173. Pseudoscience

In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak join us to discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Shermer, M. (2014). Why People Believe Weird Things. Naturalist.
  • Zener cards – American Psychological Association
  • Huff, D. (1993). How to lie with statistics. WW Norton & Company.
  • Van Der Kroon, C. (1996). The Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy. Wishland Incorporated.

Transcript

John: In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, we discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience.

[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]

John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Paul also had been the Associate Director here at our teaching center at SUNY Oswego before he entered the Dean’s office and Rebecca joined us as Associate Director.

Kristin: Thank you.

Paul: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Kristin: We’re happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Paul: I have a special tea for you. I have a tea that has a best buy date of March 2000. A special tea.

Kristin: Does it have flavor still?

Paul: In a way… Yeah, It’s got a special flavor. [LAUGHTER]

John: A vintage tea…

Paul: Yeah.

John: …a good year.

Kristin: And I have coffee in a Christmas mug because the Christmas mugs are still out.

Rebecca: Mine are out year round.

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea.

Rebecca: And I have Big Red Sun.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Ah, it’s a little switch up. It seems sciency… It’s what I had open.

John: We’ve invited here today to discuss the first- year seminar course you both offered on “How to Think about Weird Things: science confronts pseudoscience.” First, could you remind our listeners a little bit about what the first-year seminar courses are here. We’ve done some past podcasts on them, but it’s been a while since we talked about that program.

Kristin: The first-year seminar course at SUNY Oswego is a relatively new initiative started just before I came here in 2018. But that’s before I came to SUNY Oswego, so I’m allowed to be wrong on dates before I started. It was initiated by our Provost, Scott Furlong. And the first-year seminar courses, the way that we envisioned them, is partially as passion topic courses for faculty, but also as a transitional experience for new freshmen so that they can have an experience in which they have both some social bonding, some interesting and challenging and really fascinating materials to talk about in course, but also some built-in experiences to help them connect to their new university and transition into kind of the college student way of functioning and being in a supportive atmosphere. So both academic challenge and excitement along with kind of the adjustment to the new university culture… Oh, and those are all taught in classes of 19 or less, so that there can be a strong peer-to-peer experience. And they also have writing intensive experiences involved.

John: What are some examples of pseudoscience that you address in your classes?

Paul: I’ve been teaching this course prior to the first-year seminar series for some years in a variety of different places: as an upper-level Gen Ed course for non majors, as a honors course, because the topic just transcends level, and it’s something that everyone can get something out of. And every time I’ve taught it, I’ve ended up emphasizing different things. And that persists. At one time, I was adamantly avoiding talking about conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are just bollocks. It’s a zero-sum proposition, there’s really no way out of it. There’s no good dealing with the topic. But given the fact that conspiracy theory is something that we all really need to be talking about nowadays, it’s something that I’ve brought in little by little, but it’s still dicey. You can talk about creationism, and have some strong things that you can bring up as, this is why this really is not tenable in there, lots of things you can talk about in terms of cryptozoology or psychical ability, or persistence of life after death, consciousness after death. And there are scientific things that you can point to with these. But with conspiracy theories, it’s always going to be “Oh, well…” there is always an “Oh, well” out of it. And so that’s a hard one to grapple with in any real constructive way.

Kristin: Well, one of the things that attracted me to the course…. Actually, let me tell you about how I got into it. As Dean, I wanted to get a stronger connection to the students. It’s good to have the experience in the classroom, especially at a new university for me, because I can see what faculty were going through in terms of: setup your course shell… What are the policies that you have to include? What are the students like in the classroom? How do you submit your grades? …all those kind of technical aspects also that Deans know. I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Fall 2020 if I had perfect foresight about what that would have been like, but still… not necessarily as my first experience teaching at Oswego. But I still think it was valuable. But one thing that attracted me to the courses when I was thinking about what courses to teach, intro psych was actually my first choice because I enjoy hanging out with freshmen. It was my field. But then I thought… these freshman seminar courses, and I got a chance to talk with Paul on a regular basis in previous years, he was teaching a bit about all the interesting things we were talking about. And I think that course is fascinating, but as a psychologist, some of the things that really attracted me are pseudoscientific beliefs, particularly about interventions and treatments and the way people are scammed the way that having an understanding of how the brain and body actually work, and what evidence for treatment looks like versus people who are charlatans who are taking advantage of people who are in vulnerable positions. That’s the part that really hooks me into pseudoscience and why it’s so important to teach students about it. But with that, as a hook, you’ve got all kinds of possibilities, because it’s many of the same thinking errors and misunderstandings that open you up to paying thousands and thousands of dollars for getting your future read repeatedly. It’s the same kind of thinking errors that opening you up to those and some other things that are not necessarily mainstream.

Rebecca: So how do you overcome some of those thinking errors, or help students overcome their thinking errors?

Paul: I’m going to say “um” a lot and I’m going to pause a lot, because I know that it’s something that John enjoys editing out.

Kristin: But you should totally leave that…

Rebecca: Um….what do we think about that? [LAUGHTER]

Paul: When I teach this class, there are a number of things that I emphasize. But I emphasize that we are on some level, all scientists, we are all critical thinkers. And in order to get through life successfully, you have to be able to do these things. And I like to draw the horizontal line on the board on the first day and say, on this end is complete gullibility, complete credulousness, you’ll accept anything as truth. And on the other side is complete dismissiveness, complete cynicism, and you won’t accept anything, regardless of how well it’s shown to be acceptable or true. And that it’s important that you understand that there is a spectrum. And that being skeptical doesn’t mean being dismissive. It means that you ask questions, it means that you don’t accept things at face value, especially if they don’t really smell right. And if something has the taint of, “Well, this is too good to be true” …it probably is. And you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking more closely at things, getting some more information. So I try to disabuse students of preconceptions by asking questions and by forcing them to ask questions. And even with things that seem to be “Well, that makes sense, so yeah, I’m going to buy into it.” Well, why does that make sense? What’s the physical reality that underlies that, that makes you think that that is the way it should be, the way it might be? And where do you get your information? And that is a very productive line of inquiry, where you start to break down the “Well, I heard it from this person…” Well, what does this person know? “Well, I heard it from this website.” Well, let’s go to that website and look and see if there’s anything that we can connect to. And is this someone who’s just manufacturing information? Or do they have links to somewhere where you can say, “Wes, this is verifiable on some level.” So it’s good regardless of whether you’re talking about something that’s way out there or something that’s not so way out there. It’s good, basic, critical thinking.

Kristin: And one of the things that I think is very helpful is repetition. I went through a lot of topics, but in each case, there is this harking back to what kind of thinking errors might be present, what kind of scientific errors might be present. And as they start to do that over and over, they get better. For example, one of the early topics that I talked about was alien abduction. When we talked about alien abduction, we talked about how does memory formation work, we talked about sleep, the sleep cycle, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. We talked about false memories, and how false memories are formed, and that they are experienced in the same way as real memories. If you have a false memory, it’s not like a different thing for your experience. We talked about all of those kinds of normal processes, as well as, unfortunately, the role of hypnosis in creation of false memories, which has a lot to do with beliefs and induction. I say, unfortunately, as a psychologist, it’s horribly embarrassing for the field. it really is a terrible thing. So we talk about all of the scientific contributions, and then we talk about “Okay, now the experience of alien abduction.” How does hypnosis fit in there? How do sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, fit in here? Those are hallucinations as you’re falling asleep or waking up…it feels very real, but are actually more like a dreamlike state. How do all of this fit in? And then we look at an account of alien abduction and say, “Okay, what do you see here?” And then they can identify some of the thinking errors, like “Okay, here’s this part… looks like a false memory.” But sure, they’re really upset because it feels real. This part here, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no extraordinary evidence, so they can start to identify both how do we separate the science from the non-science and then where can we start to identify thinking errors. And as we do that topic after topic, they get better and better and better at it.

