John: Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, we examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome, Derek.
Derek: Hi, I’m happy to be here.
John: We’re happy to have you here. Our teas today are…
Rebecca: Do you have anything that you’re drinking Derek?
Derek: So I do, I have some coffee here. [LAUGHTER] I’m not a tea drinker. But there’s a bit of a story. I’m drinking a coffee called Kaldi’s Dog from a local coffee vendor called Bongo Java. And a couple years ago—I work here at the teaching center—we had been serving Folgers coffee in our coffee machine in the break room for several years. And some of us claimed that it was terrible and others of us claimed that people can’t actually tell the difference between coffee brands. And so we actually had a taste test at one of our staff meetings, a blind taste test. [LAUGHTER] From Folgers and several other kind s of fancy coffees and I have to say, I was justified actually. It was very clear that that some coffees were more alike than others. And this was actually the winner, Kaldi’s Dog… the winner of our taste test.
John: So there was no p-hacking or anything going on there? [LAUGHTER]
Derek: No. No.
Rebecca: The nice thing about our tea selection is that we just make hot water and then you can have any of the many varieties that we have in our office.
Derek: That’s true. That’s true.
Rebecca: So speaking of which, what do you have John?
John: Ginger Peach Black tea.
Rebecca: And I have Gold Monkey still.
John: Okay. Mine is nearly empty. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the new book and what prompted you to write that?
Derek: Sure. So my work at Vanderbilt involves working with a lot of faculty around their teaching—much like your work—helping them kind of think through the choices they have as teachers, what kind of objectives they have as teachers, and what are some teaching strategies, activities, tools that they could use to try to kind of reach those objectives with their students. It’s a really great job, I get to work with faculty all across the campus, lots of different disciplines. And, in recent years, it’s taken me to other universities as well—and colleges—to kind of talk to faculty there. And so my area of expertise and kind of specialty is around educational technology. And I kind of feel like a lot of faculty come at technology in their teaching from kind of three different areas. Some faculty are told by their administrators that they need to use more technology. And they’re not always sure why. [LAUGHTER] Like what’s it good for? Why do I need this? How can it be helpful? And then kind of at the other end of the spectrum, we have all these faculty who are easily distracted by shiny objects and they see a new technology, and they’re like, “Oh, Pokemon Go, how can I use this in my teaching,” right? [LAUGHTER] And they’re great, these folks are great to work with, they’re all great to work with. But there are also a lot of faculty kind of in the middle who just want to teach well, right? They want to connect with their students, they want their students to succeed, and they want some sensible tools to help them get there. For all three faculty, sometimes they struggle with figuring out how to match technology with learning goals and teaching principles. They know kind of what they want to accomplish, but they’re not sure how to select or use the technology that helps them get there. And so the example I often give in my talks is, I’ll say that my favorite teaching technology is actually wheels on chairs. [LAUGHTER] When I walk into a classroom, right, I have stuff I want to do with my students, I have learning experiences I’ve constructed for them, and I want the furniture in the room to be flexible enough to support what we need to do. Maybe it’s small group activities today, maybe we circle up and have a whole class discussion, maybe we use a debate. I want the technology in the room to support my teaching choices. And so it’s pedagogy first, but then we find tools that help us accomplish those pedagogies. As I’ve talked with faculty at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, I see a lot of patterns in how they use technology and what I’ve done is I’ve tried to distill these patterns down into seven teaching principles, because it’s a book and you have to have seven principles, right? That’s the rule.[LAUGHTER] So seven teaching principles that kind of give you a reason for using technology. And so the intent is to guide faculty to say, “Oh, here’s why I would use technology,” and then each chapter explores one of those principles and has lots of examples of actual teaching practice from faculty in a variety of disciplines. What does it look like in English to use technology to accomplish this goal? What does it look like in biology? What does it look like in communication studies? That kind of thing. I love telling stories and one of the reasons I’m excited to be a part of the Teaching in Higher Education series of West Virginia University Press, it’s edited by Jim Lang—who is a fantastic writer—and he takes this kind of storytelling first-person personal approach to his writing and I was really excited to be a part of this series, because that’s how I like to write too.
John: And you start your book with a chapter on a time for telling, speaking of narratives. Could you tell us a little bit about what the focus of that is?
Derek: This is a little counterintuitive, sometimes for faculty, but it’s really one of the most useful principles I found when working with faculty around designing especially—I mean, to some degree, it works at all scales—but it’s really helpful in kind of a lesson-plan scale, like one day in the classroom. And so I think sometimes there’s this impulse that faculty have to explain the thing, and then have the students do something with it, right? Here’s what it is, here’s the background, here’s the context, here’s the theory, and then let’s have the students do something with that. But the example I give actually comes from my daughter’s preschool. This was 10 years ago now, her preschool had science day and they asked the parents to come in and do sciencey things. And so I was the dad who brought the Mentos and Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER] So, you’ve seen this, right? You take a Diet Coke two-liter and you put some Mentos breath mints in there and then half a second later, you get this huge geyser of Diet Coke. It’s rather dramatic. Mine only got maybe seven-feet tall, but I’ve seen them much higher on YouTube. [LAUGHTER] And so I do this kind of fun thing in front of the five-year olds. And then they ask me “Why did it explode?” And so one could lecture—maybe not to five-year-olds—but you might lecture to a bunch of chemistry students for fifteen minutes on the physics and chemistry behind this and then do the demonstration. Or you could start with the demonstration and have students conjecture. Why is this working? Why does this explode, right? Bless her heart, my daughter asked, “Why is it Diet Coke?” I was like, “That’s a good question.” Why is it diet and not regular Coke? So this is the idea behind time for telling—this is a term from the literature Schwartz and Bransford wrote about this back in the 90s—that if we can create these times for telling with our students where they’re ready to learn and they’re interested in learning, then they’re going to get a lot more out of it, they’ll learn more deeply. We can use technology to do this. One of the stories that I share in the book is a grad student in English at Purdue University, Alisha Karabinus, and she’s teaching a first-year writing composition course and she has her students play this text-based online game. It’s all text, and you’re typing in commands and telling your character where to go. You kind of wake up in this apartment and you’re not sure what’s happening and you have to navigate and walk through the apartment. And there’s this kind of sequence where you need to take a shower and so you walk into the bathroom and you try to take a shower and the game’s like, “You still have your clothes on, you have to take the clothes off.” And then they’re like, “You probably don’t want to walk into the shower with your clothes in your arms.” And so you’d have to put the clothes down and you have to take her watch off, right? Like there’s all these kind of step-by-step things. I’m of a certain age where I played games like this back in the 80s…
John: The old adventure games, yes.
