174. HyFlex in Practice

 Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss his campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 193-199.
  • Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In Practical applications and experiences in K-20 blended learning environments (pp. 153-177). IGI Global.
  • Beatty, B. J. (2010). Hybrid courses with flexible participation-the hyflex design. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://itec. sfsu. edu/hyflex/hyflex_course_design_theory_2, 2.
  • Gannon, Kevin, (2020). “Our Hyflex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 26.

Transcript

John: Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we discuss one campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grandview University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. It’s great to be here again with y’all.

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

Kevin: I am actually just drinking water today, I am on a goal to stay a little more hydrated. I was sick over the break, so I’ve just got a big old cup of water.

Rebecca: I had a nice pot of golden monkey prepared, but I drank it all. So now I’m drinking [LAUGHTER] Scottish breakfast tea.

John: I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. I had four or five different types of tea today, and I’ve moved to a lower caffeine green tea so I can maybe sleep tonight. We’ve invited you here to follow up with our discussion earlier about the plans for the fall. You were planning to use the hyflex modality there, and we wanted to just check back and see how things went, what worked and what perhaps didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. I think most people know what a hyflex course is now, but maybe just a quick statement of what hyflex is might be helpful.

Kevin: Sure. So hyflex stands for hybrid flexible. And as it was developed as a modality by Brian Beatty and some of his colleagues at San Francisco State University in graduate ed tech program, they envision classes where students would basically have three pathways to attend, defined broadly: one could attend in person, one could attend the class synchronously but via a video conferencing service online, or one could attend that is engaged with the class asynchronously and online. And the flex part of it is that students have the choice of which of these three modalities that they will use and the expectation and reality is that they will shift back and forth between those three, maybe landing on one that they adopt consistently or maybe staying in a sort of state of variation or flux throughout the term.

John: Why was this so popular with so many campuses this fall?

Kevin: I think for a few reasons. One, we all knew that, in-person traditional college experience was not going to be a thing. Despite the best efforts of a few institutions to put in place a magical thinking strategy [LAUGHTER] and assume that it was. But we also had varying degrees of what in-person might look like in mind. The California State Systems said we’re going to be fully online, period, and they made that decision very early. Other institutions like mine knew, as in our case as a small liberal arts college, that a lot of our students really wanted and needed that in-person experience. But we also knew we couldn’t do that normally and still be safe. Hyflex offered a way to sort of do both, and in our case, have students attend in person, but at a reduced number in socially distant classrooms, for example. But, I think the other big reason that it was so appealing was the flexibility it had for both students, and then faculty and staff. So for students who could not travel back to campus, for example, they might be in several time zones away. So is there a way for them to attend online asynchronously? And then also for us. What if we had to go fully online again. Hyflex, as you build classes that have an online modality already, and I think the thinking was that what we did in March was more emergency remote teaching than it was actual online teaching and learning. We were probably not going to be able to get away with that again, and our students will hold us to a higher standard. And so I think what hyflex offered a lot of institutions… I know this is true for Grandview, my institution… was that it would have us preparing for that eventuality well ahead of time, so if we did need to go full remote, it wouldn’t be the sort of abrupt lurching around off of some cyber cliff that it would be a much smoother transition.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it worked at Grandview University and whether or not this modality ended up actually being helpful to both faculty and students?

Kevin: Yeah, so I think it worked well-ish. [LAUGHTER] And what I mean by that is it did give us the flexibility we needed. And that did a lot to help for folks. We did not have a large outbreak of COVID on my campus, which I feel very fortunate to say. Our dorms were occupied, for example, but the students who did have to go to quarantine were able to still maintain their presence in classes in ways that they would not have been able to without hyflex. We also had some students who did choose to do all remote learning this semester… that they, because of a prior condition or something else, did not want to come to campus. And that included both international students but also students here in the Des Moines area who attended either synchronously or asynchronously online. So it did give us that flexibility. It did give us that online component. We learned a lot of things. We knew, I think, intellectually going into the session. That’s when it was gonna take a lot of kind of bandwidth and energy to be able to manage everything that goes into, actually run a hyflex class session. Having students on Zoom at the same time as students in a classroom, how are you going to foster and sustain a discussion? What happens when the tech doesn’t work? Or the screenshare doesn’t work? What about the asynchronous people? Are they just somewhere out there? So all of those things we knew, they would be hard, but actually experiencing it was really, really hard. And I know just from my own… I taught two courses, one of them fully online, asynchronous that was born that way, but a new student seminar in the hyflex model. And I’m good with technology, I think, and it was really hard for me to do. It took a lot of focus and energy. And my colleagues would always say, “You know, we were just exhausted after class sessions.” We also learned that the same was true for students, in many ways, [LAUGHTER] that it did require a lot more for them to attend class. But, on the other side of that coin, there were also students who elected to do the online asynchronous option, who in retrospect, that might not have been the choice they were best served by. Now, the reasons they did it were absolutely compelling and understandable. We had student athletes living on campus, for example, but remaining in isolation, so they could play their sport without testing positive. So they attended all their classes either synchronously or asynchronously online. What we found out was that without more guardrails around that, and without more learning how to be an online learner… stuff that we should have put in front of students… we did some but we didn’t do enough… the students who made that decision were the ones who struggled the most. And then we also learned that there are some classes in which this mode of teaching and learning is very well suited, and then there are some classes where it didn’t work very well at all. And in this, I’m thinking of mostly the classic upper-level humanities type seminars that are almost completely reliant on student discussion where instructors and students both really had trouble doing a seminar type thing where everybody’s sort of collectively in and immersed in the same text and conversation with people in these different spaces, and tried to move back and forth between. It was just, for lack of a better term, it was just weird, and clunky. And so we had faculty who moved into doing them all synchronously online, because at least people were in the same figurative space, so to speak. And that actually worked a lot better for some of those classes that were running into roadblocks. So we did have to shift on the fly a little bit. So I would say that successful for what we needed it to be over the fall. But there were some definite roadblocks that folks ran into, there were technology hiccups, as well, of course, and we were really tired after it was done. But we learned a lot to inform our spring practice. And in conversations I’ve had with peers and colleagues, I think the way it went for us didn’t vary too much from the way that it went in a lot of places.

John: That’s very similar to our experience here. We encouraged preparation for hyflex. I was pretty careful to try to not call it hyflex, because we knew that wouldn’t really be that much flexibility. But preparing for any eventuality gave faculty a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, they’re going to be able to provide their classes in whatever formats happened to be possible. I chose synchronous online for my courses, and Rebecca chose the same. One of the reasons I did it was just because I didn’t think I could effectively manage a classroom with students in it at the same time, especially a classroom of masked and distanced students while I was wearing a mask and trying to also engage with students online. The way I saw it is, hyflex works really well, when you have classrooms that are set up for it with good sound systems, when people are mobile, when it’s easier to have communications going back and forth. And our classrooms here just are not generally set up for that. And the challenges of doing that in the current environment just seemed a little bit much to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because of my age and other health concerns. But what were some of the specific challenges you faced while trying to engage with students face to face while also maintaining engagement with the online students?

Kevin: I think you bring up a lot of really important points. We committed to this hyflex thing with the intent of putting the flex in hyflex, so to speak. We really wanted students to have the choice of flexibility, even though we do that would be a lot more on the back end. For us. That made a big difference in terms of faculty workload and bandwidth. It’s really hard to build a hyflex course in a couple of months over the summer, because you’re basically doing three different courses that you’re braiding together. And yes, there’s overlap, but as anybody who’s taught online before knows, it’s a different animal trying to build an online course. So not only did we learn the added layers of complexity, building a hyflex course, but again, trying to experience that bandwidth of managing all of these other things that I wrote in one point that I felt like what are those circus performers who spins the plates and the cups and all of the saucers with all this sticks, and I let so many of them drop. I think the hardest part for me and for my students… students say they wanted that in person college experience. Well, what they wanted was to be in the dorms, to be in college, so to speak. Once they figured out that in person meant you’re having a small seminar class, but it’s held in a lecture hall that seats 110, and your all sitting way away from one another you’re masked up and yelling at each other, and half of y’all are coming in on Zoom. That’s not the face-to-face experience. That’s just weird, and kind of sucky. And so what we discovered, what I discovered and most of my colleagues is that our in-person attendance dropped off precipitously by about the end of the second week. And I would go past classrooms… my teaching Center is located at our main classroom building in a high traffic area. And I felt so bad for some of my colleagues, because we wanted to have as many of our first-year classes be fully in person, to have students have that… So there would be these classes scheduled in these large rooms, and so I was right across the hall from one of these large rooms, and one of my colleagues is in there teaching introductory algebra. And every time I walked by, it just felt like there were fewer and fewer students in there. And then one day, about three weeks into the semester, I walked in and there was nobody but him in a room that had been outfitted to seat fifty. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Real Genius, where there’s the lecture hall, and there the professor’s lecturing on the board, and students are in there taking notes, and it’s this montage of scenes. And every so often, there’s fewer students and more tape recorders on the desk and then there’s a scene where it’s just the professor and all the desks have tape recorders on them. to have the final cue is there’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing the professor’s voice. With things that are like that, I felt like that’s where we were by about the middle of October. So students very quickly readjusted what they thought they wanted to do. And that made it even harder for us as instructors to sort of recalibrate there. So, again, there’s something different about experiencing something, even if you know it’s coming intellectually. And I think that was the thing that I struggled with most personally, but my colleagues did too, is we pride ourselves on being a small high-touch institution and the things that we do that we think make us good, we were really hampered in doing those. And so it’s frustrating. You know what you need to be doing? You know you can’t do it. You certainly know you aren’t doing it. And it’s just a tough situation, and I think our frustration was evident to students too on some cases. And then of course, they get frustrated by the same sorts of things. So there were no great options, just the least-worst option. And that’s still better than the worst-worst option. But that’s kind of where we were by the end of the fall, I think.

John: That sounded very much like the experience that faculty here were reporting, that people who were teaching face-to-face or some type of a hybrid environment or a hyflex-like environment kept seeing the number of students in the classroom dwindle until they’d often be the only one in this big lecture hall by the end of the term. You mentioned that some classes such as upper-level humanities classes weren’t really very well suited for this type of instruction, what classes worked relatively better.

Kevin: So, from what I understand, some of my colleagues in the STEM fields actually were able to really build and conduct really effective hyflex classes. Our intro to bio courses, our intro to chemistry and organic chemistry. And these were departments where faculty were already doing a lot of really interesting things and innovative things pedagogically, anyway. So they really, I think, kind of took up the challenge and jury rigged the tech when they needed it. My colleagues in her genetics class was recording using a lecture capture tool. She was trying to find a digital whiteboard to use for all the diagrams and nomenclature because it’s easier just to draw it by hand, and none of the, were really working or picking up right when you were trying to do it through Zoom. So she just tilted her webcam on her office desk down to show a piece of paper where she was writing, and did a split screen. So sometimes those are the solutions that we find. And I think the faculty who approached it as this really interesting set of problems to solve, sometimes creatively, and building upon things that they were already doing had, I think, an easier time making hyflex work. And I think the course material and the course objectives and pedagogical style also fit into that where you had some parts of the class where it was exposition, but then we can do think-pair-share… that’s a little more easy to do, even if you’ve got students in person and on Zoom. So things like that. You know, we have people who are really successful with that. I have colleagues in athletic training, and in particular, they have a graduate program that’s almost fully online anyway. So they adapted some hyflex elements into that and actually thought improved the student experience in what had previously been seen as an exclusively online program. So I think there were faculty out there who really found it, at least most of hyflex, were able to adopt it into ways that work organically with how they approach their courses anyway. And that’s not to say you can’t do it in a humanities seminar course, I absolutely think you can. But I also think experience and time are vital parts of that equation. And those are two things that we just didn’t have available to us.

Rebecca: And given all those challenges that you faced, and hindsight’s 20-20, what does the spring look like for you? You mentioned earlier that you’re already in classes now. So how was the approach different for the spring and how’s it looking so far?

Kevin: Well, the main change that we made institutionally for the spring was with the online asynchronous option. ‘Cause we sort of knew right away in the fall that that was going to be a problem. We do early alerts. We’re pretty high touch when it comes, especially tor first-year student success. And so the third week of the semester, we do early alerts. And my wife is our Registrar in Institutional Research Associates, so I get to hear some of the numbers, and the number of low early-alert grades and the number of low midterm grades reported in week six was something like 270% of our previous semester high. And we also had a significant amount of students who were getting multiple low grades, not just in one class or the other, but that it was endemic across their schedule. And that really correlated pretty strongly to students, especially first-year or new transfer students who had chosen the online asynchronous options of attendance. So this semester, that has a lot more guardrails around it. Students could attend class all semester, asynchronously online, but they have to come to an understanding with their instructor. They have to talk to their instructor, the instructor has to talk to them talk, about how that’s going to look, what they’re going to commit to doing it, what the things are going to need to really be. And it’s not just going to be a student who’s like, “I don’t want to come from the dorm.” So the online asynchronous is really being kind of de-emphasized except for cases. Now for a student who has a temporary absence, who travels with an athletic team, or who does have to go into quarantine because of contact tracing, that option is available to them on a temporary basis. But in terms of doing the class that way, we are trying to steer students away from that option and it nvolve much more. It’s basically an instructor approval mechanism, is what it comes down to. But what it does is it really gets students into the conversation about what are the most effective choices about how I could learn and how I might be most successful, not how I want to learn, but how I’m better at learning. The other thing that we learned is that we didn’t think enough about if online learning is different for students too. And being a successful online learner requires some skills and some competencies that students might not necessarily have had the chance to build, especially in high school coming straight into college. The first year is hard enough without all that layered on top. I wish we had done more. We did some… about here are some things you can do to be a successful online learner, here’s what hyflex looks like, here are the resources we can out in front of you, here are some tutorials, but we needed to do more. And I don’t even think we do knew much more we needed to do until we realized that, especially for many of our first-year students, when high schools what remote in March, for a lot of them, that was it, they just stopped. So these are students who we said “Oh, well, they’ll have some experience online learning from what happened in the spring.” [LAUGHTER] And for about 95% of them that was not the case. So we really were reckoning with completely novice online learners. So the decision- making process about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to attend and what’s going to work, that didn’t go so well for a lot of our students.

John: Under normal circumstances, when students select online courses, when they have many more options to drop, fail, and withdrawal rate is much higher, especially for, as you said, first-year students and students who are not as well established in the college environment. But in these circumstances where people had less choice about whether they were online or not, the problem becomes a little bit more severe. Were all students equally affected, or were some groups of students more adversely affected by some of the challenges they faced this fall.

Kevin: Oh, I think clearly the results of hyflex mirror the larger inequities that we all sort of intellectually knew were there. But again, experiencing that in such an, I think ,visceral way… My own institution, we serve a lot of students from groups that have not been traditionally well served by higher education in the United States. Access to internet and technology was a significant issue even more so at my institution than I would have expected, and I’ve been here 18 years or so. You don’t know what’s happening in some of these students lives. But, of course, with people losing their jobs and all these other things, it becomes even more tenuous. We have an emergency grant program, we had CARES Act money, we invested a lot in technology, not just for faculty in classrooms, but for students as well. But even then, again, that’s half the story, because now I have something to access, but if I don’t have the high-speed internet bandwidth with which to access it, then there’s a problem as well. And then layered on top and all around that is, of course, which students have had in school districts or school buildings that were resourced enough to provide that sort of familiarity and ease with the technology or to get students thinking about metacognitively how they are learners, think about what it means to learn. Basically, what hyflex showed us, and I think what the pivot to online has showed us in higher education is that we could no longer ignore the inequities, the very profound inequities that exist. And a lot of us say that, right? Like we’ve been saying this for a while, but basically what that pivot to online learning did in March and what hyflex is continuing to exacerbate in many ways is we are basically rewarding the students who already have cultural capital, and real capital, but cultural capital in particular, who are able to manage that transition to: A) college learning but, B) college learning at a time of COVID much better than students who have not been in places that have equipped them to do that. And that is through no fault of the students or their ability. It is the structural problems that we face. And what COVID has done has laid those completely bare, and we continue to ignore them at our peril.

John: One nice thing, though, is that I think more faculty are aware of that, because it was pretty easy to ignore those things when all the students have some type of a computing device, (or nearly all) on campus, they certainly have computer labs, high-speed Wi Fi, they have meal plans, and so forth that provide support, but all those things disappeared for those students who were attending remotely and any faculty member who taught any number of students would have seen students encountering some really significant challenges during the past 10 months or so.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And access does not mean the same thing as ready availability, and that was a lesson that we learned as well, because as you point out, so many of our students, their high speed internet access is in a computer lab that also closed down in mid March, or in the library, or a public library, which here in Des Moines, all those closed as well. We had students sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s using the WiFi on their smartphone or tablet in a car uploading work to Blackboard, for example. So yeah, this is not going away. We may be seeing it more evident than we have before. But, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation at higher ed about what hyflex does and what this online learning is going to do to shape the way we do teaching and learning going forward, which is a conversation we absolutely should be having… But if this isn’t part of it, that we’re not having the right conversation.

Rebecca: As a design faculty member, we have a lot of students that need software, expensive software…

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …often and expensive computers to run said software. We had a lot of really hard conversations about “What software do we really need to use? Do we need to use software? How are we going to get students computers? Because having just the internet access wasn’t even the beginning of our problem. [LAUGHTER].

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …to even enter into the field. What can you do? So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about… I’m teaching a new class in this spring, that’s an introductory class on theories of motion and interaction. But I’m actually working on a lot of things that don’t require any software so that the students can be included, because I am teaching online synchronously, and we were trying to figure out what classes could we teach in that modality and which ones really need to have access to our labs, so they have access to equipment, so that students can attend at least some of our classes in the modality that they need to. So the inequities just became so, so, so, prevalent, and so obvious to all of us that we had really hard discussions, and knowing that I’m teaching this class, and I know that there are some students that just can’t take it.

Kevin: Yeah, your breaking out software is so essential. Our students in communications and new media, our students in our graphic design program, students who are using Minitab or SPSS… Our IT department… I want them all canonized into sainthood, because what they did was they set up what they called a virtual software lab, so students could telnet into machines, which is obviously not the ideal solution, but it was a solution. That was one of those things, again, we’ll be talking about like we knew that might be a thing, but then experiencing it being a thing at the scale and scope with which we experienced that, really stretched us and we weren’t able to beat those needs. So again, yeah, as you talk about, even if we’re talking about using OER, or low-cost stuff that normally we say, “Oh, this is very accessible.” Well, if you could get in the door, but if you don’t have a door, that’s a problem. And so here we are. I think that’s one of the most important things we need to be working on.

John: One of the things you mentioned is how faculty are in general, exhausted. Faculty workload has gone up quite a bit since March of last year. Are there any things that faculty can do to help keep that workload under control so that we’re not all as exhausted at the end of the spring semester as we were at the end of the fall semester?

Kevin: Well, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] It’s just we are being asked to do so much more, abd there’s no two ways about it. Not to get oversharing or anything, but over Christmas break before the Christmas holiday, I had to go to the emergency room with an attack of colitis. Certainly stress and being burnt out didn’t help anything. There’s now 15 pounds less of me than there was before,and I wanted to lose weight, but that was certainly not the way I want to do it. I think the end-of-the-semester crash was a really big part of that. And there are things that we could do, but we can’t do them alone. So when I see faculty who are navigating this at least modestly successfully, are faculty who have found their people and are able to have these networks where they could collaborate with one another, share ideas and help each other with the kind of tips and tricks stuff. I also think that we as faculty, this is a really good opportunity for us to be very intentional about focusing in on what it is we do in terms of assessments and is much time the best way for us to do those kind of assessments and is that time the best way we could be spending it. The other thing I think that we could also be doing is we don’t have to learn every new tool. I know the temptation, and I am the worst at this. I am such a dork when it comes to technology, I want all the devices, I want to learn all the things. I want all the cool tricks and toys and apps. But that’s so much bandwidth that I could be using on something else. You don’t need a whole suite of digital tools to teach online or hybrid effectively. You could use two or three Google Docs and a learning management system and your cell phone, then you could do a really great dynamic hyflex course. So being very mindful about how we’re allocating our energy and also being okay with the fact that sometimes we’re not okay, there’s still a global pandemic going on. The republic teeters, and I wish I was being hyperbolic when I say that, but I’m a historian who’s traced race and racism in US history. I’m writing a chapter right now for a project on the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. It’s been a weird week, you know? And I got to be okay with that. I have not been able to do the things that I wanted to do. Last week’s plan went up in smoke, but I can’t kill myself about that. And so just communicating effectively with students, being present with students and one another in an honest, authentic way, and realizing that we’re all trying to navigate this together. I know, that sounds very hippie and Kumbaya-ish, but if we’re not honest and authentic about this, we’re gonna kill ourselves. And it’s like a cliche says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our students deserve better, we deserve better, there are ways to be better, but we have to be willing to be very intentionally reflective, and adaptive about where we are.

John: One thing we should note is that we’re recording this in mid January, right after an insurrection tried to take over the government a few days ago. We’ll be releasing this a little bit later. And who knows what might have happened between now and then. We’re hoping that the world has returned to something closer to the instability that we’ve been observing in recent years, and we don’t see a further acceleration of crises. But it’s been challenging. I know, when the attack on the capital took place, I was trying to do some preparation for some workshops, and for some classes, and I spent the whole time doomscrolling, going through and watching CNN, reading news reports, checking the Times, the Washington Post, and it’s been a scary time.

Kevin: It has been.

Rebecca: it really makes me want to ask the question about radical hope.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: But I don’t know if I should. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, so I was doing a workshop for another university that morning and again the next day. So it’s like, “Okay, hey, you know, we’re teetering on the brink of total civil and political collapse, but let’s take three hours and talk about hyflex learning…” like it just felt like this out of body experience. And so I centered that right in front, I put a picture up of it, and I said, “Look, here’s where we’re at, and we’re in the space and we’re doing faculty development stuff, but we’re gonna have to be doing this in the ways that work for us right now.” And so, engage with this, however, works best for you, though I can tell you, I’m not bringing my full self to this right now. Because this is just kind of where we are. And so I think part of acting from a place of hope is to be unflinchingly honest about where you are in the present. And so one of the things that perversely I draw hope from is you have to work harder than you would have ever had to work before to hide from the realities that we now have to confront. And have we finally lanced the boil? …to use a really gross metaphor. Have we finally gotten to a place where we’ve done that. I think there are signs that that may be the case. So that gives me hope, because the fewer places you have to hide from the work that needs to be done, the better and more sustained that work will end up being. So if we’re at that kind of place, it may seem perverse, and maybe even Pollyannaish, but I do think that that is occasion for hope. And I do think that being in places like higher education, this affirms are important and what we need to fight for, because higher education has failed in many ways and that’s why we are where we are in a lot of ways. We have work to do at our own communities. So we can’t hide from that anymore. Or if you could, I guess, but it would evolve way more mental contortions that I think is humanly possible. So is that a hinge moment? Is it that kind of inflection point? I think it might be. And so that adds urgency to what we’re doing. It affirms the work that some of us have been doing. It opens up opportunities to break more into that work. It also reminds us to communicate the larger importance of that work to external audiences. And those are all things that ultimately make the work go better and go further. So that’s kind of where I think we are, at this point, at least, when we’re not doomscrolling eternally. [LAUGHTER] But there’s places for that, again, unflinching honesty. And it’s okay to kind of sit with that for a little bit, but we can’t sit there forever in despair. So when folks are ready, you know, Rebecca Solnit says “hope is the axe with which you break down the door in an emergency.” If you can’t pick up the axe right now, that’s okay. Other people have got it. They’ll hold it for you. And when you’re ready, come and help us with it. And then we’ll break down that door and move into a better future. And that’s where I hope we are as a community.

Rebecca: The emphasis on that brutal honesty about no matter where we’re at in the moment, I think, for me actually, brought a lot of hope in the fall because it helped me connect really well with all my students, despite being apart, I didn’t actually feel like I had any less connection to my students than I would in person. And it almost seems blasphemous to say that out loud.

Kevin: Yeah, I think so, and there’s that weird feeling like, wait a minute, we’re actually more authentic in this weird hybrid online space that maybe we would have been if things were “normal.” And I’d also say this, so I had substance in the past, and I’ve been in recovery for well over a decade. But this is one of those moments where you reach that point of clarity like, okay, things could get worse from here. But you don’t want them to get worse from where we’re at right now. So what are you going to do. And so, having experienced that in my own personal journey, and recovered and walked away from that, if we could do that, as a society, island say, “We could continue this, there’s no bottom to a hole, you can keep digging.” But when you decide to stop digging, and do something else, and maybe that takes a shock, maybe that takes what the therapists call hitting your bottom. So your bottom is where you decide it is. There’s always a lower bottom. But as a society, we could go lower. But if we collectively decide that that’s as low as we want to go, and we want to climb back out, we could do that. And some of the things I’m seeing just within higher ed, but also in the broader public are making me think and hope and I think, not in a Pollyanna way that we are starting to climb out. Even if it seems counterintuitive to think that way so few days after what’s happened.

John: Yeah, I see a lot of signs of that with people who had been supporting much of what we had been seeing that was so traumatic, backing away and saying, “No, this is just one step too far. We’re cutting off any funding to your party or anyone who encouraged any of these activities.” And that’s a sign of progress.

Kevin: Yeah, if you’d have told me some of these companies would stop donating to Republicans, 10 days ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. Sometimes historical change happens when we don’t realize it’s happening until a year later, we look back and say, “Wow, point B where we’re at now is so radically different than point A.” And I wonder if that will be our experience, that we will look to the before times here, and then a year down the road, when we look back at where we are now and realize that the tectonic plates did indeed shift. And they shifted the way that we might not have felt every shift every day. But we’re at a much different place for the long run than we were before. And I think that there’s a pretty realistic shot of us having that kind of realization, a little bit down the road. And that keeps me hopeful. And that keeps me energized to do the work that we’re trying to do in times like this, and to have our students in community with us in times like this, while we’re trying to do this work, it takes a lot from everybody. So is it worth it? And I would say absolutely, yes, and our students, they’re doing this because they want to learn, because they want to succeed. And that takes a lot of effort, and a lot of bandwidth and resources from them. And we should honor that choice as well.

Rebecca: Every time I think about that idea, though, there’s always the few that couldn’t make that choice. I feel like just in the way that we’re having this conversation honoring those who couldn’t make that choice because they wanted to but can’t. I think it’s also important to because there’s definitely a number of potential students that are having to wait.

Kevin: Yes, I like the saying goes, when we’re sitting at the table, it’s important not just to look at who’s at the table with us, but who couldn’t be at the table with us. And I think as we talk about coming out of COVID, what is the future of higher education? What is the future of student learning? What is the future of teaching and learning? What is the future of hyflex? We have to be very mindful, of who hasn’t been in those conversations, because they couldn’t be, because we need to be paying attention to that too. Otherwise, our work is incomplete. Absolutely.

John: While we’re thinking about the future more optimistically, what are some of the gains that we might take away from what we’ve learned since March of 2020, in terms of how we offer our courses, and we deliver education, perhaps more effectively,

Kevin: I do think the flex part of hylex is an important thing to take with us. This openness to thinking about how students attend class, and I’m using the word attend in a very sort of elastic way. Because you could say, look, the traditional way we do face-to-face instruction hasn’t changed for the better part of a century, in terms of the physical setting and the constraints and the affordances that it has. So maybe we’re at a point where we don’t so much talk about attendance, as we talked about engagement. How are students engaging and being in community with us in this class. Maybe a lot of it is synchronous, but maybe some of it isn’t. That maybe some of it is face to face, but maybe some of it is online. And so I think these are conversations that are: A) worth having, B) that are ongoing, and C) gonna be with us, and I think changed the way that we do this teaching and learning thing, not wholesale, but in places. I think there are programs who are going to say. you know what? …hyflex works really well for us, or for these particular classes that are classes where we need to offer more seats or more access, hyflex is a way for us to scale out these offerings, even if we can’t hire 40 faculty members. What I’m afraid of is that hyflex becomes another way that faculty labor gets devalued in efficiency death. And so that’s where we need to be vigilant in these conversations. But I do think when we think about how our students engaging in learning? What does that really look like? Do they need to be physically present with us in the same room for that to occur? More and more of us have had to really ask that question. So now let’s take the answers that we’ve gotten and do some work with that and reimagine, or rethink or modify, or maybe even just subtly tweak some of our course offerings. I can see myself and the history department that we have at my institution, our survey classes, maybe we have some traditional face-to-face sessions, which is what most of our students would want, I think, and that we have a fully online section or two to to serve our adult and evening programs that are fully online, but maybe we offer a section that’s hyflex, as well. And our student athletes, who at my institution represent a large percentage of our student population, have a way that they could take courses and still travel and not “miss class.” So that’s one of the ways that I think we’re going to be thinking about what this all means. And I think the other thing that’s really salutary here, and I say this as a humanities guy working in a liberal arts college, I think we’ve realized technology isn’t the answer to everything?.So this technofabulism this. “Yeah, we could just put it online. How hard could it be like this teaching is nothing but content delivery, of course online makes everything more efficient?” Well, we have ample evidence that that is not the case. So we need to really be keeping that centered as well. And teaching matters, learning matters, and it’s not something you just throw on the LMS and expect to have happen. And so this sort of techno-utopianism, this “there’s an app for that” kind of thing. Technology is a tool. It’s not the only tool, and it’s not the best tool. And I think we have more than enough evidence that we’ve taken from our experience this academic year, to focus conversations that way. And I think that that’s really important.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next?