John: In all of our classes, following up what Paul said, students come in with models of the world and those models aren’t always accurate… or we often have better models that we’d like to share with our students. But it’s important to break them down. And you’ve talked a little bit about how you can provide them with evidence to help them perhaps modify their models of how the world works. But, what do you do with those students who are really resistant, who really deeply believe in some of those pseudo science principles?

Paul: Yeah, this is something that Michael Shermer talks about in one of the books that I’ve used as a quasi textbook has been Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. And in the later editions of the book, he has a specific chapter, that is “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” Because, again, early on in the class, there’s something of an inclination to think of, “Well, I don’t think crazy things like that, and it’s only the gap-toothed yokels that believe in alien abductions or that believe in whatever it is.” But it’s important to understand that this is not something that’s limited to people who aren’t smart. There are plenty of people who are genius-level smarties who believe, not just weird things, but things that are patently out there. And so getting students to accept that, “Okay, we can talk about this as a group, because we’re not just pointing out that you’re a dummy, these are things that lots of people believe, and there are reasons why they believe them other than just being morons.” So the idea that preconceived notions are things that aren’t necessarily rooted in ignorance, or rooted in stupidity, but they’re rooted in misinformation, they’re rooted in being told something by someone you trust at some point, and not questioning it. So I think creating an atmosphere that people can feel good about talking about these things, and not just sitting there going, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t talk to me about this, because I actually believe in ghosts,” is useful. And I’ve had students in class who are ghost hunters. And we’ve gone through an entire lesson on why some of the classical ghost hunting techniques really don’t make sense when you analyze them. And I’ve had a student say, at that point, “Well, we don’t really do that, what we do is this,” and everyone in the class looks nervously at one another, that “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that they were among us.” But, they are among us, because we are them. They are us, we all have an equal opportunity for believing weird things.

Kristin: One of the things that I also talk about is different ways of knowing. And that when you say science proves X, Y, Z, it has to meet a scientific standard. But if you say, for example, my faith tells me X, Y, Z, that’s a different way of knowing. And it’s not subject to the same kinds of proofs, it’s subject to different proofs. An example that we explicitly talked about is angelic visitations: are angels real? If you say science proves that angels are real, it has to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And in many religions, that would not only be a weird thing to say, it would be antithetical to their religious perspective. As soon as you start saying science proves my religion is correct, it becomes in some ways, a non-religious argument, and that it’s perfectly fine to have different ways of knowing different aspects about the world. But if you say science says this, this is the way the world works, because scientists have proved it, then you can subject it to scientific scrutiny. Another example is intuition and personal experience, that there are aspects of intuition and personal experience that may tell you certain truths about yourself or your relationships with others or whatever. And you don’t have to have the kind of scientific scrutiny in order to believe that you understand the way that your relationships work. But that’s a different way of knowing, it’s a different aspect of the world, and we do talk about that explicitly. And it’s fine with me if students choose to hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, they say, “Well, perhaps this idea that I have doesn’t actually make any scientific sense. I still believe it right now.” But I have some faith that if they continue this process to continue to analyze different ideas using the same skill sets: How does this make sense? What are their thinking errors? Is there an underlying explanation that makes some scientific sense that fits with the way that we know the world works. If they continue to do this, that eventually some of those closely held beliefs, which are scientifically disprovable, that they will start to kind of chip away at the edges there.

Rebecca: I know both of you are big advocates of active learning. Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities or exercises or things that you have students do as part of this course.

Paul: One of the classics, when we talk about psychical ability is pairing students up and having them basically test each other and their clairvoyant skills. So you give them the set of five Zener cards with the star and the squiggly lines and the square and you have them run through a series of “Okay, I’m projecting an image to you, you write down what it is.” And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. One is that it’s active and people are taking part in it, two is that people can understand: “Okay, if I really wanted to do something to show that there is something viable here, what would I have to do differently? Why is this test flawed?” And we talk about the development of good scientific tests. And that’s very productive, because there’s a lot of situations where you can say, “Well, you know, you’re still not controlling for this…” Okay, and the series of sort of nested tests that you have to go through in order to get to something that everyone would say, “Okay, I will accept the results of this” gets to be pretty complex. The other thing that’s good about this on a basic level is that it regresses to the mean. And regardless of the number of students, the number of tests, occasionally students will cheat and you can talk about that. But aside from cheating, you end up with a bunch of people that score exactly what statistics would say you should get and you can talk about one of the big things that I like to emphasize is not to let people use numbers to try to prove something to you that isn’t accurate, basically lying with statistics. A former student in the class sent me a book at some point, this little book called How to Lie with Statistics. And it’s a great medium to talk to students about things that are mathematical in a world where people are fearful of math, and they hate math. And this is a good application of mathematics, sort of basic mathematics to show something that is easy to wrap your head around. And it’s something as well in Shermer’s book, he talks about going to Edgar Cayce’s Institute, and doing this sort of mental ability test or psychical ability test. And he does the same thing. And he tries to convince people that “Well, just because you got 5 right out of 25 doesn’t mean that you’ve got some exceptional ability,” and he draws a bell curve, and they talk about it. And in the end, the person still doesn’t accept it. But it’s a good experiment to run, it gets people thinking about something that is not necessarily easy to think about otherwise.

Kristin: I’ll start by saying that I have huge sympathy for all the new faculty that started in Fall 2020 and were trying to build new courses while coming up with different teaching techniques. I was challenged this semester, this last semester, to build the course while trying to adapt to what was an unfamiliar form of teaching for me. Paul was very gracious in sharing materials. But, you know, when you teach the course yourself has to be rebuilt because it’s your own thinking, and your own style. Just for disclosure, though, I had intended the course to be a hybrid course in which we met with our faces, at least, three times a week, sometimes in the classroom altogether, and sometimes all online together. But as the semester went on, it did not work that way. I ended up having some students that always want to come face to face (a small number), and some that always ended up being online. So it was not the course I anticipated. But that’s okay. I know that we all experienced that. What my students responded to the most enthusiastically ended up being analysis of web comments. So I would often bring in slightly adapted web comments, I would correct for grammar and, you know, readability …say here is this diatribe this person and removing their identity and things because it’s about analysis of argument and they would go to town on it. Here’s this diatribe about astrology, it runs from how scientists are paid to debunk astrology all the way down to how you should stop being sheep and see the truth in front of you and everything in between, with all kinds of false analogies that don’t make any sense in the middle, all that good stuff. They loved that. And I loved it too. We all loved it, because that’s what I really want them to be able to walk out doing, to be able to see kind of something that looks like a well argued and well written diatribe against the world who doesn’t understand and to be able to look at it and say, “Oh, wrong, wrong. wrong, thinking errors, misstatement, false analogy, ripples in a pan have nothing to do with how stars move, and all kinds of different things. [LAUGHTER] So we ended up doing a lot of those kinds of similar things. I think one of the last things I did in the last homework that we worked on together was on a manifestation website service, you sign up for $1,000, you get these courses, and you can manifest wealth in your life and their analysis there was really excellent. It was excellent about why this might appeal to people. What is wrong with all of these arguments? It doesn’t matter how many incredibly well done video anecdotes you get from individuals who have manifested wealth in their life, that that’s not gonna transfer to other people. So lots of analysis of web comments.

John: With social media, there’s a very rich source of data that could be used for this.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the course structure and what you’re doing in these classes?