Derek: Right. And so there’s a kind of, you know, interface here that you have to master and you have to learn. It needs to be very explicit about what you’re doing. So she has her students play this game outside of class and then they come in and they debrief the experience. And it’s really lovely because they get so frustrated with the interface, then she makes this nice, clever little pivot where she says, “Well, when you’re writing, when you’re trying to express yourself, you’ve got all these ideas in your head. If you’re not explicit with your reader, they’re not going to know what you’re actually saying.” And so she uses that to talk about transitions and topic sentences and things like this. And so I think it’s a really lovely example of using a little bit of technology that was not at all designed for teaching to give students an experience that then prepares them to learn this lesson about how they communicate and how they write.
Rebecca: Do you have any advice on how to find some of those key little demonstrations or technology pieces that could lead into particular ideas?
Derek: Yeah, I’ve got some more examples in my book. I mean, part of it is that I think—especially for the time for telling—there’s this kind of experiential piece that’s pretty great…
Derek: A lot of faculty will show a video clip. This is one way to kind of do it. The Office is very commonly used to introduce various topics in different courses. I have several examples in the book of games, either video games or board games, and so I think there’s some real value in this experiential piece. And so, there’s no silver bullet. I think a lot of this involves being open to taking something outside your area and bringing it in. In this case, part of it was the interface. It wasn’t the content of the game that was interesting, it was the interface of the game that really helped. And so those are things to look for. Is it the content? Is it the interface? Those are helpful. I also talk about what tools are designed for teaching that can help create this time for telling. And so my first book was all about teaching with classroom response systems—which used to be called clickers—and now in most places students bring their own devices and answer on their phones. But the idea is that you can pose a question to all of your students and they all answer and then you can show the distribution of answers up on the big screen. And if you’ve asked a question that really taps into some type of misconception that students have, and they get the question wrong, the technology is important here, because you want everyone to answer so they all have that experience of grappling with the question. So you need a way to hold all the students accountable for answering in a way to collect all their answers. So you need some tech for that. And then by displaying the distribution of answers and the wrong answers on the board, you let everyone know, “Hey, this is a hard question, right?” It’s not like everyone got this right? You’re split across these two different answers. I share an example in my book of a colleague here at Vanderbilt in the law school, Ed Cheng, and he’d ask a series of questions of his students about Carl and his rhinoceros. So this was a situation that was perhaps prone to disaster when Carl keeps a pet rhinoceros and so he plays out these different scenarios of things going wrong. And then he basically asked these multiple choice questions about who can sue whom for what. And so the first two questions are actually really straightforward, right? The rhinoceros escapes and runs into a car or something, and Carl should have known that was going to happen. And there’s clear cut answers to the first couple of these clicker questions that my colleague asks. But then the third one, it’s a little bit different. And the students, when they respond to the scenario about Carl and his escaped rhinoceros, they’re actually split across three different answer choices. Ed has this great move in class where he’s like, “Well, you’re kind of all right. There are parts of law that are really clear cut and there’s a clear answer, and we just talked about a couple of questions that fell under that category, but we’ve moved into this area where there’s actually not a clear answer and a good lawyer could argue any of these.” It’s critical for his law students to know when they’ve moved into that part of law because that’s when they have to really do the hard work and marshal the resources and make the arguments and work with evidence. And so he’s using this short technology exercise to create this moment where they’re like, “Oh, right, I need to really pay attention here.” It’s that time for telling moment that I think is really lovely and having the bar graph on the screen that has the three-way tie is really important to creating that moment.
Rebecca: I think those are really good examples that I think will help faculty get started.
John: Actually, we did talk about one in an earlier podcast where we had Doug McKee on and he was talking about using this technique in his econometrics class, where you give students a problem that’s just a little bit above what they’ve been working on and it forces them to recognize the need to develop new tools, and then they’re primed to be receptive to a solution if they don’t quite make it all the way there themselves.
Derek: Absolutely. And again, this is a little bit counterintuitive. I think some faculty are hesitant to give their students a problem they know they can’t finish, or they can’t solve, or they haven’t been fully prepared for. But by having that experience, starting class with this hard problem that they can’t quite finish and getting stuck and recognizing the limits in their mental models or their need for additional resources, then they’re ready for the second half of class when the faculty member’s like, “Oh, here’s the resource, here’s the concept, here’s the tool.” And again, very non-intuitive and one of the things I think that’s important about my book is that my focus is on using technology to accomplish these things. But all of these teaching principles are true regardless. You don’t have to use technology to create a time for telling, but it is an interesting and useful way to think about certain types of technology and how you might bring them into your classroom.
Rebecca: I think that’s an important point to hit. The technology is supposed to follow the pedagogy like what you said earlier.
Rebecca: So remembering that you need to make good teaching choices first, and then finding ways to support.