Kevin: What’s next for me, is,again, talking about where do we go with hyflex. Or at least the sort of ethos or the ethic that informs hyflex. The rethinking of what learning looks like on the collegiate level, on the higher ed level, and where one needs to be located both figuratively and literally for learning to happen. What’s next for me is that conversation, but I think that conversation is also gonna have a very powerful element of there’s a lot to be said, for the traditional face-to-face method of instruction. And that not everything is an efficiency or a scale up and that in fact, there are things that work worse when we do that. So what’s next for me is what is learning look like? It’s going to be different. But that doesn’t mean completely exclusive from what we would believe learning looks like now. And I think that those conversations are going to be a lot more student-centered as well, because the student experience with hyflex is really important. It mirrors a lot of what the faculty experience has been. And I think listening to student voice with this is not only important for the hyflex conversation, but now brings us back into a place where we realize that’s the most important voice when we’re talking about teaching and learning in general. And so if institutions have these conversations and do the strategic planning and think about the role of technology in terms of the work that they’re doing with their students, I think the incentive to have students involved in those conversations in a really meaningful way has never been more apparent. And so for me, what I see as being next is student voice becoming an even more powerful part of the equation, which I think is essential.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sparking a little bit of hope in what feels like a dark time.

John: It’s great talking to you again, and we’re hoping that everything goes well on all of our campuses this spring.

Kevin: Yes. Thanks for having me and always glad to join you and we are in hopeful times and the work we do matters. And if we don’t like what we see now, we have the luck and the fortune to be involved in creating something different, and that should energize us.

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

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

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168. Synchronous Online Learning

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we approach the end of a really challenging year, we’d like to thank all of our guests who provided so much help and support to us and all of our listeners, and we’d like to thank you, our listeners, for hanging in there with us. We’ve all learned a lot in 2020 and we’re looking forward to a chance to apply what we’ve learned in circumstances in which there are fewer external threats.

…and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Over the past few months, we’ve talked a lot about the pandemic and ways to adjust our teaching. And we’ve talked a lot about online learning, but we haven’t really focused on synchronous learning. John and I both taught synchronously this semester. So we decided that in this episode, we would focus a little bit more on synchronous learning and what we’ve learned about it in our own experiments in our classes.

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast once again.

John: …and I have a blend of spearmint and peppermint tea.

Rebecca: That sounds much healthier than my choice.

John: It’s not my first tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is not mine, either.

John: This is my first herbal tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is my second pot of the day. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, Rebecca, what classes were you teaching this fall?

Rebecca: I was teaching two design classes that are smaller. So I had one web design course that was stacked. So, it had beginning, intermediate and advanced students in it, 25 students, and we met synchronously, but also had asynchronous classes, it’s considered a studio course. So for a three credit course, we have six hours of class time, and three hours of outside work, which is a different balance than maybe other folks. And then the other class I was teaching was a special topics design course, which was smaller, it was about 10 students. And that class was also synchronous, but it was a project-based class, and we worked on two community design projects: one for a project called Vote Oswego, which was a get-out-the-vote initiative on campus, and the second is a project called “Recollection,” which is a storytelling project with adult care facilities.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast on an earlier iteration of Vote Oswego. So we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: So John, what kind of classes are you teaching? We obviously don’t teach the same thing.

John: I was teaching two classes this fall. One was a large synchronous session with 288 students. And the other was a fully asynchronous section with 60 students this semester,

Rebecca: At what level were the students in both of your classes?

John: These were both introductory economics classes. So most students in the class were freshmen, and it was their first economics course.

Rebecca: So, your classes are much larger than mine, you’re teaching much more younger students or newer students, and my classes are smaller, project-based, and usually junior or senior students.

John: Yes. And there’s certainly some differences in the disciplines as well.

Rebecca: No, that they’re the same. [LAUGHTER]

John: Why did you choose a synchronous mode of delivery rather than an asynchronous mode, or a face-to-face option this fall?

Rebecca: So I chose not to do face-to-face delivery for my own health reasons, I chose to not be on campus for my own safety, because I have a chronic illness. So I chose specifically to have strong synchronous components, because a lot of our students are used to working in a studio together and having a community around each other and kind of feed off of each other’s work and work collaboratively. And I wanted, because of the classes I was teaching, to continue to have collaboration as a key part of my class. And I was really concerned that if I didn’t have a strong synchronous component, my students wouldn’t be able to effectively collaborate with each other, because there would be too much scheduling issues and what have you. So it’s a little bit of a carryover from the way that I would run my classes in person in that I give a lot of class time to project-based learning and team-based work and do a lot of lectures and things like that asynchronously in like a flipped classroom style. How about you, John?

John: Basically, I tried to preserve something as close as possible to what was originally scheduled or what was originally planned. And my large class is typically about 400 to 420 students, and I just couldn’t imagine taking that class and doing it in a completely asynchronous manner, because when I teach a class asynchronously, I give students lots of individual feedback, and it would be really challenging providing individual feedback to several hundred students. I just didn’t really have the time to do it in that sort of mode. So I thought it was better to work in a mode where I could give students feedback in a group setting using some interactive tools, where they’re all getting feedback at once. It was the only way I could see handling a group that large. If I was trying to do it as an online class, it would be effectively more in the form of a MOOC with very little interaction, either among the students or between me and the students.

Rebecca: One of the things that we both talked about before we started recording was how we both used a flipped classroom model to help with our synchronous session. So can you talk a little bit about how you did that and what students were doing outside of class.

John: This is actually, in many ways, similar to what I had done in a face-to-face class. Before each class, students would have some readings to work through. And I use the Lumen Learning Waymaker package, which is basically taking materials from a textbook, combining it with interactive multimedia, where they got to shift demand and supply curves and other curves around and see how they responded when they change parameters. And they read a bit in that online text and then they would work through some problems on it where they were allowed multiple attempts at those problems. I also created some videos with embedded questions that were at a somewhat higher level than the textbook readings, which was a little bit more challenging. And they were given unlimited attempts to work through those videos with the questions. And they also, outside of class, participated in discussion boards, where I asked them to relate what they were learning to things in the world around them, in their own lives and their own experiences.

Rebecca: …nice little inclusive teaching practice right there, right? …connecting students with their experience and making it relevant to them.

John: Right, because we know that students learn things most effectively when it has some salience, when they see the relevance to their life.

Rebecca: And the waymaker package, if I remember correctly, had some quizzing and stuff associated with that, and unlimited attempts, a version of retrieval practice there.

John: It’s a mix of things with unlimited attempts and limited attempts. So, the microeconomics Waymaker package is designed, and all of their Waymaker packages, for that matter, are designed, is that they start with a list of broad learning objectives. And they break it down at each module level to sub objectives. And they break those down into sub modules. So, in what would have been the equivalent of a chapter of a textbook, there’s usually two to four sub modules on particular aspects of that. And students work through that. And embedded in it, they have some review questions, some practice questions. And those they can take an unlimited number of times at any point in the course. Once they complete the module, they have a module quiz where they are limited to only two attempts at it. But they’re getting feedback on what they did well. And what they didn’t do well. It’s automatically color coded to indicate whether they mastered the material in one of the blocks of content in there. And then, if they take the module quiz, it will give them feedback on what areas they did well, and what areas they need to work at more. And they’re being directed back to the areas that they need to review. And there, they do have unlimited practice opportunities. And the other thing I did is I created my own videos that focused primarily on the topics that students generally find the most challenging. And in economics, that’s generally with either applications involving math or involving graphs. It was one module a week, and I would take the topics that I know, from past experience, they were likely to have the most problems with, I’d create my own videos with that. And I was using PlayPosit, which allows you to embed questions in there. Most of those videos I created were between five and 12 minutes in length. They would watch the videos and answer questions as they were going. And if they got one of the questions wrong, they could go back and replay that portion of the video and then try it again. And they were given unlimited opportunities for that.

Rebecca: I think you mentioned students really loved those opportunities.

John: At the end of the class, I gave them a Jamboard, which I know is something you’ve used more regularly, asking them what worked well. And there was very much universal agreement on the PlayPosit, as well as on the Waymaker aspects of the course. They really liked the fact that there were practice activities embedded right in their textbook, and that they could go back and try things over and over again until they mastered it. And it was giving them feedback on whether they had, in fact, attained mastery at every step. And it was a nice visual indication of what they’ve learned and what they still needed to work on more.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: What did you do in your asynchronous components of your class?

Rebecca: Well, the balance of my classes, as I mentioned before, is a little wonky in that we’re supposed to spend more time in class and less time out. So asynchronously, I did a lot of independent stuff that students were not necessarily doing collaboratively. So this is where I had lecture videos that are recorded that were about the topics that they were going to be working on or introduce the component of the project that they were going to be doing. And then they also were completing things like LinkedIn Learning tutorials. And we also have access to D-Q University, which is a set of tutorials for accessibility, and teaches accessibility. So I took advantage of that package as well. And largely they were completing those kinds of tutorials, both of those have exercise files and that kind of thing that they can follow along with. They get little certificates. When they’re done completing there’s little quiz questions and stuff. So they were doing a lot of that kind of work asynchronously. They were also using Slack to communicate with their teams for independent things that they were working on that they needed to communicate out to teams when they were working on projects together. And I also use Slack as a place to have discussion. So like you, I had discussion questions that tried to make what we were talking about relevant. We were exploring design, specifically like web design and how they interacted as a consumer versus how they would interact as a maker and did a lot of observational studies. We also did some discussion boards that were really about design activities and things that got students off the computer. So they were just documenting what they did off-screen, offline. So things like listening to a podcast so that they didn’t have to be staring at a screen and what their takeaways were. They attended virtual conferences, which I guess was still on-screen, and did some sketching, like paper prototyping and some other methods that we like to encourage our students to do, just to kind of help balance the screen time a little bit for students. So that’s largely what they were doing asynchronously.

John: Were you having them submit some copies of that work in some way, or were they just reflecting on the work that they had done?

Rebecca: The little non screen activities were documented in a discussion, essentially, that we were holding on Slack, and then tutorials and things, they were just submitting their completed certificates. And so I broke down those LinkedIn Learning courses and things over multiple weeks. So they didn’t really submit those certificates until they were completed. But they were doing a little bit by little bit, but if they didn’t do the tutorials, they wouldn’t be able to do the projects or the actual work that we were doing of the class. So it was pretty important that they were doing those components outside of class.

John: Once your students were in class, what did you have them do in a typical class session?

Rebecca: The two classes I was teaching I handled a bit differently because of just the sheer volume of students in the bigger class, which was 25 students that were working on projects. They were working on collaborative projects, in teams of three, for the most part. And so what we would often do is show-and-tell’s or critiques in small groups. So let’s say there was two or three teams together that we would do a little critique with in a breakout room, while other teams were meeting and collaborating. We would also do things like come together to answer questions about things that they were working on, troubleshoot or whatever, and then go work on projects in breakouts for a bit. And then we’ll come back at a scheduled time. I also did one-on-one meetings with students during class time. So I’d set up things like a quiet work breakout room or the chatty breakout room. And students would pick the place that they wanted to go while they were working on projects. And then I would meet with them individually for critique, and often a lot of code troubleshooting is a lot of what I spend synchronous time doing. And students sometimes met with my TA to do the same thing, and with our small groups. I also did a lot of design challenges. And students really liked those and would like to do more to hold them accountable for the kind of material that they were learning outside of class or being introduced to outside of class in a low-stakes environment to test it out with some peers and troubleshoot. So I would pose a little design problem. And then they’d work in a small group to work on that problem in a very tight amount of time. They might spend 30 minutes… my classes are three hours long… or an hour, and then we’d come back and show them off or talk about different things. And I tried to make those design challenges fun and entertaining. So one of the first things we did, which worked really well to start gelling their teams that they were with the whole semester was designing an emoji for Slack that they used for their team. And they loved that assignment. It was partly about working at a small size, and so it was tied to some of the curriculum that we were doing, but it was fun. So they did that in a small team and then had to implement it. Later on in the semester, we did things like a 404 error page for their projects, which were just kind of entertaining. We tried to make them amusing, so that if you landed on a page, it was a good user experience. So things that maybe wouldn’t typically work on in one of my classes that were a little bit more fun, but really were emphasizing the technical and conceptual things that we were working on. The other thing that we use synchronous time for is I took advantage of our virtual platform, and I brought in alumni multiple times, and local designers multiple times and did little Q and A’s with them. Not every week, but every few weeks, or every couple weeks, I would bring in a designer for a 30-minute session. They’d introduce their work. And then students did a Q&A with them, which students really loved. And it broke up our time a bit and really gave them something special that maybe we didn’t always do in a face-to-face class that made the synchronous environment kind of special.

John: Excellent. That is a nice opportunity provided by Zoom that actually could work in the classroom too. But I think many of us just hadn’t really considered it so much. It doesn’t really matter where you are when you’re teaching in this sort of synchronous environment. So it’s very easy to bring in guest speakers and it’s something we’ve probably should have been doing more of in the past, but I think many of us will be doing more in the future.

Rebecca: So John, how did you use your synchronous time?

John: I had told students before each class session, what specific topics we’d be working on. And then most of the class time was spent asking him a series of problems of progressively higher levels of challenge. I basically adopted Eric Mazur’s clicker strategy of trying to find challenging questions where roughly half the class will get it wrong the first time and then letting them meet (in this case, I had the meet in breakout rooms), discussing it and coming back and voting again on it. And generally, you’d see a fairly significant increase in the performance after they’ve had that chance to engage in peer discussion. And that’s where a lot of the learning seems to happen when clickers are being used. I used iClicker. The only difference is students could not use a physical radio frequency clicker because they have a range of a couple 100 meters and students were spread out all over the world, I had one student in Egypt, I had students in South America and students spread throughout the country this time. So they needed to use either their laptop or a mobile device in order to do that. We discussed it as a whole class after they come back from the breakout rooms. And then I’d asked them to explain their choices. I generally have them use chat, and then I’d go through and correct any misperceptions they’d have. And I try to guide them to the correct answer by asking them questions, and letting them see for themselves why some of the answers were right, and some of them were wrong. And generally, that’s how we spent many of our classes. Initially, I was also using Kahoot! from time to time. They enjoyed Kahoot!, but I noticed a bit of a drop off when we were doing the Kahoot! sessions, because those were not graded. And with the clicker questions, they were being graded, and that tended to receive a somewhat higher level of interest. It was very low stakes, they got a certain number of points for an incorrect answer on either attempt, and they got a bit more points when they answered the question correctly. And initially, I was giving him three points for an incorrect answer, and five for a correct one. And they asked it perhaps that could be bumped up, because some of the questions were so challenging. And I did raise it. So they ended up getting four points for any answer, and five points for a correct answer. So it is extremely low stakes. So I tried to do a lot of retrieval practice in the class, where it started from essentially no stakes with the embedded questions in the reading, then it ramped up to in class applications of this, where they still get 80%, even if they got it wrong, but they had another chance to get it correct. And then they took that module quiz, and even there, they had two attempts at it. So if they made mistakes, they had lots of resources they could go back to and work on it. So I tried to set it up and provide them with many pathways to attain mastery of the content, and to encourage a growth mindset and to encourage them to recognize that people make mistakes when they’re learning and that there’s a lot of benefit from having those mistakes as part of your learning process. There’s a lot of research that shows that we learn things much more deepl if we get them wrong, when we first try it, we’re much more likely to remember it later on, then if we happen to get it correct, initially. In that case, we’re much more likely to forget it a bit later. And that was a bit of a challenge for students. But I think they eventually appreciated the fact that everything was fairly low stakes.

Rebecca: I think I’m seeing some themes in the things that, although we’re teaching very different classes in very different contexts, there’s some real big themes about how we’re using our synchronous time, and even how we’re using our asynchronous time. And so there’s an emphasis on peer interaction and establishing those peer networks, really enforcing or reinforcing things and dealing with muddy points. And then also just providing the encouragement and support like that low-stakes environment or trying to foster a growth mindset. So in my classes, I did the same thing. I was doing peer group work and trying to really get them to collaborate and troubleshoot together and they love that that… that was really valuable. I spent time doing live demos and troubleshooting, when there was a really troublesome technical component or something that they were trying to do that a lot of them were having trouble with, that they could ask me live questions. So that same muddy point kind of thing that you were getting to in what you were discussing. And then, finally, the growth mindset that you started bringing up, I’d also tried to do and, although I didn’t have a lot of low-stakes testing, or something like that, I set my projects up so they were done in sprints. So a long full-semester project was broken into multiple two-week sprints, where they would work on something, get feedback, and then could revisit whatever they did, and then add a new component to it. And so I did that throughout the whole semester. So there was a bit of retrieval practice, a bit of spaced practice in there, and certainly some fostering a growth mindset and the idea that you make mistakes and that’s how you learn. And I spent a lot of time… I don’t know if you experienced this too, John… but I experienced a lot of time in synchronous and saying like, “You can do this. It’ll be okay. And this is how the learning experience works.”

John: And I did have to do a lot of that, especially in the first few weeks of the semester, because they were not used to a flipped class environment. And they were not used to this notion of making mistakes and learning from mistakes as part of your learning process. Because most of them have come up through their elementary and secondary school system thinking that they need to memorize some things and reproduce it on exams. And they do well if they get high scores, and they don’t make mistakes. And that’s just not how we learn in general. And it was important, I think, to help remind them of that. Another aspect of the flipped class environment that we’re both using is that we let students learn some of the basic skills, the easy things that they can learn pretty easily on their own, from other resources. And we’re trying to focus our class time using essentially a just-in-time teaching approach where you focus on the things that students always have trouble. In a traditional classroom environment, what normally happens is students will learn the easy stuff in class where faculty will lecture them on basic definitions and basic concepts. And then it all makes a lot of sense until students try to apply it. And they try to apply it typically in assignments outside of class, or in high-stakes exams. And it’s much more productive if the students use the time outside of class to master those basic concepts. And then we hold them accountable for having done that somehow in class. And then we give them assistance on the things that they find challenging when they need it. Not after they’ve had that experience of a more high-stakes assessment in some way.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think what I found or that students really shared with me that was something that they really appreciated was that there was a lot of structured time to work on those difficult problems in class. This is true of my face-to-face classes too, but even maybe more so in this online environment where students were having a really hard time managing their time. I would allow time to work on a project during class… it was scheduled, but then there was a check in point later on in the day. You wouldn’t want to spend three hours staring at a screen on Zoom, like this makes no sense. So I certainly did not do that. And I don’t want anyone to think that I did that. But, I would do things like “Okay, we’re going to check in at 9:30. And then we’re going to do a little activity together. And then you’re going to have some work time to work on X. And then we’re going to come back at 11. And you’re going to show me what you did. And then we’re going to have a little discussion or do another little activity, and then we’re gonna come back again at 12.” And we would have a schedule where there was time to kind of come back. What I found is, over time, students often wouldn’t actually get off of Zoom. They would just turn their cameras off and their microphones off. And I would do the same if it was like a work time. And then when we all came back on, a lot of students would turn the media back on. That said, I, of course did not require that depending on where students were, I certainly had students that were in environments where they couldn’t turn their cameras on, or had really poor internet connections, we adjusted as necessary there, and we had a way to communicate in a much more low-tech fashion using Slack during class time. So if something happened with someone’s internet connection, or whatever, they could still stay connected with us and what we’re doing.

John: How did you assess student learning in your class?

Rebecca: My classes are all project based. So the majority of grades are built on projects, not entirely, we had discussion boards, and I had some collaboration things that they were doing, and they were evaluated on those things as well. But projects were the significant piece of the puzzle. And the way that I graded them was really just providing feedback about the kinds of things I was going to ultimately grade very regularly throughout the semester. So every couple of weeks, they were getting feedback on their code for my web class, for example, feedback on their design, feedback on their writing, not a specific grade, necessarily, but feedback on all of those elements that were going to go into the final project. And then the ability to revise all of those again and again and again and continue to get feedback on those.

John: Did you have your students engaged in any reflective tasks?

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a really great question, John. I had reflection built in two ways. So at the end of each sprint, or kind of module in my class, they were working on two projects at the same time throughout the semester, so they’d work kind of two weeks on one project, two weeks on the next project and cycle back… that was so that I had time to give them feedback regularly. So that was part of my structure. But at the end of one of those modules, I had a reflection activity that I implemented using a Google form. So a few different prompts to think about what they got out of that sprint, goals for their next sprint, that kind of thing. And then I also had some big group reflections at different moments during the semester, I had one at the beginning, and a couple in the middle and one at the end. And I use Jamboard for that, which is a Google suite tool that has sticky notes, and is the same kind of way that you might brainstorm. So I use it as a way to collect reflections in sticky note form, essentially, virtually. And I would have a reflection question for folks to respond to or a couple of different boards with different kinds of questions. In the beginning, we did something called “hopes and fears,” which is something I’ve talked about before… setting up the class like, what are they hopeful that they’re going to get out of a collaborative project? What are they scared about? We find out that like, all the teams have the same hopes and fears. During the middle of the semester, what are some of the big takeaways that you’ve had? What are some things that you want to work on? What are some things that you’d like to see changed about the class and various themes bubble up on that. And then at the end of the semester, I asked questions like, “What was your biggest takeaway? What was the thing you were surprised that you learned? What is one recommendation of something you would change in this semester?” and “What is something that you want to continue learning?” and I got really useful feedback on what to change about the class but also, some really great themes bubbled up across the class, which really results in like kind of three or four things for each of those questions, which was a nice way to wrap up the end of the class and summarize for students after they completed that task. And one thing that I like about the Jamboard is that it actually ends up being anonymous. You can see people while they’re working on it, but it doesn’t keep a name with a sticky, ultimately.

John: So you can see who’s active in the board, but you don’t see who is writing which note.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. So that worked really well for me. How about you, John, were you able to build in reflection? I know you have such a big class. So it can be tricky.

John: I wasn’t able to do as much of that with my large section. But I did have them do that, to some extent in their discussions. For one discussion forum in both classes, I had them use a tool called Packback, which uses artificial intelligence to give students some feedback as they’re writing their prompts. And each week, students had to post a question related to that week’s material and they had to respond to at least a couple other people. But one of the nice things about Packback is it will check the cognitive level of the posts, it will give them some feedback in terms of grammar, it will also do a little bit of checking to see if the material has previously been posted. And it gives students some feedback, encouraging them to say more than “I agree.” And it also encourages them to document sources and to provide resources or references for the arguments they provide. And they get a score on that. So it takes a lot of the evaluation of that away. And so I monitored all of that. But it was something that seemed to function pretty well, just by the interaction between the users and that system. I haven’t really mentioned much about what I did in my online class. My online class uses many of the tools, but obviously, I couldn’t do synchronous, because that class is fully asynchronous. I couldn’t do the same type of instruction. But I had students do two other things in that class that provided opportunities for reflection, one of which was I had them work in a metacognitive cafe, low-stakes discussion forum, where they reflected on what they were learning and the learning process. And that gave them another way of making connections to their learning and reflecting on how well they were learning materials and what barriers they were facing, and also sharing effective learning strategies with each other. They were given some readings each week, generally on research-based learning practices as a primer for many of those discussions… others, they were just reflecting on what they’ve learned and how it might be useful in their life to tie it back to themselves. But the other thing I had students do is work on two podcast projects in that class. And in those they were taking what they were learning and making reflections about how that connected to the world around them. Many of them ended up being related to COVID and pandemics, but they were making some really good connections, and they were getting a chance to see how the material they were learning had some relevance in their own lives. And a lot of that came out in some of the things they were discussing in their podcasts. And they also did use Jamboard once at the very end of the term. But I also use Google forms a few times to have them reflect on the process of what was working, what wasn’t working in the class and what was working and what was not working in their own learning processes and what I can do and what they could do to help them learn more effectively.

Rebecca: I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised at how well synchronous learning actually went for me. I had some technical difficulties early on with my internet connection. It took me a while, but I got around to fixing that problem by hardwiring my internet and resolving some of those things. But I felt just as connected to my students as I would normally. I had a lot of interactions. And in some ways, I was able to facilitate those interactions a little more equitably online, because it wasn’t just the person who came to nudge me and stand in line and be the next person. Instead, I could really coordinate using waiting rooms and breakout rooms and really give everybody a chance to have one-on-one interactions with me, which I really appreciated. And I really did get to know all of my students quite well, which I was a little bit surprised about. And then, in an area where it’s really technicalaAnd we’re doing a lot of coding and things on screen, being able to share screens and take control of another person’s computer to fix things or show them how to do something was incredibly valuable. We use some of those kinds of tools in person. But it actually was, I think, in some cases more effective using this particular tool. So I was kind of surprised at how well some things worked. And I think that even when things go back to face to face, there’s definitely some components here that I would keep.

John: I’d agree. And I think students were amazed at how well some of those tools work. When in breakout rooms, they would be using the whiteboard features, they would be sharing screens, they’d be making the case, they’d be drawing on the screens, and that was something that would be much harder to do in a face-to-face environment. Initially, at the beginning of the class, I had some issues with chat being kind of flooded with irrelevant material, and I had to clamp down on that a little bit. But within a couple of weeks, they started actually using it very productively, and it provided a voice for all students, even those quiet students who would have otherwise sat in the back of this large lecture hall. They were able to type something in chat, after thinking about what they wanted to say before doing it, without being concerned about interrupting the discussion that was going on. And I think that was really helpful. And when I taught large classes with three to 400 students, there’s almost always 3 to 10 Students who have trouble not having side conversations when there’s other activities going on. And that mute option is kind of a nice feature and the ability to set their microphones so they’re all muted unless they choose to unmute… to have the default being muted until people click the unmute option… made it really easy. And I was amazed at how quickly they adjusted to muting and unmuting. By the end of the term there was maybe only once or twice a class where a family member or someone else would walk into the room and start talking. And then they’d remember, they had to mute their mics, and it was very rare. In a class that large, I was impressed by it… and working with students one on one, during office hours, it was so much easier to have students just share the screen and show you exactly what their problems were then to correspond with them with email, or even have them boot up their computer or you try to find what they were talking about when they came to your office. It was just much more efficient.

Rebecca: Yeah, I could actually see it. You can Zoom in, you can see what they’re talking about. I also found, and I was really floored, in this last week of classes, students were doing their final presentations,at how well they did develop facility with these tools. They’ve developed a lot of fluency in the kinds of tools that are actually very relevant to my particular discipline. It’s relevant to many disciplines. But designers use these tools all the time when they’re working with clients. And so it was amazing to me that we got through 15 presentations so efficiently. We didn’t wait for anybody to share their screen. They just knew what they needed to prepare, had it ready, they started developing slide decks really effectively, and could just do the things that they needed to do really efficiently. One of the last things I said to my class was like “I’m so proud of you just being able to do that. We didn’t have to wait for anybody today. That was amazing.” And so maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise, you hate saying like, “Oh, the plague is such a great thing.” But they really did develop some useful skills and tools and they became more effective communicators. That was something that a lot of students reflected on and things that they didn’t expect to learn is how much better they became collaborators and just communicators generally… not just in person, like through Zoom or in text… like through chat in Slack.

John: Video conferencing is likely to be a part of their lives in the foreseeable future, especially now that everyone has adapted tp this mode, it’s very useful for them to learn how to use that efficiently. The one thing I do miss though, is seeing their faces in person and recognizing them. One concern that I have is, I’m hoping to be back on campus in the fall, there may be students that I work with who interact with me regularly, whose voice I would recognize or whose name I would recognize on the screen, but whose face I just wouldn’t recognize because a very large proportion of students just didn’t feel comfortable having their cameras on regularly, and I understand that. We’ve got a lot of students living in crowded living quarters or working with very poor network connections. But I do miss actually physically seeing them. And I had my last class session earlier today. And I encouraged them to stop by in the fall and just say hello.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I agree that the physicality is certainly something that’s missing. But it was amazing to me how connected I still felt to all of the students at the end of the semester. And I think that they felt connected to each other too and they verbalized that, and also wrote that in their Jamboard reflection. So although there’s much to be improved, given this was the first time out and an experiment in many ways. I’m really thankful that I read Flower Darby’s book about Small Teaching Online because that actually informed a lot of my practices, even though it was synchronous, and a lot of her material was about asynchronous learning. It really did help me remind myself of things that I already knew that I needed to do, but to kind of make a checklist of things that I definitely needed to do as I was rethinking my classes for the fall. So thanks for chatting with me, John.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Rebecca: I am sitting down to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, to try to troubleshoot some things for the spring. And I’m teaching a class that’s brand new to our curriculum for the first time in the spring. And so we’re developing it for online synchronous, although ultimately, it’ll probably be a face-to-face class. We’ve had to re-conceptualize some of the things that we were going to do because of the technology limitations that students may have. If they’re online, we’re expecting that we might have a lot of students who are relying on their phones versus software and having access to high-end software packages or computers that can run them. So we’ve had to rethink things. But I’m pretty excited about being able to experiment with my students with all kinds of technology in the spring, but it’s definitely a puzzle that I’m currently starting to work on. How about you, John?

