in online education for quite a while… since sometime last century…

Greg: You’re making me feel really old, thank you.

John: …both as a student and as an administrator. From your perspective, how has online education evolved over that time period?

Greg: Sure. That’s a really good question. Now granted, I really was not there at the dawn of time of online learning, I want to be clear about that. But, actually, as an outside casual observer… well, maybe I was…at least in terms of the late twentieth century…. because if we really think about what distance learning looked like before the advent of the internet, it was really what I refer to as ITV, Instructional Television. Sunrise Semester being probably the most famous example of that, that I think is still in production and out there for years and years and years out of New York City. And obviously, at the advent of time based on the technology, there was a one-way transmission of knowledge. To say that it was really education, It was not a bidirectional experience in any way. Moving forward into the 90s, with the advent of the Internet and shortly thereon, the World Wide Web, suddenly we begin to move into something that becomes much more bidirectional and I love these acronyms because nobody remembers them anymore: MUSHes, MUDs, multi-user domains that were largely text based, that kind of go back to the Adventures of Zelda, in a way, if we go back and remember that far back in terms of what an interactive game experience was like. So those were text based and as we begin to scroll forward, really to where we are today, the changes in the underlying technology change the kinds of interactions that we can have.

So, largely speaking, when I started, which was thirteen years ago here, we were really looking at online learning in a purely asynchronous form and really, of course, we said that was for learner convenience… which I think is still true. I think that’s the reason why it is asynchronous, because the typical online learner is an adult and is a part-time student… is juggling many things in his or her life and learning is a part of that… so, it has to be based on when it fits into their time budget. So where we are, compared to again let’s say 2005. 2005, we had limitations in our learning technology. It was largely text based so the forms and interaction between instructor and student were predominantly text based. Today, we’re at a point where those kinds of interactions can truly be multimedia. We can incorporate audio… we can incorporate video… we can have online chat sessions together… video sessions together. So we’ve really broadened our palette in the ways in which we can interact and communicate and create those learning spaces. That to me is a really big deal and I think I’ve become much more of a convert to these sort of multimodal means, being a student again.[Laughter]

Yeah, eating my own dog food as they say, right?….being the continuing adult learner… I’m actually a part-time learner in a doctoral program and it’s always good, actually, to flip the equation, if you can, right? To go from instructor to student and remember what the student experience is like, first of all. To be in an online course and go, “Oh God, really? This is what it’s like?” Now, that’s not true of all my online courses so far, I just want to be clear about that. But what I did experience was the fact that we injected group work into one course and, of course, I’ve never personally loved the idea of group work, period. But leveraging Google Hangouts, leveraging Google Docs, it was transformative in the sense that it really was creating a sense of community. That’s something we’ve always strived for in online learning and moving outside the bounds of that purely asynchronous construct– it was just truly transformative to me in my thinking about it. And as we move forward, I think we have these opportunities to leverage the technology and not be so trapped in the box of the tools.

Rebecca: What I’m hearing is… early on, even when it was online, it was still traditional correspondence classes, right? So, you’re corresponding… but now, it’s community…

Greg: RIght.

Rebecca: …and I think the difference in those two words is really powerful… and even just thinking about what they mean.

Greg: I think that’s true, and it’s interesting because you’re seeing this right now in our media. I want to say “the media,” about our media that we consume about higher ed. Western Governors University, being on the leading edge of doing competency based education, it tends to subvert our notions of what online learning is…. maybe not necessarily true for Western Governors, but in some models, you’ve got kind of a pay-one-price, consume-all-you-can… it’s not bounded by the conventions of a semester. It’s not in the normal control functions of an instructor helping to manage the students ‘learning. So conversely then, the Department of Education at the federal level is saying, “You know what? This looks like a correspondence course, and if this is a correspondence course, then it doesn’t qualify for financial aid.” So there’s a lot of implications in there for us, in terms of thinking about the design of learning…. unfortunately, secondary effects that impact the student in terms of their financial ability to take the course. But, to your point Rebecca, I think the difference again between correspondence and community…. because traditional, fully asynchronous learning is always sort of time modulated and time delayed. It does look more like the conversation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, right? There’s a lot of thought going on and there’s a lot of reflection going on, based upon reading which you’ve said, “I’m going to come back with a response,” but it isn’t necessarily dialogue…. and dialogue, I think, is part of a community because it’s really of the moment. Things build… things are reactive. I think that’s a potential change. Yes.