Kristin: I have avoided student presentations in class for 10 years, because I usually find them to not be a good use of course time, let’s just say that. But Paul was using student presentations, and I put them in for this course and they were awesome. So, I have completely changed my opinion. But part of it is also that I was teaching larger classes in the past. So figuring out how to integrate student presentations in a way that is a useful use of everyone’s time, but the student presentations in this class were fantastic. They were typically on a specific pseudoscience topic that we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time in class on. But it gave them an opportunity to again, have this kind of repeated, “Here’s a thing that you think is really different.” Like. maybe… maybe not… Chromotherapy, you know, does exposing yourself to different colors of light effect different organ functions beyond jaundice, and beyond seasonal affective disorder where there’s clear evidence… if you look at blue light, or red light, or whatever. People go “Hmmm, I’ve seen videos on this on TikTok… well, wait a minute, doesn’t make any sense.” And here are the arguments, a little scaffolding from a student presenter, here are the arguments about why this doesn’t make any sense, then students popping up with other arguments. And having that experience repeatedly, of student presentation after student presentation, I have worked them like you know, three or four weeks, it gave them more experienced practicing. And honestly, some of those topics are fabulous to talk about in class. Although I allowed students to select their topic out of a menu so that they didn’t have to know what was pseudoscience right at the beginning of classes. No one selected urine therapy, though, I was hoping given how much success Paul has had in his classes with that.

Paul: Urine therapy is number one.

John: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, Paul?

Paul: The student response to the class has been really good historically. And I will occasionally, and sometimes out of the blue, receive a book in the mail from a student. This person that I had never heard from after the class, student says: “I was in a bookstore, I saw this and I thought of our class, and I thought you might like it.” So that’s always really nice. But it’s especially nice when the person sends you the definitive book on urine therapy, because my library was not inclusive enough of that topic. So now I have something that when a student chooses, or pulls the short straw, on urine therapy, I have something I can give them as a resource for this topic.

Rebecca: A whole book….

Paul: A whole book. I think it’s called the Golden Fountain. I’m not kidding. When I do the course and I have students do some sort of presentation, I will, so that I don’t run into the problem of a student doing something that they already know a ton about, I’ll have them draw them at random. And from the start, I’ve got the little hat with pieces of paper in it, and I’m telling them: “Who’s going to draw urine therapy?” …and it’s hotly contested. And it’s great when the student comes in to give their presentation that day, and starts out with a long pause and says, “This really makes me sick.” [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure if I should ask, but what is urine therapy?

Paul: Well, I’m surprised being a man of the world that you are not well aware of this, John, but by consuming your own urine, you’re able to tap into a great deal of vitality and essential nutrients, etc, perhaps some reparations to your chakras as well, through consuming your urine. There are people out there who will attempt to get you to pay them money to teach you how you should be doing this. But it comes down to drinking your own urine and having that basically cure any disease. And you can take it purely internally, you can rub it on your skin to produce a healthy skin tone, you can use it in your hair. There are certainly people out there who will claim that it is a cure for cancer. And that’s sort of the bar for all pseudo-medicine is when are we going to get to the end, this cures cancer. And sure enough, there are people out there. It’s usually a sad case where the person had cancer, they went through a number of different treatments, nothing was working, and they hit on this and suddenly they’re cancer free. And it’s a good place to talk about correlation and causation. It’s a good place to talk about how we design clinical tests for medications, vaccinations, whatever. When an agency says “Yes, this is demonstrated efficacious or this is demonstrated safe…” what does that actually mean? Well, it has to go through a certain process, which is not some random process that someone hands over some money and “Okay, yeah, you’re good to go,” that these are real things. So that, I think, is another area in which I’ve significantly improved over. I think I started teaching this in 2006. I talk more about anti-vax. I talk more about clinical trials. I talk about the placebo effect, and Kristin has actually helped me a lot with that. Because she knows about things that I didn’t know about when it came to placebo effects. So there’s a lot of good stuff there that, again, it’s science, but it’s not something that you need to have a degree in something to understand and to be able to then apply in your own life.

John: In terms of the placebo effect, there’s two things that just really struck me in terms of fairly recent research. One is that the strength of the placebo effect seems to be growing over time. And secondly, that the placebo effect still seems to exist, even when people know they’re taking a placebo. Any explanations of why that’s happening?

Kristin: Isn’t that fascinating? I just think that’s amazing. No, no explanations. I have great admiration for the power of the mind.

John: Mystical powers? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Well, for example, there is excellent research that says that people who have even late-stage cancer will survive longer, if they have social support. That’s not placebo. That’s because your mind and body are constantly one system and that we survive in a social environment… just one reason the pandemic has been so difficult… and that people survive and thrive better when they’re in a supportive social environment. Totally not placebo. But it is, in some ways, our traditional Western medical approach would see that as a psychological or mental intervention. It’s amazing. Although the early psychoanalysts, they did some strange stuff, and claimed some strange things, Freud and his students, some of that early work, it really does demonstrate if you believe that something is going to be very different. Hysterical pregnancy is a great example. People who believe that they are pregnant strongly believe that they are pregnant who are not actually pregnant, show many physical signs of pregnancy, including abdominal distension and ending of periods. Sso there’s a lot of different things that the mind can do. Unfortunately, only that only takes you so far. But that is definitely something that I talk about in class, as well as the waxing and waning nature of many illnesses, and how that opens people up for charlatans to take advantage of them. Multiple Sclerosis is a great example, where there’s unpredictable often waxing and waning symptoms. And people with MS have been targeted for many, many, many, many years for completely wacky, expensive, invasive, painful treatments because of the waxing and waning nature. And if their experience is that it has healed them, it’s hard to say that’s not your experience. But it is easy to say there isn’t any scientific evidence that this would help anybody else. They’re taking your money, unfortunately. And I also talk about how parents with children with significant developmental disability are often also at a point of desperation, where they’re sometimes ripe for this kind of thing too. One of the students in my class presented on hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment, which of course is a great treatment if you have the bends after scuba diving, but is not effective for autism, though there is a market to sell people, these chambers for $20,000 to have a chamber in their homes so that they can put their child who has autism in the chamber on a daily basis, which for one thing is expensive and not effective in any way. But it’s also potentially also really scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on being shut up in the chamber every day. So, beyond the improved understanding of how the world works, there is, also real harm being done by some of these things. And we’re talking with students about the importance of a control group. Why does having a control group make all the difference? And talking about that repeatedly as these other examples come up, I really believe will help them to understand the world better, and become better consumers and self advocates.

John: One of the things you just mentioned is the importance of a strong social network and of human connections. How did you nurture that in this somewhat challenging circumstance of fall 2020 during the pandemic?

Kristin: That was really hard, because it’s something that I have never struggled with in class before. And it was a real struggle this semester. I don’t know if that was the case for you too, Paul, or Rebecca. But this is something that I consider to be an easy and normal thing in my teaching. But this semester, it was really a challenge to have students make peer-to-peer connections. I feel fairly comfortable that they felt a connection with me. And I certainly felt a connection with them. But getting them to connect peer to peer was a challenge. And I attribute that to first, not ever having done it this way before. I think if I had another chance I could do it better. Just like any kind of teaching, the second time around is usually better than the first. But part of it was that I was so responsive to students who felt like they needed the face-to-face interaction that I continued to meet face to face every day with them with a chunk of students on Zoom. And it would have been, given my teaching style, it would have been a better experience, I think, for all of us if we’d stayed in one together format more often, if that makes sense.

John: I think this is a problem we all faced, that student peer-to-peer connections were challenging, both because of the modality and because of the circumstances in which we’re all living right now. Paul?

Paul: This past fall, I taught a different course. And it was an upper-level honors course. So these are students who… they’re high achieving, they had figured college out. And it was, for me the easiest of all scenarios, because they were on task, and not that they weren’t necessarily happy with the way that the world was going, but from an academic standpoint, it was a fairly easy scenario to adapt to.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back for a minute about the diversity of topics that you addressed in class, and what you’re using as hooks, and the value of the different kinds of topics as hooks for students. So there’s some that I think fit in the category of very outlandish, which are probably really easy for some students to really get into… find fun… and then there’s also some of the medical things that you’re talking about that I think students might relate to more directly, and they can see how it fits into their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the topics and how your students may be related to those topics?