Derek: Yeah, and sometimes tech is not the answer, right? Or low-tech is a better choice, right? So I have a chapter on knowledge organizations and so this is the idea that when we all organize the information in our head in various ways and so you can kind of imagine in your head like this concept map of ideas and examples and facts, and there are connections between all of them and novices in a domain, right? When our students walk into our class, their knowledge organizations are not as robust, they don’t have as many nodes, they don’t have as many connections, and connections are not as meaningful, and part of our work as instructors is to help them develop more robust knowledge organizations. Well, if we just leave them to their own devices, they’ll do okay, but we can actually help them learn and see the big picture in our course, if we can give them activities that help them develop, construct, represent, and visualize their own knowledge organizations. And so I teach a first-year writing seminar at Vanderbilt—and I talk a little bit about my own teaching in the book, because I think it’s important that I’m using these tools myself and trying to figure out how they work—my first-year writing seminar is on cryptography. Codes and ciphers. And we talk about privacy and surveillance and the role of encryption in today’s society. As part of this, I teach a novel, even though I’m in the math department. [LAUGHTER] It’s not something I was trained to do in grad school, to teach a novel, but I do work a teaching center so I’ve picked up some ideas. But there’s this book called Little Brother by the author Cory Doctorow and it kind of imagines a terrorist incident that happens in San Francisco and then the kind of surveillance and security apparatus that comes after that and the lead character is this teenage hacker who’s kind of fighting against this. And so what I have my students do is they read the book, I have them blog about it in the course blog—so that is a digital technology that they use—but when they come to class, I ask them to get into small groups, I give each group a couple of large Post-it Notes—so these are the kind of five-inch by seven-inch brightly colored Post-it Notes—and some markers. And I say, “Your job in the group is to find two arguments in the book in favor of surveillance and two arguments in the book in favor of privacy.” And so they have to kind of page through the book, they’re looking for arguments made by specific characters in favor of one of those two things. And so the privacy arguments go on Post-it Notes of one color and surveillance arguments go on Post-it Notes of another color. And so then, once they’ve done that piece, the second phase is they in turn go up to the chalkboard and they put their Post-it Notes on the board one at a time, and they have to do two things here. One is they have to put practical arguments towards one end of the board. Like, “If we monitored everyone’s subway movements, are we actually going to catch bad guys?” Like that’s a practical argument. And then have to put principled arguments at the other end of the board. So one of the characters says that, “Hey, it’s about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in that order. If you’re not alive, you can’t be happy, so we got to keep you safe.” That’s a principled argument. And so the students have to put their their Post-it Notes along this axis and then they also have to use the chalk to connect their argument to something already on the board. Because basically, there’s this really complex debate space around safety, and security, and privacy, and surveillance, and I want my students to know how complex that is and to start to see the relationships between some of those arguments and ideas. “This argument is a counter to that argument, or this argument is a support to that argument.” So by the end of class, they’ve constructed this debate map on the chalkboard out of Post-it Notes. And they have, I think, a much better sense of the complexity of this debate. They’ll do more with this. They’ll write about this topic throughout the semester. And so that debate map, that knowledge organization that they’ve constructed collaboratively, can then inform the arguments they make as they take positions within that debate later. And in this case—as I said—this is pretty low-tech, it’s Post-it Notes and chalkboards. I actually tried it once using some software, but having students build this map in a collaborative digital space at the same time was just too chaotic and so I needed to kind of slow the process down, and the Post-it Notes were really great for that. And so this is something I’ve used several times in my course and I think it’s a really great way to help students see how the ideas in an argument space are connected.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve liked about using Post-it Notes in some of the kinds of things that I do in my classrooms is that it is easy to change your mind too. You can easily pick it up and move it and it doesn’t seem as intimidating as trying to navigate software to make a decision or something. It somehow lowers a whole bunch of barriers and then it’s a little more flexible and fluid.
Derek: Yeah, absolutely.
John: And you’ve got them thinking about it among multiple dimensions and also making connections, which really, I would think would help them develop a lot of scaffolding there and a lot of connections that they wouldn’t necessarily do with their own reading. So it’s forcing them to develop better close reading skills and analytical skills, and so forth. It’s a wonderful exercise.
One of the principles of learning is that it helps for students to have lots of feedback opportunities and lots of practice, and I see you have a chapter on that. Could you tell us just a little bit about what you focus on there or some of the points that are made in that chapter?
Derek: Sure. So I actually start the chapter of the story about how I learned how to ski a couple of years ago, because learning to ski as an adult is a challenging process, as I found. [LAUGHTER] It involves much falling down. And every time you fall down when you’re learning how to ski, your body is getting a little bit of feedback about what works and what didn’t. And so in a very kind of physical motor skills way, to learn to ski, you have to practice skiing. You fail a lot, your body gets feedback, and then hopefully over time you get better at manipulating your limbs and controlling your muscles so you’re going kind of where you want to go. And so our students need this too, this is actually so key to learning is that we have to practice with the stuff that we’re learning, we have to do stuff with it and we have to get feedback on that practice. It’s a key part of learning. In the chapter, I use this as an opportunity to talk about the so-called flipped classroom because I think there’s a traditional model in some of our disciplines where students get an introduction to information during class. And then after class, they go and do something with it. They do the practice, they have a problem set, right? And the problem is that the practice and feedback part, it’s really important and also really hard. And so to have students do that when they’re left to their own devices, is a lost opportunity actually. And so the flipped classroom model says, “Let’s take some of that activity. Instead of doing it later on your own, let’s do it together collaboratively during class.” And so in the chapter I talk about some ways that some faculty have used technology creatively to help students practice the skills of their discipline during class. I mentioned the classroom response systems as certainly an option for this. I think sometimes when I talked to faculty around technology in the classroom, there’s sometimes an assumption that you’re talking about AV tech. We have a projector, we have some speakers… and that’s great, we need that, that’s helpful. But all my examples involves students using the technology because I think that’s really important. One of my favorites, actually is Kathryn Tomasek from Wheaton College. She’s a historian, and she wanted her students to practice doing the kind of close reading that historians do. When they get a primary-source document, a lot of that reading they do is looking at it line by line, word by word, figuring out who is that person? What is that term? What does it mean? Looking at the very building blocks of this primary-source document, because especially if you’re separated in time by one hundred or two hundred years, you got to do a lot of this close reading to kind of make sense of what it is. And so she had her students work with… she started with historical documents in her library’s special collections and asked her students to do what’s called a TEI. It’s a text-encoding initiative, it’s a way of marking up the text—kind of like HTML a little bit if you know web development—where you’re actually kind of tagging things in the text and labeling them as to what they are. So this is a date, this is a noun, this is a person, this is a location, or in her case, this is a theme that comes out in the sentence. And so her students, they would do this together in class. Like she’d take a piece of it and walk them through it collaboratively on the big screen and then have them take their own pieces and do this markup. And the neat part is the students were actually contributing to a larger digital history project because their markup would be kind of incorporated in this bigger database and shared online. And the work that they did with the primary source documents would then inform the writing and the argumentation that they do later in the semester. But in this case, she wanted to target a very particular skill that’s kind of close reading in history and she found a technology that digital historians use actually pretty regularly to create these opportunities for practice during class to help our students do this kind of work. I share another example of Richard Flagan from Caltech and he was doing chemical engineering. Very different course. But he used little mini projectors to kind of turn his lecture hall into an active learning classroom so his students could work in groups and do some coding—they were doing MATLAB coding in this case—and he found that when he introduced the coding in class and had them work on it after class, they would get hung up on these really small errors around grammar and syntax in the code. So he shifted that work into class to do group works in class and so then he’s able to kind of circulate among them, see what they’re doing on their little projector screens, and intervene and ask questions and help them. And so again, it’s kind of targeting these very particular skills that students need practice with that will inform often bigger projects later in the semester, but creating some time and space in class through technology to give them a chance to practice those skills and get feedback either from each other or from the instructor.