John: Well, I still have a lot of grading to do. But once that is done, one of the things I’m going to be doing is converting a textbook I had written in econometrics to a Pressbooks site, which will be a lot of conversion because it’s originally in LaTex, a typesetting language used for mathematical typing and I’m planning to create a lot of videos, I’m hoping to get many of them done over the break so that I’m not spending 15 or 20 hours a week creating videos as I was all fall. And I’m hoping to get a little bit further ahead of the semester this time, so I’m not doing as much preparation at the last moment. And we’re both going to be working on putting together a series of workshops in January for our faculty to help people prepare for whatever comes at them this spring

Rebecca: We’re just going to be really busy.[LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve never spent as many hours working on my classes as I have this semester.

Rebecca: I agree. There was a lot of startup costs converting to this modality, but I’m hoping a lot of that stuff I’ll be able to keep and reuse moving forward. Thanks, John. Always nice talking to you, John. We chat all the time. But it’s nice to sometimes hear about some of the thought process and things behind some of the decisions that you’ve made in your classes. So it was really nice to actually hear about how you did some of that stuff this semester. So thanks.

John: And I also appreciate hearing more about what you’ve been doing in your classes. We spend most of our time on podcasts talking to our guests and only mentioning little snippets of what we’ve been doing ourselves.

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

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

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155. Remote Proctoring

Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke join us to discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student learning.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel.

Show Notes

Additional Resources/References

Transcript

John: Faculty who rely on high-stakes proctored exams in their classrooms often attempt to replicate this approach in online instruction by using remote proctoring services. In this episode, we discuss some of the issues associated with the use of remote video proctoring and suggest some effective and less problematic alternative methods of assessing student learning.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and John Locke. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessmyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. John is the Coordinator of Technology Enhanced Learning and an adjunct instructor in Communication Studies, also at SUNY Plattsburgh. He recently received his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture, and is currently working on a second historical novel. Welcome, John, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

John L.: Yeah, thanks.

John: Today’s teas are:

Jessamyn: Just plain water for me. Gotta stay hydrated.

John L.: Grande decaf from Starbucks.

John K.: That’s an interesting tea.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I have a Scottish afternoon tea

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

We’ve invited you both here to talk about online proctoring services. As a result of the global pandemic, a lot of people suddenly had to shift from face-to-face instruction to remote instruction or online instruction. And many people who relied on proctored classroom exams are concerned about how to offer tests, and many faculty have been investigating the possibility of using remote proctoring services. What are some of the concerns associated with using online proctoring services?

John L.: Well, to start with, we are all trying to deal with the digital divide. And when you get into online proctored exams, that becomes a pretty big issue in that not all students have the equipment or the bandwidth to be able to participate. It helps to know what the process is. And basically, what we’re dealing with is a test that’s happening while the student is being recorded, both audio and visually being recorded. Usually, it starts out with a little intro section where you have to show an ID to prove who you are, show your space so that everybody can see that you don’t have crib notes on your desk, or there isn’t Albert Einstein in the corner of the room [LAUGHTER] telling you the answers to what you’re working on. And assuming all that goes well, then, of course, you’re taking the tests, usually an online test with a lockdown browser so that you can’t surf for answers anywhere else. It’s a lot of moving parts to make it work in the first place. And the big assumption is, number one, the student has the equipment necessary, and the student has the environment necessary to take a quiz like that. For instance, if you happen to be a student who lives in a very small apartment with a family, and you have brothers and sisters running through the room where you’re taking the test, because you’re at the dining room table, there are so many issues that come into play, not to mention just the fact that you may be embarrassed by your surroundings and don’t feel comfortable showing those surroundings to other people. So for me, that’s probably the first and most critical reason why I always talk to faculty and ask them to think about it before they actually devote themselves to that process. Other issues are, try as you may, there are always ways to get around these sorts of safeguards. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that somebody who plans to be dishonest will figure out a way to be dishonest. Again, I try to get instructors to be a little more thoughtful with how they’re going to assess that learning is taken place in the first place. And that’s really where my friend Jessamyn has opened my eyes to many of the alternative ways.

Jessamyn: Yeah, there’s a lot of great resources that have been proliferating since the emergency pivot in response to this very question and suggestions, building on research that was already there, for how to assess student learning and in authentic and, as John was mentioning, equitable as possible way. I guess, just what I would add to that in terms of looking at it as a scholar of pedagogy, and taking messages like from James Lang’s book, Cheating Lessons, what do you want to foreground in your message to students in the class climate you’re creating, in the rapport that you’re building with them? The ordeal of the kind of proctoring software that John was describing, and that we were increasingly seeing problems with… the very first message you’re sending to students is: I assume students cheat, I assume students are going to be dishonest. I assume students don’t care about their education enough to try to express their learning as honestly and authentically as possible. And I guess what we, as what John and I both, were inviting faculty to consider when we were doing workshops this summer on this topic is: are there alternatives to this that send a more positive message and create a more productive class client and help you connect to students? Let’s not forget, at a time when everybody is anxious and overextended and fearful, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. So, what do you want to prioritize as an educator?

John L.: Yeah, and exams are stressful enough as it is. So you add COVID on top of that, and then you add a technology that students aren’t used to. And it’s so much easier to choke under that environment.

Jessamyn: Yeah, an anxious brain is not a brain that can clearly and, to its best ability, express what it knows and show what it knows. All the information about trauma-informed teaching just reminds us that if every chemical and message in your brain is saying, “Run away from the tiger that’s hiding in the jungle,” there’s no room to: “Okay, move your webcam to show behind your ears that you don’t have an earpiece. Now take your laptop over to the door and show that it’s closed.” How is that not creating a prey state of mind with the predator waiting to pounce on you?

John K.: Each of the issues that you both talked about also have a very differential effect in terms of creating an inclusive classroom environment. People from high-income households are more likely to have some nice quiet space, are likely to be able to afford equipment that will work with proctoring software, while Chromebooks and most mobile devices will not work well with proctoring services. And also issues of anxiety and concern about being successful are also probably more likely to be experienced by students who are first- gen students who don’t necessarily have the same expectations of being successful based on their family environment and their social networks. One of the things that concerns me about all this is that the impact would be differentially imposed on students who are already at a disadvantage in terms of the quality of their prior schooling and their resources and their support networks.

John L.: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure what to add to that, John. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I can jump in though. I had a thought. I’ve been reflecting… I can’t get it out of my head from a webinar this week that the Chronicle of Higher Education did a panel about the human element in online learning. And one of the panelists, Viji Sathy, mentioned that this crisis has really brought home to a huge new number of educators that we are teaching whole students… that taking into account all aspects of students experiences, their work experiences, family experiences, and these equity issues. So, it’s not that academic inequality is brand new to 2020. But, the awareness of it has really increased and the attention to it has really increased. And I think it’s being highlighted in ways that it’s just impossible to look away from. So this specific issue is touching on, I think, a bigger kind of reckoning that faculty are having on an individual basis, and as institutions. I see a lot more individual instructors really asking, “Wait, am I being inclusive?” The question is way more in people’s minds than I think it’s ever been, in my experience.

Rebecca: Related to that is the idea of accessibility too. With so much delivery in digital formats, the topic of digital accessibility is becoming much more prevalent in the forefront of faculty’s minds, whether they want it to be or not, it becomes something that everyone’s becoming more aware of. This same kind of software also imposes a lot of accessibility issues and barriers for students with disabilities, because a lot of them are not compatible with assistive technology and aren’t built to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, essentially.

Jessamyn: And related to that, students with anxiety issues, who are struggling with mental health issues… the high-stress, high-stakes examination, in any format, is a challenge. But add to that the technology aspect of it, you are looking at assessment mechanisms that really isn’t being accessible and inclusive, it would not allow all your students to show you what they know.

John K.: One concern that I have about proctoring services is that faculty may see it as a simple solution that will allow them to use tests that they’ve created in the past. Many people have created very elaborate test banks in Blackboard and other places and then they expect that those questions can now be used, if they’re used in a proctored environment, not realizing that most of those questions have already been distributed to multiple sites out there and students would often have access to them, anyway. So I think that proctored systems can provide instructors with a false sense of security and as John mentioned earlier, they can be pretty easily defeated as long as students have devices that will allow them, for example, to do screen shares in the background underneath the proctoring service or perhaps have multiple devices where they can be looking up answers or using some other mechanism that won’t always be easily detected by the proctoring service.

Jessamyn: That’s a good point, and I know John Locke has addressed that issue. I mean, you don’t drill in on it, but when you’re talking to faculty, you often say, “And by the way, this is not a magic bullet, even if you go through all the trouble of setting it up.”

John L.: The idea that somehow having someone else proctor your exam is going to save you time…. That’s not how it works. These proctoring systems just flag potential incidents. You still have to go through and you decide whether or not those are warranted as cheating or if they’re just someone sneezed. So, between setting up the exam and then reviewing the flags, looking for false flags, I don’t know if it saves anybody any time.

Rebecca: I’m team workload reduction.

Jessamyn: Yes.

John L.: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So, what do we say to faculty who ask about replicating those high-stakes testing environments in their online environments.

John L.: I say: “Why?” I think that what would be more appropriate is to simulate the environment that somebody needs to perform in where they’ve acquired the knowledge in order to accomplish that performance. For instance, I taught a computer applications course years ago, and for the final exam…. I did have a final exam… but, I told them, “What I hope you get out of this class is to learn how to learn how to use software. So if you haven’t already learned how to learn to use software, now’s your chance. And when you’re out in the real world, you will have the software manual, you will have the person in the cubicle next to you, the only thing you won’t have is me. So, unless you have a question about a specific question on the test, don’t talk to me, as far as anything else that gets you to accomplish the goal, go for it.” If you’re studying to be an ER doctor, perhaps you do need to have the pharmaceutical manuals memorized page by page. [LAUGHTER] But most of us aren’t working in that kind of stressful environment. So, there are better ways, maybe project-oriented ways, to assess that that learning has taken place, that those skills have been received or learned and received.

Jessamyn: I try to assume best intentions on the part of all faculty. And I know that many of my colleagues who expressed that sentiment exactly, like “How can I make sure they’re not cheating?” …they’re not saying that because they’re evil, like “Mwah, hah hah hah, those bad students…” No, they really are concerned about student learning. So, what John and I did was really to frame this as an invitation to faculty, an invitation to think creatively about assessment, authentic assessment, to really be able to measure student learning, but maybe also rethink what you thought and assumed about assessment. And here’s a big bonus, maybe grading it could be less painful. If you are trying something new, something that’s a little bit more creative, that might help you as well in your end. So, that’s been how we’ve been addressing it here at Plattsburgh.

Rebecca: What are some ways to do that assessment, maybe in a class that doesn’t work well for project-based learning. Maybe it’s a bigger section class, or maybe it’s more foundational information that doesn’t lend itself as easily to project-based learning. What are some alternatives?

Jessamyn: There’s always small, lower stakes, regular quizzes. So instead of one big, huge exam, having smaller quizzes along the way. That’s just one off the top of my head… an easy one. John?

John L.: Yeah, well, especially in this environment, discussion forums are really, I think, underutilized. There’s no reason that you can’t build a rubric around a discussion forum and spell out your expectations to students and then hold them to them and grade according to those. Again, it’s taking the student higher up that Bloom’s taxonomy ladder than just memorizing and regurgitating information. It’s causing them to react to other people’s comments within the discussion forum, to assimilate the knowledge that they’ve already accumulated, and to create new and different responses based on that immediate situation. And, the advantage to that for slow thinkers like me, [LAUGHTER] is that you don’t have to be quick on your feet. You’re not the student in the back of the room with his hand up saying, “Well, never mind, you covered that five minutes ago.” It’s kind of an equalizer. I wouldn’t say “Have a discussion forum as a final exam,” but it’s another part of the scaffold to assess that learning is taking place throughout the semester.

Jessamyn: I think there’s a lot of potential for open-book exams as well. In fact, I have used open-book exams for a long time. And, in large part, that is because I really wanted my students to learn, and I wanted to be able to grade an exam very rigorously. So saying, here’s a question you can answer with an open book, and, yeah, you might even talk to someone else about it. But then the final product is an essay question, or it could be a presentation, it could be a sort of annotated bibliography. There’s lots of ways it could go as an open-book exam. But then when I go to assess it, I know that you have the material in front of you. So, I am going to really drill down here, like, “Do you really understand this concept? Can you show me that you understand it?” Because I know you can look at the basic definition in the book that’s open in front of you. So, now you have to show me that you really, really get it, you have to use it, you have to apply it, whatever it is.

Rebecca: What about STEM-oriented examples? A lot of the things that we’ve talked about work really well in the humanities and the arts. How about some things that work well in math and science and other STEM fields?

Jessamyn: So, I’ve been trying to do a little reading in this area. I’ve been hearing from some faculty in this area. So, in an online lab setting, being able to complete the experiment in the correct way, in the scientific-y way… [LAUGHTER] …that could be one way to assess learning… doing something like a fact sheet. So the final product is how you’re assessing the student learning. But again, you could be measuring the application, the correct way to do XYZ in a kind of fact sheet format or a PowerPoint slide or a poster presentation.

John K.: One type of thing we sometimes recommend for people in the STEM fields is that, if they are going to use multiple choice, one way of dealing with this is to use some algorithmically generated questions so that each student gets their own version of the question. Now, the solution procedure may be the same, but for at least low-level skills, that can help to deter some academic integrity issues.

Jessamyn: Student-generated exam questions could be another way to go. If you really understand the material, you’re not just regurgitating memorized material, but if you really understand it, then you should be able to help someone else understand it. And one way you could assess that would be “What are the 10 best exam questions?” …something like that.

Rebecca: Another idea that I’ve heard from people more in the STEM areas is the idea of creating some sort of resource that explains a topic to a non expert audience. So, maybe it’s an experiment or something that you can do with kids, or just kind of generally to someone who’s not in the discipline and get them to grasp whatever it is that you’re trying to assess.

Jessamyn: Yeah.

John L.: This might be going out on a limb for a STEM environment, maybe we could call it STEAM, because there is an artistic bent to it. But, for instance, in an accounting course, if there’s a particular accounting procedure or process that students have to prove that they understand it, they could write a short story, “a day in the life of the accountant to the New York Yankees” or something… and totally fictional, but covering each step in the process that has to be accomplished. And as an instructor, I would love to read something like that rather than checking off right or wrong on a test sheet.

Jessamyn: I’m thinking too about something like following up Rebecca’s suggestion, and increasing accessibility, you could even have students creating resources like that in a variety of formats. It could be a poster, could be a podcast, could be a video, could be a live presentation… You could do something like an oral exam… something like that.

John K.: One of the things I’m doing in my small class of 60 students is having students create podcasts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale as well, in my class that’s closer to 300 students. So, I’d really like to do more open pedagogy projects. It’s just, in large intro classes, that’s a bit of a challenge.

Rebecca: John, you have some experience using algorithmic questions, too, as a way of assessment, right?

John K.: Algorithmic questions can work very effectively, in at least making sure that students can use the formulas appropriately, which is a basic skill in many STEM classes.

Jessamyn: What I would like to see is more faculty really having these discussions and swapping these ideas, like on a national scale. I think that the learning curve has been so high for so many instructors in so many ways. Like, not just, “I’ve never even visited the learning management system, and now I have to use it.” Not just that. But, coming to terms with the emotional aspects of teaching and trauma-informed teaching in the midst of, possibly, “I’m at home and I’m supposed to be overseeing my children’s education” or simple childcare issues. All these things are overwhelming so many instructors just day-to-day life. And then on top of that, “Oh, rethink something you’ve used forever. The thing that you relied on from day one, and that you did so well in graduate school… hey, that’s not gonna work.” That’s hard. That’s tough. So, the more sharing of ideas we have, and the more spreading of good possibilities for assessment, the better. And I sent you a list of some of those resources I’ve been providing. They are starting to be generated, especially at university teaching centers and in people’s blogs and essays and such. But, I think the more it just becomes a broad conversation about “What can we do? How can we, in this situation, assess student learning in new ways and recognizing it’s new for us, too.”

Rebecca: Bill Goffe, in our episode 154, Sharing Disciplinary Pedagogies, also offered a way to get people to collaborate across institutions on some of these kinds of things using a simple Google Sheet. So, we’re all kind of forced to be on line in some capacities now, maybe more than before, but maybe that’s also opening some doors for collaboration that haven’t been there before, either.

Jessamyn: I hope so. I mean, John Locke and I, both of our centers had not been collaborating in the past. So, spring of 2020, was like this kind of completely perfect context for us to send a message to the university, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and Technology Enhanced Learning, we work together, and because people needed us both. So, in that sense, I won’t say silver lining, there’s no such thing right now, but it was a unique opportunity for these two very small centers on campus to collaborate.

John L.: Yeah, in fact, I’ve accidentally come up with a tagline that is starting to appear at the bottom of my emails to faculty. And that is, “you are not alone.” They never were, but it’s much more important for them to realize. In fact, I was working with a professor last night who was having some difficulty in the learning management system. And about 10 o’clock, I sent him what I thought was probably the solution. And I didn’t hear back. So, this morning, I sent him an email and said, you know, “How did it work out?” And his response was, “I’m sorry, I haven’t even gotten to it yet. I’m sorry.” And I said, “No, you don’t have to apologize to me, I just want you to know that you’re not alone, that I’m trying to help you. And I’m not going to let go until I know your problem is solved.” And that sort of community approach to learning in general, and what we’re all going through, I think is helpful. If you know that I know I’m struggling with this I’ll bet someone else is too and, maybe between us, we can figure it out. If more people can adopt that thought and not feel that they’re infringing on someone else’s time, I think we’ll all get through this to whatever the other end looks like.

Jessamyn: That was one of the first things that John Locke has said to faculty who wanted to use this remote proctoring system is “Don’t make your life harder than it has to be.” All the student issues aside, and equity and trust and accessibility, but it’s such a pain in the ass. It really is hard to use. And I’m not just talking to the student end is terrible, but from the instructor end. It’s such a pain to set up and he shared with me, sometimes someone will approach him, “Can I set this up,” he said “Okay, but you have to do bla bla bla bla bla, then this and this…” and they’re like, “uh, maybe I’ll rethink this.” LAUGHTER] I mean, let’s try to make our teaching a little bit more joyful, if we can. Let’s try to make it a little bit more creative, for our sake, if nothing else,

John K.: It can be a lot more fun listening to podcasts students create, listening to their videos that they create, looking at documents they create, or infographics and other things, than it is reading a pile of exams, or writing up multiple choice exams.

Jessamyn: For students, too. Conveying their knowledge in a different way. It’s so good for their brain. That’s why I’m always reassuring students, when I’m asking them to do non- traditional assessments, which I mostly use (even before all this). Our students are very traditional in many ways, and they get really nervous when I say, “Okay, so you’re gonna write a short story, you’re gonna do a poster.” And they say: “Wait, what? I’ve never done that before.” Or “ I don’t know, I don’t know if I can do that successfully.” And I’m constantly telling them, “This is you conveying your learning, your skills, your knowledge in a new way, and it feels challenging, but you could do it and it’s great for your brain. It’s like calisthenics for your brain. You’re presenting what you know, just like you would in a traditional research paper or a traditional exam, but it’s in a different format, and that’s great for your thinking in all ways.”

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

John L.: What’s next? I’m waiting for that chip to be implanted in my head so that I won’t have to show you my assessment, you’ll just be able to download it. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: John, what is your next book project?

John L.: My next book project… I’m writing a novel that’s called “Defending Eldorado” and it takes place in South America, about 50 years after Columbus, where a bunch of colonial powers are trying to find Eldorado and the native South, Central and North Americans are doing their best to make sure they don’t find it. And since we never did, obviously, they were successful. Spoiler alert. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: You mentioned that you had just completed a book. What was your most recent book about?

John L.: Ah, my most recent book was actually the prequel to the current book, a nd that was about a group of disillusioned European scholars who left the Academy. They were humanists, they left the academy because it was being run by scholastics. And they decided to find Thomas More’s Utopia, which leads them to the New World, and hilarity ensues. Not really, but… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jessamyn?

Jessamyn: I’m headed, coming up, very shortly, I think everybody here is familiar with it, the SUNY Faculty Developers Conference, it’s going to be online and I’m doing a poster there about a series of events that John Locke and I hosted over the spring for faculty. So, that’s coming up next month. I’ve got some speaking things coming up. I’m really excited to be speaking at the Lilly Online Conference in November, and I am reading chapter submissions for an anthology project that’s contracted with West Virginia University Press in their Teaching and Learning Series. It is an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women, marginalized, and underrepresented faculty. I have some fantastic submissions… so many good ones. So, that’s been a really great thing I’ve been working on right now. It’s fun.

Rebecca: Well, thank you both for joining us…

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: …and we look forward to your future work, for sure.

John L.: All right, thank you.

John: It’s great talking to both of you.

Jessamyn: Nice to see you both. Hang in there, SUNY Oswego.

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

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

[MUSIC]

154. Sharing Disciplinary Pedagogies

Many faculty are either the only, or one of a few, at their institution who teach a particular course, which can feel isolating, especially as we troubleshoot and experiment with our teaching. In this episode, Bill Goffe joins us to discuss an easy way to connect with faculty at other institutions to share disciplinary pedagogy.

Bill is an Associate Teaching Professor in economics at Penn State, and a former colleague here at the State University of New York at Oswego. Bill is very well known in the profession for his resources for Economists on the Internet, which was one of the very first internet guides available for economists, and it’s now hosted and sponsored by the American Economic Association. He is a member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Society of Computational Economics, an Associate Editor for Computational Economics and the online section of the Journal of Economic Education. And he’s also an editorial board member for Netnomics. You can also find Bill on many listservs devoted to teaching and learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many faculty are either the only, or one of a few, at their institution who teach a particular course, which can feel isolating, especially as we troubleshoot and experiment with our teaching. In this episode, we discuss an easy way to connect with faculty at other institutions to share disciplinary pedagogy.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Bill Goffe, an Associate Teaching Professor in economics at Penn State, and a former colleague here at the State University of New York at Oswego. Bill is very well known in the profession for his resources for Economists on the Internet, which was one of the very first internet guides available for economists, and it’s now hosted and sponsored by the American Economic Association. He is a member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Society of Computational Economics, an Associate Editor for Computational Economics and the online section of the Journal of Economic Education. And he’s also an editorial board member for Netnomics. You can also find Bill on many listservs devoted to teaching and learning. Welcome, Bill.

Bill: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca:

Rebecca:Welcome back. Today’s teas are:

Bill: I’m drinking mango water with Hint water, which I enjoy quite a bit.

Rebecca: Does it give you all the hints of life?

Bill: It does, yes. I’ve no more questions about life left.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: I have another cup of that Special English breakfast, that’s very special.

Bill: Very good. Earlier today, I had green tea and hot chocolate after lunch.

Rebecca: Ooh, that sounds good.

Bill: Yes.

John: So, we’ve invited you back today to talk about how you brought a large group of economists together, from quite a few institutions, this summer to discuss effective ways of teaching large introductory economics courses. I was one of those members and really appreciated that. Could you tell us a little bit about how this idea came about?

Bill: Sure. Earlier in the summer, I set a virtual meeting with Martha Olney and other economists, and she had a question about Zoom polling. And I happened to know the answer to that. And it dawned on me a lot of other people probably had questions about different aspects of teaching online, especially for large courses. I thought why not invite people I know to get together, and off the idea went.

John: …and you had people there from Penn State, Cornell, Stanford…

Bill: Berkeley,

John: …and a number of institutions. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes, UNC comes to mind as well.

Rebecca: …and this collaboration all happened with a google sheet?

Bill: Yes.

Rebecca: Tell us more. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: It’s gonna make sense to be able to write things down, and a listserv is not ideal for this sort of thing. And so it dawned on me, maybe we could do a Google Sheet, and the first column was questions people might have, and I’ve seen this done myself… You know, maybe for good discussion, you just start off with questions you have for yourself for other staff. And then on the columns on the right, people’s possible answers for those things, and about 20 different things were filled in. And we had a couple Zoom meetings as well. So, partly, I’m thinking here that a lot of us have been teaching large classes for a long time and we have a lot of things that work mechanically well, you know, how to pass things out, give exams, all these just mechanics of things. But if we’re teaching online in the big course, we’re just kinda feeling our way? Most of us haven’t really done that yet. Maybe someone has answer “A”, someone else for “B,” …maybe get everyone together and share our joint knowledge.

John: One of the things you shared with that, to make it a little more useful, was a set of instructions on how we could automatically get notifications, so that it didn’t just disappear into our Google Drive folders along with tens of thousands of other documents.

Bill: Yes.

John: …and that was, I think, really effective.

Bill: Yes, I did not realize you could do that. But, there’s again, as John mentioned, you can turn on notifications in Google Sheets. Anytime someone changes it, you get something new. So, of course, anytime something new came on there, I checked very quickly to see what someone said, and hopefully adding to the conversation overall.

John: That made it so much more useful. Without that notification, I don’t think it would’ve worked nearly as well as it did.

Bill: I suspect you’re right.

Rebecca: Some just-in-time information, huh?

Bill: Yes, it was. [LAUGHTER] And we started this, I think is around a month or so before the semester started, when people were starting to get kind of nervous about different things. And I think it helped people. They had answers to questions they didn’t know they had in some cases, like “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” But, then someone else at Stanford or Berkeley or UNC, had an answer for them. Well, at least you could understand the trade offs better. For many things, there’s not one great solution, but you can understand what pluses and minuses of the different things you might try.

John: And lots of people tried very different things in the spring semester after the shutdowns and some people were trying some things over the summer. So, there was also a lot of evidence from experimentation about what may work and what things didn’t work in the ways that perhaps we might have expected it to work. So, that aspect of it, I think, was really helpful. Just hearing from people who actually did the things that we were all thinking about as options.

Bill: Yes, I probably should have had the question too: “What did you try that you will not do again?”

John: Some of that came up, though, in the questions and more of it came up in the Zoom meeting when someone said, “I’m thinking about trying this.” And then people would sometimes say, “Well, I did that. And in some ways it worked well, but here are some things you should think about.” And that was, I think, pretty helpful.

Bill: I sometimes joke, you should never do anything the first time. I think we’ve all done home projects where “Oh, this looks really easy and you start doing it and you realize why people get paid good money to do those things.

Rebecca: This method sounds really similar to the idea that Derek Bruff had shared for active learning during COVID-19 in a physical classroom and using a spreadsheet to collaborate. So, this is an interesting twist on that same story, but for faculty to collaborate. So, who knew spreadsheets can be so useful for collaboration?

Bill: Yes. Well, another way you can do that just for in class is you can have Google, their presentation software… I’m blanking on the name… you could have different sheets for different groups in your class. And they fill in part of a sheet rather than say, one part of a spreadsheet… just a variation on that, for sure. I saw someone use that the summer in a webinar given here and it was really helpful. And it is really funny, though Rebecca, how we’re not so different for students in so many ways.

John: Rebecca, are you using your laptop microphone or the mixer?

Rebecca: It should be the mixer? Is the sound not good? Oh, it’s not. Yeah.
Is that better?

John: Dramatically better. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Much better.

Rebecca: My bad.

John: Yeah, it was sounding kind of thin.

Rebecca: Ah, what are you gonna do? It’s a COVID-19 recording, that’s all I’m going to say. [LAUGHTER]

John: Google Slides is the presentation software. And I’ve heard lots of people suggest that. And also, some people have been just creating templates for documents and sharing it replacing the share link at the end of the URL with the word “copy.” So that way, students can take it and automatically copy it into their own drive. And that’s a neat little trick as well.

Rebecca: We were using a Google jamboard today in my class as a way to collaborate because each team can have its own sheet as well. And that’s a way to brainstorm. It has like sticky notes and drawing tools and things like that. It’s interesting how a lot of these tools can be co-opted for our purposes in the classroom.

Bill: Yes.

John: One of the advantages of this approach, though, is, in most institutions, there’s one or two people teaching those large classes in economics. And while there are other people at our institutions teaching large classes, the disciplines, and the way in which they teach them, could be very different in terms of the type of content they’re presenting, or the types of pedagogy that are used in the discipline. So, it was really helpful to hear from other people who were teaching the same courses, the same concepts with very similar types of instructional approaches, because you wouldn’t tend to get that if you were talking to other colleagues who were also teaching large classes in, say, art or in chemistry, perhaps.

Bill: Yes, indeed, it did strike me that we’re used to doing Zoom now so much that we could easily bring people together who normally probably wouldn’t have interacted very much. I suspect many of those people who got an email, probably do not know each other, at least had not interacted with them. So, it was fun, kind of an impromptu meet up, or one of the flash mobs sort of thing, almost.