Rebecca: Seems like a way that you might be able to build mental models more effectively because the learners are interacting with each other much earlier on and they probably have more similar mental models then an instructor….

Greg: Right.

Rebecca: There’s a different relationship there that I could see how that could be really beneficial to help overcome some of the misconceptions and things that students might have because they come out a lot sooner.

Greg: Exactly.

John: But also with the introduction of more group work in online courses, even if the course is designed to be fully asynchronous, the work within the groups does not have to be, so that the student, as she said, could be using Google Hangouts soon or other tools and working collaboratively at times that they arrange within the group.

Greg: Right, and again, I think what you’re looking at is you’re beginning to model work flows in collaborative strategies that our students would use out in the world once they graduate. All of us do things across time and space that are outside the university with other colleagues. In how we approach that are those very same tools. So, why not expose them to your students early on? …and say “This is how it works. You don’t have to get together in the library every day… You really don’t have to.” The challenge tends to be when you’re blending a group of learners…. between the target audience, those adults who aren’t here, and our traditional students who are here…. because when you do propose an assignment to the students… it’s group work… what do they do? They say, “OK, let’s get together in the library at three.” ….and the student who’s not here has to speak up and say: “Excuse me, I’m a hundred miles away. I really can’t do that. Let’s think about some other method to make this work.”

Rebecca: I’m definitely a strong proponent of capitalizing on the idea that these are professional skills to develop. So, even in my non-online classes, I use tools like that for group work: Slack, and things for group discussions and things… and I think that when you frame that for students and help them realize that it is a professional tool and a professional opportunity, they do buy in… and so I think there’s a real positive in this online environment to encourage small groups and things to start using these tools because then they’re seeing how it’s going to benefit them in the future. Obviously, non-traditional students would catch on to that much sooner. We have to be probably a little more explicit with more traditional-age college students about the benefits, and that it is a professional skill.

Greg: I think so. I do think we have to move beyond the culture of the familiar uses of social media, which most of our traditional age students are very proficient in, into more professional uses of those kinds of technologies. So, it’s not just dropping “LOLs” all over the place [LAUGHTER], it’s communicating in a more meaningful and deep way…. and I think those are the skills that we’re helping them to learn in these kinds of online environments.

John: A lot of faculty, when they first start teaching online — and I started teaching online a couple decades ago… sometime last century, too… when they first do it, they tend to try to replicate what they were doing in the classroom, and then they discover that doesn’t work very well… and there are these rich tools out there that can make interaction much more effective. How do you work with faculty to try to transition them to alternative teaching methods, and things that work better online?

Greg: Right, when I did faculty development, in working with instructors who were new to online learning, I would pose a scenario something like this to them: “Okay, you’re very comfortable with standing up in front of your class and delivering the content and doing a lecture. Now imagine your students are next door behind a wall… they can’t see you…. they can’t hear you…. How are you going to teach them?” What you’re doing is you’re imposing those barriers of time and space right away to begin to reframe the conversation. and in reframing the conversation, one of the things that I found initially to be very helpful… It was pointed out to me by one of our colleagues here that I was actually espousing a very well-known design theory which is called backwards design (from Wiggins and McTighe, I believe)….and the notion is that we begin the conversation by talking about: “What are your students supposed to do at the end of this course? What is it that they’re able to do?” I rarely use the phrase learning outcomes because that sounds rather abstract, but if you put it in a concrete observable frame of “How do you know that they’ve learned what they’re supposed to learn?” “What are those artifacts?” is my favorite phrase. If we can start with: “What are they supposed to be able to do? How do they show me that they can do it? What are the artifacts? What are the outputs? Oh, those are the outputs?” Those are the actual learning activities. How do we scaffold them to those learning activities? What are the instructional materials and activities that precede that?

You deconstruct. You deconstruct what faculty think they understand about their teaching process. Faculty come in, many times, with the frame of thinking… truly about content delivery, which is perhaps not doing yourself justice in terms of your skills and what you really bring to the classroom, but if you think of yourself as simply as an amplifier and conveyor of content, then one of the things we do is begin to change that around… and discuss what a facilitator does versus a pure instructor. I think that’s part of it too.