Rebecca: A lot of those examples I think are opportunities for faculty to also see where misconceptions are happening because it’s happening in class soyou can address them one-on-one, but you can also address those bigger themes that bubble up as well as a bigger group rather than having the same conversation 20 plus times.
Derek: Absolutely. Yeah,you may walk over and talk to one student or a small group or you may see a pattern across the students and then kind of take a moment to kind of gather everyone’s attention and try to kind of walk them through together as a whole class.
John: Doing some just in time teaching type of techniques, which is much more efficient use of class time.
Rebecca: That seems really tied to the knowledge organization that you were talking about as well because I think those same kinds of things happen when you’re doing those sorts of activities in class too, right? Like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you thought this was connected to that,” right? And you can help negotiate that. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Yeah, and these teaching principles overlap, right? So when I had my students do that debate map activity in class, we were doing practice and feedback. We were taking class time, it was just that this kind of analysis level where they were making connections across topics as opposed to Kathryn’s example of the close reading. That wasn’t necessarily a big picture kind of practice and feedback, it was a very skill focused practice and feedback.
Rebecca: I also really like that these are examples that don’t necessarily make feedback more work for faculty. It’s embedded in the practice in the classroom and it’s just when they need it. And it makes more sense because they’re getting it while they’re doing something so they’re probably more apt to listen to said feedback rather than getting it on an assignment that you hand back and they put it in the garbage or something.
Derek: There’s this book by Walvoord and Anderson called Effective Grading that you may be familiar with and I remember the first time I read about what they called light grading. L-i-g-h-t grading. I thought, “Oh, this makes so much sense. I don’t have to grade everything the students do very rigorously, I could give them a grade on the effort or I could give them a zero, one, or two if the work that they’ve invested in that little piece then shows up later.” So if I have them write a blog post before class to get ready for class, I don’t have to grade that very intensely because we’re going to talk about that material in class and that’s where they get the feedback. I may need the grade it enough to motivate them to do it, but I don’t have to give them detailed feedback at that stage, it will happen during class discussion. And I think that’s kind of freeing for instructors to know I don’t have to grade the heck out of everything. I can kind of design a sequence where students get the feedback they need apart from the grade itself.
Rebecca: I think faculty always appreciate those opportunities. [LAUGHTER]
John: And in the podcast that’ll be coming out a week before this, we talked briefly about specifications grading, which is a variation on the same theme.
Derek: Oh sure.
John: One of your chapters is entitled “Thin Slices of Learning.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Derek: I am so glad you asked. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so this may be my my favorite chapter in the book just because I think the creativity that faculty brought to their use of technology in some of the examples I share, it’s just really amazing. And I also get to quote, one of my mentors a couple of times. Randy Bass is, as I like to say, the Vice Provost of Awesomeness at Georgetown University. [LAUGHTER] That’s not his actual title, but he gets to do some really amazing things there. He’s also really active in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning world and I think he’s just a really deep thinker about how learning works and so there’s a couple of things that he talks about that I’ve heard him talk about before. He was doing some video projects with his students in an American Studies class a while back and he would look at their finished products—these short videos that they put together as a class assignment—and he realized that he wasn’t seen all of their learning. That—as he said it—there’s a lot of learning that’s left on the cutting room floor. And actually, in the book I talk about how my daughter wrote—she created a short film a couple years ago just because she wanted to—and she filmed, I think three hours of footage for a two-minute film. And so to decide what footage to use, what footage not to use, which angle, which take, even kind of which characters she wanted to include in the final product, there was a ton of decisions that went into those final two minutes. But if you just look at the two minutes, you may not know what those decisions are.Ttechnology, though, can be really good at making visible student learning, and in particular, thin slices of student learning. The kind of choices and sense making that they’re doing in the middle of learning, or creating, or designing, or producing something, and the more we can learn about how our students learn, the more we can kind of get those thin slices of learning in front of us. We can be responsive, we can be helpful, we can guide, and we can direct. And so the examples in this chapter about using technology to make visible (or sometimes audible) kinds of learning that students might not kind of share with us naturally. My all time favorite example of teaching with Twitter is from Margaret Rubega. She is a biology professor at the University of Connecticut. She’s also I think, Connecticut’s State Ornithologist, and she teaches a course on ornithology. So it’s a course on birds and so she has—wait for it—she has her students tweet about tweeters. [LAUGHTER] She’s so articulate about it, like students come to this class—and it’s a fairly large class, I don’t know, 40, 50 students—and they’ve seen really cool birds on National Geographic or YouTube and they think of birds as doing really amazing things in the Amazon and in Africa and far away. And she wants her students to know that birds in rural Connecticut also do really interesting things. Their ecology, their behavior, their biology is all very interesting. And so what she has them do as they’re learning about birds in the course is several times a semester they’re asked to tweet about their observations of birds as they go about their lives. So they’re on their way to work, they’re on the way to school, they see a bird, they see it do something or behave in a way that connects with what they’re learning in class. And she asked them to tweet about it. They have to kind of include their observation and where they are, and they have to connect to the course material, and they’ve got now 280 characters to do that on Twitter. Sometimes they get photos of birds that they see, which Twitter is really good at handling that. The thing I like about it is that it’s leveraging the field observation device that they carry around with them in their pockets—also known as their smartphone—or their regular phone, whatever it is. When they’re in the moment when they see that bird doing something, they’re able to kind of capture that and then share that back with her and with the entire class actually. One of my favorite tweets is a student who was walking by a golf course and he noticed the bird song sounded different in different parts of the golf course and in his tweet he conjectured that the golf course itself was dividing bird territory. [LAUGHTER] I was like, “That’s genius,” right? I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s really paying attention. And what Margaret’s doing is she’s helping her students practice transfer, taking what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations outside of the classroom and that’s one of the hardest things about learning, is how to transfer learning to new context. And she’s giving her students explicit practice in this, but then also making visible that practice by having this class hashtag on Twitter, #birdclass. And if you go search on Twitter for bird class you’ll see some of the tweets from her students because they’re sharing their observations with her, with each other. I just think it’s a really beautiful use of a very particular technology for a very particular reason. I love the bird class example.