Paul: Certainly, when you’re just talking about science, it is harder with a mixed audience of students who aren’t necessarily buying in from the start. In previous incarnations of this class, it was nominally a natural science course, but realistically, it was being taken by everybody. When I taught it as a first-year seminar course, there was a fair number of psych majors. But really, it was a complete mixture. So, I felt obligated to present a certain amount of science. Here’s a big idea in science, why do we think this? What’s the evidence for this? Why is this important? Why should you care? So I was able to get to things like creationism through the door of “Well, how is it that we know that the earth is as old as it is? And why is it that this is not just something that was handed to us, and we believe it, but it’s something that’s objectively demonstratable?” And beyond that, when you start talking about biological evolution? And okay, why is it that we believe that this is at least a reasonable description of what’s going on in nature? Okay, here’s some stuff that’s a little bit dry. But the end goal is being able to say, “Yeah, I can accept this beyond just having it handed to me.” Evolution is a good one, in that it integrates a lot of different things. So you can bring in the purely biological, you can bring in populational, you can bring in geological and physics, and you don’t have to dwell in any one particular spot to try to make the point. But nevertheless, there are portions of the class that are somewhat more pure sciency, and I try to front load those in the course to keep the carrot out there of “Oh, we’re going to be talking about psychical abilities soon, and we’re going to be talking about UFOs soon,” because that’s fun stuff and ghost hunting and all that. But yeah, the science is a critical underpinning for the course and trying to get it so that it’s not just: “Here’s the scientific method, memorize this,” …to have it be science is a process that we all are invested in, and when you stop investing in it, then there’s trouble. And I think that the past year has really underscored the fact that that’s something that everyone should be… certainly every college educated person… but really everyone, should be understanding of the fact that science is a critical tool. And it’s not just the sacred tablets that have been handed down from the clouds, it is something that has objectivity, and there are processes… and what makes a scientific paper. We keep talking about, “Well, this vaccine test was done, and it was published in The Lancet, or it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Why do we care? Is it just we paid more to get our article in this journal that people quote? No, it’s that these journals actually have a high bar for what they accept as publishable. And if it’s published in there, it means something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be true a week from now. I think in dealing with science, it’s good to emphasize that it’s not just something that is dusty books sitting on shelves. But by the same token, there’s an inherent danger when you expose the fact that we don’t know anything for certain. And it’s nice and comfortable to think that when you drop the apple, it’s going to fall at a certain rate. And when you get up tomorrow morning, the sun is going to be rising in the east. But when it comes to it, the more contentious the scientific question comes, perhaps, the bigger the scientific question becomes, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to continue to develop our understanding of things and rooting out the question of “Well, that’s just a theory.” Well, it’s not just a theory. If it’s a theory in science, it means something. It doesn’t mean that it’s a hunch. It means that this is something that we’ve put an awful lot of effort into, and awful lot of thought into. A lot of people have had their eyes on this. It’s not just one really smart person saying, “Okay, this is the deal.” …just the process by which we have to go in order to get to the point of saying, “Yes, we accept this as the way things work, whether it’s biological evolution, or whether it’s the verifiability of vaccine, or whether it’s anything.”

Kristin: And one of the things that you’re touching on there, I think, is also an important theme that comes out: that science is a continuing investigation, that it’s very comfortable for students, especially in K through 12, to think about scientists having answers instead of being an ongoing investigation. And typically the things that are taught in K-12 are the things science has answers for, not the things that are continually being investigated. So it can be scary for students who have that background to be confronted with news that our understanding of a virus is changing over time, because that’s the way understanding works. It changes over time as we learn more and more. This theme keeps coming up throughout the semester as well saying, “Hey, this is what we understand now. The state of our knowledge is this. The door isn’t closed to the state of our knowledge to be different in the future. It also gives us a good opportunity to bring in the importance of diverse voices as scientists. So one of the things that I talk about in my class is the roots of psychological assessment and intelligence testing, and how some of those roots have explicitly racist foundations among people who were explicitly racist and some probably unintentionally racist, but having racist impacts. And some of that is clearly because there were only white men doing work at that time in that area. And when you have only one perspective, it leads to one group of answers, that if you have a more diverse group of scientists who are studying a question, they expand the definition of the question, they expand the definition of what is possible evidence, the answers that they come up with are different and better answers because of the nature of scientific investigation. That it’s not just we have a question, and here’s the answer. It’s we have this question about the world, what does the question mean? Is that the right question? Is there a bigger question? How can we investigate it? Let’s look at different evidence, let’s expand our understanding. As part of that, we also talked about the foundations of photography, and what happens when you have only white people creating photographic film and processing. And what happens when you expand that into a more diverse group of people on a more diverse group of images, the same kind of idea. Although I have to say the horoscope and astrology stuff was the stuff that got the most excited,

Paul: Ah ha, the fallacy of personal validation. [LAUGHTER]

John: But I think we can also generalize what you were just talking about in that all of our disciplines involve in ongoing investigation, and that students come into our classes, thinking of them as these defined bodies of knowledge that they just have to memorize. And it is a bit of a shock and adjustment to students to see that there are many things we don’t know. And that takes a while to get them comfortable with that idea and accepting that idea.

Kristin: And that it’s not a flaw in the scientific process or the state of knowledge, the fact that it’s changing. That’s not a flaw, that’s actually a feature. Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Paul: And one of the things that I specifically talk about in the whole science, you know, what is science? What is pseudoscience? …is where things go wrong. And we talk about fraud. There are a number of times during the course where we’ll talk about “Well, this was published in this journal, and it was wrong.” And let’s see what happened later. And we talked about retraction and things like that. So the self- policing nature of science, when it’s working, right, it’s the best way to get to the point of feeling good about an explanation for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is proved or something is fact. But we have this process in place, and as long as it’s a topic that people feel is important enough to have lots of eyes on it… well, there’s going to be no way of hiding that one set of results that doesn’t seem to agree with everybody else’s. And those things get found out, they get basically debunked, and the science moves on. So the idea that science is fallible, the idea that science isn’t perfect, it’s something that has to be embedded in that. But by the same token, because of the nature of the process, we can say that science is about as good as we can do when it comes to understanding and this was Carl Sagan… all that.

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

Kristin: What’s next? What’s next… I’m looking forward to spring semester. I’m looking forward even more to the next fall semester. I think we all are in that position. I really do appreciate the experience that I have with my students and I’ll teach again next year, but since the universe is paying me to be Dean, I have to do that work as well this spring.

Paul: Well, my life has been leading up to this podcast. So really after this, there’s not a heck of a lot left for me. Now, it’s nice to know that CELT wasn’t destroyed by my being part of it once upon a time, and it actually seems to have improved since then. That’s a nice job.

John: Thank you. I think this is a fascinating course. And teaching students to more critically analyze what they read and hear in social media and in their social network is a really valuable skill. So I’m glad you’re working on that

Rebecca: It really does seem like what college is all about.

Kristin: Well, thank you. It was a lot of fun. And throughout the whole semester, I was grateful to Paul for the scaffolding that he gave me. He was able to answer all kinds of questions and gave me interesting materials to work off of. So thank you, Paul.

[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]

52. Metaliteracy

Do your students create digital media in your courses or just consume it? Does the concept of information literacy seem too limited in this context? In this episode, Tom Mackey (Professor in the Department of Arts and Media at Empire State College) and Trudi Jacobson (Head of the Information Literacy Department and Distinguished Librarian at the State University of New York at Albany) join us to discuss metaliteracy as a framework for improving critical thinking and metacognition while students become active participants in the construction of knowledge in online communities.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Do your students create digital media in your courses or just consume it? Does the concept of information literacy seem too limited in this context? In this episode we discuss metaliteracy as a framework for improving critical thinking and metacognition while students become active participants in the construction of knowledge in online communities.

[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]

John: Our guests today are Tom Mackey, Professor in the Department of Arts and Media at Empire State College and Trudi Jacobson, the Head of the Information Literacy Department and Distinguished Librarian at the State University of New York at Albany. In fact, she is currently the only Distinguished Librarian in the SUNY system. Welcome, Tom and Trudi.

Trudi: Thank you.

Tom: Thank you. Very happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Trudi: I am drinking highland blend.