Rebecca:I would imagine that you also have many conversations about audience… that we don’t necessarily have in more traditional face-to-face classrooms…. thinking about who are your learners? what do they come to the table with? and what are their other life responsibilities and things? To find that balance and how things might work.

Greg: Right. You do try to interject… to talk about what the audience looks like… and I think also Rebecca, to your point about audience behaviors and audience constraints we can discuss things that we are now gleaning from research. So, for instance, you may say to me: “Well, you know, Greg, I’m just gonna record my 55-minute lecture that I do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday… and we’re good to go.”

John:…and a lot of faculty come in planning to do that.

Greg: Sure… sure… There’s my favorite animation out there… which still exists and I forget the acronym of that that animation program… there was like these little furry creatures and the professor comes in talks to the instructional designer and says: “Hello (in this very cultured British accent), I am going to teach my course online. I have recorded all of my lectures.” …and you have to break that down and you have to say: “Well, current research shows us that the attention span of what people are looking at, it’s probably about in you know six to ten minutes.”

John: Actually, we just did a podcast on that. We recorded it just a couple days ago, and it will be released just a week before yours. That research turns out not to really exist or not to really show that.

Greg: Can I retract that statement?

John: …but people have been saying that for decades. So, it’s one of those myths, like learning styles…

Greg: Right.

John: …and that Dale’s Cone of Learning….

Greg: Oh, yes…

John: ….that people just keep recreating.

Greg: …and you know how much I love Dale’s Cone of Learning. That’s just a fantastic fabrication… two things that are mashed together…

John: …including citations that don’t exist…

Greg: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

John: …and articles that were never created in journals that weren’t there.

Greg: Exactly.

Rebecca: Yeah. So, apparently the attention span stuff is too.

Greg: This is something, that I think, we have to all be aware of… that we’d like to refer to these things… and obviously I’m guilty of this too…

John: …and I have too.

Greg: ….without going out and stopping and asking ourselves: “Well, is this still true? Is this still current?” ….and we all know many people who will talk to us about learning styles and you just want to go: “Okay. Stop right there. Don’t say another word. Let me hand you this article from Daniel Willingham.” We do have to be careful about that, but I also think you have to look at it in the construct of, for instance… now I am doing this all the time at a personal level all the time…. I find this… and it probably says something about my mental state and how it’s devolving… but if I am watching even a Netflix video I will often throw it into 1.5 speed or 2.0 speed. I will do this with podcasts, and if anyone out there is listening right now, feel free… speed me up. I won’t sound any more articulate, I’ll just go faster… but we do this compression, because potentially we’re time challenged… potentially our attention spans are impacted. So, I do think we need to look at those kinds of behaviors. You can look at the log behaviors on the learning management system, and students are popping in and out… popping in and out…. popping in and out…

John: Which is good if they’re engaging in spaced practice.

REG: Right.

John: …but that’s not always the case.

Greg: …may not be.

John: and there are issues. Even if there’s no magic attention span issue, there are issues with cognitive loads.

Greg: Right.

John: …and that chunking things into smaller more manageable chunks, especially for beginning students is really effective, and that’s where a lot of the online classes tend to be focused.

Greg: Exactly. Let’s go back to the typical statement about multitasking… multi-processing… A lot of the research on that is really much more granular in terms of the kinds of parallel tasks that can be effectively executed with multiple inputs versus this notion of “I’m facebooking and I’m in my course and I’m listening to a podcast….” because there’s obviously multiple inputs and we process all those things differently. So you can’t just crunch that and make a blanket statement about it. But, you can find fascinating things coming out there… out of cognitive science research… that says, for instance (I won’t get this right because I would have to go back and listen to this story)… but they measured the effects of retention of white text on a black video vs. black text on a white video, and there were significant differences. So, looking at that as an input and informing design-based practices when you’re creating this media is incredibly important….

John: …and part of the issue is when things are harder to read, students have to process it more and they end up recalling more of it. There’s even studies that show that if you use, and…

Rebecca: Stop!


Rebecca: Just stop!

John: …if you use a really hard to read font, students will recall more of it later.

Greg: That’s fascinating.

John: It may not be a desirable difficulty, but it does result in more retention.

Greg: OK. So….

Rebecca: so but they might not read the whole thing, because it’s difficult to read….

Greg: So, conversely, are there any studies measuring the effect of…. let’s say, an easy friendly format that’s easier to read… and I’m thinking Comic Sans, obviously. What’s the impact there? Do we know?