Rebecca: I think a lot of disciplines have experienced this a bit this summer. And that’s one of the exciting things that has happened as a result of all of the extra work we all seem to have… is coming together and sharing resources and really collaborating across institutions in a way that maybe we haven’t before. I know in my discipline, in design, there were virtual conferences that brought people together that were free, there was Zoom meetings, there was other kinds of places. Art folks aren’t always the first to turn to a spreadsheet. But we definitely found ways to come together in ways that we hadn’t before.

Bill: It is an opportunity in some ways, but I think we’re being so busy to try to get things done, we’re not really adding too it that much. It would be nice to somehow keep these connections going at some point when things are more back to normal to improve teaching and keep this camaraderie going and connections.

John: Yeah, the pandemic and the shutdowns forced everyone to consider new things and also forced people to get really nervous, which made people open to considering all sorts of things that they might have been somewhat reluctant to try in the past. So, getting that interaction among people, I think, is good. And keeping that going would be really helpful, because I’d like to hear more about how things worked, because quite a few people were talking about trying new things this semester, and it would be nice to hear how that worked as we move forward.

Bill: Yes, we’re actually starting a speaker series here at Penn State on that. One that I and a couple colleagues of mine around here called “Innovative Teaching at Penn State.” We share across campus, and usually we talk about evidence-based teaching methods. And this year, we’re morphing it a bit to just what’s working for you. For example, I’m working on doing Zoom breakout rooms in large classes, and that seems to be a non-trivial to sort of thing set up. I think I have it. I know I want to try it at least. We’ll be trying it here both on Thursday and next week.

John: Here at Oswego, I’ve been using them every class day. And one thing I discovered is… I thought we were capped at 50 breakout rooms, but I found that 50 will not open, 49 will not open, 48 will not open, but 45 does. Each day, I’m trying to get it a little bit higher, because when 50 didn’t work, I dropped it to 45. I’m not sure why. It will create the breakout rooms but when you click on “Open,” they don’t open so that was a surprise. And the breakout rooms are a bit larger than I’d like them to be because when you have 288 students dividing them into 45 is still a fairly large room. I was hoping to be able to put in smaller groups, but it’s been working pretty well and students have generally appreciated them.

Bill: Well, that’s good to hear. I have a little bit larger classes at 350, and so then you’d have breakout rooms of 50 or so out of 11. And that’s a small class in a way. So, what I’m going to try to do is have two additional meetings at the same time. And then it turns out, you can attend two Zoom meetings at once. So, training students how to do that… so I’d have one Zoom meeting for half the class, another half the class, each with the breakout rooms, assistants have two Zoom sessions, one for breakout rooms, one for the regular class.

John: Interesting.

Bill: My fingers are crossed.

John: And that way, you can get half as many people in each room.

Bill: Right, I can do about four people per room. And I think that might work fairly nicely. Because you have a dozen in the room, no one wants to talk… I mean, me included. If you just have three or four people there, you can imagine they would be much more conversation, much like the three of us here, at the moment.

Rebecca: I think those hacks are the key that is making everything work for everyone. The sharing of those little tips and tricks is what’s making interesting experimentation within our own disciplines, but in others, too, by sharing these ideas across disciplines.

Bill: For sure, and that’s the idea of using these technologies mentioned earlier to spread these facts around.

John: So how are your classes going? Where are you in your semester?

Bill: We’re two weeks in, so this is the start of third week. I think classes are going well. It’s just pretty fatiguing on my end. One thing that’s been surprising, is how many chat messages I get. Students use that a lot. They’re used to chat and so forth, but more than I am. And some classes, I’ve had 800 chat messages. And part of that is, I’ll just ask him if the answer to this “yes” or “no…” and a bunch of yes’s and a bunch of no’s. And we’ll do some discussion before class, you know, favorite songs or music, or what did you do over the weekend? And still there’s an awful lot of questions during class, some administrative, some just good questions, and it’s always fun to say “We’ll deal with that later,“ most happened sometimes when I anticipated what your questions might be. But, it does make it more draining. I’m juggling a whole lot of stuff. And I worry a bit about, with the recordings, they see me pause and they don’t see the chat questions going by. So, I wish when we had the recordings, the chat questions are synchronized with that, so they can be part of the conversation. Because I’m teaching class, and someone has a question, I’ll always repeat it because not everyone has a microphone, they can’t hear me. I don’t do that in chat too much. It’s too brief in a way to do this, and I’m still learning how to do that and I’ll probably doing a survey next week in class to ask students how the chat discussions are working for them. That’s been the major surprise, and not quite sure how to deal with it. I’m teaching totally synchronously. I like the idea that structure to students, your typical residential students that we have here at Penn State, they didn’t sign up for an online course on purpose, or asynchronous. They don’t have jobs, certain careers and so forth, like older students, they don’t have children, and so forth. And having class during their class time struck me is appropriate for that demographic.

John: I had an interesting experience with chat on my first day of class, I opened up the chat, and students were very quickly sharing information about a big party that was being planned that evening, which didn’t seem like an optimal thing to do in the middle of a pandemic. And they were also sharing their snapchats and also using it as a dating network or something, I ended up having to shut it down, at least for a while. I’ve been using the video chat, with keeping people muted and then letting them raise their hands. And that’s been working pretty well, because people are much less likely to take over the mic to say something about a party they’re planning, than they would be if they could just type it in chat, because I was getting hundreds of those messages in the first few minutes of the class. And students were complaining, actually, that it was really distracting.

Bill: We’re lucky we have authentication turned on, or we can turn authentication on. And so everything comes under the student’s actual name. And now they only have some students teasing about something or a reference I’m not familiar with, which I always worry about, but in general, they’ve been very much aboveboard, and very on target.

John: Yeah, unfortunately, we can’t do that here because students have to apply to our Computer Services Department in order to have their accounts activated so that we could do that authentication, or at least I believe that’s a requirement for it. So, I had a lot of people who were coming in as iPhone or AB25, or something similar,

Rebecca: It might also be just a good demonstration of how used to using these kinds of tools we are as professionals, but as beginning students, a real unfamiliarity of what’s appropriate, what’s not, in a classroom space, and how a chat works with a classroom space when you’re not used to that kind of an environment. So, many more like norm setting than we’ve had to do in the past. [LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes, I think maybe doing a survey, what is appropriate behavior in this new environment might be the thing if you do have these issues, I always have to do that when I’m teaching face to face. I’m not sure “have to” is the word, but it certainly helps that may say they don’t want other people talking. So, when someone’s talking, I could say, “Look, people in here don’t want to hear you.”

John: And I did do such a survey and have shared the results back to students because it was useful to be able to share with them the notion that when they’re putting in irrelevant comments in chat, that was something that annoyed about 90% of their classmates.

Rebecca: I have some persistent teams this semester and I did something very similar with rule setting and norm setting for the digital tools we’ll be using within their teams. And they wrote up their rules and all signed it by typing their name in Google Docs so I could see who signed it.

Bill: Are you using those teams in Zoom as well?

Rebecca: Yeah, because we can’t fully authenticate, so it’s a little tricky, because if they’re not authenticated, they can’t be persistent from time to time. But, I now have the teams fairly well memorized in my classes are a bit smaller than both of yours, so I can set them up. But, we do have one situation where it’s about 45 students, and I’m getting pretty fast at getting them all in the rooms,

Bill: You haven’t tried loading in a CSV file?

Rebecca: Well, it is all logged in. So if they were to authenticate their account, then they will automatically go into a room, but about half of them aren’t.

John: Yeah, that would be really nice if we had authentication set up, and if students automatically had their accounts activated, but unfortunately, we don’t. I was hoping to be able to have persistent breakout rooms, the same students working in breakout rooms, working in discussion forums, and working in some of the other components of the course. But,I haven’t been able to set that up in any reasonable way, given the class size.

Bill: I would mention that another challenge I face is that I don’t give midterms, I give a series of quizzes with exam-caliber questions every two weeks, and I used to give those in class, and it dawned on me now I can do those in the evening. There is a history of night exams here at Penn State. That’s a doable thing. But, the challenge is I have students all around the world, as many of us do, and time zone issues. You know, for a student in Nigeria, or in Greece, or in France, and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and so forth, and finding a given time to set that in, and to make it fairly easy for me to set that up. I don’t want to have an individual time for 50 students or something, so finding a common time across time zones. There’s a very nice website to show you for this time here, it’s this time here, that time there, and that time there. So you try to find common time, across all these different time zones, for those remote students. And that would be challenging. I have some students that, in China it’s about a 12-hour difference but in India when I’m teaching it’s 3 or 4am and that’s just really hard. I mean, they are night owls to some degree, but that’s pushing it a bit.

John: Yeah, I’ve also replaced a midterm and a final with exams every other week. But I just set mine to be open for a little over 48 hours. This is the first one that just started and I’m going to plan to do that for the rest of it. But I did put in a timer. And I’m preventing backtracking, just to deal with all the issues with Chegg and all the other things. I really felt bad having to do this, but I’ve warned them, and it’s in the syllabus, that if they post any of these questions on any of the academic dishonesty sites, they will fail the class… and it just sets such a negative tone. But, the problem is so pervasive, I didn’t really see much choice about it.

Bill: It’s a real challenge for us today, for sure. I’ve only given about a two-hour window, or a two and a half hour window to take these quizzes. So, it had to be more carefully thought out for different time zones. Some students, it’s later but most take it at the initial meeting, but it is a problem. I mean, I did see on one listserv someone check how long it took something to appear on CourseHero and Chegg and it was about eight hours, and I would think, in many cases, it could be much less than that.

John: In the spring, when I was giving an econometrics exam, the first question showed up within 20 minutes of the time when it opened, and all of them were there within three hours of the time the exam opened. It doesn’t take long.

Bill: I get frustrated too, where the President of Chegg, he’s been doing a lot of public talks about the future of higher education, and they’re kind of a leech, and every instructor I know is violently opposed to Chegg, and here he is talking about what we should be doing. It’s very, very frustrating. I actually purchased my textbook on Chegg, which is legitimate. And when you’re checking out, there’s an option there to buy an answer key for the entire book. …and really?

John: Yeah, when Chegg was just renting textbooks to students, it was a very useful service, when it moved into a full featured “We’ll take your course for you and answer all your exam questions, it became quite a bit less so.

Bill: Yes.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting, too, like the stories that both of you are sharing, not just with Chegg, but like some of these other things, are demonstrating what we need to demand of our tools that we’re using for education. And so it’ll be interesting how much these tools respond to what faculty discover that they need when they’re actually trying to teach in these ways and see if the tools actually keep up with our needs.

Bill: I strongly agree, and I think the academic integrity is a real challenge. We have, you know, locked down browsers and examity and things like that, but they don’t seem to work all that well or there’s still ways around them. It is a challenge. And certainly I’ve changed the sort of question I asked someone I’m still learning how to do that well. I ask higher level questions that just can’t be googled or searched, but that’s still a bit of a work in progress.

John: Yeah, I’ve been doing the same, but I’m writing questions that make it really easy to find by using specific names or unusual names in the examples for the problems. So, it’s really easy to find the questions that I wrote in Chegg or the other places out there. And to be fair, Chegg is really good about sending back information on who submitted the questions, what time, as well as their email address and so forth.

Bill: Yes, and I do remember there is a discussion… there is a subreddit for Penn State students… I’m sure there’s one for every campus. And one student became aware of that, and he did not realize that that could be done. And you can tell that student was exceedingly nervous that his contributions can be tracked.

John: What are the plans for the spring semester?

Bill: We’re doing this semester’s teaching methods next semester, too.

John: We are planning to, as well. They’re just starting to solicit what types of teaching methods we’re going to be using, and they’re the same set that people are using now.

Bill: It’s just been a challenging semester for all of us, I think. So hopefully, some repetition will make all this a little bit easier.

John: I hope so. And a nice thing about it is, I think many of us are trying new tools that we’ll probably continue to use later. One of the things I’ve started using this semester is PlayPosit. And my students have responded extremely positive to having videos with questions embedded in them. So, I think I’ll probably continue to use that after the semester ends. The videos I used to use, many of them were created about 25 or more years ago, [LAUGHTER] and the audio and video quality was not so great back then. Some of them were created on old CGA computer resolutions, so the curves are kind of blocky. So, it’s nice to have better tools to do that… and they were due for an update.

Bill: For sure.

Rebecca: Perhaps with that timeframe, yes, [LAUGHTER]

John: Microeconomics has not changed that much in terms of the basic diagrams, and so forth. So, the examples obviously have changed quite a bit. But some of those old ones I was using up through last fall.

Bill: Yeah, I guess just the last thing I would do would be to encourage other groups and other disciplines to think about using these tools to connect with their peers at other institutions and share because many of us don’t have someone who does very close to what you do, but there is probably someone in other institutions who do and we now have tools to connect up… maybe they’re not the best possible tools… and like Rebecca says, they’ll get better for students and for us, but you know, it’s kind of new world here for collaboration… you know, quick, popup, flashmob sort of collaborations now.

John: And it’s no more difficult to collaborate with people anywhere in the world than it is to collaborate with people in our own departments when many of us are working from home over Zoom anyway,

Bill: Especially when people are now working at the beach, like John is.

John: I really like this background. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s actually easier for me to collaborate with people in other departments, because the one person in my department that teaches things most similar to me, we teach it opposite times, so we can’t like ever sync up and do something in a synchronous way. [LAUGHTER] So it’s actually easier now to collaborate with just about anybody else.

Bill: I agree. And then, you know, John was talking about tools and use in the future. Another one would be some sort of chat thing in class. It’s like I get far more questions and commentary there that I do in an in-person class. People don’t want to raise their hand in front of 300 people. And I certainly wouldn’t either. But they’re happy to go on their device and ask good questions. So, how do you keep out but keep it devoted to course topics, not have them doing all the other distracting things on their devices… that will be a challenge,

Rebecca: …and have pretty links and images and things that you can share easily in the chat instead of just text? That’s my request.

John: …which is more important, perhaps in art than it is in economics, although if they could share graphs and images, that could be useful.

Bill: Oh that’s right. that can be the thing, I did get Zoom-bombed in the spring, so I was become somewhat sensitive to all this and glad we have authentication as a possibility, and the person mentioned me by name, so that was somewhat irritating.

John: So, it was someone who is somehow connected to your past or present class, probably.

Bill: …and the police investigated last summer, I heard no connection was made.

John: We had cases of that a couple years ago with our workshops, but there haven’t really been any major cases on campus that I’m aware of.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Bill: What’s next, I think maybe is pacing myself over the semester, so it becomes very doable. A lot of people complain about workload, and certainly for me, as well. So, I think that’ll be a major one. Another one is thinking about how to use these tools in a little bit better way. Rebecca you were talking about how the hacks we can use that use these tools in a good way. I think those are the major things for me, at the moment, just kind of getting to a place that’s doable and be sustainable will be a pretty good place to be

Rebecca: Cheers to pacing. LAUGHTER]

Bill: Yes.

John: Yeah, it’s been a challenge. Everyone I talked to just feels exhausted all the time. And pretty much have felt that way since March.

Rebecca: I thought week two was midterms. I don’t know… I was confused.

Bill: Yeah, I do use technology to keep track of the weeks. In my Google Calendar, I have week one, week two, week three, and that’s the only reason I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: The days are blending together.

Bill: They are, yes. And one thing I do worry a bit about is the days blending together, is missing class… getting the day of the week wrong… or time wrong, or something because I just come downstairs and I’ll sit in this chair and there’s not quite the routine you normally have. And that’s a bit of a challenge and we have rising cases here in State College and that’s a concern and it’s not clear if students will be sent home or if they would go home if there was a rise in cases here. So that’s an issue.

John: The caseloads are still pretty low among students here. I gather we’re at 21 today. I’m hoping it stays there, but people in that age group are not always the best at self regulating their behavior. And I understand that.

Bill: I did see some good news from Vanderbilt today from Derek Bruff, that Rebecca mentioned earlier. Their number of cases actually went down among students at Vanderbilt.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Bill: So it is possible. Yes.

Rebecca: Well, let’s hope it happens in many places.

Bill: Yes.

John: Well, thank you, Bill. It’s great talking to you.

Bill: Well, it was great fun, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for your tips. I think hopefully, we’ll all find more collaborators soon.

Bill: Very good. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

151. Video Conferencing

Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, Rick McDonald joins us to discuss ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students. Rick is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, we focus on ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca:
Our guest today is Rick McDonald, an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12. Welcome, Rick.

Rick: Hello, how are you today?

Rebecca: Great, thanks!

John: Today’s teas are:

Rick: I am a coffee drinker myself, but at least this early in the morning tea is more later in the day for me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I have Irish breakfast tea today,

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. We came through a really challenging spring semester, where people suddenly had to move online, and we’ve gone through a really difficult summer. We want to talk a little bit about video conferencing. In general, I think everyone’s become familiar with some form of video conferencing software. Zoom has suddenly become known by pretty much all faculty, one way or another, but there’s Collaborate and other tools as well. How can faculty become more effective in using video conference tools?

Rick: Well, I think, to start, we can all just relax a little bit but teaching with the video conferencing doesn’t have to be tremendously different. There are a few things that are absolutely different, and a few things to just consider that aren’t really such huge problems. First of all, when we’re teaching on video conferencing, we really need to know the software. Some schools are using multiple kinds of software. And I would choose the one that you know best. I would, again, relax and keep a nice and slow pace when we’re teaching over video conferencing, sort of frenetic pace can be very difficult for the remote student to stay engaged with, and at the same time making the class engaging, just like you would in your regular classroom. So, when we’re teaching, we try and engage the students in the classroom. When we’re teaching with video conferencing, we need to find ways to engage those remote students as well.

John: In terms of getting comfortable, one thing I’ve recommended to a lot of people is that, if they’re new to using video conferencing, they should work with other people in their department who may also be new with that, and take turns hosting meetings, so they get to play with all the tools. And if people do that a little bit, there’ll be a whole lot more comfortable, I think, once they arrive at their classroom. Is that something you’d recommend, too?

Rick: Absolutely. And really, I would recommend that those partnerships go on past the preparation stage, if it’s possible to find a faculty member who you can either team teach with, or you can assist when they teach their class and they can assist you when you teach your class. That can be really useful because, let’s say we have a very large classroom, we’re probably going to mute the mics of the remote students so that we don’t hear every dog barking and train going by 100 times. So, as we have been muted, somebody, if they have a problem during the class, we have to have some way of knowing about it. And generally that’s going to be through the chat. So, most of these applications have a chat that can go on simultaneously. And again, in larger classes, it’s not going to be very effective to be monitoring the audio and video of all of the remote students. So, if we use the chat and say, let the students know, “Hey, if you’re simply confused, put a bunch of question marks into the chat. If you have a question, ask it in the chat.” But if you have a partner who’s working with you, and monitoring that chat, that keeps you engaged, and you focused on your teaching, but the person monitoring the chat can say, “Excuse me, Rick, you know, I really didn’t understand that last point you made, could you please go back over it?” or “I didn’t hear it,” or as a partner can say, “Somebody online didn’t hear it” or “There’s a lot of confusion online right now. Could you please go back over that point?” I think that’s really useful. And if you can’t do that with a partner, it’s useful to try thinking about rotating it as a student role. I know there’s some negative issues with that; there’s some problems in that you’re adding something to a student that may have some difficulty keeping up with the content and monitoring the chat at the same time. But, I think it is really important to have a way to monitor and check for understanding and check for technical problems while you’re teaching, and it’s difficult to do that yourself.

John: If faculty want to keep tabs on how things are going with their students, what else can they do besides monitoring the chat?

Rick: In smaller classes, you can keep an eye on the videos as well, just like you would in your regular classroom. If you have a seminar or discussion-based class that’s smaller, then you’re probably going to have enough room to see the students and keep an eye on them and scrolling through them and just visually checking for understanding. Then there are other things that we can do. We can do live polls, we can do quizzes in our LMS and other activities that will help make sure that students are getting the materials that we want.

Rebecca: I’m newer to video conferencing and have been experimenting with recording so if I needed to share something with a student that was sick, one thing that I realized, for example, in using Zoom is that the polling doesn’t show up in a recording automatically. So, there’s things that, if you don’t test it ahead of time, you might not know how to do it or how to set it up. So, I really found being able to practice with colleagues in advance really helpful, because I’ve discovered some of those stumbling blocks that I didn’t realize were going to be stumbling blocks.

Rick: Right? Well, and that’s key. The technology and where we’re going to be teaching, it might not be our own technology. It’s easier for us to practice on our own computers and our own systems in our own homes in locations where we plan on teaching. But in this case, we are probably going to be teaching in a classroom, and that classroom is going to be designed and laid out by, depending upon the school, somebody in IT or in a teaching and learning center, something like that. And we don’t know how it’s set up. We need to go in there and test it. We need to know how to change the camera if we’re going to use a document camera, for example, we need to be able to switch back and forth. We need to know how to do all those things. And that practice is beyond us becoming familiar with it. Like you were saying there, where you did a recording, I really recommend that people go to every room that they’re going to be using and record a session. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full lecture, but test what it’s like when you’re speaking at the podium and how you need to speak to be clear, make sure that the levels are right on the microphone for your particular voice. My voice is deep and loud, and it carries very well. So, generally, people can hear me, even if I’m a bit aways from the microphone, but that’s not true of everybody. You really need to know where the mic picks up and how well it picks up. You need to know where the frame is in your video. So, if you like to move around a little bit and walk back and forth from one side of the room to the other, that is probably not going to work in this environment. So, if you want to do it, you need to know where you are in the frame, so that you stay in view for those remote students. If you tend to walk around… and this is something that we’ve been taught to do as teachers, or have learned to do… that we want to walk around and engage the class. We want to make sure that people are paying attention. And we can really do that by moving around. Unfortunately, if we’re teaching to a group of remote students, when we move around, they might not be able to hear us as well. But they’re also then staring at a blank wall or the chalkboard or the whiteboard. And that makes it a lot harder to pay attention for those remote students, and even more so for anyone watching a recorded session.

John: And all that’s good advice, not just during a time of pandemic, but before any semester because one of the worst things you can do is go into class for the first day and set the example of fumbling with the controls and not being able to get this class started well, and that negative impression can have a pretty significant impact on how students see you and your class. So, you want to have a really good strong start, however you’re starting, and working with either the classroom or your computer controls, I think is really helpful, as you said,

Rick: I think we can expect some healthy skepticism from the students too. So we want to try and alay those by being prepared. It’s difficult for people who have never done this before, didn’t plan on doing it, would never have agreed to teach using this modality in any other circumstances. I think, fortunately, most people recognize that this is a big issue today and understand why schools are doing this. We may not all agree with every step that our administrations have taken, but I think we all do agree we’d like students to be able to learn this fall. My daughter’s starting college this fall in California in an art center, and he didn’t want to wait another year to start college. Personally, I would have been super happy to take another year. I would have just taken a year off. I’d be in, like Costa Rica or somewhere far away from here, if I was eighteen, [LAUGHTER] but there’s all kinds of life circumstances. People want to keep their careers moving on and it’s also a very different world today than it was when I was in school.

John: I think it’s a very different world than any of us were in school. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed. For faculty that are having to teach from home or from their offices, and they haven’t done that before, can you talk us through some ways we might want to think about setting up our workspaces to be more effective and efficient.

Rick: I think, first off, we want to try and find a room that is relatively quiet and well insulated, sound wise, or isolated. That can be difficult. When we’re teaching at home, our children are at home too. Ideally, if you’re in a lucky situation, there are other people to help keep the chaos away from the room while we’re teaching, as much as we can. Secondly, I think finding a room that is well lit is a good thing. And then go ahead and start your camera, set up the room, turn on the lights the way you think they’re going to be, and then see how it looks. In the room I’m in right now, there’s an overhead light, and if I turn that light on, it’s not actually going to light my face better, because the way the lights going to come down, it’s actually going to hit the top of my head, and then put most of my face in the shadow. So, in that case, it’s actually better for me to have the natural light coming in from the window. But, we need to sort of think those things through in a way that we haven’t before. So, it’s good to bring up any video app really, and look at it on your computer and then adjust the lighting. So, the computer itself is going to provide some lighting, but then you might need to bring in an extra lamp to put on one side or the other to sort of balance the light. The other thing you can do is, if you have a light that directional and adjustable that you might normally use for reading or something like that, if it’s bright enough, you can actually turn it away from you and face it towards the wall or towards a lightly colored object if your wall is dark, and what that’ll do is that’ll bounce the light off of the wall and onto your face, and a light like that can otherwise be too harsh, but that way it can light it and sort of balance your light, keep your face well lit. Things like that can be really useful. And then again, just making sure that your mic is going to pick you up. Generally, the mics aren’t a big problem when we’re teaching at home in our rooms. Sometimes a headset can be useful. Testing and finding what works best for you, I think, is key in just making sure that the video appears in a way that everybody can see well and clearly.

John: And this was implied in your discussion, but having a natural light is really good, but you don’t want that natural light behind you because then you get more of that shadow effect. If you have a bright sunlit window behind you, which I’ve seen in so many faculty at webinars, you just see a dark blur surrounded by this bright light and you want to arrange it so, if possible, that light is facing you. I had that problem in my office and I had to put up a blackout curtain over the window so I didn’t get washed out that way.

Rick: Right, if you can’t change where your desk is facing and the light is behind you, that’s not gonna work. Even if it’s in front of you, if the way the sun shines at certain times of the day is straight in, it’s gonna make you squint, you’re gonna end up washed out, so the details on your face will get washed out. So, then you might want to think about curtains in that case. We want to work on the lighting so that we’re clear, that people can see our faces and our mouths. That helps people understand what we’re saying, but it also helps them convey all the nonverbal communication that’s part of the way we speak, that nobody can see in this podcast. But when we’re doing our video conferencing, they can absolutely pick up all kinds of clues on whether we’re smiling, on how serious we are when we’re speaking, based upon our facial expression. And you can’t really see that if, like you said, you’re backlit, whether it’s from the window or whether it’s from where the lights are in your room. So, we really just want to straighten out the lighting as best we can right from the beginning.

Rebecca: Also thinking about time of day is key and remembering that in the fall, we’re gonna head into shorter days. So, you might have really good sunlight at the end of the day right now, that lighting is great, but it might actually be much darker. [LAUGHTER]

Rick: That’s absolutely true, especially for those of you up in New York. [LAUGHTER] It’s a little less of an issue for my friends south in Tucson or Phoenix or Corpus Christi. [LAUGHTER]

John: I noticed behind you there’s a painting and some artwork on the wall, but there’s nothing that’s really distracting, that’s taking the attention away from you. Is that something perhaps that faculty should also do? Not have something really distracting in the background?

Rick: Absolutely. Anybody doing any video conferencing, whether it’s for anything that besides your friends, it’s not only going to matter because it’s distracting, but you might have things that… I’m looking around this room and right now I think everything… over the past four months, we have made sure that everything behind us is non-controversial as well. Because you may have artwork in your home that’s beautiful and wonderful, but we don’t necessarily want to begin religious discussion at the beginning of our computer science class, or something like that, right? So, we want to just keep everything nice and clean and neat.

Rebecca: Like my bland gray walls behind me. [LAUGHTER]

Rick: Yeah, exactly. The bland gray wall works really well. [LAUGHTER] So does a nice piece of artwork, I think is perfectly fine… and really any artwork is fine. I don’t mean to be too prudish on these things, but especially if we’re teaching 18 to 22 year olds, sometimes they can be a little bit more easily distracted by things like that. Well, actually, really anybody… You see something that’s gonna upset you, it’s gonna upset you. So let’s think about that and just make sure that the room is welcoming, and, and ready for you to focus on your coursework and not on the room.

John: In a lot of ways, the easiest environment to teach in that sort of framework is when you’re in a room where you get to control all that, to control the sound and so forth. Many colleges are going to be using a system in which there is some type of a hyflex structure, without much flexibility in terms of how students choose to engage, where some students will be present in the classroom in reduced numbers and spread out across the room, while other people will be participating online synchronously. And some other people might only be available asynchronously because of other issues, maybe because of healthcare issues, maybe because they’re back at home taking care of relatives, or they themselves are perhaps in quarantine somewhere, and may not be able to always participate at the same time. in that environment. What are some of the challenges that faculty might face in trying to engage in say, active learning type activities, which require some interaction among the students in person, among the students online, and perhaps even between the online and the face-to-face students?

Rick: Let’s take that last example first. From a teaching standpoint, that’s ideal. We’re mixing our in-class students with the remote students. It’s helping us build community. And it’s great. And that can work really well. But, we need to think about the environment. So, if we do one person locally with one or a few students remotely, then the local student needs to have a computer, or perhaps they could do it through their telephone. And we probably want them to have a headset on because, if everybody in the classroom has a computer open, and is communicating with people from off site, we’re going to just sort of have a bit of chaos in all the sound coming from the speakers. But, if we can find a way to do that, if the room is suitable, or if there’s easy ways to break students out, that’s sort of the ideal. Otherwise, I think we’re looking at building breakout sessions within the remote students so that the remote students and… you mentioned Collaborate earlier… students can make their own Collaborates and then work together there and then come back to the central Collaborate that the class is in and we can do sessions like that and then have them present the results of their group breakout. They can communicate that back. That’s another way of doing it. And then the local students can obviously just meet in groups within the room.