Tom: I’m drinking sweet cinnamon spice.

John: And I am drinking chocolate mint tea, a Harney and Sons blend.

Rebecca: I’m back to my good ole English afternoon.

John: Such a surprise.

Rebecca: Sometimes you just need to have the dependable option.

John: Both of you have written very extensively and done a lot of research and workshops on metaliteracy, with three books, three MOOCs (with a fourth one under development), several articles, a badging system and the metaliteracy.org blog. Could you tell our listeners a bit about what metaliteracy is?

Tom: Sure. Thanks, John, I’ll start. Metaliteracy is a pedagogical framework that empowers learners to be active producers of information in collaborative environments. So that’s our elevator speech right there in terms of what it is. Basically, it is an approach to teaching and learning that prepares individuals to be reflective learners in addition to being critical thinkers, and we’ll talk a bit about how that reflection piece is especially critical for a metaliteracy, which, of course, applies metacognition. By doing so, learners are informed consumers of information, which means they ask good questions about the information they encounter in a variety of environments, and as you know, that’s important today with all the different environments and social media environments and access to different kinds of new sources that we have; it includes those especially mediated by technology. And we’ll talk as the idea was first introduced and developed why that was so important to the concept. When we first introduced it we really argued that because of the emergence of social media, online communities especially, think about web 2.0 and the change from the original web—what a critical moment that was—that what we really needed was a metaliteracy that promoted effective participation in these environments. As we know, these collaborative social environments have an engagement piece that is important; we build that into this metaliteracy framework; we thought there was a real need for that—how we were developing it. We also acknowledge that in addition to acquiring information and looking critically at information that individuals really needed to creatively create and share information in this connected network world. This idea of consuming information versus producing information, it’s an idea that’s been around for some time, but we really thought it was critical to develop it into a metaliteracy that also focused on reflection as a core concept. The idea of a metaliteracy is that we look at some of the common characteristics that unite different forms of literacy—that was the other piece of this. We introduced it as this comprehensive, unifying framework. The idea for that was that in this social media environment what we really needed was to try to better understand different competencies, different characteristics of literacies instead of just coming up with a new literacy every time there’s a new technology. We were trying to look at things in a more comprehensive way. As the idea developed in the first book, especially the meta in metaliteracy, intentionally invokes this idea of metacognition. Or thinking about your own thinking: this is really key to metaliteracy because metaliterate learners are reflective about their own learning experiences and they really take charge of their literacy and learning which is really where the empowerment piece comes in.

Trudi: Meta derived from the Greek… also means “after.” Metaliteracy is what happens after literacy. Basic reading and writing, what comes after that. Also what comes after information literacy, which is g enerally thought of as finding and locating information. The definition of information literacy has expanded since we started work on metaliteracy. In addition to reflecting on their own thinking, the metacognitive aspect of metaliteracy also means that individuals have the capacity to self-regulate their own learning, which means that they identify their own strengths and weaknesses and play a role in preparing themselves to adapt to new learning situations. Metaliteracy prepares learners to adapt new technology and to do so in a critical way, that is asking questions about how technologies are designed and the ways that technologies or platforms may impact how we access and create information as well as how we communicate with information. Originally we developed metaliteracy to emphasize how individuals participate in social media environments. And Tom, would you like to talk a little bit about that?

Tom: That piece is really essential to what we’re doing. We see this framework is relevant to a range of collaborative teaching and learning situations, but it is interesting that we saw a real need for emphasizing the social media aspect, online communities, this post web 2.0 environment that we are in, but we also don’t want it to be limited to that. We really see metaliteracy in all environments, all collaborative environments… communities of practice. This is something we should be thinking about beyond just the technology, but really how we engage with each other, how we participate and perhaps also how we blend the technology, how we mediate technology with those spaces as well.

Trudi: One of my favorite parts of metaliteracy is that it advances the idea that learners are teachers. We see this in collaborative environments where learners support and teach other learners, but what’s really important is that often students, for example, don’t think they have any particular expertise in something, and encouraging them to empower to teach others often leads to really interesting situations.

 Tom: That part is so key and that’s something that we saw in our own teaching experiences that when we had students in collaborative situations… group work… building technology tools together… building collaborative websites, for example, that the students themselves were as much a teacher as I was, and trying to foreground that so that they can see it, is critically important.

Rebecca: This is a really interesting framework and you’ve given us a lot to think about. Can you help us make it a little more concrete by providing an example of how you might emphasize metaliteracy in a class or what you mean by a student who might be metaliterate?

Trudi: One of the things that I would do in my classes is encourage students to be information creators and to explore the technology in doing so. So they don’t have a final paper that they have to write, but they may need to create a video or a tutorial or we’ll be talking about our badging system later, maybe creating content for that and doing it in small groups. If they’re doing something where they have to use a technology; I don’t teach them that technology; they sort of learn together and that “learner as teacher” often comes out in those situations because often there’ll be a student in a group who will have more expertise in that area or be more willing to just jump in and see what happens, and then the rest of the group will learn from that. One of the more interesting teams that I had when I’ve taught is one where none of the students felt they could do anything, but they actually accomplished it and their sense of pride and empowerment in doing that was wonderful.

Tom: I have an example: I’m currently teaching a course at Empire State College called “Digital Storytelling,” and the whole point of the course is that students learn about these resources, they locate them (with some prompts from me in the course), but it’s a fully online course and in many ways they have to figure this out on their own, they have to adapt to these new technologies, and I think that they’re looking at their own use of technology in a different way. So, for example, the very first assignment they have to create a selfie video with their cell phone. So they all have cell phones, they probably all done videos before, they probably all done selfies before, but this assignment is really designed for them to introduce themselves to everyone else in the class in a fully online course. From the very beginning they have to challenge themselves to present themselves a certain way to the class… to be themselves but to also think through that presentation, to really be the active producer of information in a collaborative setting where they’re doing something on their own but they’re sharing something about themselves to the other class. In an online course it allows us to get beyond just the text-based introduction and online discussion and to really seeing the students, to hearing from them. I posted a video of myself and it was great to see their response, so it was very much like a classroom situation but it happened asynchronously and online and it was a great way to get the class started, so from the very beginning they saw themselves as digital storytellers and they know that they now are starting their story and that we’re all going to participate and learn from them.

John: So it’s encouraging students not just to critically analyze information as consumers but to be active participants in social dialogues as producers as well. Is that a reasonable short summary?

Trudi: Yeah.

Tom: Absolutely. And what does that mean? …especially in today’s environment, which is very participatory but were divided and partisan in so many different ways. How do we get across those divides? What does it mean to be a responsible participant of information now? What does it mean to be an ethical contributor to these spaces? The whole idea is to really to get them to reflect on this, and not just to produce and share something, but now especially to think about the implications of that so that the informed consumer part is still important so that they’re thinking about these different sources that they’re encountering but also thinking about what they’re creating themselves and sharing.

Trudi: I think when they’re asked to be information producers in this way they think about themselves differently. They create information and share it on social media, but they don’t really think of themselves as information producers, and so I think it expands their horizon.

Tom: They may not have necessarily been asked to do so in an academic environment. This blurring of boundaries between informal learning and formal learning, I think it helps to push that a little bit. Not to say that they’re not beyond our classes, because they might be, but clearly they’re doing it in their everyday practice with their cell phones and the way they consume information now, but this really foregrounds, I think, in some of what the responsibilities are and what the empowerment of that is as well when they’re asked to construct something, so instead of a research paper maybe that is a collaborative media project with their peers—what kind of learning do you gain from that experience?

Trudi: Just one other point. The projects that I was talking about, they need to create them for public consumption. It’s not something that’s just directed at me as the professor of the course. They have to think about it a bit differently.

Tom: That’s a great point, because in the digital storytelling class they’re not just creating it even for the Moodle environment that we’re in; they have to actually upload their selfie videos to YouTube so that they’re thinking a bit about that public consumption piece even beyond the instructor and even beyond the class itself because now it’s up on YouTube and hopefully that’s having an impact on what they’re thinking about in terms of how they present themselves in the information that they’re producing.