Rebecca: Well, actually…

Greg: Can we do a study on that, ‘cause I would love to. [LAUGHTER] I would love to build a whole course in just Comic Sans.

Rebecca: There are some studies about Comic Sans, but they’re always in these isolated situations.

Greg: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, yes, the letter forms are more identifiable.

Greg: Certainly.

Rebecca: So, it actually does help some students for certain kinds of cognitive disability, because…

John: …including dyslexia.

Rebecca: Yeah, because the shapes and letters are really quick to identify so there’s a legibility that can come out…. However, does that help most students? Not necessarily… and does it help with a lot of content? Not necessarily… right because it might be okay for a small amount. As a designer, I just want to die.

Greg: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting…


Rebecca: None of those studies are done with design in mind at all… and so they’re really in these isolated situations. So, I would really love to see some of these cognitive science studies related to visual design with an actual visual designer… to see whether or not some of the things are actually beneficial.

Greg: I think that would be really interesting… and so to loop back on this… what we are trying to do is, in essence, create a learning environment for students that is: 1. easy to navigate… again, to the point of design, easy to find your way… find your way back again.. Will you re-enter that particular unit or module… and package it in such a way that it provides sort of a continuity of experience for the student? Beginning, with as we used to refer to him, high father Robert Gagne… Gagne’s “Nine Events of Instruction”… One of the things you do is, of course, you state what the learner is going to do… the advance organizer.. and the advance organizer helps focus the students’ attention as to what is about to occur in this learning module. This week, we’ll be covering this particular topic. You’re going to read this. You’re going to do these learning activities. By the way, this builds upon what we did last week by adding this. That last part is often what’s missing in an advance organizer.

John: …to create those connections.

Greg: Right. ….and that’s one of the things we sort of point out… because if you go back, and I recently read this… my world is shattered… people are just calling names… and saying Gagne was just an out-and-out behaviorist. Well, of course he was. I mean… in the context of the times, much of what instructional design theory looked like was based on the principles of behaviorism, because instructional design kind of goes back to World War II. It really emerged, I think, immediately after World War II, but given the needs of having to train multiple thousands of soldiers in a brief timeframe, it became obvious that there had to become a systematized way to develop and produce instruction.. . and that sort of behaviorist mindset carried through…really, I think, up until about the time when I was in graduate school somewhere in the 90s. There was this revolutionary… shocking… special journal that came out that posited that we should really be incorporating social constructivism… not just at the learning theory level but at the instructional design level too… and I think you sort of see that today, still, in this sense of community… in the sense that we now think truly of learning as socially mediated. It occurs within a group… so we think about what that looks like… and how we support that group of learners…. and that tends to be, I think, a transition point… a pivot point for us. Somebody was slamming poor Ben Bloom the other day. …again, because we’re really quantifying and proscribing what learning looks like in terms of those domains. The struggle, of course, is that we need to somehow define learning such that we have uniform measures of evaluation. If you took a purely constructivist standpoint… yeah, I think you would look at it and say: “Well, whatever you did was great, and if it doesn’t work… so.. well when we’ve got to put somebody on a continuum of a grading scale… and so that’s that’s the challenge. I think we always try to mediate.

Rebecca: We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about the role of instructional designers. Could you just take a couple minutes to explain what an instructional designer is, and maybe explain a little bit about what faculty could learn from instructional designers?

Greg: Sure. Instructional designers are somewhere between a unicorn and potentially a dodo. One of the fun things in life, if you actually are an instructional designer, is to go out into any kind of social setting and do the cocktail party meet and greet: “Hi, what do you do? I’m an instructional designer….” and people just look at you very very blankly and then you have to find ways to elaborate out in some way that makes sense to them. What does that mean? …and I had this problem with my parents… I had this problem with my children…. My children would go into school and they would say: “My dad works on computers, and he helps teachers learn how to use computers.” As an abstraction, it’s pretty close… pretty close…. but but not quite. My daughter… now actually, being a teacher, we now speak the same language. Yeah, she now goes: “Oh my God, that’s what you were talking about all those years…” like, yes, now you see… now you see… When I talk to you about Bloom’s taxonomy, you know exactly what I’m talking about… and…. so, really, instructional designers are, I would say…. one way to describe this… I’m not super fond of this description… is to say that they are learning technologists. We could say they’re learning specialists… we could say they’re learning engineers… we could say they’re learning designers… The focus, I think, is the fact that they are knowledgeable about the science and theory of learning. So, what an instructional designer brings to the equation, in working with a faculty member, is that perspective on evidence-based practice in learning. This is what the research tells us…. Oh, that research about video we’ll throw that out, okay… because you’re not up to date… but largely we try to stay up-to-date on the research… to say to faculty: “You know these are really the best practices if you’re going to engage in, let’s say, online discussion.” Because, back to what you said earlier, John, we may not be able to replicate the classroom, but let’s create an equivalent learning activity, right? Exactly.