Rebecca: That’s really fun.
John: Yeah, that’s a great example.
Rebecca: I couldn’t help but think that if my two-year-old could tweet, she’d be really into it right now. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Does she have a lot of observations about life that she tries to share?
Rebecca: A lot about birds lately. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: But you think about all the learning that students do when they’re not with us that may be really important. I have another example from Mark Sample at Davidson College, where he had his students live tweet the film they were watching in his sci-fi class. They watched it on their own time in their own rooms or whatever, but it was Blade Runner and they would live tweet their observations about the film. And it’s one thing if we have our students read something or watch something and then write a response paper and bring that to class and then we discuss it, right? That’s great. But he was getting kind of a next level down. They are kind of immediate in the moment reactions to what they were seeing in the film and kind of surfacing that and making that visible. And this is a great use of technology. There’s other ways to do this but technology can be really good at this kind of thin slices of learning piece and that’s one of the connections I want folks to make in the book is that, if you think about it, “Hey, Twitter seems really useful. What can we do with Twitter and our teaching?” Well, there’s a lot of things you can do. But one of those is to surface thin slices of student learning. And that provides some focus for thinking about how you might use Twitter in your class for a very particular purpose.
Rebecca: Sounds really fun.
John: It does, and you can see this in other areas of biology or botany. I think Michelle Miller was on a while back and she talked about a class where students went out in the field to identify plants and tweet back photos and so forth.
Derek: Yeah, and I shared this with a grad student here in civil engineering and she has her students tweet about structural things they see in the built environment that connect to the material that they’re learning. I’ve ran into teacher educators who have their students—while respecting some privacy—but they’ll tweet about what they see in the field when they’re in classrooms and they’re observing teachers in action. They’ll tweet those observations and so yeah, I think there’s a lot of different uses for this kind of application.
Rebecca: This also moves a little bit into the idea of learning communities, because this is a community practice using a hashtag where you’re kind of seeing things outside, but you also have a whole chapter on just learning communities.
Derek: Yeah, and I mentioned the bird class, because there’s a lot of things going on with the bird class piece. And part of it is that yes, by making the students tweets visible to the other students, you have this other dynamic going on which is that the students are starting to learn from and with each other. And students can learn a lot from their professors certainly—and we have a lot of expertise and authority that we that we use in the classroom—but if you think about the places where you learn naturally when you’re picking up a new hobby, or you’ve got some interest of yours that you want to pursue, you’re often connecting with other people who do that too. So like, I have a friend who just went to a quilting conference in Nashville because she loves to quilt and she’s going to connect with other quilters. And that’s how she learns how to quilt, it’s this kind of peer-to-peer learning that she does. And so we can leverage that in the classroom. It’s always a little authentic. Students in a statistics class aren’t going to just get super passionate about statistics and learn from each other necessarily, they’re going to bring their own levels of intrinsic motivation to this. But if you think about all of the different perspectives and experiences that you have in the room with your students, they have a lot to bring and they can actually learn a lot from each other and you can learn a lot from your students. But you’ve got to create some mechanisms for that, it’s not necessarily going to happen naturally. And so bird class is a great example because as the students, I mean, they’re all in Connecticut, right? But other than that, they’re going to different places, they’re seeing different parts of town, then they go to different locations for spring break, and see different birds, and so they’re all bringing their kind of different perspective on this. And by making that visible, they can start to learn from each other. In my chapter I talk about, I use a social bookmarking tool called Diigo, which allows basically students to share links with each other. And so we create a group for a class and I give them these assignments, in my cryptography class especially. So, find an example of cryptography in the news or find an example of military cryptography or let’s find out something about the National Security Agency. And so what’s really cool is—especially for a course like this—students bring a lot of different interests into this topic. And so I’ll have students who have kind of like a literature interest—I had a Sherlock Holmes buff in the class once and so she was always finding really interesting examples of cryptography in literature to share—I had students who were always interested in kind of cybersecurity and computer science and so they’re bringing in kind of modern news and technology. I had one student—bless her heart—she loved Russia, she found a way to find a Russian connection to everything that she did. And so it was really great, right, because she found all these examples of cryptography, especially kind of Cold War espionage stuff that we wouldn’t have seen if she didn’t have this passion for Russia and then found resources and shared them with the class. And so by having students share these resources, in a shared space and then talk talking about them in class, I can really leverage the fact that we’ve got a number of individuals in this room that have different experiences and perspectives and if we can make advantage of that, we can actually all learn more deeply.