In the LMS, we may find that the group tool is something we need to use for these video classes, though, because some schools are not actually doing the work of dividing the section up. So, if I’m going to have a third of the class come on Monday, a third of the class come on Wednesday, and a third of the class come on Friday, I’m going to need some way to decide that. And since most of the LMS tools do have groups, I can either randomly assign students or I could put signup sheets for the days. And then I could also use that group rule to do breakouts, whether they’re asynchronous or synchronous, it will help to have them set up. And so I can, again, either do it randomly or through sign up. And then there’s all kinds of group activities that people can do once we get into that asynchronous realm. In the synchronous realm, they’re meeting, they’re speaking, they’re coming up with a plan and then they’re reporting it back to the group and the asynchronous it might be different. They might meet, come up with something, and then post their work to the LMS. for everyone to review.

Asynchronous environments can still be very interactive and active through discussions, through group work online. There’s lots of different tools that you can use for that. And we can also engage the students with polling. There’s Kahoots!, I’m not sure everybody’s familiar with those. But in, Kahoots!, there are ways of doing polls and you don’t necessarily have to have your institution on board. So, if your institution doesn’t have a polling system, or it’s not built in… like Collaborate has a built-in polling system… I believe Zoom does as well. But, if you can do some kind of polling that can help the students stay engaged. You can also do little quizzes in a similar way with the polling… and just sort of checking for understanding, I think those are great ways of helping students stay engaged.

John: And in terms of Kahoot!s, you can do it synchronously for the people who are in the room and remote, and then you can have some discussion of their questions after you go through them. But, you can then set it up so that you can share the quiz online so that students, at least, would have the option of participating at asynchronously as well. They wouldn’t have the same real-time discussion capabilities of the students who were there synchronously, but at least they would have the same type of retrieval practice as an exercise with Kahoot!.

Rick: When you talk about the recorded version of your video conference or your streamed lecture. That is not an ideal way to learn or to teach, to watch a recorded session of a bunch of other people. People are going to tend to zone out and not be able to follow everything that happens. They’re going to be distracted by the other things going on and there isn’t going to be anything pulling them back in. Because when you say, “Okay, everybody do this poll…” well, on the recorded version, and they’re gonna do it whenever later, they may not pause it, they may not even notice that you told them to do something right away. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should record their classes. I absolutely think we should. But, I think if we have a substantial number of students who are not able to attend live, then we are much better off with a very strong online learning component. At least in my opinion. A lot of these ideas that sort of flex idea came because people read work by Brian Beatty from San Francisco State where he coined the term HyFlex. When I was researching this when I started at NAU, I found that there is HyFlex, but there’s also been other people who’ve done very similar types of teaching, calling it different types of things, but it hasn’t been widely used. But, when you look at what they did, if you read the articles and research around this, which is relatively scant. But, what there is pretty much shows that all of the previous experiments with this involve having somebody there to assist the faculty member, whether it was a partner or a learning assistant or an educational technologist, somebody was there helping. And then the other thing that they really all did is build extremely good and strong online components. And in the San Francisco State one, they didn’t necessarily have to show up in person at all, they could do it entirely through the learning management system. And in my ideal world, schools would give faculty options so we would be able to teach one day a week live, and we would stream that for anybody who wanted it and everybody would have, say, one live session. And then in my ideal world, there would be an online component for the other half of the course for that week. And that would, I think, give students more actual flexibility in learning, but it would also, because the strong online component is so important, it would give them real incentive to create that strong online component.

John: And that would also have advantage if schools have to shut down at some point because if they do shut down, the face-to-face component will go away. And having that ready would make the transition a lot smoother, I think.

Rick: Absolutely. And if you are counting on everybody showing up every week, in the middle of a giant pandemic, you’re probably going to be disappointed. So, if you’re hoping to pass out papers, the one day a week that the students come to class, I think you’re going to find yourself with a lot of headaches. So, I think having your materials online… that’s the whole thing with an online learning course or a video conferencing course. And we didn’t really get into my background with that. I ran, for 13 years, a video conferencing system at a community college here. We’re the second largest county in the country and more rural than the largest county. And so at one point, we were teaching students over video conferencing who were living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. So, those students, they’d have to hike out 12 miles or take a helicopter and then drive for four hours to get to our main campus. So, that was why it made so much sense for us and why we had a video conferencing program that went on to 2015. And that’s why it was like that. It was because there was this real reason to do it. But, when I was managing it, I would tell faculty, we have to build online components. And the reason is, the plan that had been made by the academic leadership was… well, we had this complicated system of faxing papers and collecting things through fax, we were already building online components. We started with WebCT and I said if we use WebCT for this we can do low-stakes testing through WebCT. We can distribute papers. When the students lose those papers, we don’t have to worry about finding a secretary or an administrative assistant, or another professor who’s at the other campus to run and print it out. And in the cases where we were working in even more remote areas, we didn’t have those types of resources. So, we really needed to use the online component. And that’s even more true if your students are going to end up staying at home or if somebody gets exposed and has to self isolate for a few weeks, they’re not going to be in person. So, having that online component really is going to make your life easier. And as you said, right now, when all these plans were being made, our state looked fine. But our state now is one of the highest rates of infection in the world. So, I don’t know what it’ll be like in a month. Nobody does.

Rebecca: I didn’t want to follow up a little bit on this conversation. We’ve talked a lot about what it’s like for faculty in planning, but not really entirely about the student side of remote learning, like what their systems might need to be like or what kinds of rules we might have in place? Or what kinds of expectations we have about participation in terms of a synchronous video component. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rick: I think one advantage we have that this is happening in 2020 is that, if we’re looking at engaging in something that’s primarily video and audio, our telephones really today can do a lot of that, and even answering short polls we can do on our phones. So, the students do have that possibility. But, ultimately, a computer is a little bit more effective. And one of the things I am worried about, actually, is access to that technology for some students who may normally rely on computer labs at our schools. And when we’re thinking about it as faculty members, it’s tricky for those of us in instructional design and educational technology, who have been doing this our entire careers to remember that not everybody has all the tools that we do. And so I’m really hoping that schools are either making socially distanced labs available, or ideally having equipment that is available for checkout for their lower-income students who may not have all the equipment. And I think the other problem that we’re going to have for students is going to be quiet learning environments. A lot of students live with multiple people living in the same room. A lot of students live in environments that are a little bit noisier, and we’re gonna have to adjust to that and figure out, based upon the size of our class, like I mentioned earlier, do we need to mute them? How are we going to check for their understanding if they’re muted? Are we going to have all the video available? You mentioned what the students have at home. What is their internet connection? Do they have a strong enough internet connection? It probably needs to be at least in the megabit realm for this to work at all. And I think the other problem is that sometimes students are going to be on shared connections. And what I found in the spring, that we had switched from the telephone company, because I was able to get a much higher bandwidth to the cable company, which generally has been great. I’m working at home, my partner works at home and that really hasn’t been a problem. But I tell you what, when my two daughters were both participating in Zoom conferences, my spouse was on a Zoom conference, and I was on a Zoom conference, we were not all doing video, it just didn’t work. And so we had to mute some of those sections. And really, some students may not even want their video on. And so I think we’re gonna have to be open and accomodating for those types of questions that students might have. Because they may be a privacy issue. It may be a technology issue, and if they don’t have their video on, I don’t think we need to spend a whole bunch of time talking to them about their video and why isn’t it on, whether it should be on. I really feel like there’s so many different reasons that are valid for the camera to be off, that we should probably let some students participate without video feeds.

John: And the same argument can be made for audio because if they’re in a noisy environment, they may not be able to even speak without a lot of background noise. It’s one thing to invite students to turn on their video and audio if they can, but we probably shouldn’t require it.

Rick: I think you’re right. I think it’s also one of the real key differences between that built video conferencing environment that was pretty popular a good 10 to 20 years ago. Those rooms were purpose built. Every single room was purpose built, whether it was built for somebody teaching or whether it was built for the student receiving the mat. rials. Everybody went into a room that was, ideally sound isolated, that had a good mic setup. And that’s just not going to be the case when everybody’s at home.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Rick: I think what’s next, globally… what a lot of us in instructional technology and instructional design really hope is that this fall is gonna go better than last spring. Because I can’t tell you how many, what I personally think are bogus, articles came out saying, “Look, it proves that distance learning doesn’t work.” No, it proves that distance learning needs preparation, and you can’t do it with a day’s notice. So, hopefully this fall, people will have much better experiences. I really hope people contact all the resources that are available at their schools. If they have instructional designers, those people can really help you build that online component. There are people who have been working in video at your school. I know there’s a number of people at Northern Arizona University with extensive experience. Reach out to those people, they can really help you. They can make sure that the room is the way you need it to be. I would say really reach out. But, as far as what’s next, I hope that what’s next is that people say, Wow, building an online component really made my life easier. And that they’ll start building online components all the time every year. And I’ve been pushing that to the point of obnoxiousness…. sorry, folks who worked with me… for decades now, that it’s more work that first semester you set it up, but every subsequent semester, using your learning management system, even for your in-person classes, is going to help. And now we’ve seen that it helps if there’s a global pandemic, but we can also see that it could help if there was a massive forest fire that went through your town, and everybody had to evacuate and you didn’t want to call this semester a loss. And there have been some, more in K-12, but some experiences where that really did happen. People were able to do it, and it’s also really critical. I don’t know how much you guys talk about K-12. But, that’s an environment, too, where preparing for emergencies is easier to see now. But, also where college students may sometimes forget things, 12-year olds and 13-year olds forget things a lot. And so having the work online for them can really help them. So, I’m really hopeful. That’s what I think is next. What I hope is next is that we have a much better experience this fall under such trying circumstances.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for your insights and some thoughts about preparing for the land of video moving forward.

Rick: Thank you so much.

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

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

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148. Active Learning: 6 Feet of Separation

During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, we explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

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

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

John: …and

Rebecca: , a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, which we talked about in an earlier podcast. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome back, Derek.

Derek: Thanks. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to be back on the podcast. And I just want to say I’ve been very impressed at the work you two have been doing these past several months. I used to say Leading Lines comes out on the first and third Monday of every month. And now I say Leading Lines comes out when it comes out. [LAUGHTER] And so, keeping up the schedule that you guys have had with this podcast and bringing in so many great guests and having so many great interviews, it’s just been a really rich resource for me. And as someone who can’t keep up a regular podcasting schedule right now, I’m just very impressed at what you guys have been doing.

Rebecca: It’s all John.

John: We’ve gotten a lot of help from so many people, such as you, who have agreed to join us and share their thoughts in a really challenging time. And it’s been a really great resource for our faculty too, who are faced with all this uncertainty about the fall.

Rebecca: Me too, because I’m not teaching until the fall. I haven’t taught this spring. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Now’s a good time to be on sabbatical.

Rebecca: So, today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea, Derek?

Derek: No, I have some dark roast coffee.

Rebecca: Caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: I have a summer berry green tea. See, I’m mixing it up, John.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I gotcha. I gotcha.

Derek: Yeah, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: Actually, you’d be very happy to know, John, that last time I was in Epcot. I got it. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’re recording this in July. It’ll be released probably in early August. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall. Right now, probably most colleges and universities in the country, with a few notable exceptions, have announced that they’re planning to bring students back to campus for face-to-face instruction with reduced seating, with some students coming in remotely (typically through Zoom or some other video conference app), and you recently released a blog post that discuss options for maintaining active learning in this environment where some students will be there in the classroom, spread out to make it hard for them to be in contact with each other, as well as online with a video conference. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that sort of framework in terms of what possibilities there are for people to interact.

Derek: Sure. I wrote this blog post because I’ve been getting so many questions from my faculty at Vanderbilt, trying to imagine what the fall semester will be like. And I gave a presentation based on the blog post at a Vanderbilt faculty town hall the other week, and one of my slides said, “No one has ever done this before.” And I think that’s really important. So, what I’m imagining that a number of faculty will face this fall, and again, different campuses are making different decisions… and even within a single campus, there’s going to be a lot of different configurations… some faculty will be teaching fully online, some faculty will not… and so this is kind of what we’re trying to imagine is that if I’m teaching a class this fall and I’m back on campus, I’m in a classroom, I have some students there in the room with me, but because of social distancing requirements, they’re six feet apart from each other. Maybe we’re all wearing masks, maybe I have a face shield instead of a mask. There’s going to be some variability here. But some students will not be able to come to the classroom, either because the social distancing requirements mean that you can’t hold as many students in the classroom, or maybe they are unable to travel back to get on campus. A lot of our international students are not planning to come back on campus this fall for a variety of reasons. Or maybe you have a student who’s in quarantine, right? They’ve been exposed to COVID and they’re in quarantine for 14 days, and so they can’t come to the classroom. A lot of us teaching this fall. I don’t know how many, but a lot of us, are likely to have these classes where some of the students are in the classroom, but physically distanced and masked, and some students are participating at the same time, but virtually, perhaps through video conferencing tool like Zoom. And you may have some students who actually can’t do either of those. If they’re 12 time zones away, they may have to participate in your class asynchronously in some fashion. That’s a whole ‘nother level of challenge. In my blog post, I just focused on those first two groups of students, the in-person but physically distanced, and then the virtual students may be participating via Zoom. And I’ve been really careful in my terminology of how I describe this, and so I’m calling this a hybrid classroom, because hybrid is sufficiently generic [LAUGHTER] that it would apply to a situation like this. Hybrid typically means some combination of face-to-face and online activities. It’s not quite hyflex. So there’s this term you may have heard, hyflex, which I think means something more specific, where students really have a choice to participate in person, synchronously online, asynchronously online, and they may actually shift from those modalities over the length of the semester. The flex in Hyflex is the kind of student choice and the student autonomy piece and I’m not expecting we’re gonna have a lot of student autonomy this fall. We have some, certainly. Students are electing to be remote-only students or on-campus students, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite hyflex in terms of the classic model there. That said, though, the folks who teach in a hyflex environment have developed teaching strategies that can work when you have students participating in the classroom and students participating online at the same time. That said, they haven’t had to deal with the physical distancing and the masks. That’s the part that really is novel, and I think it’s going to be important that we as instructors give ourselves a little bit of grace, knowing that literally no one has taught under these conditions in the past, this is new for us, it’s new for our colleagues at other institutions, it’s new for our students. This is going to be really weird and really challenging for them. And frankly, there are a lot who would argue that it might be easier to just teach fully online; that trying to kind of juggle the constraints in this kind of classroom is going to be really challenging for a lot of faculty. And I’ve talked to a lot of faculty who are like, I would just rather teach fully online this fall. And so I don’t want to speak too much into that choice. There’s a lot of factors that go into university decisions about kind of bringing folks back to campus this fall. Our work at the Center for Teaching, we’re trying to help faculty teach as well as they can in whatever conditions they find themselves. We don’t usually get to pick those conditions, right? And so, I just wanted to try to be helpful and so I wrote the blog posts because using technology to foster active learning in the classroom, that’s my jam. That’s what I’ve been writing about and speaking about for a decade and a half now. I wrote my book on teaching with classroom response systems back in 2009…. clickers and polling software… we have tools, actually. This classroom setup sounds really hard, and it will be hard. And there’s stuff about it that I can’t predict in terms of how hard it will be. But we do have some tools and technologies that can help foster more active learning in these types of environments. And so that’s what I wanted to lay out for my faculty colleagues, who couldn’t imagine how this could work at all. And I could see a few ways actually… a few tools that could make it functional. And so I wanted to share those strategies.

John: Before we talk about the specific strategies, maybe we could talk about some of the mechanics. One of the things you suggest is that you’re assuming that the people who are in the classroom will be able to see and hear the people speaking from outside over Zoom or some other videoconference tool, but what about voice going from the classroom to remote participants. Since the in-class students won’t be able to use their own microphones (to avoid possible feedback effects), how will students who are participating remotely be able to hear what other students say in the classroom?

Derek: Right? And that’s where I don’t know that there’s going to be a good answer to that. The audio piece is one of the more challenging pieces of this classroom environment… the students in the classroom getting to hear each other when they’re sitting far apart and wearing masks… but, even more so, the students who are participating virtually. How can they hear the students in the classroom? Presumably, the instructor will be running Zoom off of the classroom computer or their laptop, and they’ll have a webcam and a microphone. If I’m close to my computer when I’m running Zoom, people on the Zoom call can hear me. So, having the virtual students hear the instructor seems fairly straightforward, but the students in the classroom, they’re not going to come anywhere near that microphone. Now we have a few classrooms at Vanderbilt that have some ceiling mounted microphones that are going to help with that, and that will have some capability to pick up the student voices in the room. But, I’m anticipating that’s going to be a real challenge, actually. And so, again, I don’t have a silver bullet, but it does speak to the use of something like a backchannel tool. So like a text chat in a Zoom room or using a third party tool like Twitter, or GroupMe, or Slack, or Discord… a place where you can have a text conversation with all of your students during class. This is often called the backchannel. The front channel, it’s kind of you at the front of the room talking and having conversations with your students. But the backchannel is the text chat that kind of supplements that. And I’ve been doing stuff with backchannel for years. It’s a really interesting way to build community in the classroom, to give voices to more students to kind of create an on-the-fly closed captioning almost or documentation of the discussion that’s happening. It can be really powerful to have a good backchannel. It can also be really challenging. I think a lot of instructors who’ve dabbled with this have realized that when they are at the front of the room leading class, they don’t have the bandwidth to also pay attention to the text chat and see what’s happening there. And so what I’ve recommended is what I learned from Steve Gilbert and Steve Ehrmann years ago, doing webinars to have someone called the “voice of the chat.” Designate someone, maybe it’s a teaching assistant if you’ve got one of those, but it could be a student in the room, and it could rotate among students over time. Their job is to pay attention to the text chat, the backchannel, and then you as the instructor every so often, you would pause and turn it over to the voice of the chat and say, “What’s been happening in the chat? What are the questions that are emerging there? What are some ideas or comments that are really valuable?” Maybe the voice of the chat is someone on your Zoom call, one of your virtual students, because everyone will be able to hear that student. But that way the students who are in the room and the students who are participating virtually can engage in conversation during class, but in the text chat, and then you have these moments where you pull that conversation from the back channel to the front channel, using the voice of the chat. I’ve done this in a lot of online activities, and it works really well. [LAUGHTER] When I’m going to do an online webinar of some sort, I want to have a voice of the chat, someone who can play that role. And so this is actually a pretty proven technique. And I think it’s going to be fairly practical for our classes this fall. I’m glad you asked about this because class discussion. as we think of it in the generic sense, may be the hardest thing to do in this hybrid environment. For me to stand at the front of the room and show them how PowerPoint slides and lecture to my students, that’ll be relatively easy. That’s also something that you could do without students in the room, right? If you’re just gonna lecture then maybe that’s a pre-recorded something that you share with your students. That doesn’t have to be a live interaction of some sort. But the class discussion, the kind of student-to-student piece is going to be really challenging. And so back channel is one way to try to foster some of that in the classroom.

John: So, the students in the room would be encouraged to bring a mobile device to participate in the text chat and to avoid the feedback loop that would result if they were participating in the video chat using audio. That sounds like a really effective solution.

Rebecca: I think one of the other things that you had some interesting ideas about too was group work. One of the reasons why being in class could be appealing to someone is the idea of being able to collaborate or work on something together. But again, same problem as discussions.

Derek: Right. Yeah. So here’s where I’ve done this a couple of times, just because it was fun in my regular classes, is to use a Google sheet as a way to structure groups and their work and their reporting out. And so, years ago, in my stats course, we had an infographics project. So they had to do some data visualization. And so to get them ready for that, I had them look at some sample infographics. And I invited them to essentially crowdsource the rubric that we would use for the infographics they created. I set up a Google sheet that had across the top, it was kind of levels of quality from poor, acceptable, good, to excellent, and each row was blank. And the idea was that the students would work in small groups, they would look at these sample infographics and they would start to identify what are the components of a really good infographic, and each group would pick a different row on the Google spreadsheet and start to flesh out that component and how you would assess it from kind of poor to excellent. I think I had 100 students in the room when I was doing this. And they were working in groups of two or three, and there were all of these anonymous aardvarks all over the Google sheet, adding their ideas for the rubric and it was a little chaotic, but what I wanted from them was more than just a polling question, this wasn’t a multiple choice question. I wanted them to produce something. It was free response, but not just free response, it was a kind of structured free response. And so the Google sheet was a really nice tool for doing this. And so this is what I’m imagining doing thi fall. You can do this in a fully online, kind of a Zoom session, class. Or if you’ve got this kind of hybrid situation, imagine giving your students three questions to discuss in their small groups. You set up a Google sheet, put those questions at the top, one in each column, share that Google sheet with your students, and then send them off to do their small group discussion. As students in the room…. hopefully, this is part of the unknown… if you have two or three students in the classroom, six feet apart from each other wearing masks, will they be able to have a useful discussion as a small group? I hope so. Again, that’s part of the reason for being in the same place at the same time is to have that kind of student-to-student interaction. I don’t know that I would try groups of size six this fall, I might do groups of size two or size three. And the idea is, they would work in small groups. Meanwhile, on Zoom, your students are probably in breakout rooms, again in groups of size two or three, and they’re talking about the questions that you’ve given them, and they are reporting out, each group on a different row of the Google spreadsheet. Now this does a few things. One is you can monitor the Google spreadsheet as students are putting their responses in there. And that allows you to get a sense of how fast they’re moving through the work, when they’re starting to wrap up…. Oh, most of the students have answered questions one and two, but they’re really slowing down on question three. This is helpful information. You can also start to preview their responses and see what ideas are they bringing to the conversation, and that’ll set you up for whatever you do after the group work, to have a sense of what they’re saying. But, I’m also imagining, it’s a nice structured way for the groups to report out, to share, maybe even to focus. It may be that in the classroom, it’s hard for students to hear each other a little bit. And so you could even imagine, if we’ve got three people in our group and three questions, that each of us will draft a response to one question, and then we’ll rotate and revise each other’s drafts. And you can do that right there in the Google doc. This will take some creativity, it may take a little more coordination than you’re used to needing to do for in-class group work. But it’s also nice that, in this case, the Google sheet as a reporting structure would be the same structure for both your in-person and your online students. And so that simplifies things a little bit. And so, I can imagine that kind of technique working pretty well. Again, there’s a bit of an unknown about the students in the classroom and how well they’ll be able to hear each other. But, that would enable a form of group work that I think would be pretty functional. And it wouldn’t have to be a Google sheet. There’s lots of other online collaborative tools that you could use to have students report out in some fashion. There’s these kind of Whiteboard apps where you’ve kind of put sticky notes all over the board. So it could be something more like that. Or maybe they create a PowerPoint or a Google slides, each group has a different slide where they’re gonna put their answers, they’re gonna put their deliverable of some sort. Again, this is not maybe how we want to do group work, but I think it would be functional in the settings that we’re looking at this fall.

Rebecca: I think one thing that you mentioned in your article, which I also strongly advocate for is if you’re going to use some group work techniques, if you establish something that’s consistent so that you don’t have so much startup cost every time you do group work, that that might help too, for that consistency, and then you might get better responses I would imagine over the course of the semester when there’s less cost in terms of figuring out how to do the thing.

Derek: Absolutely. The first couple of times you do it, it’ll be awkward and hard and slow. But after your students have done it a few times, then it’ll be a lot easier to just kind of slide into this mode with your students.

John: You mentioned the use of polling. And when we moved to remote instruction, I continued that using Zoom, but we were completely remote. The way I did it, and I think this was something you recommended, something Erik Mazur had done, is you poll students with challenging questions, and then you have them work in small groups. In Zoom, that’s pretty easy. You send them into breakout rooms with groups of two (or maybe three, if you have an odd number of students.) How would you do that same type of thing in a classroom setting where you want people to engage in active discussions? Might that be a little challenging in the physical room where everyone can hear everyone else, given that they’re spread equidistant apart somehow?

Derek: Yeah. And so you know, I can imagine doing a polling question, having all of your students respond using the same polling tool. And again, this would assume that your in-person students have a device with them that they’re going to use to participate. Now it may be hard for them to do that via Zoom. You’d have to make sure everyone in the room had their microphones turned off and their audio muted because otherwise you’d have too much audio feedback. But if the students in the room were also in Zoom, but kind of silenced and muted, they could participate in the Zoom polling questions. Or you could go to another tool like TopHat or Poll Everywhere, something that lives outside of Zoom and do all of your polling there in parallel to your Zoom session. Either way, this does not seem to be the semester where you want to put a laptop ban in your classroom, we’re gonna need those tools. And you guys know, I’ve been advocating for years for effective intentional use of digital devices in the classroom. [LAUGHTER] So, we’re gonna need it, we’re not gonna have a choice. But now, let’s say you want to have your students turn to their neighbor and chat about the question. Again, in a normal classroom situation, that’s one of the easiest things you can do to build some active learning into your classroom. Give them a good hard question, have them answer it via the poll, then turn to their neighbor and talk it out together, see if they can put their heads together and get the right answer, and then maybe do a second round on the poll and see where things have shifted. It’s a great pedagogical structure. In the hybrid classroom, the turn to your neighbor and chat is going to be challenging, and so you could try to send your online students to breakout rooms and have them talk there and your in-person students pair up and talk to each other six feet apart. Again, until we do some more testing, I don’t know how practical that’s going to be in the classroom, I’m hopeful that it’ll kind of work. It may be that, what in a normal classroom, you might have them turn to their neighbor and talk for 60 seconds, and then move on, that may be too hard to do. And so if you’re going to have them do group work, you’re going to have them spend 10 minutes doing group work because they’re moving to a Google sheet or they’re doing something kind of bigger and more structured. The kind of quick informal pair work may be too challenging. One option that someone suggested to me that I thought was kind of interesting, though, was to have your students in the room, if you have paired them up with your virtual students, you can have the student in the room pull out their phone, put in their earbuds, and FaceTime with their virtual student partner to talk about the question. Again, the first time you do it, there’s a matching problem there, there’s logistics, there’s audio to figure out. The third or fourth time you do it, this may be a lot more fluid and an easier way to have students chat about the question at hand. It also has the added benefit of connecting your virtual students with your in-person students in more intentional ways. And so that could be really helpful for social presence and things like that. Again, a lot of this is going to be trial and error this fall and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

John: Since you won’t necessarily have the same number of students online or remote, and it may be difficult to do that pairing, the pairing could work no matter where the other student was. If you’re in a lecture hall that seats 400, and you’ve got 100 people there or 80 people there, they might call someone 100 feet away… 200 feet away…

Derek: Sure. [LAUGHTER]

John: …which could work in the same way as if they were calling someone remotely.

Derek: Yeah. Right. [LAUGHTER] I’m in the southwest corner of the room and my partner is in the northeast corner. Sure. That could work.

Rebecca: We’re far away.

Derek: Right. I want to circle back to this question of why aren’t we just teaching online to begin with? And I think that’s a legitimate question. And I think it’s something that faculty and administrators have to really struggle with. What’s the value pedagogically of classrooms like this? Because a lot of it’s going to be really hard and awkward and, shall we say, sub-optimal. These are not the ways that we want to foster active learning and, like I said, the folks who aren’t fostering active learning, the folks who were just kind of, as the literature says, practicing continuous exposition by the teacher…. That, actually, is going to work no matter what you do this fall. If you’re fully online, if you’re hybrid, if you’re just going to do that, I would argue that that kind of instruction can work just fine online. And maybe that’s not a reason to have people in the room. So, why would you have people in the room? What is the kind of value added there? And one piece, I think, is that we’re all in this together, that this is challenging. I think we’re going to find some students this fall, who don’t want to be in the classroom, taking a health risk of some sort, encountering their instructors or fellow peers, and they’re going to really embrace the online option. I think you’re going to have some students who don’t want to have to stay where they are this fall, they need to come back to campus where they have reliable internet access and laptops that they can access and a library that they can access. We have a lot of students who, when they’re home, are not in conditions that are really conducive to teaching and learning. And so for some students, they’re going to actually welcome the chance to be back on campus and to be a part of that learning community again. And this is hard to talk about, because I think a lot of faculty have very strong reactions and opinions about what the fall is, and being required to teach online or being required to teach in person. But, I just want to put it out there, that I think our students are going to come at this from different perspectives. And so for some students that chance to come into class and awkwardly communicate a little bit with some peers may actually help them feel like they’re more engaged and more part of the learning community. I would also argue that, if we look at not just the individual class session, which may have this weird hybrid, physically distanced quality to it, but if you look at the semester, this fall, a lot of universities are announcing different calendars for the fall, they’re starting later, or they’re starting earlier. They’re finishing by Thanksgiving, they’re not doing fall breaks. We don’t really know what’s going to come this fall. And there’s pretty good odds that at some point, some campuses may need to pivot back fully online. And so if you think about designing a course for this fall, where you’ll have some virtual students, you may have students in vastly different time zones, you may have to pack the whole thing up and move it online at some point during the fall semester. Maybe you’re not assigned to teach the course online, but it’s still, I think, helpful to think about it as an online course, if you could design the course to really function well as a fully online course, and then treat your face-to-face component as a kind of add on, as a supplement, almost like a recitation section. So, there’s a little bit of this in a big lecture hall where you don’t have a lot of kind of student-faculty interaction, anyway. The recitation section is the kind of smaller space where you get to actually engage with peers more and talk about the stuff. And so if you’ve got a course that functions well, so that your assignments are online, a lot of your course communication is online, your key learning activities are online, but the face-to-face components, in this weird hybrid modality, are useful to that and supplemental to that, but if you had to give them up the course wouldn’t fall apart. I think that’s the way to think about this fall: as kind of online first, and then using the face to face to enhance what you can of the learning experience. Build the learning community, have that social interaction, give students a chance to practice and reflect on what they’re learning That’s still super useful. The other way to think about it, I would say, is maybe you’re not willing to kind of think about your entire course moving online right now. But, are there some key elements of your course that you can go ahead and move online at the start of the semester, so that if you have to move the rest of it online later, you’re in a better position. So, I think it was on your podcast that Jessamyn Neuhaus talked about having to learn how to do online assignment submission this spring; that she’d actually never gotten around to learning how to do that, which is fine. It was fine to have paper assignment submission up until the spring but then it became a requirement to do online. So this fall, make sure that you know how to use the assignment submission tool in your course management system and go ahead and plan on having students submit assignments that way. Make sure that you’ve got a good communication pathway with your students using email or the course management system or another tool like Slack or GroupMe, something where you can connect with students, maybe more informally. Go ahead and start using those tools from the beginning, so that if you do have to pivot fully online this fall, you’ve already got some essential components there.