Rebecca: …or a learning community.

Greg: …or a learning community, Yeah.

John: …and we should note that most faculty, especially those in older cohorts, were never trained in learning theory. They picked up what they saw their faculty do, and they come out of grad schools often where there’s very little or no emphasis on teaching or effective teaching… and they’re often told: “Don’t waste your time worrying about your teaching, focus on your research.” ….and having that sort of support can be really useful for faculty.

Greg: Right, and to be honest, it’s a very delicate conversation to have when you’re looking at someone who is, as we always say, you are the subject matter expert. I really know next to nothing about your discipline… but what I do know is I do know how people learn and I do know how to create effective learning experiences online and that’s what I’m here to help you understand. So we move away from any fears, any concerns that we’re here to challenge your notions of what you do in your discipline, because I don’t what you do in your discipline. By the time we’re done working together, I will know substantially more, which is the tremendously fun part of the job. You get to learn everything that everyone does here. Who gets to do that? We get to do that!

John:…Or if you’re doing podcast you can… and it’s fascinating….

Rebecca: It is.

Greg: It is fascinating. It’s so much fun. I just ran across, last week, this great study from a group called Intentional Futures, and they were really kinda trying to quantify what an instructional designer is… and they broke it down, I think, into four quadrants which I thought was incredibly useful to just share this out. So, the four primary roles of an instructional designer are: to help design learning experiences; to actually manage that production process of creating online courses or units of learning; to actually train the faculty, whether it’s discussion around pedagogy as we’re talking about here today or whether it’s the specifics of a tool set that the faculty wants to use; and most importantly, there’s the sort of Maytag repairman element that there honestly is ongoing support for faculty, continuing weekly… not just at the beginning of the semester… not just at the end when everybody’s trying to figure out why their grades don’t look right in Blackboard. [LAUGHTER] …although that happens. That’s right. We know that. We know when the peak calling times are, based on faculty work, but…. an ongoing effort to continue to help faculty throughout the semester and their teaching practice. So, that’s what happens. There’s a lot of one-on-one consultation with faculty, which again, is just fantastic in terms of creating relationships and getting to know people and getting to understand that subject matter…
JOHN :…and one other thing I think we could talk a little bit about is… we’ve been focusing mostly on online instruction and the role of instructional designers and learning new tools there, but there’s often a feedback effect that works to affect how people teach their face-to-face classes. The division between face-to-face and online is no longer quite as clear as it was thirty years or so ago.

Greg: That’s very true, John. In fact, I think, as we attempt to define the spectrum of technology enhanced learning, or technology supported learning, even those initial divisions that we created are really arbitrary today. Because, we would say… “Well, there’s ‘web-enhanced learning.’” I don’t even really know what that means…. but it means that somehow you’re doing something other just having students read out of a textbook, right? …and you’re doing something beyond just lecturing that somehow incorporates some instructional technology into that mix… and in the middle between web enhancing and fully online there’s this idea of blended ….which we like to call hybrid here, because we just want to be different… I don’t know… but most of the world refers to it as blended learning and in the K-12 domain they like to call it “flipping the classroom” because it sounds… I don’t know… you’ve got a psychomotor thing going on in there… it’s kinetic… I don’t know… but it’s the same thing… it is finding the correct balance between what occurs in the classroom and what occurs online and what we’ve seen… John, you’ve probably said this to me over the years… many faculty have said this to me over the years, unprompted… that they bring these things back into the classroom… and it isn’t necessarily just the technology of the affordances of the learning management system, but how you think about constructing that learning experience.