Rebecca: I’ve used Slack in my web design classes to do troubleshooting and technical help but I use the same Slack channel across semesters. And so what I found is that people who have graduated who are out in the field will sometimes randomly pop in and answer questions, and it’s really cool, but I remind the students that I’m not the only one that can answer questions. They can help each other out. But sometimes—you never know—some other lurker might pop in and help out. And they have some sort of vested interest, you know, because they were also in that class at one time.
Derek: Absolutely, and that’s one of the advantages. One thing that can happen when you shift away from a course management system, course management systems are good for a lot of things but they’re not good for semester to semester continuity. They kind of put courses in little boxes by semester and the students can’t get out of those boxes. And so once you move to Slack or social bookmarking—like my Diigo group, we’ve been doing it for like seven years. We’ve got hundreds of resources collected by students over time. Course blogs are really good for that too—and so that’s really exciting when you can use some technology to make some student work public and persistent in a way that invites future or past students to participate. It’s still a learning community, it’s just expanding beyond the time and space of this one particular course offering
John: One of the issues with learning management systems is—as Robin DeRosa and other people have called it—is that the assignments often take on the nature of a disposable assignment, that they’ve done the work and then at the end of the semester, they even lose access to it unless they keep it outside. And there’s a lot of advantages to having a sort of persistent work that you’re describing there.
Rebecca: It seems like you’re moving right into another chapter of Derek’s book on “Authentic Audiences.”
Derek: I mean this is the other thing—and again, the book is not a critique of course management systems—but I will say course management systems also make it hard for student work to escape, to be seen by anyone not in the course, and often that’s appropriate. When students are first learning a topic or a discipline, they need a private space to practice, and screw up, and say dumb things, and get feedback, and get better. And that’s true for the assignments, right? Sometimes we have students turn in an assignment to us and we’re the only one who looks at it because they’re still learning the skill set and they need some good practice on that. But when we have students construct work or produce work for authentic audiences outside of the course, that can be hugely motivating for students. Hugely motivating. I’ll quote Randy Bass again, he’s got this white paper where he coins this term social pedagogies. These are pedagogies where we’re asking students to construct their knowledge by representing that knowledge for an authentic audience other than the instructor, and it could just be each other. That can be really powerful as well. But when students see that the work that they’re doing is not disposable, it’s not going to be gone. Students often do write a paper and there’s only one human being on the planet who ever looks at it, but if you can build toward some assignments where students are writing or constructing or producing for an external audience or an authentic audience, there’s a lot of motivational benefits to this for students and they start to take their work very seriously and invest in it in ways that they don’t sometimes in the disposable assignments. One of my favorite examples, Jonathan Rattner teaches cinema and media arts here at Vanderbilt and he had connected with a colleague of his from grad school who was teaching a writing course, Bridget Draxler, she was at another institution. Jonathan was teaching students how to create short experimental films and they needed an audience to share that work with. Bridget was teaching her students to critique media and she wanted her students to find media to critique where they could interact with the creator, and so they just set up a course blog for the two of them, these two courses. It wasn’t public to the world but Jonathan’s students were creating media for her students and her students were critiquing it and then they would have this conversation. And this idea of connecting your course, with just one other course—somewhere else on your campus or maybe at another institution where you have colleagues working—all of a sudden, you have this really authentic audience for the work. And in this case, this was really intentional too, this wasn’t just a random pairing “We want to share stuff with someone,” but there was this kind of synthesis that worked well across the two courses. But that’s a fairly easy way to create some authentic audiences for your students. I also talked about Tim Foster who used to teach Spanish here—he’s out at one of the University of Texas schools now—and he had his students write for Wikipedia. This is actually becoming increasingly common in higher education where you have students write for Wikipedia. There’s certain standards that you have to follow and it’s kind of hard to get content to stick on Wikipedia because of that. He was actually teaching an introduction to Portuguese course—so this was first semester Portuguese language learners—and what they realized was that the Portuguese language page for Nashville on Wikipedia was very skimpy. And what his students didn’t know at first is that Portuguese Wikipedia is not just a translation of English Wikipedia. Portuguese speakers create their own Wikipedia. And so the national page was kind of skimpy. So as a class project, he had his students create content for the Portuguese language Wikipedia page for the city where we are. And so it was great as a language production task for them because they could focus on writing two or three sentences, first semester language learners, but they knew that actual people are going to look at this so they took it very seriously. Some of them went above and beyond. I think this is just a really powerful pedagogy. And again, you don’t have to use technology but this is something technology is actually good at, is connecting people across time and space. Having students use some technology to create something for an authentic audience can be really powerful.
Rebecca: I think you have one last chapter that we didn’t quite get to yet and that’s…
John: “Multimodal Assignments.”