John: That’s basically the approach we taken with our workshops here, and we’ve tried to help sell that to faculty, because it’s a bit of a lift for people who’ve only taught face to face before, by saying anything you create now is going to be something that you can use as a basis for future semesters of your course; that if you have these elements there, you can do a more flipped environment in your classroom, you can use your classroom for more active learning activities, and to the extent to which it results in more possibilities for active learning in the future, I think that’s going to be helpful.

Derek: Yeah, and I’ll add, we’ve been running an Online Course Design Institute at my teaching center all summer… every two weeks, all summer. We’re up over 300 participants in it at this point. A lot of faculty this spring figured out that online wasn’t necessarily as terrible as they thought it might be. They were able to connect with their students in meaningful ways and continue teaching in spite of the circumstance. And so we had a lot of faculty who woke up to some of the possibilities of online teaching this spring and then we’ve been working with faculty. he’ll spend two weeks with us in a pretty intensive institute, learning how to teach online, and a lot of them have a big shift in their opinion about online instruction over the course of those two weeks. They were initially skeptical that it could work nearly as well as face-to-face instruction. and they end the institute thinking, “Okay, this could be pretty exciting, actually, I see a lot of potential here.” And so that’s the other thing that I would suggest, that faculty keep an open mind about really the potential of online teaching. A really well designed online course can work just as well, sometimes even better, than a really well designed face-to-face course. And so it’s okay to kind of lean into that. And to let that be a bigger part of your kind of teaching toolbox this fall.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier in our conversation is like, why are you in person in the first place? What motivates being in person, I think you’re right about the social connection. even seeing other people who are also dedicating time to learning a particular thing could be useful, even if they’re not interacting with each other, and just in the same space at the same time. But also just if you’re there for equipment or other reasons, there might be ways of teaching using a lot of online techniques with the opportunity to have access to tools that they might not have otherwise. And it might be down to like access to a laptop or higher end technology or something that is in a lab or… I teach in a design studio, so some of the more expensive software, faster computers or things like that. So, we’re thinking through the ways that, maybe we don’t really need to be teaching so much, like there could be a lot of learning happening in the classroom at that time and not necessarily a lot of teaching… maybe some coaching and some interactions. But those interactions might actually be happening virtually,

Derek: Right. And you can imagine more of a kind of flipped model where some of the heavy lifting in terms of the teaching, the first exposure to the content is going to happen fully online through pre-recorded lectures or videos of some sort or other resources. And then that class time, as awkward as it is, is still an important part of having students apply things, practice things, get some feedback from someone else. That’s going to be a good model for the fall, I think.

John: Going back to something else you said earlier, the issue of the students who can’t be physically present during class time, there’s also the related issue of students who may not be able to be present virtually during class time if they become ill, or are remote and have limited computer access or bandwidth, or are in a different time zone. Would you recommend that faculty also start thinking about what types of asynchronous activities they can use to provide equivalent learning experiences for those students?

Derek: Yeah, that’s a good question. And again, I think this is the other thing that we’ve seen our faculty, most of our faculty don’t teach online. Our school of nursing has a really robust online program, but outside of that school, most of our faculty don’t have a ton of experience teaching online. So this has been kind of new territory for them. And one of the takeaways that many of them have from our Online Course Design Institute is realizing that you can do a lot of really valuable learning asynchronously online. For a lot of faculty this spring, online meant they had Zoom sessions with their students that essentially replicated what they would have done in the classroom face to face. But if you look at the last 20 years of online higher education, most of that work in higher ed has been asynchronous online learning. You build your course to work well asynchronously. And it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve had the video conferencing technology that would make a synchronous online component something that you could really lean into in an online course And so thinking about some of your major learning activities and assignments and assessments, not just being online, but being asynchronous online, that’s a really good model to think about. I think one of the impulses is to say, “Well, I’m going to teach in this weird hybrid modality this fall, I’m going to have students in the room, I’m going to have students on Zoom at the same time, some of my students can’t make it during that time, so we’re going to record the Zoom session, and they can watch it later.” And that’s better than nothing, certainly, but watching someone else participate in class is not nearly as effective as participating in class yourself. And so I wouldn’t want faculty to just do that. That’s fine to do. But, I would want them to add something else intentionally to help those asynchronous students engage with the material. And it could be as simple as saying, “I want you to watch this Zoom session. And here are three questions I want you to answer by the end of that 50 minutes.” It could be a different set of questions than the students in the classroom are given to discuss… something a little more active to help them draw out some learning from those recordings. But again, it’s also fine to say, you know what, for this piece of learning, for this module, for this unit, the core learning is going to happen online asynchronously first. And for those who can attend the synchronous session, either in person or via Zoom we’ll do this supplemental piece. And so that’s okay, too. I just keep giving lots of options here. And I’m hoping that helpful. Faculty are gonna have to figure out what’s going to work for them and their students and their comfort zone. I also think faculty are going to have to learn to do new things this fall. During my town hall, I said, “This is going to be an exceptional semester. And so we are going to make some exceptional teaching choices. And that’s okay.” I think for most of us, 2020 has been suboptimal. There’s been massive disappointments in lots of ways and life has gotten harder in so many ways. And yet, we can either stay in bed and not try, or we can get out and try to make it a little bit better somehow. It’s this growth mindset. I think we need to approach the fall semester with a growth mindset to say: “This is gonna be hard. This is gonna be challenging. I’m gonna have to learn some new skills as a teacher. I may have to learn some new technologies. I’m going to try to do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me.” Don’t try to take on too much, too fast. But you’ll have to take on some new stuff this fall. And whether that’s active learning with technology in a hybrid classroom, or that’s designing an online course, or using some part of your course management system that you’ve never touched before, but might actually be helpful this fall, we’re all going to be stretching out of our comfort zones this fall. And that’s okay. It’s going to be hard work, but I think if we collaborate and lean on each other a little bit, we’ll be fine.

Rebecca: And it won’t be perfect. And that’ll be fine, too.

Derek: Right. It’s never perfect the first time out.

John: But with all these new tools, it can improve teaching effectiveness in the future. And that’s something we keep reminding people, that, yes, this is a challenge, but you’re learning a lot of new tools that have value beyond this. It’s not just for this one-time emergency, that this could result in some significant improvements in the effectiveness of your teaching later, even though it will be tough.

Derek: Yes, so one of the tools that we’ve been showing people this summer in our online course design institute is a social annotation tool like Hypothesis or Perusall. And it’s mostly our humanities faculty, but they love it. They are just over the moon with what they can do with these social annotation tools. And most of them just haven’t seen it before. It wasn’t on their radar. And it’s super useful in an online course. But, a lot of them are saying, “Oh, I’m just gonna make this a regular part of my courses going forward no matter how I’m teaching, because having students engaged with the text this way, where they’re annotating collaboratively and discussing it in the sidebar, that’s just a really useful learning process that I want to build into all of my courses no matter how I teach them.” So, we’re finding lots of things that we didn’t know were there that we’re going to make use of in 2021, and 21-22. These are going to be permanent parts of our teaching toolbox.

John: In our course redesign workshop for faculty, we included some samples and documents with Hypothesis, and people have been really impressed by the ability to engage and share and give feedback to each other. And I think we’ve got quite a few people who plan to be using it this fall. It’s a great tool. One of the things you recommend in this document is the use of a fishbowl technique. Could you talk a little bit about how that might work in this sort of hybrid environment.

Derek: Sure. And this is a technique that’s been in the literature for a long time, a way to foster discussion in the classroom. And someone mentioned this as a possibility for the hybrid classroom. And I was like, “Oh, yes, actually, that’s a perfect match.” The fishbowl technique classically works like this. You have a small group of students who have a discussion about whatever the topic is. They’re in the fishbowl. The rest of the students are observing from the outside and they’re quiet during the discussion. They’re taking notes, they’re observing. And then after the discussion, you then ask something of the observers, ask them to summarize what they heard or reflect on what they heard. And it can be really helpful if everyone in the fishbowl is advocating for one point of view. And then the folks who are observing have to then kind of summarize that, even if they don’t agree with it. It can really foster intentional listening. There’s lots of things you could do with the fishbowl, but when I thought about the audio context of these hybrid classrooms this fall, having some of your virtual students be in the fishbowl is totally practical. They’re the ones that are going to be easiest to hear across the entire class. You can have five or six students on Zoom, be the fishbowl, have the conversation, the rest of your virtual students and all of your in-person students are then the observers. They’re listening. They’re taking notes. They’re summarizing. I think that’s gonna work really well, actually. And as I’ve shared that idea with a number of faculty here, they’ve been excited to say, “Oh, yeah, that actually fits this context quite well as a structure for discussion.” And especially on some campuses, the virtual students and the face-to-face students are going to flip flop from day to day, there’ll be some students who come to class on Mondays and they do virtual on Wednesdays and the rest of the students are vice versa. And so you could have most of your students have an opportunity to be in the fishbowl at one point or another with this technique. And that way, you get to have some of the richness of that student-to-student discussion. It wouldn’t involve everyone at the same time. But, if you’re really intentional about what you ask the observing students to do with the discussion, I think it can be really productive. Because frankly, if you’ve got 40 students in the classroom, it’s hard to hear from all of them, anyway. You’re only going to hear from five to eight students in a typical discussion. This just centers them in a way and then guides the other students to participate well, in that type of small-group discussion.

Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out here is the different ways people can participate in speaking isn’t the only way to participate.

Derek: Yeah, or like collaborative notetaking. This is something that a lot of faculty do as a matter of course, anyway, is have students have some shared document where some of the students in the classroom are taking notes on the class discussion. So their role in the discussion is different. They are not there to participate verbally, they are there to do the note taking piece. And that’s an important role. And that would work just fine in this hybrid classroom as well. And so part of this is thinking intentionally about how you want different groups of students to participate in the learning activities, and it’s okay to give them different roles and guide them to different ways to be meaningful participants.

John: You did mention collaborative note taking, wondering how that might be structured in a class of three or four or 500 students. Would it be reasonable perhaps to do that within your LMS using a groups tool to create that, having a shared google doc or something where you share it with a copy link?

Derek: I think if you’ve got 400 students in your class, that’s just a very different teaching context, and it is something about moving online. So I would say that having 75 students in a classroom and 300 students in the classroom, pedagogically, you’re going to use very similar techniques. If you want to foster active learning, then you’re going to have a lot of think-pair-share, a lot of peer instruction, you’ll have some polling. Anything over 50 is going to kind of look the same, pedagogically at least. Some of the logistics change when you have hundreds of students in the room. But, the kind of pedagogical moves that you’re making, I think are somewhat similar. Once you move online, I think there’s a much bigger difference between 50 students online and 300 students online. And so there’s almost a bit of the kind of MOOC mania that may be useful here. Right. So when we had massively open online courses that had thousands of students, there’s less difference between 300 students and 1000 students. And so we might even look to the MOOCs to see what are some techniques that work well at that kind of scale. And that’s where I think having an asynchronously design course makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got 400 students in the course getting them all together on Zoom is going to be a technical nightmare anyway. Let’s just make this course work well as an asynchronous course. The other piece that I would say that if you’ve got a big class and this gets to your point about collaborative note taking or other group structures that you might use, is that social presence is going to be really challenging. When you’ve got that many students, it’s going to be hard for students to feel connected. In the physical classroom, if you’ve got 400 students, at the very least, a given student has the five or six students they sit near every day to form a bit of a local learning community. And even if you don’t ask them to talk to their neighbor about something, they’re still going to talk to each other after class. And so there’s a bit of social presence, social identity, that comes just by virtue of the seating arrangements. In the online class, you’re not going to have that to fall back on. And I would advise instructors that have big classes to really think intentionally about permanent small groups, and to build in some learning activities and maybe even some assessment activities that leverage those permanent small groups. If you put students in groups of five or six students each and they’re going to meet with that same group every week, doing something useful during the semester, they’re gonna feel connected to the course a lot more than if they didn’t have that small group to lean on. We’ve seen this even in our Online Course Design Institute where we have 70 or 75 faculty participate over a two-week period, but we put them all in cohorts of size five or six. And you really get to know your cohort members, and what their courses are, what they’re teaching. And so that would be my recommendation for the bigger classes. And it could be collaborative notetaking. It could be every time you do a small group activity in class, you send them to the same groups so that they begin to develop working relationships with those group members, those are going to be really important for online classes that are large.

John: And you can always create Zoom rooms that have the same groups that you have within your LMS. So that way, the same students would be working together in both environments, synchronously and asynchronously.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. You will have to learn how to do that. And again, we’re all going to be learning new tools this fall. I totally know that’s a thing you can do. I don’t know how to do that myself yet, but I would have to figure it out.

John: I haven’t done it yet, either. But I am preparing for one of those large classes in the fall. There’s a lot of questions I still have. One of the things I’ve been wondering about is perhaps the use of peer evaluation. I had done some of that earlier, but we had another tool that was specific for that. I’m not quite sure how well that will work within the LMS. And it’s a little scary at this point. But it’s something I am going to explore.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s something when I’ve taken a MOOC, even if I don’t feel overly connected to other people, there’s still some sort of peer evaluation piece where you feel like you’re getting peer-to-peer feedback, at least, even if it’s anonymous feedback, essentially, because you don’t know those individuals. And that can be effective in at least feeling like you’re learning with other people who are also learning. It’s not as effective as some other things, but it still does it a little.

Derek: Yeah, it does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER] …and I don’t know, John seems to have me asking that question more frequently, because it feels really stressful to ask someone that right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well, I keep making the joke that it feels like March 97th. [LAUGHTER] Like, this has just been one long March. There was life before March, and now there’s life now… and time and space have no meaning anymore. So, next is a little ambiguous. What’s next? August…. August is next, right? [LAUGHTER] I can predict that. I think we’re going to have an August this year. [LAUGHTER] It’s really hard to kind of look beyond that. I would say, we’re focusing at my center on getting our faculty ready for the start of the fall semester. And what’s going to happen in the first three weeks of this fall semester, like, we don’t have that figured out yet. We don’t know what kind of programming we’re going to offer. We don’t know what kind of responsiveness we’re going to need. It’s been a lot this summer just to kind of do what we’re doing. And so it’s really hard to look very far out. I will say that, among many other complexities in the year 2020, it’s an election year in the United States, and more generally, we have a lot of protests that happened across the United States and across the world earlier this spring. There’s a lot of hard conversations that people are having right now, whether they’re pandemic related or not. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’ve been in triage mode all summer, trying to get faculty ready to teach online or hybrid. And so its been hard to think about all the things that may be challenging about this fall semester, but I do think the hard conversations that we need to have with our students and to help our students have productive hard conversations. That’s something that we’re going to spend at least a little time on in my teaching center in August, trying to help faculty get ready for what will likely be a contentious semester, regardless of the kind of modalities, the online, the hybrid, all that kind of stuff. Just the kinds of conversations that we want to have our students are going to be really challenging this fall. And so I think getting ready to do that well, it’s going to be an important component of what’s next for us.

Rebecca: And I don’t think any of us will be bored. There will be an August, and we will not be bored. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yes, those seem like certainties.

John: Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful talking to you and, we really appreciated the blog post as well as all the very many resources that you share on your website.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Derek: You’re quite welcome. We have a great team at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and I’m glad to be the Director and to get to share all the great work that my staff do all the time. So, thanks for that.

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

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

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144. Pedagogies of Care: Evidence Based Practices

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Great to have you back. Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I am drinking fresh mint and hot water, which I think is my favorite summer tea of all when the mint is thriving all around here at the house.

Rebecca: Sounds nice and refreshing. How about you, John?

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Scottish Afternoon. I haven’t quite run out of that yet.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book. Could you start by talking about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project?

Michelle: Right towards the end of the spring semester for many of us, as you know, we in the teaching and learning community and professional development and scholarship of teaching and learning space, were in just vibrant discussion with one another, just talking each other through the experiences that we were having as part of the pivot to emergency remote instruction, which I think for most of us in higher education, that was a big part of what we did in March all the way through May of 2020. So we’d been talking about these and there’s this very vibrant group of authors that have come together under the West Virginia University Press’s project, as you mentioned, edited by Jim Lang. And so we had this group, which was already exchanging very rich sets of advice and ideas about where we were going and really talking about how to help. And so under the leadership of Tori Mondelli, who conceived of this whole project, and also Tom Tobin, who has also been a real leader as part of this group, we talked about how can we put together some resources that grow out of the work that we’re doing, that capitalize on some of the rich conversation and collaboration that’s already happening, and whatever format that takes, put that out there into the world, so that people can use that and there’s all different ways that it could be utilized. We’re not prescribing that but we really had envisioned something that was open, that was helpful, and that was really contextualized within this moment of real upheaval and crisis and new directions that many of us are involved in.

John: We’ve gotten some really good feedback. I shared that with the faculty at our campus just a few days ago and I got about a dozen responses within a couple of hours saying “These resources are really useful. Thanks for sharing.” We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. So, we went through this traumatic switch that was a bit of a struggle for everyone, students and faculty, what can we do now to better prepare for the fall?

Michelle: At the time that we’re recording this, we are, for me, about midway through the summer. So, it really is starting to get real, for many of us, what we are going to do in the fall. And we’re seeing more and more institutions who are firming up and starting to commit to real plans for what the format of instruction is going to be like, what enrollments are going to be like, and all those kind of locally specific pieces of information that are so important for determining what we’re going to be able to do. So, what can we do differently to better prepare for the fall semester? First of all, let’s honor that what the vast majority of faculty that I’ve talked to, what we accomplished in such a short space of time in spring, providing instructional continuity. This was amazing. I mean, we really enabled students who, in some cases, they were set to graduate, they were earning their degree in maybe a month or two, and we made it possible for them to get to that finish line through a tremendous amount of ingenuity and hard work on everybody’s part. So, let’s not sell ourselves short. That said, we are headed into a very different environment. And so what I’ve really suggested in some other things that I’ve written about and definitely in my Pedagogies of Care project is a focus on what does quality really look like? And for me, being a cognitive psychologist, social scientist, totally acknowledging that that’s my perspective… forr me that comes down to aligning with the best of what learning science has to offer. And the neat thing is that we are in an era right now when number one, we really have converged on a set of principles that are fairly non controversial, and if not always easy to implement, it’s fairly clear what we can be doing. And we have technologies, in some cases, that map onto them very well. They don’t do the work for us. But they can really help implement things and make things concrete that we’ve known in theory for a long time were very, very important. So, that’s one of the things that I think that we can focus on. So, there is that. I’ve also really emphasized the reevaluation that we won’t be able to simply do what we’ve always done. I think those of us who work in this space are always quite adamant that teaching, say online or teaching a hybrid course, is not a matter of just sort of capturing a lecture. If that were the case, this would be very, very straightforward. We should just lecture all summer, record it and post it, but that’s not what it’s really about. So, what I think that we can focus on as we do reevaluate, in our teaching, what are we trying to accomplish? We can step back and say, “Well, what do students want to get out of this?” And that I think can help us winnow down from all the things that we could potentially do. It will help us let go of some things that we will not be able to do. And help us find, if not an easy path forward, a more clear one that will allow us to serve our students and also take good care of ourselves during this time.

Rebecca: I think anything that helps us figure out what our priority can be, in terms of content or goals that we have for students, but then also methodologies that we’ll use and why, I think is key because I think we all need to scale back and be reasonable with ourselves because there is so much to accomplish if we want to do it perfectly. But we just don’t have that kind of time. You just said it was halfway through the summer and I almost had a panic attack.

Michelle: Right. Not that I’m counting but it is actually just about the midway through the summer. And you, know, when I started reflecting even more on this Pedagogies of Care concept, which is the kind of overarching ideal that we eventually rallied under as a group, it’s occurring to me that that applies to faculty as well. I mean, self care is a kind of a term that’s very cliched, and it gets kicked around, but I think that we also really do at this time need to be recognizing that, again, what we did, what we accomplished as faculty in the spring was tremendous, that it did require people working weeks and weeks and weeks, sometimes months without a break. And although summers are not really traditionally a break,or vacation for faculty in any conventional sense of the word, they are a time to recharge and for many of us were also taking care of research obligations and other things that went completely by the wayside for a while out of necessity. So we really do have to balance that too. What’s the degree of faculty burnout at this point? What’s the degree of faculty receptivity to brand new things. So, the things that we are looking at also need to be kind to ourselves. We need really good communication and collaboration more than ever before, I think, in university communities. I think that’s really also the thing that’s going to make this fall successful, is being able to recognize what faculty have been through and work with that. So yeah, I think that we should recognize this effort. And with that, I also think that evidence-based teaching, incorporating learning science and those principles… that ideally shouldn’t be yet another thing on the to-do list. I think that if that’s the way it’s coming across, then we’re going about it the wrong way. I mean, to me, frameworks are always a way to simplify. Again, we have this infinite landscape of things that we could do in any given class, all these different decisions to make and choices. We do have a framework for whether it’s learning principles or another framework… that should help and simplify. So I think it kind of fits in that big landscape of possibilities as well. That’s how I see it. It should help; it shouldn’t add to what’s becoming a pretty serious burden for faculty.

John: One of the things I’ve really liked in your discussion, as an economist, is you sounded at times, like an economist, when you were describing that, in terms of this is the most efficient way of helping students reach their goals… that if we use evidence-based methods of teaching, we can let students learn skills more efficiently without wasting as much time and getting closer to that point, making it a form of caring, I think, as you referred to it. That one way of demonstrating your care for students is by using techniques that are more efficient, that provide the largest return on students’ time… there’s the economics part coming in. So I really appreciated that. And I thought it was a really good argument that we tried to emphasize ourselves in our workshops.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. And you said it better than I possibly could have as a non-economist, but that’s exactly the core of that idea, that it is kind to students and perhaps it’s kind to faculty as well. We can pre-select some of these avenues and techniques that, if you’ve got an hour to study (and for many of our students, that hour of study might be fractured and jammed in among all kinds of caregiving tasks) that you’re going to get more from that. If, as a faculty member, you’ve got four hours that you can devote today to preparing for the fall… and as well, that’s going to be divided up among other tasks among your caregiving responsibilities… how can we cut to the chase for faculty so that they can make those choices? So I’m glad that that comes across.

Rebecca: I think it’s important when we are planning for the fall that we are getting down to those essential elements. Can you talk us through some of the steps that faculty might take to focus in on those essential items and the evidence-based practices so they can have a good framework moving forward, not just for the fall when they might be teaching remotely, and that’s what they’re not familiar with, but all the time?

Michelle: Coming down to essentials, and here too, I think, that that has really resonated with many faculty and also with instructional designers and others tasked with making all of this work. That’s what’s really resonated, like what are some of the essentials, and I’ll never claim to be able to I Identify the complete and exhaustive list of exactly what to do. But here’s what comes to my mind. I think that perhaps returning even to those learning objectives, which we may have put in a syllabus long ago, and they can be sometimes kind of abstract, but coming back to those and saying, alright, what does it really look like when students have achieved these? Are there any that need to be perhaps modified, or dropped altogether? So if we are going to have a semester of really focusing on essentials, this might be a good time to do that. Naturally, we will want to think about the content. And oftentimes we talk about in pedagogy and developing pedagogy, we talk about re-focusing away from just coverage of content, that’s something that a lot of us get behind. And it’s okay to be thinking about well what content is going to be in the course. But then really pivoting to look at what’s the engagement with that content? How are the students going to engage with the content and how are they going to engage with you? So that’s a piece of it, asking yourself that question. And I think then, starting to bring in those really concrete logistics. Now, again, typically those of us who talk about pedagogy a lot, we kind of discourage people from talking about very specific tools or technologies, until they’re really, really clear on some of those high-flown ideals of what they and their students want to get out of the course. But I think in this case, we probably want to hold off on th.t, we are going to have to say, “Well, are you going to be expected to teach online but synchronously? And if you want an example of that, the Zoom meetings, which we’re all pretty familiar with, at this point, where we’re in at the same time, but maybe you’re in a different place? So is that going to be a part of what you do with students? Because that is pretty new to many of us. And if so, there’s certain considerations you’re gonna have to have in mind say, ‘Well, how is that going to work?’” Especially, if you’re expected to also be teaching say, a face-to-face course at the same exact time, which I think is going to present challenges. And I think for many of us, it’s going to depend on your local institutional context, but I think you can’t go wrong right now with setting up a robust online component to your course. I think that with the level of uncertainty we have, or even with individual students… if they’re going to need to say quarantine or take care of an ill relative or something like that… having some asynchronous, so different time activities and materials online, is going to be essential. So I think taking those concerns and saying, “Alright, what is this physically going to look like?” I wouldn’t typically push that as much but I think that that’s important now. And I think in the preparation for this, too, another kind of bare essential point that I talk about in my resource for our project is media creation. So in some cases, people are going to want to create, say, a set of videos, or let’s say they’re demonstrating a process. Let’s say they’re teaching studio art. They might want to have some pretty involved videos or other kinds of demonstrations, or perhaps there’s not good written material out there that might replace a series of face-to-face lectures. Maybe they’re going to be wanting to write a fair amount of content or maybe record, even, podcast-style materials. That stuff eats up a lot of time. So I think really being real about what you absolutely need to do in that department and getting started now, that’s sort of the wisdom of experience that I would share with folks as well.

Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, Michelle. As I’m thinking towards the fall, I made a list of “this is absolutely essential… if I don’t have this content made, we’re screwed if we’re online,” versus like, “this stuff does exist out there that I could use…if maybe isn’t my favorite.” And then there’s well established stuff that’s fine or whatever. Because it does take a lot of time to write, produce and plan some of that stuff… even if you’re using methods that aren’t burdensome, where you’re not worried about production quality and those kinds of details. It still takes time. You need quiet space. There’s a lot of constraints, especially if you’re like me and you have kids at home. [LAUGHTER] You got to find the quiet time to record the thing. [LAUGHTER] So I appreciate the balance there… really thinking logistically a little bit. Because if you have a finite amount of time, then you have to prioritize what can get done ahead of time.

Michelle: Right. And you know, it may not be the way to go. And I though I’d share with you an experience that I had, well, right in the thick of the great pivot, the transition to remote instruction. I was talking to a faculty member who does happen to teach studio art. They teach drawing and painting in a small-class atmosphere, a very intimate atmosphere that’s very hands on… and not somebody who works at my institution. I happen to know them. And she called me up partway through the great pivot week and was distraught. She was really on the verge of tears. And she was saying, “Well, this goes live next week, I need to somehow carry my course forward, my studio art course. And I just learned that my colleague, the guy down the hall, what he’s doing is he’s got these videos that come down from the ceiling, and then we have these close ups on drawing and these techniques and he’s doing all this. I can’t do this. I’m a single parent. I’m at home. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do.” And I said “Alright, it doesn’t have to look like that. Your colleague may be doing that. It doesn’t have to look like that.” And I said alright, what is working in your course? That’s another thing you can use to kind of cut to those essentials. So what is the strongest thing? What do your students need right now?” She said “Well, they’re absolutely overwhelmed and I think they need a lot of support.” And “Well, is there any kind of social peer-to-peer support?” And she said “Oh, well, we have since the beginning of the semester, I put them into these pods of three. And so they’ve been developing these social structures where they consult with each other every week. And so they have ways of communicating with each other in these pre-existing social groups. Do you think that could be useful? And I said “Yes, go with that.” So what your course is accomplishing really well right now is setting an atmosphere where students are talking to each other and I said, “Well, maybe you can kind of divide and conquer. You can hand off this project to where students are critiquing each other’s work in these groups. So, definitely kind of double down on that arrangement that you’ve already put into place. Your colleague down the hall, maybe multimedia is his thing and this is easy for him. But he may be struggling to say how do we get students to socially support each other form connections and feel connected to the class, even though it’s now in a remote format.” To me, that’s something to really capitalize on. So I took away a lot from that and I’ll be reflecting a lot on that as well. Your “solution” to the challenges we face is going to look different and it really should go with whatever is strongest for you. I think as academics, we kind of say, “Well, if it’s easy, that must be the wrong way to go about things.” But sometimes the path of least resistance maps well and aligns well onto what your strengths happened to be and what your students needs are.