John: When I first taught online, I was using many of the same things that were very common at the time: these text mini-lectures and tests, and so forth… with weekly quizzes and discussion forums and because it was fairly new, there were a group of people in economics who decided maybe we should do a research project on that and we did… and we found that students really didn’t learn very much. In fact, they did a bit worse in the online courses than they did face-to-face. So, that forced all of us… but.. well a couple of the people there stopped teaching online in response, but others went and looked a little bit further into perhaps what might work. I attended some workshops. it was one actually given by Michelle Miller down in Orlando. I think you may have been there, too… at one of Carol Twigg’s workshops…

Greg: Right… right… right… I was in with you. Yeah.

John: She was using low stakes quizzing… and I started doing more research on that… and I introduced that in my online class and it worked really well, and student performance went up dramatically… and I’ve been doing it in my face-to-face classes ever since… and there’s a wide variety of things that I first tried in some of my online classes that have moved their way over…. and there’s not that much of a difference between the way I teach my face-to-face classes and my online classes.

Greg: Right, I mean it really begins to break it down and you begin to hopefully ask yourself the question: “Well, why am i standing up here spending the first half class restating the readings that my students should have read? Why shouldn’t I put up a quiz ahead of time to confirm that they read it?” ….but more importantly, and more valuably… use that as a diagnostic to find those fuzzy points in the reading and then let’s talk about that in class.

John: So you can do some just-in-time teaching. You don’t waste time on things that they do understand and you can spend more time on the things they don’t.

Greg: Right.

John: …and along those lines, one of the reasons for that issue that you mentioned about… going over things that they should have learned in the reading is that faculty who lecture primarily, often get into this situation where they tell students to do the reading… students come to class and they ask them questions about the reading and they find students haven’t done the reading… and in response they end up going over the reading… and then students realize they don’t have to do the reading, because it’s going to be gone over in class anyway… and then the faculty realize that they’re never doing the reading so they have to do it in class….

Greg: Yes.

John: …and we get this vicious downward spiral in terms of expectations of both students and faculty — where students end up not learning as much as they could be if that time outside of class was more productively used.

Greg: Right. You see this, as much as you can take rate my professor with a salt mine, where the salt… one of the themes that you can find in there, is that many times students will say “you don’t need to buy the book, because the professor will tell you everything you need to know in class.” It’s exactly what you just described, John.

John: …which is generally a much smaller subset of the content that we’d like them to learn.

Greg: Right.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up a little bit. We’ve been talking a lot about evidence-based teaching and the role of instructional designers, but how about the role of administrators? What role do they play in helping advocate for evidence-based teaching on campuses?

Greg: Well, I do think… given in our particular frame… in our particular world… we’re a comprehensive college, so presumably our primary focus is teaching and learning. Presumably, we are creating culture here that really values and places teaching and learning first… and I do think, honestly, what you both have done here… in terms of creating reading groups… in terms of bringing in outside, evidence-based, yet eminently readable texts for a faculty to examine together…. to go out and try those strategies together… I think that’s incredibly valuable that we are doing that… and then we have a culture that actually supports us doing that. I do think if we could shift the frame a little bit more in terms of faculty activity… not just simply publishing to publish within your domain, but perhaps publishing to show the effects of teaching and learning strategies in your domain connects it all together better in a way.

John: ….the scholarship of learning and teaching.

Greg: Exactly… and I just say that somewhat selfishly because I think we need more of that within the disciplines. Because we need to recognize where there are disciplinary differences and where certain strategies may be more effective than another is… and I think reframing the conversation at the administrative level about expectations for faculty in terms of publication could help us in that. That’s very easy for me to say since I’m staff and not faculty, so I can come up with all kinds of crazy ideas that exist outside of the culture… but recognizing that providing incentives locally to create actual research opportunities in the scholarship of teaching and learning, as John says. For instance, doing things with open educational resources… if we can then turn around and measure the impact in terms of learning… and we’ve actually seen quite a bit on that happening out there at the community college level so far. Can we replicate that? The challenge for us to replicate it, frankly, is that we have to create materials and learning experiences at the upper division level. It’s really super easy, I shouldn’t say that, it’s easier. It’s easier to create foundational course materials because they can be more widely shared and it’s much more difficult when you move into money and banking or other specialized economics topics, because… what’s the audience that you’re constructing it for beyond your own local audience? You have to assess the cost-benefit analysis of doing that… but I mean those are ways we can engage in that… if I ran the world.


John: Where do you see online education going in the next five years?