Rebecca: I’m hearing two key things bubble up in what you’re talking about and one is audience and the second is reflection. Are those two key things to move up beyond traditional information literacy to this metaliteracy level?

Trudi: I think that those are two key pieces, but I think, well, there’s the old definition of information literacy and then there’s the newer one, which somewhat influenced by metaliteracy, but I think that often information literacy is thought of primarily as consuming and evaluating information, so not the responsible, creative production of it. It’s also too often, I think, seen in the academic setting as just related to research and not sort of life-wide. I think that that’s another element here.

Tom: In many ways that’s what I think we were really originally working against that original information literacy definition, the ALA definition and also the Association of College and Research Libraries, the original standards, b       which were very prescriptive in the way that they were designed, so that we were as a framework were really just trying to open this up and also take into account the technology piece—not make it all about technology, certainly, but in many ways the advance of web 2.0 and emerging technologies was kind of being, at the time, anyway, sort of avoided. We knew that there’s a real shift happening in our culture and I think that we’re sort of on the other side of that now, but I think that was important to bring that into the learning experience to have students really reflect on those environments and what they’re doing in those environments.

John: You both mentioned the new ACRL information literacy framework. How does metaliteracy relate to that?

Trudi: We developed metaliteracy in part because of a frustration, with this old definition as we were talking about and Tom mentioned the standards really were very prescriptive, very skills based, concentrated on behavioral and cognitive learning domains. Metacognition was not a part of it, so you identified metacognition so that reflection as something new and they didn’t explicitly address the affordances of web 2.0. So I was co-chair of the task force that was convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries and I brought the idea of metaliteracy to the group for consideration. There were a lot of forces at work in developing the structure of the framework and there were like 2000 people weighing in so it’s a very interesting process. Threshold concepts or core concepts was one of the primary features that we used with the framework. I sort of quote from the introduction to the frameworks; there are those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline. For example, in biology, evolution would be a threshold concept. That was one element and then the other was metaliteracy. The idea of learners as information creators as well as consumers—which we’ve talked about—definitely has a presence in the framework. There are four learning domains in metaliteracies: behavioral, cognitive, affective and metacognitive. These all have made their way into the framework, so there really is in part a close relationship between the two. For example, the affective domain maps to the whole sections on learner dispositions. I think that there really is a close relationship and I think metaliteracy has gotten additional notice from people because it is explicitly mentioned in the framework.

John: So it’s complementary that they fit well together, they link well together.

Trudi: That’s right.

Tom: I think that’s a good way to put it that they’re complementary, because that also allows each approach to still move forward because we see metaliteracy as this evolving concept and we’ve been working together—we’re working with a team of colleagues called the “Metaliteracy Learning Collaborative” on these ideas, we’re writing together and we’re developing this different MOOC and badging projects. Every time we do something new we’re learning something new and we’re trying to build that into the core ideas here. I think that this idea of complementarity is really important to these two; they’re not mutually exclusive, they work together, and as Trudi mentioned, when we go out and talk to different audiences on this they’re interested in both concepts and working with both. One interesting comment we often hear from people is that with metaliteracy they’ll say you found a way to talk about something that we were trying to do or that we were already doing but you found a name for that really made sense. We really like that: the fact that we were able to name something that really probably was in practice but maybe didn’t have as in-depth of a framework built around it and we like that dialogue with practitioners and something we try to do so this idea of theory and practice for metaliteracy is critically important and allows you to move forward.

Trudi: And the ACRL information literacy framework information literacy is not something that can be taught only by librarians so it’s really directed also towards faculty and administrators. It still seems to have a librarian focus to it, whereas metaliteracy, I think, extends beyond that. Librarians are interested in it but we’re also seeing all sorts of things that are being written or talked about by academics in a really broad range of disciplines.

Tom: And we’ve found that in the books we’ll talk about the two unedited books we’ve done in addition to the first metaliteracy book and we saw evidence of that when we do a call for proposal; it’s really from a wide area of academics. We definitely have librarians, but we also have faculty from many different disciplines, and also instructional designers. That piece of it has been really fascinating as well because we’ve been trying to really open it up to as many people as possible and not seeing it just within one particular discipline.

John: How have faculty and librarians responded to your work?

Trudi: There’s been a lot of interest in it to explore one of the collaborations. Somebody that I’m working with at the University at Albany is a political science professor. This will give you an indication how at least one person has responded to our work. She teaches a 200 level political science course that includes some of the general education competencies, one of which is information literacy, and she was developing this course from Pollock. She came to me to talk about information literacy. We ended up talking about metaliteracy and she was so excited by some of the things we’ve talked about that it would do for her students, so this idea of information creators, the empowerment that she has made metaliteracy sort of a key part of her course. She has the students do about 8 activities connected to metaliteracy. These activities come from a digital badging system that we can talk about a little bit later. She actually has students create an activity that would fit into this digital badging system, which is pretty exciting. This year she asked us to extend what we’re doing and we have been creating questions for the students about what it means to be an information creator, information producer, a teacher, a translator of information and we found this very exciting. It’s not just a collaboration in that she is using some of this material for her students, but her students are creating things for us and she’s giving us ideas. It’s just one example but it’s one where it has become a core part of this course, not only when she teaches it but when others teach it as well.

Tom: Collaboration has been key to what we’ve been doing from the very beginning. The first SUNY IITG we received was really to initiate to launch a metaliteracy learning collaborative and that first project led to the development of our first connectivist MOOC… b eginnings of the digital badging system, although it wasn’t part of the initial grant, but that’s something that we started working on, and also what was most important at the time was the development of the first metaliteracy goals and learning objectives which we’ve recently revised but it was important when we developed that that instead of just Trudi and I working on this together, we really opened it to a SUNY-wide audience that included faculty and librarians. Those goals and learning objectives are available via metaliteracy.org and we recently revised them as well. I think that collaboration with the metaliteracy learning collaborative also led to thinking about metaliteracy in a different way and thinking about those four domains of learning that Trudi mentioned previously; we would look at the metacognitive, which we’ve mentioned is key but also the behavioral, the cognitive and the affective domain so that what we’re really looking at is really the whole person. We’ve also through the metaliteracy learning collaborative we’ve been working on papers together, we’ve been working on these MOOCs; we were lucky enough to have the experience of working on a connectivist MOOC really early on and then I took Coursera MOOC and then a Canvas MOOC and now we’re working on open edX and all those projects involve faculty librarians from Empire State College, the University of Albany and other parts of SUNY, that’s really key. We’re very lucky that we’ve been invited to speak on this which also shows the level of interest and how people are responding to it and many different venues and last year we were lucky enough to present at a conference at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico for this literacy and learning conference and it was just a great experience to be there with international scholars who were talking about literacy in various ways and then we added something by talking about metaliteracy and there’s a lot of interest in what we were talking about. We appreciate those opportunities to have conversations that are both theoretical and practical; the response has just been really positive.

John: We should just clarify the IITG program you mentioned is a SUNY-wide competitive grant program for all of the colleges and universities within SUNY. You were one of the early recipients of that and have received some further funding from that, just to explain that to our listeners who are not as familiar with the SUNY system.

Trudi: John, since you mentioned the innovative instruction technology grant, just to show sort of interest from others, we did get one with School of Education faculty member, actually one from Albany and one from Empire State College because they were really interested in the digital badging, but also the idea of a digital citizen. The plan was and happened that graduate students in education who were going to be teachers would have an opportunity to learn about digital citizenship that’s important for them when they’re teaching, also what digital badging is, so there were a couple of different takeaways. We were able to move metaliteracy or an aspect of metaliteracy into graduate education for educators.

Rebecca: There’s been a lot of mention of metaliteracy badges so maybe we can talk about those?