Rebecca: Which, you know, technology is also really good at that whole multimodal thing, right? [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Sure. I was so close to calling this chapter “Beyond the Five-Page Paper.” [LAUGHTER] Because again, the five-page paper has its place where students write a thing, and it’s just text, and they give it to the professor, and they get feedback. Again, there’s a lot of practice and feedback that happens in activities like that. But there’s a lot of research that says, not so much that learning styles exist. The research actually doesn’t support this idea that I need to match my teaching modality to my students learning preference. So the matching hypothesis would say that I have some visual learners and some verbal learners and some kinesthetic learners and so I should do visual stuff with the visual learners and verbal stuff with the verbal learners and kinesthetic stuff with the kinesthetic learners. There’s no research that supports that actually. So there’s kind of this learning styles myth that I like to debunk when I can but where the research does support is multimodal learning. Now, we all learn better when we encounter stuff in multiple ways. And so I think this is the reason the learning styles feels so compelling to a lot of instructors, is that if they’re doing that, if they’re thinking about their lesson plan and saying, “Oh, I got to have some visual stuff, I got to have some verbal stuff, I got to have some activities.” It’s not that they match those with individual students, it’s that all students are benefiting from those three different modalities happening in the same classroom. This chapter is all about multimodal assignments, ways to tap into this dual coding that our brains do where we take in information in verbal ways and in visual ways and kind of put that together and it’s stronger. We’ve done a lot of work at Vanderbilt. We call it students as producers. This is kind of a course design and assignment design approach that we work a lot with here through our course design institute and elsewhere. It’s helping faculty move away from some of those traditional text-only assignments and moving to more open-ended assignments, more multimodal projects, student projects that have authentic audiences. And so actually, this chapter is kind of all Vanderbilt examples which sounds a little self-serving, but I just happen to know a lot of faculty here who are experimenting a lot in this area. I share an example for my own classroom about infographics in a stats class where I’m asking students to represent quantitative information visually. There’s an English grad student here, Kylie Korsnack, who has her students take a paper they wrote, and revise it in a different medium. So it starts off as a traditional paper but they have to revise it as a Prezi or a concept map or choose your own adventure novel, or one student did a Pinterest pin board. And so by kind of re-seeing their work, moving into this other sort of medium, the students are often able to see their work in new ways and realize, “Oh, that’s what my argument really was,” or, “Oh, my transitions are terrible. Now I know how things have to be connected.” And so there’s a lot of value in having students move into different media than straight text as a way to help them make sense of things. I’ve been experimenting a lot with podcasting. So I got this idea from Gilbert Gonzales, a colleague of mine here in health policy, who had his students create podcast episodes instead of research papers. And he really wanted them to be fluent with the language of healthcare policy. HMOs and PPOs and all this kind of stuff. And so an audio assignment made a lot of sense, actually, for the students. And he founded it with a lot more fun to listen to a few podcasts than grade a few papers [LAUGHTER]. And podcasting is a low bar, right? Not to say that what we’re doing isn’t super challenging here, but you can, you know, create a pretty decent podcast with your phone, right? It’s not going to be super high quality, but you can record and you can edit using some free software and so I now have my students do a podcast assignment in my cryptography course. And with about 25 minutes of in classroom technical training, they’re able to produce some interesting things and then we can focus on “How do you tell a story through audio?” Or in my class, how do you explain this kind of technical mathematical stuff that they’re studying through audio only without pictures? And so, again, all of these are about kind of moving to different modalities and shifting between modalities to help students see and understand the material in different ways. And if you keep doing that, they’ll start to kind of triangulate and, and make a lot more sense out of it.
John: I would think it would force them to think about it a bit more deeply to make connections that they might not otherwise. Just seeing things from a different perspective seems to have a lot of value in it.
Derek: Yeah. I would also add that when you move to a non-traditional assignment—this is something that I realized kind of late in writing the book—is that we asked you to do a podcast they walk in and they don’t know how to do podcasts. So Gilbert and I were like, “Okay, so we have to listen to some podcasts together and critique them, and then maybe come up with a rubric together, and they need to outline it and maybe even turning the script and get it approved.” We have this whole scaffolding process around preparing students to do this type of work. Well, some of our students come in and they don’t know how to write a five-page paper either. We assume they do, we assume they’re good at it, that they’ve learned that in high school or something. But for some of these traditional assignments, we have students who really struggle and so one of the things that non-traditional assignments do for faculty is help them realize, “Oh, I really have to get in the head of my students and figure out what’s the scaffolding they need.” And we really should be applying that to more traditional assignments as well, because a lot of our students struggle because we don’t have them submit a proposal, or get feedback on a rough draft, or practice how to find a credible source. These are all things that we that it’s easy to assume our students can do, but they can’t always actually do that. And so moving to a non-traditional assignment often then helps faculty move back to more traditional assignments with a new lens with greater intentionality.
Rebecca: So we have to wait until November to get this book? [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, I know I saw when you posted this on Twitter, I said “I’d like this now.” [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Well thank you, yes. The book production process is a long timeline as I’ve found.
Rebecca: It’s a good tease though, right? [LAUGHTER] So you were also just talking about how you’ve been experimenting with podcasts and you’ve been the host of Leading Lines since 2016. How did you get interested in doing all this podcasting stuff in the first place?
Derek: Part of it was that—at the time—I had a 45 minute commute to work so I was listening to a lot of podcasts and appreciating podcasts and wishing I had more podcasts like Tea for Teaching that talk about teaching, learning, and higher education. And so that was part of it. I think, also, I was involved in a pretty big online course project that involved a ton of video work. And I saw how powerful that was, but how much work it was to put together really high-quality video and I thought, “What if we had a podcast on educational technology?” There’s folks that I run into here on campus and elsewhere who are doing really cool things and I would just love to kind of give them a bigger audience for the innovative teaching that they’re doing, and producing a podcast seems way more tractable than producing a YouTube series. [LAUGHTER] So I mentioned this at a meeting here, we were having this meeting on campus with some other folks who deal with educational technology. One of our Associate Provosts, John Sloop, for digital learning, he’s like, “I would love to do a podcast.” We kind of both had been thinking about this idea for a while and so we combined forces. And so it’s the Center for Teaching, it’s our libraries, it’s our Institute for Digital Learning. We created Leading Lines, we’ve been doing it for a few years now, each episode is an interview with a faculty, staff, or grad student who’s kind of doing something interesting in the educational technology space. We call it Leading Lines because it has this kind of connotation of looking into the future. So leading lines in a photograph, are those kind of straight lines that draw your eye into the frame. And so we’re not really trying to predict the future—because I think that’s a fool’s errand—but I’d rather kind of shape it and influence it and so we’re looking for folks who are doing things that are kind of one or two steps down the road with technology. And it’s been really great, I mean several of the examples in my book are drawn from interviews I did for Leading Lines. It just gives me this occasion to talk to interesting people who are doing interesting things.
Rebecca: Now you know our secret. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve gotten this opportunity to talk to all these people doing some wonderful research that we wouldn’t be able to be in contact with so many of them otherwise.
Derek: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always referencing these people that I’ve met and the work that they’re doing and my other work here, connecting faculty, and it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s been fun to work here. So we have about six of us who do interviews for Leading Lines and so we have a little bigger team then you guys have and they go in different directions. Sometimes I’m like, “That’s really not an interesting topic,” and then they do an interview and it’s an interesting topic. And so it’s been really fun to kind of work with my colleagues here and having this collaborative project across multiple units at Vanderbilt, that’s been pretty great too.