Greg: We know it’s not going away. I think that’s the easiest thing to say. We know it continues to grow. I think one of the things that we’ll see change more rapidly, at least I hope so, is to bridge the gap between how we are engaging learners in this construct… this horrible walled garden of the learning management system versus the learners’ world — which is mobile, and its social — and given the fact that our students are always on… always connected… always mobile… how do you move from the learning exchanges that are best played out on a big screen and the keyboard, If I want to break it down to the technological problems? I had this conversation a week or so ago. A learning management system vendor was asking me: “What do you want to see? What do you want to see in the learning management system in the future?” …and I said I would really like to see a way for you to think about this problem of mobile first… and if we can still think of discussion as a valid construct of engaging in critical thinking, then I want a way for students to easily do voice-to-text in that environment. It’s things like that. It’s things like thinking about how do we situate that, and how do you situate it if I’m in my car an hour every day each way? ….and that’s lost time for me in a sense. I can listen to our podcast which is really cool, and I can listen to other podcasts, but what if I could actually be interacting with my course while I’m in the car in some way? or if I was on the train? We have to really rethink what that delivery looks like and how we interact with things… and are there ways that augmented reality can be brought into this mix… again, through our phones… they’re with us…. they can do this overlay…. What can we do with that? Those are like the new frontiers.

Rebecca: In design, it’s actually an old frontier…. but it’s just applying it to this context. It’s user centered design.

Greg: It is and it’s totally understanding your user behaviors… the environment in which they live in and interact in… and it’s not a new concept.

John: But the technology has changed quite a bit… because now both iOS and Android operating systems have AR kits built in to make it easier to record and to implement AR.

Rebecca: …and really new. The AR kit on the iPhones just came out in the last few months.

John: …and similarly the Android one has just come out.

Greg: Yeah, and you know overlays like that… your voice assistance that we all have on our phones… are there other ways that those can be integrated in too? I think these are more interesting things… how you look at the challenge. The fact that you can create adaptive learning that works pretty well in an app. Duolingo is a pretty good and often cited example of an adaptive learning app for language acquisition. The challenge there, of course, is that that is one silo.

John: …and we don’t see as much of that. Carnegie Mellon was doing some great work on this over the last few decades.

Greg: Yeah.

John: …but there aren’t that many implementations. There’s cog books and one other publisher who started bundling some of these in packages but there’s not that many courses developed yet, and there’s still a ways to go.

Greg: Right.

John: …but that offers a possibility of having customized learning paths for students where they work on the things they don’t understand as well… and they build in all the best practices of learning… and we can get people to learn more efficiently once those tools are there. But, it’s still an early time for that.

Greg: It is an early time, and it’s somewhat beyond my skill set and your skill set to go out and just create that. It’s like saying I’m gonna go build an airplane. I have a friend who built an airplane, but before he retired he was an engineer, so he had the skill set to do that.

John: Cogbooks… and Acrobatiq (I believe is the other company)… have provided a framework for instructors to build that. But there’s still a lot of time… because you have to think about what area students might have problems with… and then build materials to get them past those problems… and there’s some pretty high fixed costs for doing that.

Greg: There are. That understanding a particular domain and understanding how you remediate in those weak areas. Whether or not AI can really, through machine learning, get there with us, I think is another thing. Because I tend to be a person who doesn’t subscribe to the model of the brain in a purely computational model. I think there’s a lot more, in the sense of mind, than just thinking about storage and retrieval. So, it is, I think, one of those great challenges to get through… and I do think, while you can build specialized apps that do that. the problem then becomes… as we know, what we deal with a lot is command and control as instructors… and by command and control, I really mean being able to understand and manage the learning… but having visibility into the learning and being able to assess the learning, where human judgment combined with some rubric development is necessary. So, centralizing all that together… one colleague argues that the worst thing they ever did in growing the learning management system was to add a grade book. Because you and I evaluate things differently, even if we live in the same world… even if we’re in the same domain… So, my grading schema doesn’t look like your grading schema… and you build this horrible, horrible, horrible, layer of complexity into the grade book to try to accommodate everyone’s variations… and so there’s one argument that says maybe we just need an app that’s just a grade book… and it just sucks in the data from all these apps that do what they do really well. That potentially… maybe… is part of what’s known as the next generation digital learning environment.

John: We’ve been hearing about that for decades.

Greg: Right… right?

John: Yeah.