[LAUGHTER]

Trudi: Yeah, certainly. This was something that developed out of one of those innovative instruction technology grants. We’ve been working on them ever since. What we did was we took the learning goals and objectives for metaliteracy and created open content, very ambitious scheme. There’s four digital badges in the system. Each one of which has anywhere from 12 to 20 activities, starting with lower level quests, moving up to challenges and ultimately you get to these four digital badges. They were written by members of the meta literacy learning collaborative. Tom has written some, I’ve written some. Students have written some, so undergraduate and graduate students they’re being used currently at Albany about 2,500 students have gone through parts of this badging system. The only ones so far who’ve actually earned badges are ones who have taken my courses. It’s content that can be used in classes across a range of disciplines. Also, adaptable to the disciplines. I mentioned earlier the political science professor and sometimes she sort of tweaks the assignments in there so it really relates to what she’s teaching in her political science course. The badge system itself at this point is restricted to University of Albany because there’s a single sign-on process, but we do have a website that has all of the content openly available. People are welcome to use this.

Tom: And from the perspective of someone who has developed some content for this it’s really a fascinating experience because you know that you’re somehow reaching learners that are not in your course but that it’s something that you’re opening and you’re sharing, so this idea of thinking about them as open educational resources that can be then adapted for different contexts. It’s really interesting and exciting to know that something I might create as a learning object could be used by a faculty member here at the University at Albany who’s having their students go through it. Some of them that I developed are based on learning activities I had created in some of my information science courses when I taught here at the university, but I’ve adapted them or updated them. That piece of it from a faculty perspective, as long as you’re open to it, is really engaging and interesting and a way to reach other learners who may not be students in your class but you’re sharing those ideas with them.

Trudi: And I don’t know if it’s ok if I plug a book that I just co-edited with Kelsey O’Brien… Just published this month, September 2018, Teaching with Digital Badges, which was published by Rowman & Littlefield. In that book there is a chapter written by Kelsey O’Brien on the metaliteracy badging system.

Rebecca: Great, you’re both working on a new book together, right?

Trudi: Yes.

Tom: Yes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about that new book and how it connects to your earlier work?

Tom: Sure, the new book is called “Metaliterate Learning for the Post Truth World.” We’ve shifted somewhat from I think what was a really optimistic view of the connected world and how great it is to be producers of information and be participatory to really trying to further emphasize some pieces that were there but I think needed to be fleshed out a bit more for the new environment we’re in post truth, which is based on confirmation bias and misinformation, false information and questions about new sources and all kinds of misleading facts that are being sent out. We really wanted to take that head-on because we saw metaliteracy in many ways even though it’s an idea that had developed previously as something that is a strong education response to some of the concerns and issues that we’re seeing today. Soon after the 2016 election we wrote a piece about fake news and that term is certainly changed even from the time that we originally wrote it. Wrote a piece for the conversation called “How to Reject Fake News in a Digital World,” so again taking a metaliteracy approach to looking at fake news in a critical way. Since that time even the term fake news, of course, has been weaponized, so we have conflicting thoughts about even using that term based on the research some educators think that it’s important to still keep using it and others want to reject it completely but I think we all generally know the narrative of that. The new book we decided to foreground metaliteracy in this environment and to make it an edited book so that we could engage other educators about this idea. Wasn’t just us but that it was other educators who were dealing with it. About half of the book is very theoretical and the other half of the book is more practical. When we did a call for proposals we tried to intentionally keep that open because we wanted different perspectives on this. I wrote the framing chapter to really talk about post truth, to reframe metaliteracy within this context and to also talk about a new figure that Trudi and I developed together based on the metaliteracy learning characteristics. The new book is going to present a new image, a new figure that further develops the metaliteracy idea from a theoretical perspective and talk about the importance of those characteristics in the post truth world. We’re joined by incredibly prestigious authors who from a theoretical standpoint look at things such as the importance of documentation in metaliteracy, and again, what they’re doing is they’re flushing out pieces of metaliteracy that we have not engaged with yet, so it was really exciting to see that. Another author talks about inoculation theory preparing learners to in many ways be resistant to some of the post truth issues that we’re currently engaged in. Scientific literacy, so there’s a whole chapter on the importance of scientific literacy and looking at it through the lens of metaliteracy. Also, looking at the synergy of word and image and photojournalism, Tom Palmer who teaches here in the journalism program at the University of Albany and it was also a journalist who works for the Times Union wrote that chapter. A few of the chapters do deal with the ACRL framework for information literacy for higher education, so we had that perspective. We were talking previously about both concepts are complementary and we have a few authors who really prove that. We also have a few authors who look at such topics as teaching students to be wrong, genre writing in the first year, writing instruction and the application of poetic ethnography in digital storytelling to create narratives in Philadelphia neighborhoods. I’m very interested in digital storytelling. I mentioned that previously and one of our authors also talks about digital storytelling to empower voices and to encourage students to really raise their voice in the current times that we’re in.

Trudi: And earlier you sort of asked how faculty, other educators, librarians have responded to metaliteracy. I think it’s really interesting. Tom and I did a workshop on metaliteracy at Temple University and a couple of these chapters actually came from people who were in that workshop. It was really sort of exciting to see the immediate impact that that had had.

Rebecca: That’s cool. So this sounds like a really great book; when can I get it?

Trudi: Next spring. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. Your current MOOC is a Coursera MOOC but you’re developing a new open edX MOOC. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how that new MOOC will differ from the prior MOOCs, because you’ve had more than one in the past?

Tom: This is part of a continuum of those three MOOCs. We actually wrote a paper in Open Praxis that talked about metaliteracy as a pedagogical framework that was applied in these different MOOCs, so we did a kind of compare and contrast of the different MOOC environments but also talked about our experiences and those different platforms and what it was like, and at the end of that paper one of our conclusions was that what we really needed to do next was create a kind of hybrid MOOC environment because what we had previously was the connectivist MOOC which was our first one and that Stephen Downes type approach. We actually used his grasshopper programming to run that MOOC, then we had the more structured xMOOCS, the Coursera and the Canvas. In many ways the paper was about that but what we decided at the end of the paper was we analyzed it was that we needed a hybrid version and it would it be possible to do that, is there a platform out there that has the learner-centered freeform approach of the connectivist MOOC with some of the structures that were valuable in the video that was really key to the xMOOCS. One of the ideas that propelled this idea forward… We also then, of course, had this shift to this thinking of a transition of kind of a connected world to a post truth world and what does that mean, and because we were working on this book “Metaliterate Learning for the Post Truth World,” we thought that’s a theme for a MOOC. We won’t go out there and call it the metaliteracy MOOC, but it’s a post truth MOOC that’s powered by metaliteracy that really applies the metaliteracy framework to each of the modules within the MOOC, so we’re really excited about that. We did apply for another SUNY IITG and we did receive funding for that, which allows us now to build a team—again it’s another Empire State College, University at Albany team—and we’re really excited about it, we’re developing it now, we’re exploring the open edX environment and as part of that too we’re working with the University of Buffalo because they’ve just launched an instance of open edX for their continuing education program and so they’ve already done a lot of the analysis and a lot of the footwork in terms of creating this instance of open edX on their campus, so they’re letting us experiment with what they’ve done and the idea is that our experience as one of the first two SUNY institutions beyond UV that are using open edX that we will hopefully pave the way for other SUNY faculty librarians that want to develop an open edX MOOC.

Trudi: One of the things that we’d like to do with this—Tom mentioned earlier—we’ve recently revised the metaliteracy learning goals and objectives. We are using those as the framework for this new MOOC. We would like to address issues such as confirmation bias, the role of expertise and authority in today’s environment, issues related to safety, security and personal privacy online, representations of reality in a virtual world and all the while sort of empowering participants to raise and share their voices while rebuilding communities of trust.

Rebecca: Who do you see is the audience for this particular MOOC?