John: On one of the recent episodes, you had a discussion of the VandyVox project. And in particular you had a podcast from there. Could you tell us what this project is and how that came about?
Derek: So I had this idea actually just last summer. We were running a course design institute here at the teaching center and we had several faculty who are really interested in doing podcast projects because I think I had shared Gilbert Gonzales’s Health Policy Radio podcasts with them. And several faculty started thinking, “Oh I could really use this in my teaching,” and I thought, “This is great, but if we have Vanderbilt undergrads, especially, who are producing really interesting audio for class assignments all over campus, wouldn’t it be fun to curate that to have a podcast of podcasts?” So then I reached out to my colleagues at Vanderbilt student media and they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. We love to help students make media and share media with the world.” And so they were able to do all the heavy lifting on the technology piece, all I had to do was reach out to some faculty members and ask them to recommend some student produced audio for this and so this spring we launched VandyVox. It’s the best of student produced audio from all over campus. It’s a bit of a fudge, right? Like if some student has a Sports Radio Podcast, we’re not covering that. But if there’s an academic component to it, if it’s curricular or co-curricular, we’re happy to feature it on the podcast. And so it kind of serves two purposes. One is to kind of shine a spotlight on some student work, show this great stuff that our students are doing to provide some inspiration maybe for faculty and students to have students engaged in this kind of work. In the show notes for each episode, we have some background information about what the assignment was, or how the faculty members worked with students around this. So there’s a faculty development piece to it as well. But it’s been really fun to see what students are doing all over campus. You know, I highlighted some Health Policy Radio piece, we had a student from an anthropology course on health care politics. She created a 10 minute speculative fiction audio story…
Rebecca: Oh, cool.
Derek: …dramatized it as her project where she kind of imagined what would happen in the future with gene editing and baby selection. It’s just a really great sci fi kind of look at the course topic. Well researched, right? Like she turned in an annotated bibliography with all this so it’s all kind of backed up by the latest research. We had law students who were doing podcast episodes on immigration and refugee law talking to some immigrants and refugees. For that audio. We have Robbie Spivey in our Women’s and Gender Studies class teaches a course called Women Who Kill [LAUGHTER]—which is a great name for a course—and so she had her students do kind of true-crime podcasts about women who kill and how we make sense of that as a society. And then our last episode of season one, which came out recently, featured some work by Anna Butrico, who was a senior here last year, an English major. She did her senior honors thesis on podcasting and kind of connected it to ancient Greek rhetorical forms, which is really great. But her senior thesis had audio pieces to it. It’s hard to do a senior thesis on podcasting without creating a podcast and so we featured the audio introduction to her senior thesis, which I was really excited because Anna actually did a lot of work with podcasting while she was at Vanderbilt and her technical skills and her composition and storytelling skills are really strong. So it’s been really fun to kind of see something of a critical mass here at Vanderbilt around student podcasts and to be able to kind of highlight that a little bit. And I’m really excited, we’ve got some good stuff lined up for season two this fall as I’m kind of reaching out to more faculty and students about the the audio work that they’re doing. And again, part of it is getting started with a podcast is not hard. Doing it really well is still very hard, but the bar for entry is pretty low actually. And so if you want to have your students kind of move into a different modality—and again, you need to kind of be intentional about why you’re doing it and how it connects to your course goals—but podcasts offer a really great option for that. And I’ve just seening more and more faculty start to embrace this as a kind of creative output for students.
John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that video project or the the video intensive project, I’m assuming those are the two MOOCs you have on teaching in STEM courses. I participated in the first one when it first came out.
Derek: Oh, that’s great.
John: It was a lot of fun, it was really useful. I didn’t do the second one. I think we both recommend those to a lot of faculty and encourage more people to take those. I believe they’re still running on Coursera?
Derek: Oh, yeah, we’re running one every semester. They’re not on Coursera anymore, they’re on edX. But you can always go to stemteachingcourse.org and you can find out information about those courses.
Rebecca: So you’ve already talked about the podcast that you’re working on and your book, the editing process and such that takes a long time, so you’ve got a lot of things in the cooker but we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?
Derek: Short run, we’re running a couple of course design institutes in the first of May and so that will occupy the next several weeks as kind of prep for that and those are always fun because I get to work with faculty. It’s on the theme of students as producers so we’ll be working with faculty around these creative nontraditional assignments. That’s always pretty exciting. There’s also—this is just an idea right now—but I keep running into faculty who are teaching with games or having their students design games, board games especially, as course assignments. I mentioned this text-based game that Alisha Karabinus uses and so I just keep finding examples of games and simulations that have a learning goal or learning purpose and so I’m hoping maybe this fall to put together a little one day symposium on campus on games for learning, games for social change, that kind of thing. I think that’d be a fun space to explore. And the other thing that I’m seeing—and I talked a little bit about this in the book—is this move towards active learning classrooms. I mentioned I like to walk into a classroom and see wheels on the chairs, because we can move them around and make them do what we want. The affordances that our classrooms have really matter for the choices we make as teachers. And so classrooms that are designed to facilitate small group work, student collaboration, active learning, this is a strong trend in higher education. I’m really kind of shocked how even from like three years ago, where I was having to tell people about this idea for the first time, now and here on our campus, our campus planners have decided this is a standard classroom configuration going forward. And so I see a lot of campuses moving towards active learning classrooms. Again, digital and analog technologies that support learning and so I want faculty to use them in intentional ways. And so I think we’re going to be doing a lot more with active learning classrooms here on campus, probably starting a learning community on that in the fall and I’m excited to dig into that work too.
Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of exciting things going on.
Derek: I try to stay busy. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: It’s going to be hard to keep up with all of them.
John: Well, we appreciate that and we’re looking forward to the book coming out.
Rebecca: Well thanks so much for joining us. It’s been really exciting and I know we all have a countdown now.
Derek: Thanks so much for having me on. This has been a really fun conversation. I’m happy to get the chance to share a little bit.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.