Greg: …and it’s been another forever… I had conversations somewhere 8…10 years ago… very parallel to that… that was being framed as the learning management operating system at that time… and we were thinking about this sort of decentralized approach, loosely coupled, that through other structures and other communication methods like LTI… blah, blah, blah ….I won’t go down the rabbit hole with all these acronyms… but ways in which you could move the data around and share it across these varying systems… and we’re back to that conversation… and what the learning management system developers do with these inputs is the big question.

Rebecca: So, you have some pretty interesting visions for the future. What are you gonna do next?

Greg: Well, I really hope to complete my doctorate before I retire… that’s my major life goal.

John: That’s a great program, by the way. You’re in the program in Buffalo?

Greg: Yes. University of Buffalo… The acronym is CISL [pronounced sizzle]. Yes. Curriculum, Instruction and the Science of Learning… and I think that’s really fascinating that we’re now seeing programmatic titles that put the words learning and science together. So we’re really emphasizing that indeed you can draw upon evidence-based practice… you can examine the research and inform practice. It happens to be the only fully online doctoral program that SUNY offers. So, as a matter of convenience for somebody like me, it’s fantastic…. and it’s been a great experience… and it’s kind of brought me around to, again, examining some of these logical fallacies that we continue to carry around and when we’re done, I’ve got to go back and I’ve got to read up again on video and attention.

John: Neil Bradbury, by the way, is the person who did that, and I believe that will be released in mid-February.

Greg: Okay. Sometimes I get questions from on high in administration: “What is the most appropriate size for an online course in terms of seats?”

John: Five?

Greg: Yeah, well… it depends… in a graduate course in a seminar… yeah… probably five is right [LAUGHTER]… frankly… because it depends upon…. the context is everything.

John:… what they’re doing.

Greg: Right. When you break down and you try to do a literature analysis on class sizing, context is everything. So you can’t provide a universal rule or even a sliding scale to Deans and Provosts and say: “Well, it looks like this.” Not necessarily… but you take other constructs that again we tend to look at and know when our received assumed wisdom: effective discussion is three posts… the student engages in the question and they engage with two other learners. Well, why? What makes that effective? What does that have to do with anything? That’s an arbitrary number that somebody invented to generate activity. So, looking at what are the constructs that have been defined to actually promote critical thinking… and if we break critical thinking down into elements… into certain specific responses…. Couldn’t we create a better grading rubric that supports the evidence of that? ….and that’s kind of where I am Rebecca. I’m finding these new things to kind of come back and shake the tree with everybody… and where it’s most fun is shaking the tree with fellow instructional designers… who also teach…. and what do they say to me? They go: “I know what critical thinking looks like in my course.” I’m like… Really? Really? You’re saying that? Aren’t we beyond that? Actually, I had the discussion once here… way back when…. I won’t say what department… I won’t say who… but we were discussing the utility of rubrics in grading and the response I received was: “I don’t need a rubric. I know what learning looks like in my students.” Yeah, that’s fantastic…. really objective…. not subjective at all. That’s great…

John: …as long as students share that vision….however it may happen to exist at that time in that person’s head.

Greg: Exactly… Exactly… so I think what is next for me… I think it’s continuing to look at these things… continuing to examine what’s happening in research and bringing that back into our practice so that we continue to evolve as a community here.

John: It’s an exciting time. There’s so much going on out there.

Greg: It is. Definitely.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us today, and taking some time out to talk instructional design with us.

Greg: Thanks for having me. Thanks for the coffee

John: That’s right…. we did have coffee here. But that’s because we had an early meeting prior to this. We normally don’t have coffee in our office.

Greg: You might want to think about a name change for the podcast… I’m just saying… [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve been getting that sorta feedback recently.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Well, thank you.

Greg: Thanks again.

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

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

10. VoiceThread

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

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


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

Jeffrey: Good morning.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeffrey: Fresh ground Guatemalan, through a coffee press

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

Rebecca: I have an Enchanting Forest Fruit Tea.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, it feels anonymous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Excellent.

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

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

Jeffrey: Great… Great.

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay.

Jeffrey: It just requires attention.

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

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

John: That’s always an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

John:…in the first few minutes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay.

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

John: OK.

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

John: Yeah, I think so.

Rebecca: Yeah. This is really interesting.

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

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

John: Thank you, Jeffrey, this was fascinating.

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

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