Trudi: I think that we’re really hoping that it’s a very broad audience. We’ve had that, for example, with the Coursera MOOC where there were a lot of international participants everywhere from high school students to non-traditional types of students. We learned about their professions which just ran the gamut and I think that although we do hope to introduce this MOOC as part of courses both at Empire State College and at the University at Albany we’re really hoping that the participants are traditional learners and non-traditional learners. I think that what we’re going to be including in the way of content is something that needs to be broadly disseminated.

Tom: I think because that’s one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they do open up a potentially global audience, so we’re hoping for that international perspective as well, and as Trudi mentioned, we are developing courses so that we could on each of our campuses—I’m calling them wraparound courses—so that the courses that introduce students to the MOOC and they can then earn credit for doing so, because that’s been one of the big questions about MOOCs; can you learn credit, so what we’re doing is creating separate courses and in my version of the course I’m doing a full semester course so that the first half of the course will be introducing students to, well, what is a MOOC? What is post truth? What is metaliteracy? And I have a whole section on how to prepare for success in taking a MOOC, and then that will hopefully prepare them to be a successful learner in a MOOC environment so then they’ll take the six-week course and then there will be reflection piece at the end, which is very metaliteracy, and I actually think that a course about a course is very meta, so we’ve got that piece of it, and that idea to emerge from our very first connectivist experience where we tried to do it for credit and sure, you can talk about this experience at the University at Albany. In particular, in many ways the students were not prepared for the connectivist environment, so what we’re trying to do is in mind, since mine will be a full semester course, is invite students to take it but to really prepare them for being successful in MOOC because we know too that completion rates and MOOCs are not always great, but what if you offer it and prepare students for that environment. I think it is unique enough of an environment where that’s worth exploring.

Trudi: And Tom referred to our connectivist MOOC, which I did use as part of a course, essentially a blended course, and I was amazed when the students actually asked for more in-person class meetings because they couldn’t really grasp the idea of the MOOC and the fact that they were making decisions about their own learning. They were making decisions about which readings would be important. They needed to participate through a personal blog that was sort of elected and shared, and what they essentially did was doubt. I had about a 60% dropout rate in the course and the ones who were left were the ones who just wanted their hands held essentially through the rest of the course and that’s where we really learned that what Tom is going to be doing with his course, which is a full semester course, mine will be a quarter course again, is preparing them for this. This MOOC will be a more directed connectivist MOOC, but it was a very important takeaway.

Tom: And I’m hoping that by doing that it prepares them not only for our MOOC but it opens up the possibility of picking other MOOCs for lifelong learning. So that I think there are potential benefits, even beyond this experience. We’re hoping to launch the MOOC,—we’re developing it now—but we’re hoping to launch it for March 2019. It will be called “Empowering Yourself in a Post Truth World,” which is really important because we really want it to be a positive learning experience and one that provides resources for learners to be successful. You can imagine that talking about the post truth world could be a real downer, but what we really want it to be is a real positive focus of how to address the issues, look at these issues critically, but then to leave with some concrete ways of dealing with it. It also builds on some of the other MOOCs we had. The Coursera MOOC, for example, involved empowering yourself in a connected world and we’re running that now as an on-demand version. So when we first ran it in Coursera we were in the course and it was moving along and we were there in the discussions and following it but then Coursera changed its format a little bit and open up this possibility of on-demand and we actually like that because it allows us to have that content out there and to have learners engage with it in a self-paced way. Up to this point we’ve had, based on the stats we continue to receive from Coursera;—it’s running all the time—we’ve had 1,900 registrants and 900 active learners. We were really happy about that because it really gets some of these concepts out there, and I think it’s probably it’s been out there for a couple years now; it’s probably due for a revision, but that’s one of our projects that we’d like to do eventually, but I think that the post truth MOOC will in many ways build on that as well, so if someone wanted to go back they could look at that on-demand version, but as Trudi mentioned, the post truth MOOC is a six module, six-week learning experience on a very specific topic. I think it will be even more of a clearly-defined focused than even the other one.

John: Would be really nice to have all voters taking in the next couple of years. [LAUGHTER]

Trudi: We would like that.

Tom: Yes, yes.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about the learner side and some of the tools and materials and MOOCs and things that can help learners become more metaliterate. How do you help faculty coach students through this kind of process? What are the takeaways for faculty? They’ve listened to this episode, they’re really interested in the idea; where do they get started?

Trudi: I think not to just promote our books, but I think that perhaps if they took a look at the two edited volumes they might get a sense of how others are doing it and the range of disciplines is pretty broad, so they might find someone in their own or a related one. I think that that might be a good place to start. I think also taking a look at the learning goals and objectives might provide some ideas of things they’re already doing, but perhaps finding ways to highlight them or frame them slightly differently.

Tom: And not to promote our blog, but metaliteracy.org; everything is in there, including the goals and learning objectives. Summaries of all the books, because we’ve had the blog now for a few years, so it’s interesting even to kind of go back and look at some of the original postings, but it links to the books, it links to all the presentations. The presentations are available, and a few of the keynotes that were recorded are in there. I do think the metaliteracy goals and learning objectives are definitely key because those can be easily applied. Should we mention what we were just invited to write because that would actually address this audience as well?

Trudi: Yeah, we’re going to be writing a piece for higher education jobs. They have a couple of newsletters and going to be talking about the importance of teaching or emphasizing metaliteracy on campus for administrators and also what instructors can do. We think that those are going to be appearing in November.

Tom: Because we’ve had a commitment to making everything open—I know it’s a lot to look for, but we do have the metaliteracy YouTube channel, the blog, of course, the presentations and a lot of these resources were intentionally constructed that way so that other educators could use them, so go to “Empowering Yourself in a Connected World” on Coursera and access the videos, use the learning activities in any way you want. Go to the first module; there’s a PDF in there that has the metaliteracy learner roles and we’ve used them as learning activities in our own classes and it has some reflective questions, so you have this diagram that really explains the different roles a learner could take and then it has questions for learners to really think about those roles. So I think a lot of those resources can be adapted in any way that people want, and it’s really an open concept, so we want people to get involved and apply their own approaches to this.

Rebecca: We wrap up by always asking: what next? You’ve given us so much, but what else? [LAUGHTER]

Tom: That’s a really good question. The next book that we mentioned is coming out in the spring. We’re currently working on the open edX MOOC, “Empowering Yourself in a Post Truth World.” We also, of course, will be launching that in the spring.

Trudi: With the digital badging system we would like to if we can find some more funding have a learning pathway portion to it where instructors can really tailor the information or add components for their own disciplines. We’re also working on a metaliteracy module for another innovative instruction technology grant funded project called “I succeed,” which is being developed in western New York, and they’ve asked us to provide a module on metaliteracy and this is going to be directed to high school students who aspire to college or first year college students and can be used by instructors, so we are putting that together with four units.

Tom: We have a few upcoming panel presentations that OLC accelerate in Florida in November.

John: I may see you there.

Tom: Oh, great! I haven’t been there in a couple years so I’m looking forward to getting back and that’s such a great conference.

John: It is.

Tom: And of course there will be continued research and writing. I’m certain that the open edX experience that we’re currently immersed in will lead to a paper, and we’d like to do a research project that assesses the application of the metaliteracy goals and learning objectives. So much of what we’ve been doing is really theorizing and talking about practice and developing these environments, but we would like to delve into that a bit more. We might have an opportunity to work with an international scholar that we met last year at the University of Guadalajara, but we’re not sure about that if that’s going to happen, but that would allow us to really expand the metaliteracy concept: working with international scholars. So there’s a lot of possibilities. Perhaps a coil courses in our future, and that’s another SUNY resource; it’s a collaborative online international learning environment. I think that’s something that we would love to do with an international scholar, so we’ll see if that happens some day. A lot of ideas, got a lot going on, but we’ll see.

John: You got a nice track record of being really productive with us.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us and spending time and giving us lots of things to think about.

John: Yeah, you’re doing some wonderful work.

Trudi:Thank you.

Tom: Thank you so much, we really enjoyed this.

Trudi: Yeah.

[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.