John: Going back to that point, though, about creating media. If you create materials for an online format, you can always use that to support face-to-face if by some miracle things return to some sense of normalcy, it’s probably not going to, but that material will still be there and will be useful. So, a focus on that, I think, is really helpful. And that’s what we’ve been strongly advocating for our faculty as well.

Rebecca: Just as long as you don’t have specific deadlines… don’t put deadlines, dates or anything like that in them.

Michelle: Right? See, that’s just a practice that is so important to create reusable media. And it’s a seemingly small thing, but until you really get into this and get practice, you don’t realize how important that is… that yeah, if you are going to sink the time into that, make it reusable. And that’s an important point for reusability.

John: And going back there, I’d like to once again, we’ve done this many times, recommend Karen Costa’s book on 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Videos. It’s a really nice resource. And it does focus on keeping it simple. Don’t do the fancy transitions. Don’t do something where a half an hour video is going to take you 30 hours of production time. Keep it so that it’s easy for you so that you can keep doing it without imposing a burden that’s going to make you stop doing this.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I’m so glad for that recommendation. I went out and got the book myself. I think I’m on Tip Number 80 as of this morning, so I’m almost there and I’m finding these wonderful… everything from very specific guidelines to much more conceptual things about why you want video in a course to begin with. So yeah, I’m with you on that. It’s definitely worth a read and definitely this summer. But maybe also, to kind of put this into a different focus as well with the focus on creating media and doing so purposefully in a way that is sustainable, let’s not lose sight of the active learning component. So that’s something that I’ve really kind of watched with some concern and definitely some interest as this conversation evolves. So active learning at this point, I mean, people sometimes perceive it as a buzzword, but it is such a robust concept. And I think it’s easy, at a point where we are kind of saying, “Well, how can we make all this work in some different formats” to lose sight of that. And so we may be creating wonderful videos, instructional videos, or all kinds of things and just merrily perking along with that, but we do need to remember how are students interacting with it, which is why a beautiful film of somebody demonstrating a drawing technique might, in some context, not even be as valuable as somebody who’s having students talk to each other because of that engagement. So I think that too, this is going to be so critical as we see more schools pushing for things like recordings of lectures, or even synchronously bringing students in during a live session you’re having with other students, I think that we do need to remind people who are in charge of these things, that education is just never something you watch, it is something that you do. So it is really tempting to say, let’s record everything we can, that’ll be equivalent, but active learning is not a luxury that we can just put on hold for a while. It really isn’t. And so I’m hoping that we don’t see that happen. I think there’s a very similar story that’s going on with Universal Design for Learning. Another concept I know you’ve engaged with so much on this podcast and is so important. And I think you’re too, it’s easy to say, “Well, you know, given all this going on, maybe we won’t have multiple ways of engaging with these great media that we’re creating, or maybe we’re going to kind of shut down this avenue over here for a little while.” And I really hope that doesn’t happen. So that’s another aspect of this balance between the quality and ambitiousness of what we’re doing and the feasibility and protecting ourselves as we face another very challenging semester.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good reminder about focusing on the learning as the essential element as opposed to the teaching. It’s really about setting up the framework and the possibilities for students to learn, and designing those activities and making sure that we’re spending the time on that, rather than all the time on just delivering something.

John: But having those videos can free up time so that if you do meet synchronously, you can engage in more active learning activities rather than just lecturing to students online, which is probably one of the worst ways of structuring synchronous meetings. And if you really want to do a little bit more work, you could use something like PlayPosit where you embed questions in the middle of a video that could be somewhat open ended and that you could even grade. If you happen to have an institutional license you can embed it directly in your LMS. So the videos themselves can be made, with a bit of work, a little more interactive, and they can serve as a replacement for lecture that allows for more active learning, I think.

Michelle: Absolutely, and I too. I’ve seen some wonderful examples in practice of that technology, and there’s a couple of different ways to do this. So there’s multiple tools that allow you to put a retrieval practice or comprehension questions somewhere in the midst of this online lecture, presentation or video and what better way to help ensure that students are attentive to them, to give yourself some opportunities on the other end to say what’s the actual level of comprehension that’s going on out there. And for students to really solidify and practice the material. That’s all bedrock learning science stuff, right? Retrieval, active practice, and so on. And it just takes a little bit of ingenuity to take that one extra step to say, alright, what’s the level of interactivity here. And that’s something that I hear too, from faculty, it’s quite reasonable. They have taught purely face-to-face and don’t have that level of first-hand experience with something like online teaching. It’s just like, “Well, how do I know what’s going on out there?” And, again, there’s not a technology that’s going to just magically replace the experience of looking at the sea of faces that we experience in a face-to-face class. But think about it. That’s one way to do it. Having something like an online gamified quiz, like Kahoot!, which is currently my favorite quizzing app that’s out there. I ran this just the other day quite successfully in a remote synchronous environment. So, there are two that could help give you that information right away about what concepts are they struggling with. And having other ways of reaching out to students, if not talking to them individually in something like a meeting, a phone call, or even a text chat, having some other ways to kind of figure out on the ground what’s the mood level of the course? How are we feeling about things and are there individual students who are struggling for one reason or another who we can reach out to?

John: One way in which I saw interactive videos being used was several years ago, I took a MOOC on behavioral economics that Dan Ariely had put together and he’d often discuss experiments, but he set up the experiment and describe what the experiment did. But then the video pauses, and you’re asked to predict what the outcome would be. And that type of prediction is a really useful evidence-based technique that you can even do with videos if you can embed the questions in the middle of them. And I thought that was really useful. And it’s something I’m going to be trying to do a bit this fall. But in terms of evidence-based learning, could you talk a little bit about some of the main principles that people should be using to design their fall classes? What should people be focusing on?

Michelle: So, when I talk about bringing down just a vast literature of learning science and I’m going to necessarily boil this down to what I think are my favorites and the most applicable… So, of course, retrieval practice,I think if there’s one success story that our field has had, I mean it goes back even over 20 years that we got the data, determined how this principle works and started flowing it out to practitioners in the field, it’s this one. So that is, of course, the principle that when we actively pull something out of memory, it increases our ability to remember it in the future. And of course, we’d naturally think of tests, exams, and assessments as the avenue for this, but there’s lots of other ways that it can take place. So I always love to direct people to the website retrievalpractice.org. I’m not affiliated with it, but I think they have a wonderful compendium of ideas for how to bring this into classrooms at all different levels, all different disciplines, and so on. So if you don’t have retrieval practice, quizzing, students actively talking about what they remember, great time to bring that in. So you can’t go wrong with retrieval practice. Then, of course, the principle of what’s the timing of your study. So, spaced study, and pretty much by any measure, when we spread out student engagement with material… again, whether it’s through quizzing or solving problems, you name it, you’re going to get more out of that… efficiency… when it is spread over time. And I think that this is one of the real unsung benefits of online and technology assisted learning, even among people who are saying, “Oh, I’m just using the basic learning management shell to organize some materials and students turn their stuff in online. I mean, let’s not sell that short for how powerful that is, for being able to stagger deadlines, change the timing of when we are getting students to be working on different aspects of the course and so on. So while we don’t necessarily always want to bombard students with deadline after deadline, we do have to be mindful and help them kind of organize multiple deadlines. This is something that we could definitely build in as a design principle. So just to be very blunt about it, we always discourage people from the two midterms and a final course design. That’s something that a lot of us have experienced. It could work of course, like that can be fine. But from a memory and learning standpoint, that’s really not ideal. We want students engaging quite frequently. And then the practice… so the practice of this skill. So that advice, bring that up again, about it’s not all about content coverage. It’s about practicing the application of the content knowledge that they’re getting. We can almost always stand to build in more of these, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I’ve said, “You know, you really need to present more content to the students. Don’t have them solving problems so often…” I have never seen that in practice, I will just go on the record and say that. So, if we want students to be doing X,Y, and Z. And again, go back to the front page of your syllabus and remind yourself what you’re hoping they’d be able to do at the end of the course. We want them to do that, what are the opportunities for them to actually try, and try in small bites? In my contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, I give a very brief example of this in my own courses. So one of the things you have to do… bread and butter skills as a psychologist… is you have to be able to look at a psychology research study and kind of break down the structure of it. So no matter what’s being studied, there’s probably… we call them independent variables and dependent variables. So, things that are being manipulated, things that are being measured, and students have to develop that as a thinking skill and it’s really not easy. So I will oftentimes have them in, say a research methods course, very frequently, as part of whatever we happen to be doing, I’ll say, “Okay, here’s a really short description of a study. Maybe it’s an abstract or just a description, you pull out from me, before we talk about anything else about this study, you tell me, what are the independent variables? What are the dependent variables?” So it’s something that traditionally we’d always put on an exam. But, we didn’t always have students repeatedly practicing. So knowing that students absolutely had to master this before they got out of my research methods course. That’s what I did. So practice, and that kind of segues back into that active learning principle, which…yeah, you cannot go wrong with students getting involved. Once again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I said “You, the professor, need to get out there front and center, don’t emphasize the students so much.” So, they need to be doing the thinking, the practicing, and quite frankly, the work. That’s where the benefits come from. So with those: the retrieval practice, spaced study, practice of higher-order thinking skills, and a real active learning orientation, I think that that’s something you can take to the bank as a faculty member. You could build on that, but if you start with those, you’re probably going down the right path.

John: And I remember reading this really good book that talked about how using computer mediated instruction or using the tools within the LMS allows you to provide students with lots of feedback and lots of retrieval practice without necessarily increasing the burden on you, as the instructor. I think that book was called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. I feel like I might know that author, I’m not sure.

Michelle: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And thank you very much. That’s what I was trying to go for. So, thank you. It is wonderful that people are finding many of those points really relevant right now. So, yes, thank you so much for pointing that out. I think it’s great. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve been thinking about in terms of having more remote time then maybe in-person time is that I often provide a lot of structured activities around retrieval practice and spaced practice in my face-to-face class and if students are working more independently when they’re working remotely, I’m not there to [LAUGHTER] facilitate it synchronously, that structure needs to really be in place, maybe even more so than when you’re in face-to-face class, that they have that structure and that they know they should be doing those things on a regular basis. Of course, we should be reminding them to do these things on their own as well. But, I think focusing a little bit more on having that structure or those reminders in our courses, when they might be remote is actually really, really imperative,

Michelle: Right? And those are learning skills and abilities and principles that are going to serve our students well, no matter what they study or what they may do after they leave a course. And it’s kind of neat. There’s some indication from the research literature that particularly for students who come in who are not from advantaged backgrounds, that when they’re exposed to courses, which as you say, they remind them, “Okay, do this kind of practice. Here’s what you should be doing. Here’s why you should be doing that” …that benefit really does extend not just into that course, but into future ones because students can pick these things up on their own. So, if we do really want to be thinking about how can we set our students up for success no matter what the future holds, I think that’s a pretty high ideal that we can work towards. So yet another reason to incorporate these powerful practices and perhaps, yeah, to talk about how students can adopt them, no matter what.

John: For those faculty who are struggling to prepare their courses, what are some heuristics they could be using in terms of focusing their time where it would give the most benefit.

Michelle: This is something that has definitely been on my mind, both for my own preparation and to share with others. So heuristics, shortcuts, and helpful hints and approaches. So, I talked earlier about looking at what you consider to be your strongest points as an instructor and kind of the highlights of the course… the things that you know, are memorable, that advance learning that you feel really strong and competent with, with the caveat that, yeah, we do want to make sure that those do align with student learning. I think that that’s a great place to start. Say: “Okay, what’s the great parts of my course? Forget about what anybody else is doing. What do I really want to use?” And putting those front and center. If you have a short activity that’s working great, maybe that’s something that could be done every week, or somehow extend it. But the flip side of that is this, and this is another that I didn’t invent this… This is something you’ll see repeated time and again, in teaching advice, which is the pinchpoint heuristic, flipping it around and saying, “Oh my gosh, if there is one thing that students are struggling with conceptually, or it’s something that I know they should be doing, and they don’t do it to the level that they need to,” that you focus your efforts, kind of train your sights on that piece of it. Especially in the discipline. I teach, psychology. I mean, there’s so many fun things we could talk about with psychology, and it’s easy to kind of spend a whole lot of time and effort shooting the videos or setting up the learning activities online and making a quiz that’s about something that’s just cool to learn about. But that can’t squeeze out “Oh my gosh, everybody gets unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus wrong and they do it every single year, and I know it’s going to happen.” So I need to be pulling out those things. You know what, if I’m going to spend the hours on a video or an extra module or creating an interactive quiz with multimedia, spend the time on the places where students are struggling. People who work with UDL, also talk about, “Well, here’s where you want to be especially conscientious to ensure that you do have the multiple means of representation and expression is around these areas that are really, really tough for students.” So what’s working great, where’s the point where you just say, if I could wave a wand and make one thing happen, that’s what I would do. So really looking at those two tracks. So that’s one heuristic. I think, as well, I’ll share with you something that I’m working on for my own courses… big caveat, that this is my courses. I will probably not be teaching a very large set of classes just because of the vagaries of course assignments. So I know I have that a little bit easier. But, here’s what I’m going to do as a framework. I’m kind of thinking of splitting it up so each week, students have a set of kind of general categories that they have to meet, they have to do some type of work or meet some kind of expectations in that area. So, I might, for example, have a column that corresponds to engaging with classmates about the topics for the week, and then a set of options for that week. So maybe you came to a face-to-face class, maybe you participated in an online discussion. And maybe there’s even a third option that I haven’t thought about yet. So just to really simplify things, I say, “Okay, check off in that area, what’s another column or category that you have to participate in, you have to do some type of demonstrating mastery of material” or I’m not quite sure what I’ll call it yet, but that could correspond to taking a quiz or maybe playing a Kahoot! in class or playing a Kahoot! remotely online. And I’ll probably also have a column that constitutes working towards whatever the term project is, and I’ll give them a set of choices again of what that term project can be like. But I am a very big believer in if you’re going to have a big project that there’s lots and lots of formative steps to that. So I tend to take that to extremes. And every week or so, students are doing something to show that they are moving towards and making progress in that area. So it is still a little bit general around the edges. But, to me, that really helped me feel like I had a handle on how am I going to manage choices? How am I going to manage multiple formats, and manage uncertainty with that focus on the purpose? Why do we have this do this week? Well, because it falls into these different categories, all of which are important for your learning in this class. So, those are a couple of the shortcuts that I would share.

John: One of the other things you talked about in your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care is the importance of getting help when you need it or where you need it. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Michelle: So this whole idea of getting help, I mean, it’s very simple on the face of it. I’m a faculty member, I want to do this thing in my class. I don’t know how… I call somebody… magic happens. And in reality, in higher education, what I’ve seen over and over at different institutions is that that is not a direct path at all between support, assistance, and collaboration, and the faculty member and the time and place when they need that. And so I think that this is going to be an issue that, if it’s not on people’s minds now, in leadership and pedagogy circles, if it’s not on their minds, now, it will be in six months to a year, I think that this is going to be one of the differences between institutions that make it through this fall in good shape and those that really struggle is what are those processes? So for faculty members, I’m really encouraging them to say, “Alright, where are the points, in this process, where you could get some kind of assistance that either you invest some time and you get the capacity to do something very efficiently in the future, say, like a workshop on how to do sustainable videos, or how do you actually find somebody to share the load? …actually delegate some of the work? For faculty, they should be reflecting on that, but at that point, that’s where things are going to get complicated depending on what the systems are in place at their institutions. So first of all, I think that institutions don’t always, and faculty ourselves, we don’t always make that distinction. When I say I want help, do I mean, I want you to point me to a great website or a book I can read? Do you want me to spend half a week coming to a workshop series? Or are you going to get in there and say, “Okay, you have the content, I can build these quizzes, you have a script for what you want to do for a complex video, I can shoot that for you, caption it, and put it online.” So what kind of help are we talking about here? And then figuring out how do you approach your institution to do that? So I’ve just really been continually surprised as I do visit different institutions. I mean, almost universally there are these amazing instructional designers and other people who just devote their professional lives to teaching and learning. They’re up on all the new technology. They know what was the great new video editing software that just came out last week? You know, they’re the ones who have that. And oftentimes there’s a disconnect there. People don’t know how, they feel inhibited, or maybe they’ve been actively inhibited. Some institutions, they say, “Well, there’s a process, and we’re going to put a lot of strings on how we’re going to divvy up these resources.” Others actually discourage instructional design and similar staff from even talking to faculty. And there’s a little kind of social piece to it as well, I think, just because we haven’t yet fully incorporated this into what we do… that it’s almost like, well, who makes the first move? If I’m an instructional designer and I know, here’s these courses over here that I could be helpful with, you know, just email people out of the blue… and likewise, faculty, they say, well, should I call the support line for this more complex project that I need help with or not? So I think that institutions will hopefully be sorting that out, but presuming that there isn’t a giant revolution in how we have collaboration between instructional designers and faculty, being aware of that and at least having something very clear in your mind for what you’re asking for, the worst that can happen usually is that somebody says no, but to have any chance you at least have to know what specifically do you want.

Rebecca: I think knowing that’s really helpful too. Because if you start talking to faculty, for example, in other disciplines, they might have a similar goal or they need similar structure in place, you could actually work with those faculty to put the structure in place and share the structure, swap out the content or whatever too. Sometimes we don’t think about those kinds of collaboration.

Michelle: Right, and what you’re describing, that’s something that is kind of non-traditional and new. We come into this with a very strong tradition of “my class is my class” and a kind of an ethos as academics that you do things the hard way, and you do them by yourself. But maybe this can be an impetus for us to really be getting creative with swapping, even things like a syllabus. You say, “Well, you know, maybe the way that I’ve gone about this, you can actually springboard this even if it is, as you said, in a different discipline.” Maybe we’ll even see faculty putting together some more unconventional team teaching arrangements. Traditionally, we know a team teaching is we’ve we’re experts in the same subject. And we’re going to create this class that sort of articulates, or we’re going to pass it back and forth. But maybe I should be collaborating with somebody from another area of psychology. Do they have to be in my sub discipline to just come in and say, help me with discussion forums, if I’m not very good at that, and then I can come into their class and help them with synchronous video, if they need help with that. Maybe if we have to, we will do it that way. So if that comes out of all of this, I think that would be a great benefit. And I want to say I have been really hesitant and cautious about engaging in this narrative of the silver linings and “Oh, isn’t this a wonderful experience? We’ll learn all these new methodologies of teaching will come out of this and we’ll all love online teaching and be fluent with it.” I don’t think that that’s an appropriate message for faculty right now. I think we do need to recognize that this has been somewhere between disruptive and catastrophic for most of us career wise, and not imply that we should all just constantly be thrilled to be learning new things. There are so many new things that we could be learning right now. But fall is coming. And we only have so much time. So I do want to put that out there, and that’s something that I think is an important thread that needs to be, and I hope it will be, talked about more as the dialogue unfolds. But even without saying, “Hey, this is a great time to do new things,” we can recognize that there will be innovation that happens, and it’s already happened. We’ve seen it happen.

John: And while this may not be a silver lining, I know in our teaching center, we’ve seen a lot of faculty who I didn’t even know existed on our campus, because as Jessamyn Neuhaus has talked about, people have broken down some of those barriers where they think they have to do everything themselves, and they’re more willing to request help when they desperately need help in ways that they weren’t willing to do before.

Michelle: Absolutely. I think that Jessamyn Neuhaus has been such a clear and fresh voice on some of these development issues. She’s absolutely right. She talks about it in her own style, which is totally unique to her, but it really gets it across, that we’re Professor SmartyPants, and we are not used to collaborating, working together, or just saying, “I don’t know.” So I guess we can also say, even if we don’t formally work in a teaching and learning center, if there’s something that you know, that your colleague does not, and you can help with, get out there, volunteer it, and let’s all really do this in perhaps a new spirit, where it’s not all just about, “Well, here’s what I know and you don’t know it, and I’m gonna feel uncomfortable coming in,” let’s have a real reset in terms of really open sharing. It’s not about playing the game of who knows more, or who figured out the latest thing. It’s really about serving the students and doing so in a way that we can sustain what promises to be a pretty challenging semester.

Rebecca: These have all been really great tips and things to think about as we move towards the fall, as the fall moves towards us… maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: I think that’s a frighteningly accurate turn of phrase there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I want to make sure that we get to talk a little bit about your new book, though, can you share a little sneak preview?

Michelle: Oh, sure. And this book, of course, well predates the era that we’re in. But it’s been something that I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time. And then when I was able to make the connection to James Lang and to his series, I think it was really meant to be. So, it is about memory and technology. So, much has been written in the popular press, and a little bit in the scholarly press as well, about cognitive processes and how those change or not in the presence of technology and with a frame for teachers, of course, so those of us who want to make up even just very specific policies, like should I allow note taking in class on laptops or not, to people who are really interested in this broader sense of teaching and learning in our contemporary era. So what I’ll be talking about in the book are issues such as well, first of all, what do we need to know about how memory works in the first place as a teacher or a person who is really into learning. So what do we now know about how memory works and how it can be improved? I also talk about why anybody should even care about memory, because that’s one of the angles of technology as well… this question of “Well, do you really need to know anything in the age of Google?” And there are people on both ends of that spectrum… probably no surprise that I come in somewhere in the middle of saying, on the one hand, it’s really important to be able to find information when you need it. And yes, we absolutely should be de-emphasizing memorization for its own sake. However, we also know from current research that memory in a subject area helps us think in that area. So there’ll be something for everybody in that section of the book as well. And then we will talk about what is the effect of having something like a smartphone, always at our fingertips? Does that create any kind of global change in memory? Does it change our memory for specific things that we might be doing or thinking about what we’re using that technology? And how, again, can we turn this to our advantage as lifelong learners ourselves and also for our students. Now, of course, you can’t talk about any of this without talking about attention itself. And so while it’s not a book about attention and distraction, per se, we’ll talk about “Alright, well, what’s the flip side of that?” And so how, basically, can we take all the advantages that technology has to offer for building memory and de-emphasize all the things that it does to offset and degrade our memories, and come out of this with the best of both worlds? I will get into a little bit at the end of the book as well into some of these bigger questions of how is memory itself changed when we live in a technological era when so much of our lives are recorded? And what does that say about things like generational differences, or what memory might look like decades from now? So I’m absolutely loving exploring all those themes, and I think they’ll be interesting for anybody who’s in the arena of teaching and learning but also with a lot of practical tips about again, how we can reap all the benefits that technology can offer for memory and for learning.

Rebecca: You’ll have a lot of disappointed listeners to know that that doesn’t come out until 2021. Right?

Michelle: Good things take time. And yes, we will see. It is a work in progress. And although we definitely have all the themes and all the ideas nailed down, it’s something I’m working on as we speak. So that’s part of why I’m so excited about the project. But yes, I got to finish it first.

Rebecca: We’re definitely excited for it to come. We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Michelle: I am, as many of your listeners probably are, when this comes out, absolutely in the thick of redesigning my own courses for fall. Without getting into too many of the specifics, my institution has kind of laid out a set of parameters that they want us to meet. And so I’ll be re-envisioning my courses and to practice what I preach. I’m going to try to flow that out as much as possible to my colleagues, both locally in my own department, my own college, at my institution, and also nationally. So I’m kind of looking at some different ways that I can continue to engage people in this and share out what I’m learning as we go along. And I’m also pretty excited to be preparing some even more in-depth materials for some institutions who are looking for help in exactly this type of thing, how to get faculty interested in this whole topic of flexible teaching, some specific techniques that are useful for what I’ll call flexible teaching, key resources, things to do and not to do, and so on. So I’m excited to be coming back at it on all cylinders in the fall, and looking forward to engaging students in all the different formats that we now have and seeing where it takes us. So that’s what’s next for me.

John: Well, thank you. This has been wonderful talking to you again. We’ve always enjoyed these conversations, and our listeners have very much appreciated them.

Michelle: Oh, thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always really helpful to know too, that you’re not alone. We’re all going through the same kinds of contemplations, and so thanks for sharing some of your own stories about developing and planning for the fall too.

Michelle: Thank you as well.

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

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

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135. E-tivities

As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, Dr. Darina Slattery joins us to discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.

Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.

Transcript

John: As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the fall semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, we discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: We should note that we recorded this podcast in early March before most campuses closed in response to the global pandemic. The content of this discussion, though, is at least as important now as it was at the time of the recording.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Darina Slattery. Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society. Welcome, Darina.

John: It’s good to talk to you again.

Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca.

John: Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?

Darina: Not at this minute, but I do drink a lot of tea, just regular Irish tea.

John: You know, we should have done that.

Rebecca: I considered it this morning. And I was like, “Oh, I’m making a mortal sin this morning by choosing something very different.” But I have black currant tea today.

Darina: Oh, very nice. [LAUGHTER] I don’t drink coffee at all, even though most people here do but I just drink a lot of tea instead. We do too.

Darina: Okay.

Rebecca: …all day long.

Darina: Very good.

John: And I have an apple spice chai tea today.

Darina: Oh, I’ve never tried that.

Rebecca: That’s unusual.

John: This is my first time trying it.

Darina: Good luck. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Is it good?

John: I’ll know more… I just made it.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today to discuss e-tivities. Can you explain to our listeners what is meant by an e-tivity.

Darina: Okay, so an e-tivity, basically, is a structured e-tivity that’s typically hosted on a discussion forum. So e-tivity is just really short for electronic e-tivity. But specifically, the concept of e-tivity came from Gilly Salmon. So, Gilly Salmon is famous for her work on the five stages that learners go through for teaching online. And she’s famous for coming up with this structure. It’s a very simple structure, but it’s a very useful one. So typically, e-tivities, as I said, they’re hosted in a discussion forum, but they don’t always have to be about discussion topics; an e-tivity can require a student to do anything. So, typically, an e-tivity… it’s instructions, and it starts off usually with some kind of a spark. So, the spark could be like a controversial statement that you want students to debate. It could be a relevant or a thought-provoking image, or it could even be a link to a YouTube case study or something. So, something that you just want to get them going with whatever the e-tivity is about. And then the second component then is the purpose. So that’s just essentially where you state the objective of the e-tivity. Then you’ve got the task, and this is the hardest part to write for an e-tivity. It’s where you give step-by-step instructions to students about what you want them to do, where you want them to do it, how, when, you might have a word count, what the deadline is. There could be multiple parts to the task. And then the fourth typical component is a respond section. And the term is a bit misleading, because it suggests that you don’t have to respond to the task. You do. But the respond part means respond to one of your peers based on what they submitted for the task. So, I wouldn’t always have that part. I don’t always have the collaborative element, even though all students can see each other’s responses because it’s posted or stored in the forum. So that’s essentially what it is. It’s just a very organized e-tivity that has certain components. And students very quickly then kind of become familiar with what an e-tivity looks like, and what’s expected of them.

John: And so you state explicitly the purpose so they see the motivation, then, as part of that?

Darina: Yes, in my case, not everybody does this, but I always grade my e-tivities as well. So, it’s always aligned with the objectives of the module. And they’re going to get grades for it as well. And it’s aligned, you know, aligned with the content that you’re teaching… the classes as well.

Rebecca: Can you give an example of an e-tivity?

Darina: Yes, I can give you lots of examples, actually. I’m just trying to think of some of the more useful ones. So, one that’s particularly useful that I use at the very start of my courses. So, the students I teach are online and on campus. So, I have both groups taking the same courses at the same time. So rather than have kind of one method of teaching one group and a different method for the on campus, I have them all accessing the same lecture materials and podcasts and so on. But also the way they engage is through e-tivities. So, whether they’re physically in the room in front of me or online, they’re all doing the same e-tivities. We have a program that teaches them about technical communication and e-learning. And a lot of the students in the program would be from very different backgrounds, they wouldn’t have any prior background in writing or teaching or anything like that. And for many of them as well, they’re mature students or postgraduate students, so they might not have ever used virtual learning environments before. So in the very first week of their program, I give them an e-tivity which asks them to do a learning style survey. Now I know there’s a lot of controversy about learning styles, and I’m not going to argue either way about that for now. But the purpose of it really is to get them into the VLE, to find an e-tivity in the right place and to respond in the right place. And it just happens to be an e-tivity that’s highly relevant to instructional design students, but it’s one that can be done by anybody. So they follow the instructions, the e-tivity, they go and do the learning style survey, they review the results. And then they have to write a small passage in the forum about whether or not they agree with the findings. So if it says that they’re a visual learner, and they don’t think they are, or they prefer text or whatever, they just have a bit of discussion about that. So it’s a really good way to engage them with the VLE very quickly. So by Friday of week one, they kind of know how we’re going to teach how we’re going to run the module. So it’s really very much of a kind of an icebreaker e-tivity. But then I have more elaborate ones then. So, my students have to design and develop an e-learning course. And so, in the instructional design course that they take with me, they have to propose a topic that they would like to develop. So it could be something that they’re personally interested in or something they know from industry that it’s needed. So they have to propose a topic, outline the characteristics of the audience, do an audience analysis (or a preliminary audience analysis), talk about what technology the audience might have, and then also provide some peer feedback to other people. Because it’s all in the forum, they can see each other’s contributions. And then they can decide, “Oh, I know a bit about what Mary proposed there, I got to give her some resources that might help her” or “John has said he wants to develop a course about safe cycling in the city. I have this brilliant book that he should have a look at,” and so on. So it’s a way of kind of structuring the tasks you might get them to do in a face-to-face tutorial, but it’s just that they read the instructions in the e-tivity in the forum, and that’s where they also reply, and everybody else can see the reply as well. So because it’s asynchronous as well, it’s really helpful because the quality of their answers tend to be better than they might be in a face-to-face classroom, for example. They’ve had a bit of time to consider them.

Rebecca: WEe were talking before we started this particular interview about COVID-19 and people moving to online learning and things like that. An e-tivity seems like an opportunity to transition quickly to online, potentially.

Darina: Yes.

Rebecca: Are there tips for doing an e-tivity for the first time? Maybe things that faculty might not think about the first time out that we could help them think about the first time out? [LAUGHTER]

Darina: Yeah, well, certainly, I mean, I think the most important thing about the e-tivities is to know what the core components are. And like, I wouldn’t always have, for example, a spark from my e-tivity, I might just state the purpose of it. And then I put most of my effort into giving the step-by-step instructions. And what I often find is that my colleagues… in their head, they know what they want the student to do, or they know what the end product will look like. But when you actually have to write out the instructions, and you’re not physically present with the students, you suddenly realize, “Oh, I have to specify that and I have to specify that” and “Oh, I better tell them where do they reply to this message or do they reply in a different forum.” That’s really, for most people where the challenge is, that they don’t realize how much extra guidance they normally give face to face, or students email them, and they give them a bit more information, or the students stopped them in the corridor, and it gives them a bit more information. In an e-tivity, the work goes into being as clear as possible. And if you’re really clear, I guarantee you students will do the right thing in the right place. If you’re not clear, their answers could end up anywhere. They could end up being emailed to you, they could end up in the wrong forum, or whatever. So really, it’s about putting the effort into the task and having kind of a manageable task. Because I know when I think back to my early days of doing e-tivities, I had an e-tivity nearly every week, for example, you know. But they might need at least a week to do the tivity and to read around the topic before they can give a good answer. So over the years, I’ve kind of cut back and I’ve just kept the most critical e-tivities and I’ve spread them out a little bit more as well. What I really like about e-tivities is that anybody who’s moving into online, they almost definitely will have access to a forum in their VLE. And if you have access to a forum, then the only thing you have to do… there’s no technology to be installed or anything of that… is you just have to put some careful thought into what you want the students to do, where, why, when, and so on. So if there’s multiple parts, just think carefully about the dates of those, that if Part B is dependent on Part A being completed, you have to give enough time in between them. And bearing in mind that online students probably have other commitments during the day and so on. So it’s a great way to get your students engaging online without it being a technical challenge for you as an instructor. It’s really more of a kind of Instructional Design Challenge, really.

John: Going back a little bit to that first example you use. I’m a little concerned because we’ve had a number of podcasts where people have talked about learning styles as a myth. I’m wondering, should we maybe address that argument just a little bit

Darina: In terms of learning styles, what I do with the students, I want them to be aware of the challenges and the issues and the critiques of learning styles as well. So when I asked them to do the survey, I also give them links to some article about the issues with learning styles. And I make it very clear to them that I’m not pushing learning styles or insisting that they have to believe the results that come back. It’s an icebreaker activity, that it’s an activity that will get them at the very least to stop and think about how they think they learn. So even if they strongly disagree with the results, that’s fine. And I want them to actually say that it, you know what I mean? It’s not a mark for “Do you agree with this? And if you don’t, I have a problem with you.” And it’s very much about stop and think about how you’d like to learn, okay, and I’m giving you an e-tivity that just happens to be relevant to your study as well.

Rebecca: What I like about your icebreaker in this way is that it encourages students immediately not to have to be on the agree train, right? … like agree with everything the faculty has to say all the time. And that would seem like it gives them permission right from the first activity to disagree or have different perspectives, which I could imagine would be a really important thing to set up at the beginning of an online course.

Darina: It is, because we often say this to students, but most of the time they look at us as “Well, you’re the expert. And if I disagree with you it might affect my grades” and stuff like that. And they don’t realize maybe that you don’t mind if they disagree, and if they have a valid reason for disagreeing that that’s extremely valid. And so yeah, I do like that aspect of it, because it kind of sets the stage for even just making them a bit more critical of what they read. So like, MOOCs were all the rage of 2011, they were the worst thing ever in 2012. Now they’re back in, and then they’re gone again. And I need my students to think like that about, you know, whatever the latest trend is, might not even exist tomorrow. And the same goes for theories. You know, anytime somebody comes up with a new theory, it’s going to take a bit of time before people evaluate that theory and determine whether it’s really valid or not, and that that’s okay. Because they wouldn’t really be thinking like that when they come into our program. You know, they’ve probably been away from education for a long time. And in my experience in undergraduate programs, they don’t do a lot of critical thinking. So, this is the start of that, even if they’re not as aware as I am of why I’m doing it, you know. I’m trying to emphasize it anyway.

John: You’ve used the term VLE several times. Could you explain to our listeners what that means, because that term isn’t as commonly used in the U.S.

Darina: Virtual Learning Environment… sorry. I actually say LMS quite a lot. When I say LMS, other people say “What’s an LMS?” So VLE (virtual learning environment) or LMS (learning management system) are the same thing. Yes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about advantages of e-tivities over other strategies to use in online learning.

Darina: Yeah, of course. Well, one of the major draws for faculty is when I say to them, there’s no technical skill required. It doesn’t require you to have a more supercomputer to be able to install something. You don’t have to go out and buy any new equipment. If you have access to a VLE, you’ll have access to a forum. So it’s a simple, inexpensive way of engaging your students. One of the things that people often say to me is, you know, “That’s fine for you. You teach tech writing or instructional design. Of course, you can do that kind of stuff. I teach artificial intelligence or maths or science or whatever, how would I do an e-tivity for that?” if you can give students a piece of instruction about your topic, it can be turned into an e-tivity. Over the years I’ve tried to collate some activities from different disciplines, and I put them up on my website. The science engineering people are a bit slower to engage in professional development for teaching in general, but those who do, I have like supply chain management with a new masters in artificial intelligence. They’re using all e-tivities to engage their students, and their students are industry professionals working in AI and they are really loving the engagement with the e-tivities. I have colleagues who teach languages using it, management marketing are using it. It’s really about what do you want the students to do? Ask them to do it. And the important thing about an e-tivity is, the student’s response doesn’t have to be a text-based response in the forum. You put the e-tivity in the forum, they get used to going there for them. But sometimes the e-tivity will require them to go somewhere else and do something. So the e-tivity could say, go away and interview an expert in your field and come back and upload a file or tell us what you learned from that interview. Or I have an e-tivity, for example, that gets them to set up a Twitter account and then engage on Twitter for the rest of the semester. So they’re not actually using the forum every week to engage, the forum just tells them how to do it. They reply with their Twitter handle, but thereafter they’re actually engaging via Twitter. So they start off on the forum, but they end up somewhere else. It’s very important that you just think about that. That’s just kind of a house or home for the task, but the task itself does not have to be discussion based or forum based. And then I think you get a bit more buy-in from technical type subjects who say, “Okay, yeah, maybe I could see a way that we could use this.”

John: To put this in context. you mentioned that you were using this for students who are both online and face to face. Could you tell us just a little bit about your course in terms of the structure?

Darina: Yes, of course. So the students they’re all studying how to become technical writers, instructional designers, or e-learning content developers. So initially, the program was only available on campus, and towards the latter years, I was using e-tivities with the on-campus students. And then when I moved it online as well, it meant it was actually not so difficult for me because the e-tivities ported very well to the online students. Now we just have students, some of them physically come into my class and they attend lectures. They can download the podcasts afterwards, if they want to, the online students access the slides and the podcasts afterwards, but they all engage together in the discussion forums.

John: That sounds a lot like a HyFlex course where students are getting the same content and they can attend in person or remotely either synchronously or asynchronously,

Darina: Yes, it is. And it started off as being on campus only. I’ve read a little bit about your HyFlex and it wasn’t a term I was aware of, or I wasn’t familiar with that. A lot of my colleagues here in UL, because we are traditional on-campus institution, they tend to create a different version for the online students. But the way I see it is that you can end up with different learning outcomes if you’re giving different types of assignments to students, and so on. And if you’re smart about it, one activity can engage both groups. And it also increases the audience. It means that the on-campus students who might not have much experience actually get to engage with the online students who might have lots of experience. They wouldn’t otherwise interact with them, you know, they tend to interact with the other students in the classroom with them. So it kind of creates a bigger audience with a more varied skill set if they’re all engaging in the same e-tivities.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the experience in the classroom is like when you’re using e-tivities for a face-to-face class? I understand that they’re all doing the same e-tivity as where they engage with each other, but what’s there in-class experience like?

Darina: The e-tivity doesn’t really impact the in-class experience. For some reason, when we set up the program, as I said, it was on campus only. And when we moved it online, we thought that almost everybody would want to be online, and that we wouldn’t have a need for on-campus lectures and so on. But most years, it’s about 50-50. It can vary a little bit, but some students still actually want to come in and have the lecture, a formal lecture, and other students can’t avail of that for whatever reason. So, the on-campus experience is very much students coming in and listening to a traditional lecture and asking questions and me answering them. We don’t tend to work on the e-tivities during the class time, because I would have to repurpose that engagement then and try and create another version of that for the online students. So, the on-campus delivery is the lecture. The online engagement of the class is really what happens through e-tivities. And it’s kind of irrelevant whether you are an online or an on-campus student then. That’s the kind of way that works for me anyway, and for my students.

John: And you mentioned that the online students listen to podcasts. So do you record the class presentations and share them as podcasts with the class?

Darina: No is the answer for the majority of times, though I have played around with different versions. It would obviously be a lot easier for me in one way if I just recorded the live lecture and posted it afterwards. But I often find I spend just as long editing this or thinking, “Oh, I didn’t really explain that very well, I’ll re-record it and so on. And that I’ve usually spent just as long editing afterwards as I have giving the session, and then I end up saying, I should have just done a proper separate podcast. So my default setting now is I give my live lecture, and then I come and do a podcast of the same lecture, but it’s just cleaner, I’m speaking better. Everybody has access to it, though, so it’s not like the online students only get that; everybody has it. So, if they do miss a lecture, for whatever reason, they can still get the podcast afterwards. And for some reason, students still come to class… not this week, it’s student fun week. But normally, I still get students coming to class and sometimes I do wonder why they’re coming to class when there is an alternative, they can still get the same material another way. But, some students, they like the fact that they have a dedicated time when they come and they focus on instructional design or e-learning, or whatever. And of course, sometimes I do group work during the lectures and so on. But I have to factor in that every way that I interact with the on-campus students, I have to be able to try and replicate that afterwards for the online. So, that’s why most of the interaction happens through the e-tivities. But, sometimes you do have to create supplementary materials because you did a group work exercise in class or whatever, you know?

Rebecca: I like the idea of doing the podcast afterwards, because then you know what questions were asked [LAUGHTER] and you can address all of those when you go to record.

Darina: …and quite often, it’s I think, I really didn’t explain that as well as I could have or I stumbled on that, or they didn’t seem to get it when I said in class. I’m going to explain it more clearly now in the podcast, and at least I know that everybody has access to that. So, I’m not giving a better version to the online students. They all have access. So, that works for me, even though it does feel like I’m double teaching sometimes.

Rebecca: Dress rehearsal and the final performance?

Darina: Yes, exactly. [LAUGHTER]

John: When I first started teaching online, I did the same thing. I was teaching a face-to-face class and an online class and I recorded videos for all of the online students, which I then shared with the face-to-face students…

Darina: Great

John: …and an hour and 20 minute class became maybe two or three 10-minute videos because you could do it more concisely and a more focused presentation.

Darina: But the few times I have recorded the live sessions, maybe due to, you know, being under pressure at work, or whatever reason, they’ve complained. They get used to the higher quality podcast, and then they say, “Oh, I could hear somebody going in and out the door,” or “I couldn’t hear the questions they were asking.” So, if you go down that path of recording separate podcasts, you can’t really go back to recording a live session, because they’ll find them not sufficiently clear. So, it’s fine if you start with that. They won’t notice. They’ll be just thrilled to have access to the lecture materials, but it’s whatever kind of standard you set you kind of have to maintain it then, so. [LAUGHTER] But, it would be easier on me if I didn’t have to go and do it again, in lots of ways.[LAUGHTER]

John: We had a really similar experience when we first started the podcast. We created the intro, a very short introduction to the podcast, and we showed it to our advisory board that advises the teaching center. And one of the people there said, I think it was intended as a compliment that “It sounds so professional. It doesn’t sound like you at all.” [LAUGHTER]

Darina: Oh, definitely. My children said that to me, too. You sound weird in the podcast. I’m like, I’m just talking more slowly and I’m thinking about what I’m saying, rather than talking super fast in class, maybe, whatever. Yeah. I do pauses when I’m recording it. And I do go back and say that wasn’t good enough or your voice is a bit weak there, you know what I mean. So it is a better quality production. I would be very keen to emphasize to my colleagues and you don’t want to create a situation where you then give yourself five hours of editing work after every lecture, either. Your live lectures are not perfect, and it’s fine. But there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of editing, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on it either or you’ll just never upload it. That’s the other danger.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of the instructor in the e-tivity. You talked about designing it and writing the instructions, but what happens afterwards? Can you describe that a little bit.?

Darina: Yes. So, as I said, in my case, all the e-tivities are graded. The first one, the icebreaker one this year, I decided not to give marks for it, because everybody was going to get full marks and it was kind of a bit too easy.[LAUGHTER] So I decided to only give marks if they didn’t do, which, which made them all do it. And the purpose of that was to get them to engage quickly. But, for all the other e-tivities, there are marks going forward. So it’s a couple of percent maybe for each part, it does involve me copying and pasting the forum based messages into a Word document and reading through them and annotating with little comments and then sharing it back with each individual student. So the feedback only goes back to the individual student, even though they’ve all seen each other’s submissions, say, right. So it’ll be a mixture then of quantitative and qualitative techniques. So, I might look at like, have they stuck to the word count I suggested. So they tend to be relatively short answers, you know, like 300 words max or something like that. So, have they adhered to that? Have they answered the question I asked, have they got some citations to relevant literature in the part where they have to respond to somebody else? Have they given them some useful suggestions? Are they just saying, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea, Mary?” So the qualitative part takes a little bit more time. They are time consuming. My classes could be 20 to 35 students having two or three e-tivities in a semester is still plenty of work. I feel like I’m kind of grading all the time. But they really do engage them. And they have activities to do from early on, rather than than just every week logging in, listening to a podcast, reading all the readings, and then having a big assignment at the end. It does require them to do things more often. And as I said, I’m relying mostly on asynchronous interaction. So it has to be highly structured that they’re not wondering what they have to do. That’s why I mentioned thinking carefully about the task and what is actually manageable. I mean, just because I can do it in an hour this evening, they don’t know anything about the topic that you’ve just set them so they have to read all the readings, maybe listen to your podcasts, look at your slides, read what other people have said to get a feel for it, and then post their 300 words. So that could be a four-hour task for them. So, it’s a little bit of a trial and error thing, that the first time you issue an e-tivity you think it’s very doable, and you might realize it takes them way more time than you thought. And that’s why over the years I’ve pared back to the most essential e-tivities that I really just do not want to drop that I know engage them enough that it’s not just logging in and listening to a podcast every week. It’s important to engage them as well.

John: You mentioned that the students reply to each other’s contributions. Do you also reply to those? Or do you wait until the end to provide feedback?

Darina: Usually, I wait until the end. Now in the ideal world, when we’re teaching online, we would have tutors available to help us with this. I don’t have any tutors, so everything, all the VLE work, everything, you know, uploading materials, and all podcasting, and everything else is all done by me… possibly the same for you. But I have colleagues in other departments in my university who have education technologists who do a lot of that and who do a lot of the tedious things like downloading people’s forum postings, or saving them in documents and all that kind of thing. If I didn’t have to spend so much time on those kinds of things, I would probably engage more frequently with their contributions. But, there’s a relatively short time between when the e-tivity appears and when you have to contribute something and there may be two or three parts to it. So part A and part B might be due at the same day. And then Part C might be read over what other people said in A and B and give some of them feedback. Because I try and align them with one another, I do return the feedback for one e-tivity before the next e-tivity is due because it usually has a knock on effect on what they do the second time around. But I do find it’s very demanding on me. And every year I say I shouldn’t do this, even though it’s a good outcome for the students. So, that’s something you have to factor in as well is that if something is issued in week five, and due in week six, and then another one due in week seven, are you going to issue another one in week seven? They’re immediately going to be asking you “Well, how did I do and the last one I submitted last week.” So, you have to have factored in some grading time into your week six or seven schedule. So that’s just something else to kind of watch there. So yes, to answer your question, when they propose an e-learning course topic and they give me some details and the typical audience, I will give them feedback on that before the next e-tivity, which is to write the tasks they might teach in the course. So I might say to them “Well your topic is, too. broad” or “Have you looked at what other e-learning courses exist on that topic?” or “Have you thought about this and that?” That should impact the kind of tasks they write in the next e-tivity. So, it is important to get them feedback in between.

Rebecca: I also wondered if you could talk a little bit about how e-tivities fit into other coursework that students are doing, or are students just doing the e-tivities as part of your classes?

Darina: No. So, for example, the one where they propose the topic for an e-learning course, and the audience requirements and so on, and then later on, they propose some tasks that they would like to teach in that course. Let’s say it’s on safe cycling in the city. They would have to identify certain tasks that the learner would need to be able to do, you know, like pick appropriate equipment or clothing to wear when they’re cycling and buy the right lights for their bicycle or whatever it might be. So, they’d have to outline the tasks they would teach. The main assignment then for that module would be to develop a podcast that teaches the learner how to do one or more of those tasks. So, it could be a podcast on buying the right equipment for your bicycle or whatever. So, there’s an instructional design process integrated those e-tivities. And the same then for the other group where they have to work in a team. They’re only online students in another course I teach. They’re only online students, they have to develop an e-learning course as a group. So, they have to form a team, first of all. They don’t know each other, they’ve never met, they only have the forums to really interact. So they have to find other like-minded people via the forums, pick a topic, decide who’s going to do what, who is going to be the instructional designer, the editor, the writers, whatever, they have to identify what sources they’re going to use for the course they’re going to develop. These are all e-tivities, by the way, these are all different parts of e-tivities, and they have to come up with some sample interface designs. So, that might be only seven weeks into the term, they will have done all that. And I find the e-tivity’s really good for group work where I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when you ask students to get in groups or to form groups themselves, they could spend five weeks trying to find teammates, whereas if you give them a structured e-tivity where it says: By week two, you have to have found three other team members. By week three, you have to have decided who’s doing what. It’s a really great way of organizing them online because they’ve small, relatively easy deliverables, but they’re due and there’s marks going for them. Whereas if there’s kind of a, you have to have an e-learning course developed by week 12, they’ve 12 weeks to get their act together or, you know, they’ll manage it somehow. So it’s a very good way of organizing them, particularly when you’re talking about online students, because they have other commitments. So, all those small e-tivities all feed into the final project, which is to actually produce an e-learning course, based on all the submissions.

John: I have a question about that process of forming groups. I assigned a podcast assignment last term, I strongly encourage them to do it in groups of two or three, and there were only two pairs. I allowed them to do them individually, and most people did that, which meant a bit more work for them, and a whole lot more work for me.[LAUGHTER]

Darina: Yup.

John: Do you use a discussion forum to get students to form the groups or is there some type of prompt that you’ve used to get students to effectively form those groups?

Darina: I know I sound like a broken record, now. But it’s actually the e-tivity. So the e-tivity is: use this particular forum by Friday of week one, you have to identify a group. I have a dedicated space for finding people. But that’s not where they respond with their team members. They respond to the e-tivity with their team members. I’m really amazed how this works, but it really does work. So you’ll have: “Hi, I’m John. I live in Dublin. I prefer to have somebody who lives near me in case we need to meet, but I’m happy to work with anyone. I’m thinking we could develop a course about safe cycling.” And then you’ll get some elsel say, “Yeah, I love cycling, too. I might go with you.” And that just happens in that casual forum space. But then once you’ve got four people who agree, straightaway, then they reply to the e-tivity with: “Here’s our group” and they list the four members and that’s it. That’s all I grade is the four names… have they got four names, rather than worrying about who’s interacting with who and how they finally got to that destination

Rebecca: In your e-tivity, then, do you describe to the students: “Use this finding-like forum to find each other and then report back?”

Darina: Yes, it’s very prescriptive. [LAUGHTER] It’s like you need to spell it out and Ieven give them links to: these are some of the challenges you will encounter as a team, you know, that kind of the forming, storming, stages and the characteristics of a good team, the kinds of things to watch out for. So, I just alert them to, these are likely things are going to happen your group this semester while you’re doing loads of other assignments at the same time and working and whatever else. So, they’re alert to it, they can choose whether or not they want to read those, but at least they know that there are possible challenges coming… but definitely breaking up those stages into smaller stages where they get 2% for finding a team, and they get 3% for dividing up the roles and agreeing on them by week three. It definitely works. It’s surprisingly productive.

John: I had tried that. I put together a discussion forum for them to find partners and to select their topics, but I didn’t make it mandatory that they had to, and so that discussion forum was used by one person [LAUGHTER] who suggested a topic and no one else responded and I should have probably started the assignment by requiring teams.

Darina: Yeah, well over the years I’ve tried the technique of “Wouldn’t it be great if students did these things voluntarily?” …and then always disappointed that only the really good students did it voluntarily. So, I pretty much tend to have 10 to 20% of every course is e-tivities. And the other 80% is for the bigger assignment, whether it’s a podcast or an e-learning course, or an e-portfolio, or whatever.

Rebecca: I think that scaffolding is something that students really want. And I think a lot of times when it’s just in a final project assignment…

Darina: Yeah.

Rebecca: …that like you should do this by this date. And this by this date, even though it’s scaffolded, in the way that you thought about it or designed it, the students don’t treat it like it’s scaffolded. [LAUGHTER]

Darina: No, [LAUGHTER] I’m sure you’ve had the same experience, where you write a seven-page document that clearly specifies all the things you want them to do and when and they’ll still not do things on those deadlines. So. this is the way of like, “Look, this is simple. Four people agree with each other by a certain date.” And it’s great because they’re doing interface designs in a group by week five or six when they would still be messing about and trying to find people to merge with. And then if I see there’s somebody leftover, who doesn’t have a team, I’ll say: “Well, this group only has three, you can go with them” or whatever, but they tend to get themselves sorted. Now I did use it with undergraduates, the final-year undergraduates and it worked with them as well. And they were on-campus students, but it mightn’t be as useful for maybe first years or second years or freshmen or whatever, but it certainly did work for more senior undergraduates.

John: Mine were freshmen, but I didn’t provide that requirement…

Rebecca: …that extra step… [LAUGHTER]

John: Next time I may do that, though, because many of them were very, very good, but the ones that were jointly done, were, in general,quite a bit better.

Darina: I find if I give students a choice about working together or on their own, they tend to pick on their own as well. And I think to be honest, if I was asked if it was an assignment, and it’s been graded, I would say, you know what, I think at least I don’t want to be cross at anyone else for not engaging. I’m just going to do this by myself. I won’t have to rely on anyone else. I know. It’s not how we work in the real world. But when there are marks at stake, you kind of want to have full responsibility for what you hand up. So I find it very hard to get people to voluntarily engage in groups.

Rebecca: How do you manage when you’re doing e-tivities that are collaborative? The question always comes up like does everyone get the same grade? Do people get different grades?

Darina: Well, bear in mind, now that there’s a very small number of marks going for each of these parts. So like if there’s 2% going for somebody in your group, the designated Team Leader uploading four names and your team, by Friday, they’ll all get the 2%. It’s simple. It takes me one minute to grade that. When it comes to maybe an interface design that’s proposed as a group, then they’ll all get the same marks, unless, and I’ll always have that disclaimer in there, that unless the rest of the group contact me to say that somebody is not engaging, then I’ll deal with it separately. I’ve done a lot of research on virtual teams and those kinds of challenges. The default is that they’ll all get the same mark unless they speak up about it. So if you don’t hear about it, then the onus is on you to accept that all your team members will get the same mark. If they were worth 30% each or something I think people might be a little bit more precious about “Well, I actually did more work than they did,” but they’re sufficiently small that if you’re not pulling your weight for an e-tivity, you’re probably not going to do very well on the big assignment either.

John: How have students responded to the use of e-tivities?

Darina: At no point have I asked students like, “Do you like e-tivities versus something else?” They just come in, they’re immersed in the e-tivities. Not all my colleagues use them now, so they don’t have them in every course that they’re studying. But the way I see it is, I mean, obviously, we get our courses evaluated every year, and there’s never anything they could have said about e-tivities. A lot of people would comment on how they liked the clear instructions, and they like how things are organized, and they know where to go and so on. I think the thing that speaks loudest for me is how people do the right thing in the right place, and that they don’t post their answer in the wrong place. And I think that says a lot about how clear my e-tivities are… that they’re not left wondering. So, I’ve seen e-tivities, written by other people, where I’m thinking, do I click reply here? Or do I have to email it? What’s the deadline? Or do I have to collaborate before I respond and so on. If they’re very clear, if you put all that work into refining them, and I intend to refine them every year, if I find a lot of questions about an e-tivity this year that I’ve issued several times before, I will make a note: “next year, make sure you explain this clearer” or whatever, you know, in my Word document. Something that’s very obvious to me some years just isn’t as obvious to my students. So, just keep refining them. And that’s one of the great things about them is it’s like a good assignment. You can reuse it every year. And each year, it should be even more perfect than the previous year.

John: Would you mind if we share a link to your collection of e-tivities on the show notes?

Darina: Yes, of course. And I have in addition to a list of links to e-tivities, I have a very long list of resources that people might use for teaching and learning, like blogging tools, collaborative authoring tools, rubrics for teaching online and so on. So, just one of the things in there is a list of some e-tivities by my colleagues. I’m trying to get more people on board to using e-tivities. But, as I get good e-tivities from colleagues, I add them. It’s not a huge collection of them, but it gives you a flavor for how different disciplines can use them.

Rebecca: Wonderful. We always end our wrap up by asking what’s next? ‘

Darina: Well, I suppose one of the things I do kind of in addition to my day job as a faculty member is I do a lot of professional development workshops kind of voluntarily with my colleagues. So trying to help them either just use technology more in their day-to-day teaching, or even to develop online programs as well. And in that, then, I try and encourage them to use e-tivities. You know, this is a really good tool. This is how I teach online all the time, it’s not some elaborate software system you have to install or anything like that. So that’s where the collection of activities we’re just talking about has come from… those workshops where people start developing their own e-tivities in class, they refine them every year, and then they find them really useful. So that that’s where the collection is coming from… doing a lot of professional development in the area and now with the talks. As we were talking earlier about the possible closures of universities and so on, I probably will have a lot more people using e-tivities in the next few weeks, then maybe we originally planned. So I’m going to continue my work with the professional development. I mean, we’re not trying to convert everybody into online, we just want to show them good ways of using technology that might make things they’re doing at the moment more user friendly, enjoyable, less time consuming, and so on. So it’s about appropriate use of technology rather than moving everything into the online space. Not everything should be delivered that way, not everything can be delivered that way, but a lot of things can. My focus in the next while will be on just making people more aware of what can be done, rather than focusing on specific tools and getting anxious about hardware and software and things like that.

Rebecca: Great.

John: Thank you. This has been wonderful.

Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca. I really enjoyed it.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

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

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

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129. Pandemic Planning

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I have Lady Grey.

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

Josh: [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: [LAUGHTER] Right, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Exactly, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: We just really want just one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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126. Pandemic-Related Remote Learning

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Flower: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.

Flower: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us quickly.

Flower: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are

Flower: I’m drinking a tall iced tea.

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

[LAUGHTER]

Flower: That’s right.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

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

John: This would be one of those times.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower: Absolutely. For sure.

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

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

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

Flower: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower: For sure.

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

Flower: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I hope those conversations start.

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

Rebecca: Agreed.

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

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

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much.

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

Rebecca: Stay well.

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

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

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

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